Culture

Google wants staffers to stop emailing about unionization efforts

The company is monitoring email discussions for "disruptive" language.

GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Google is going on the defense following a historic move by employees to form one of big tech's first labor unions. The company is reportedly asking employees running email discussion groups to moderate them for "disruptive" language that could distract from day-to-day work.

The company told Business Insider that its moderation guidelines were created in 2019 to support "healthy and open discussion," rather than something formed in response to unionization efforts. Businesses are legally allowed to ban workers from using company email to discuss union organizing activities.

Finding a voice — More than 700 Googlers have thus far signed on as members of the Alphabet Workers Union, which was started to push for more transparency and greater say in the projects that Google gets involved in. Back in 2018, dozens of employees quit over the company's participation in a Pentagon military drone project. In response, it decided to not renew its military contracts.

Key to the unionization effort is the idea that Google is no longer a simple search-and-advertising company anymore, and its technology — like machine learning algorithms — can be sold across sectors, some less savory than others. Google's old slogan of "don't be evil" is one that employees and the public frequently point to as a symbol of the altruistic motivations that once embodied the scope of the company's aspirations.

Profit incentive — As we see today, doing things that are good for the world can be at odds with an incentive to provide continued revenue growth and shareholder returns. And just because Google's early executives might have believed in using its technology exclusively for good, that doesn't mean future leaders would feel the same way.

Google was recently forced to cancel a secretive project to create a new censored search engine in China. The project was very hush-hush, likely because the company was well aware of what its employees would think of the tools some of them have worked on for years being used that way, or Google as a company being in any way associated with the repressive Chinese government and bowing to its demands.

By unionizing, employees could demand more access to information about the projects Google chooses. They could also demand better treatment and compensation for its thousands of contract workers who are viewed as second-class citizens despite contributing important work to the company.

A recent report indicated Google has made various efforts to stifle unionization efforts. During 2019, the company was a client of IRI Consultants, which profiles employees at companies to work out who among them is most agreeable to unionization efforts and identify talking points that might sway their opinion.

An Alphabet union could prove pivotal, not just for Google employees or other employees at Alphabet's numerous companies, but for the tech sector as a whole. Successful unionization could lead to other efforts at rival big tech companies.