Alphabet is beginning to show traits similar to the evolution of a country, except on steroids. The now ‘established’ tech giant’s latest demonstration that it is behaving like a country is that employees have established a labour union.
It is not a large labour union and will not act as a collective bargaining outfit – yet – but it is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. It will easily be able to use social media leverage, for example, to give itself a voice far louder than its initial 225 members.
Alphabet has, of course, been in the news for various reasons that presumably triggered this movement, not least accusations of sexual harassment and its rules about activism. There is clearly a feeling among a significant number of the 130,000 odd employees that the company is not exactly standing by its original ‘don’t do evil’ strapline.
What is interesting is how similar the evolution of this relatively young company is to the evolution of a country. They start with an enormous burst of energy, get established and then rules and regulations emerge to provide checks and balances.
Perhaps, more interesting is how such a movement within a company whose revenue is similar to a Central or Eastern European country might help provide those checks and balances that Governments around the world are trying to apply to big tech companies Alphabet.
Another interesting thing is that the Alphabet group is not just about wages and working conditions and the office party but also ethics. There was an outcry within the company when it decided to work with the Pentagon on AI in weapons. There was another when Alphabet allegedly sacked Timnit Gebru, an AI ethics researcher, and there is a case pending in the US based on whether the company tried to stop the labour movement being formed.
Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess. One thing we know is that when anything significant in business happens, the initial pronouncements are conciliatory. We won’t rock the boat, we won’t fire anyone, we won’t change the name, everything is fine.
And then, not too long afterwards, everything is not fine. People are fired, names are changed, culture and conditions become different at best, worse more often than not.
To underestimate the significance of this move would be foolhardy. To think that Governments will not be considering how to work with this group – and others who will inevitably follow – is naïve. After all, Governments are all too aware of how powerful they can be. They gave birth to them. They understand that the establishment of a formal Union will amplify the voice of the worker many times.
As the tech industry matures and comes under ever-increasing scrutiny and regulation, pressure from within to put people and ethics before profit will increase, fast.
It is now more likely that we will see other labour unions emerge, in companies such as Facebook and Amazon.
Maybe this movement will be a key that Governments will use to give them even more leverage in their attempts to curb the power of big tech.