Unions might scare Google more than regulators

Challenges mount for tech giant as buying Treasury Building pushes staff count to 10,000

As Google closes in on buying the former Treasury Building in Dublin – a piquant metaphor come to life for all of us – it is facing some serious but entirely appropriate challenges.

An indication that this is so was the surprise announcement this week that the company's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are to resign their respective roles as chief executive officer and president of Google parent company Alphabet. They'll remain "actively involved as board members, shareholders and co-founders", according to a blog post they made jointly on Tuesday, but Google's CEO Sundar Pichai will take over running the parent company as well.

It may be that they really just want to kick up their heels. But the move will inevitably recall former Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt. Brin and Page joked (well, we all assume) that Schmidt had been hired in 2001 as chief executive in order to bring in some "adult supervision" of the company's youthful founders.

As roles get reshuffled, I'd guess neither Page nor Brin really wants to deal with the looming hassle of yet another EU investigation, with an antitrust investigation recently announced over Google's mass-gathering of data; proposals in the EU and US to tighten regulation of Google and other technology companies and potentially, split them up; an investigation by the Irish Data Protection Commission on data gathering, usage and sharing by Google's advertising technology (adtech) systems, the foundation stone of its immense corporate wealth; and – particularly interesting – unruly employees.


While outside efforts to control the mammoth company tend to get the most long-term and focused attention, the visible rebellion of various sets of employees is likely more damaging and destructive to a company that has always prided itself on its work culture and luxuriated in endless press coverage on how pampered Googlers are: free, chef-designed meals and snacks; free, private transport buses from San Francisco (where many choose to live) and the main headquarters 40 minutes away by freeway, down in Mountain View; a whimsical campus with a whacky dinosaur statue alongside herb and vegetable gardens, etc.

Detest the buses

Here’s a thought. Even though many San Franciscans detest the buses and wonder why Google doesn’t instead support the Bay Area’s struggling public transport systems by underwriting annual travel passes … why doesn’t the company here encourage employees to start living outside of Dublin, and bring them in by public – or its own private – transport?

As employee numbers are expected to surge towards 10,000 with the acquisition of the Treasury Building, Google, alongside other Silicon Docks companies, needs to do more than passively benefit from nearby city centre luxury apartment developments that few other workers can afford.

But I digress. Back to the unruly employees.

Increasingly, Googlers have protested some of the company’s questionable activities, organising internally and taking to the streets. One of the first such protests was over the company’s handling of several serious internal sexual harassment accusations, now the subject of an investigation by Alphabet’s board.

Employees have also protested the company's ties to controversial US immigration authority ICE, Google's connections to the US military, and Google's approach to China, for which it had begun work on a special search product that would automatically censor results that displease the Chinese government.

Most recently, Google fired four employees – now dubbed the “Thanksgiving Four” – because they were dismissed on the Monday before the major American holiday – for what Google said were violations of the company’s “data security policies”.

Filing a federal suit

The four staff involved now say they are filing a federal suit charging unfair dismissal, claiming they were fired because they were involved in trying to organise a union. Their dismissal came less than a week after the New York Times reported that Google had hired “an anti-union consulting firm to advise management”.

According to a statement from the four, “Google wants to send a message to everyone: if you dare to engage in protected labour organising, you will be punished. No company – tech giant or otherwise – should be able to interfere with workers’ rights to organise for better working conditions, including ethical business practices.”

Technology companies are famous – or infamous – for not being unionised. The argument used to be that, because they treated employees so well, employees didn’t need a union. But that position has grown increasingly unstable, as employees discover that many of their complaints – which would once have been traditional union issues – can be ignored in the absence of powerful collective bargaining.

Some established unions have already stepped in to help some gig economy, no-contract workers fight for better conditions, even at Google. Pittsburgh-based contract employees who work for Google voted to unionise last September and will align with the United Steel Workers (a sign of just how absent unions have been to date in the tech sector).

Unions quite possibly scare the tech giants more than regulators, because they would at last, actively empower the smart workforces on whom they depend.