Ethics in Tech and Google's Union
by Erin Brache | published Mar. 18th, 2021
When does Google’s slogan of “Don’t Be Evil” need to be sidelined for the sake of the company?
Over 700 Alphabet employees have joined the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). Most well-known for their largest subsidiary, Google, Alphabet is one of the five largest companies in the world, according to Statista.
It's unknown whether this union will produce major changes within Google itself. One thing is certain though — Silicon Valley is now faced with a major dilemma on how to balance ethics and profits.
Google's Groundbreaking Guild
Unions are large groups of workers that use their collective power to gain better wages and benefits.
Most unions are "majority unions," meaning they represent more than 50 percent of the workforce and have to be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. The AWU is a “minority union” though, which means that they can exist as an organization without going through the formal legal process.
In fact, currently, not even one percent of Alphabet employees have joined the AWU. In order to become a majority union, they would need over 65,000 more workers to join and possibly put their jobs in jeopardy.
Another factor that sets the AWU apart, as a minority union, is that temp workers and contractors can join, not just full-time employees.
All of this information may leave you wondering — if this is a union with less than one percent of the workforce, and some of them don’t even work at the company full-time, what do they wish to accomplish?
Sam Harnett is a reporter for KQED, a public news outlet based in San Francisco, and has been covering Silicon Valley for a decade.
“I think it really was a signal that there are a lot of people at companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, who are unhappy with the lack of control over what their companies do and what their companies make," Harnett said.
Because the AWU is a minority union, they cannot force higher ups at Google to discuss demands they wish to make, but the publicity generated from this union may be influential enough.
"If you get a job at Google and you aren’t happy with the fact that you have no say over what the company is doing, you can know that there are a lot of other people in the company who feel the same way," Harnett said.
Silicon Valley was once seen as a hopeful look into the future, but as big business and money crept in, that view has faded, especially for most low-level employees.
Simply put, for a lot of people, tech just isn't what it used to be.
Do Ethics Get in the Way of Business?
The technology sector is in a state of constant expansion, which is forcing companies within it to grapple with a difficult question. When do earnings overturn ethics?
This is where Google’s Dragonfly project comes in. The concept is simple, a search engine that complies with all of China’s censorship regulations.
China’s heavy censorship has been thoroughly documented. Information on the Tiananmen Square protests, specific religions, LGBTQ relationships, as well as many negative actions taken by the Chinese Government, are all not available to Chinese citizens online.
Plans for Dragonfly were leaked in August of 2018 to The Intercept, detailing an Android app that had already been demonstrated to the Chinese government.
In December 2018, Google reported that Dragonfly had "effectively ended," while secretly keeping over 100 workers dedicated to the project. Dragonfly did not fully cease production until July 2019 due to overwhelming criticism from not only the public, but from employees directly involved in the creation of the search engine.
This is just one example of a large tech company making a decision most would consider unethical based on the potential of profit. So the question for many employees remains, where is the line?
Sandra Rothenberg, the department chair for the Department of Public Policy, under the College of Liberal Arts, had some insight into how companies make these decisions.
“I am of the opinion that there is no directive to maximize profits. This idea that shareholders come above everyone else and that you have to maximize shareholder wealth is not true," Rothenberg said.
While money is usually the assumed purpose, especially by those without insider experience, it is not always the intended one.
Rothenberg continues, “The research, again and again, has shown, in general, being socially responsible does not hurt your bottom line."
“The research, again and again, has shown, in general, being socially responsible does not hurt your bottom line."
After all, companies have multiple images to upkeep. Stakeholders are important, but a business couldn't thrive without customers supporting their products.
"Companies who maybe don’t have other ways to differentiate themselves, either through innovative technologies or services, can use social performance as a way to differentiate themselves,” Rothenberg said.
Ben & Jerry’s is a well-known example of a successful company that has made being socially aware part of their image.
From educating about systemic racism, publicly denouncing Super PAC's, taking action against climate change, and more, fans of the ice cream company are drawn to their outspoken nature.
Not everyone is as convinced that being ethically responsible can help business, however.
“From what I’ve seen reporting in Silicon Valley over the past ten years, there isn’t much of a balance. It’s profits,” Harnett stated.
“From what I’ve seen reporting in Silicon Valley over the past ten years, there isn’t much of a balance. It’s profits.”
For now at least, all of these companies are run by humans, and every human’s moral code exists on a spectrum. Where some would say too far, others would say not far enough.
During the writing of this article, the AWU put out a statement to the press, including Reporter, stating that Google had fired two of their top AI ethicists, one of which was an active union member. The AWU maintains it is "committed to supporting [their] members when they face harassment, retaliation, and discrimination."