Google on the offensive against unions?

25 November 2019


“Don’t be evil” — that was Google’s old motto. But now Google, which owns YouTube, seems to be getting increasingly involved with, shall we say, “the dark side.” According to a recent New York Times report, Google managers have met repeatedly with representatives of IRI Consultants, a firm best known for union-busting.


IRI “appears to work frequently for hospitals and other health care organizations,” according to the Times. In a previously reported case, the firm advised management of Yale New Haven Hospital how to stop worker organizing and union activity. In a 30-page training manual reviewed in 2007 by the Yale Daily News, the firm wrote to management: “You need to tell employees that you do not believe the union is in their best interest and explain the reasons why… Tell them that unions are desperate for new members because they have lost hundreds of thousands of members in recent years.”


Plans for development of a new addition to the custom version of the Chrome browser used by Google employees had raised concerns among employees and added to an atmosphere of growing distrust of management. According to an employee memo reviewed by Bloomberg News, the new software feature “would automatically report staffers who create a calendar event with more than 10 rooms or 100 participants.” Employees were concerned the purpose of the feature was “to immediately learn about any workers organization attempts.” Although this was denied by management, concerned employees investigating the possible motives behind the feature discovered the meetings with IRI — the “professional union-busters” — on managers’ calendars, which at that time were still openly accessible.


Google has long been known for treating its employees well, with free food and shuttle buses. But the era of generosity and openness seems to be coming to a close. In the last few weeks, CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the previously weekly “all hands” meetings would be reduced in frequency to monthly, “with restrictions on what can be discussed,” as The Verge reported. The changes are seen as a continuing tightening of controls over employee activity: in August, new “guidelines” were issued prohibiting employees from “disrupting the workday” to debate politics or news.


Google management appears to be responding increasingly nervously to employees’ efforts to organize. In October the company intervened when employees in the Zurich office planned a meeting with the Swiss trade union Syndicom. (About 2,000 employees work in Google’s Zurich office, including members of the Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube teams.) Lena Allenspach from the Syndicom trade union said: “We were invited by Google employees to answer questions about the legal situation in Switzerland.” Management sent messages by email in an effort to stop the meeting, saying they would rather organize meetings about these topics themselves. They offered to organize their own event about worker rights with a variety of guests. According to Vox Recode, the meeting with Syndicom took place anyway.


The colleagues in the Zurich office are not the only workers who are organizing despite resistance from Google management. In September, employees of the Google supplier HCL in Pittsburgh joined the United Steelworkers. This was the first time that white-collar workers in Google’s supply chain officially joined a union.


The discontent among Google’s employees first became public last November, when more than 20,000 employees in Google offices all over the world staged a walkout to protest management’s handling of sexual harassment. In the most widely-discussed case, the lead developer of the Android operating system was let go from the company with a $90 million severance payment despite credible harassment allegations.


Google’s cooperation with IRI sheds new light on the circumstances of the canceled meeting between FairTube and Google/YouTube management on October 22, 2019. Google had refused to allow Jörg Sprave (founder of the Youtubers Union), or any other Youtuber, to participate in the meeting. As a result, IG Metall and FairTube canceled the meeting.


Unfortunately, it may turn out to be the case that Google management is not that interested in taking their employees, contractors, and partners — including Youtubers — seriously and establishing open, fair dialogue. The new reports support the emerging picture of a company developing 21st-century technology with 19th-century management methods.