On Friday morning, April 9, members of the newly-formed Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) wrote an open letter to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai demanding that victims of harassment be better protected at Google and other Alphabet companies. The letter comes two days after former Google software engineer Emi Nietfeld wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times about her experience as a survivor of sexual harassment.
“Alphabet does not provide a safe environment for those who face harassment in the workplace,” reads the letter from AWU. “This is a long pattern where Alphabet protects the harasser instead of protecting the person harmed by the harassment.”
In her Op-Ed, Nietfeld wrote about how her harasser, once a peer, became her manager even after making several inappropriate and threatening comments about Nietfeld’s appearance and sex life. Once she reported, the company encouraged her to seek mental health treatment and take a mental health leave, later passing over her for a promotion. Google’s HR department, clouding their investigation in a shroud of secrecy, promised Nietfeld her harasser had been punished though she saw nothing change.
This experience, in which survivors shoulder the burden of harassment while harassers are either rewarded or let off scot-free, aligns with other well-documented cases of harassment at the company. The Alphabet Workers Union’s letter, for example, points out that accused assailants Andy Rubin and Amit Singhal were both given generous exit packages after investigations. In the interest of protecting survivors, the Alphabet Workers Union is demanding that no employee reports to harassers and that all harassers must change teams after being accused.
The Alphabet Workers Union formed with approximately 400 workers last January with support of the Communications Workers of America. Though members of the Alphabet Workers Union pay dues and elect their leaders, the union is not pursuing federal recognition through the NLRB. Union chairs Parul Koul and Chewy Saw said in a different Op-Ed at the time that they formed the union so Alphabet could be come “a company where workers have a meaningful say in the decisions that affect us and societies we live in.”
Though the open letter — the most recent of five penned by the Alphabet Workers Union — may not be enough to force Pichai to respond, it’s already won one battle: showing techworkers, largely unorganized, that genuine solidarity exists in the industry. Victims of harassment often face two traumas: the trauma of an attack, and the repeated trauma of gaslighting when their claims are ignored or dismissed. According to a 2017 survey, 41% of women sexually harassed at work choose to leave the job, likely because of a lack of support from HR departments and colleagues. The letter may shift attitudes in that it’s a large group of workers signalling to victims that they are active allies.
Similar experiences of gaslighting are reported amongst workers who speak out about racism, sexism and other non-sexual harassment. In recent months Google has faced added scrutiny, for example, over the firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru and Dr. Margaret Mitchell on the AI Ethics team — two firings many researchers in the field believe are due to “textbook misogynoir.” Gebru, in particular, has faced both increased harassment and generally dismissive treatment from the company since her firing, leading her to label a public apology from Pichai as gaslighting.
One can only hope this letter from the Alphabet Workers Union signals both a better future for women who are sexually harassed at the company, but also workers who experience severe mistreatment in general.