People come to the union for all sorts of reasons. You’re hearing my story here, but a union is like live body of lots of people coming for different reasons so here’s a couple things like: first of all, some of us might be paid really well, but at the same time we still don’t have a say. We don’t have a voice and how the company works. I came to this work because I don’t want my work to go for warfare. I don’t want to…to be paid well if it’s at the cost of other people’s suffering. The second thing is that it’s not an equal system. It’s not a utopia, right? ‘Cuz people who don’t have safety in this workplace…we see with the women’s walk out two years ago, right? Google won’t address sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination seriously unless there’s a big power imbalance. and then the last thing I’ll say is that when it comes to building working-class power, the reason we need this union…ya know, people at Google might have it nice, but…We at Google set the standard for the rest of the the tech industry right? What we do over here matters because when we raise the bar at Google, we raise the bar for everybody.
The union strives to protect Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world. We recognize our power as Alphabet workers—full-time employees, temporary employees, vendors, and contractors—comes from our solidarity with one another and our ability to collectively act to ensure that our workplace is equitable and Alphabet acts ethically.
Kim Crayton: Hello everyone, and welcome to this first episode of 2021 of #CauseAScene podcast. I’m happy to have this guest on this show. I feel like I’m a real journalist because there was some breaking news this week and I was able to get someone who was a part of it. What? So I’m really excited about this. My guest is Auni Ahsan; their pronouns are they / them. Auni, could you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Auni Ahsan: Hi everyone. My name’s Auni. I’m an engineer at Google. I’m a union engineer, ’cause that’s we’ve been doing for the last year. I’m proud to be a member of Alphabet Workers Union, which just announced this week.
Kim: Yes. [Laughs] That announced on Monday, and it’s Thursday in a week that it feels like it’s already been a year. So I’m so happy, thank you so much for joining us because I’ve seen… I know you folx have been busy with other interviews and getting your membership up and everything else, so I really want to thank you so much. This is so important to me because this podcast is all about challenging the status quo within our technical organizations, events, and communities. So we always start to show the same way: could you please tell us why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you causing a scene?
Auni: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, why it’s important to cause a scene is pretty simple. Look at what’s happening to the world if we don’t: everything is on fire, shit’s getting blown up, people are storming into congressional buildings and all this stuff. But, you know, beyond that, we’re spiraling towards climate disaster, and like, you know, the contradictions of capitalism are making itself pretty clear, and if we don’t do something about it, we’re not gonna have grandchildren to tell these stories to. So that’s why we got to cause a scene.
And I’m really excited to come onto the show and share our stories, share how we did this, because the number one thing is that everybody’s gotta start a union. If we want to start making change, it starts with, you know, building organization in your community, in your workplace, of the people around you, because when we get organized, we have power, and when we have power, we can do something about it.
Kim: So, so much of my work has been about the guiding principles, and for those, I’ll just go down—go through them for, you know, for the new year for everyone, because this is how everything about our work, our focus in this community is about the guiding principles. So the first guiding principle is tech is not neutral, nor is it apolitical. The second one is intention without strategy is chaos. The third one is lack of inclusion is a risk, and often and increasingly, a crisis management issue. And number four, and the most important one, is prioritize the most vulnerable. And I love the fact that Google employees—or Alphabet employees—are starting a union hits all four of those things. It fundamentally speaks to an example of what the guiding principles look like in real life. That’s what I want to say. It is a—I say it over and over again—it’s a theory for many people. And so then I have to go into what does that mean? What does that look like in real life?
And the fact that as I was reading those off, and based on how you defined, or how you described the reason for causing a scene and why you’re specifically causing a scene, this union speaks to all of those. And the other part of my scholarship and work is about how do we change our economy so that it is not oppressive, that it is no longer rooted in white supremacy and harm? So I’m really excited about this conversation. So I’m gonna mute myself, because I want you to tell us, how did you get involved? How did this get started? Because some people know some… like, I heard rumblings of it about two years ago right after the people walked out; but I really want to know about this story because I also want to highlight, so many folx in tech think—because we we have a false narrative of we’re so inventive, that everything is “move fast, break things”—the real work that prioritizes the most vulnerable takes time. If we’re talking about systemic change, the strategies we put in place must take time. So I’m gonna be quiet. And I want you to just tell this story.
Auni: Yeah, sure thing. And I gotta say, you should get into union organizing because all the principles you’ve highlighted, it comes up in our organizer training and our education because if you want to build a union that’s effective, that’s functioning, that’s gonna grow and get stronger every year, that’s exactly what you have to do. You have to be strategic, and you have to think about what are people’s material needs and what brings them together? And maybe that’s kind of a good place to start when it comes to how do we get a union at Alphabet? How do we get a union at Google? Because I feel like what we have to shift our thinking from is from ideas and thoughts and into practice, into action, because it’s not enough to wait around for everybody to agree on a way forward. What this union is about is that, let’s get the people who agree right now, let’s get us into a room, let’s build ourselves a structure and let’s grow from there, because people don’t need to be convinced with words; people are gonna be convinced by action—both our action and our bosses’ actions.
So when we talk about the story at Google and at Alphabet, I mean, we cover in organizing training, sometimes the boss is the best organizer because Google puts on this facade about, you know, beautiful ping pong tables, smoothies, all this sort of stuff, but everybody who’s here, more and more people every year kind of come to a realization that the company we signed up for is not what it says it is. And what the union is about is every year some of these people come to this decision and realize, “This isn’t the company I wanna be at. This doesn’t match the values that I have. And I’m gonna leave and try to find it somewhere else.” But there’s no place else. Wherever you go, it’s gonna become Google, get bought up by Google, or go out of business. So you gotta stay here. You gotta fight. And we’re here to make that fight easier.
In terms of the story for the Alphabet Workers Union, I think that this is a company with a pretty rich history of workers speaking out. And 5, 10 years ago, this mighta just looked like petitions, workers sending emails on forums; it’s a place where people care about what’s going on, people care about our work, people care about our coworkers, and when you’re unhappy about something, you talk to somebody, you try to get it fixed. But once upon a time, management used to listen and hear people out, but over time we see that more and more the bottom line is getting in the way of Google’s values, and they can’t listen anymore. They’re not structurally equipped to listen. And first it went from listening, then it went to corp speak and manipulation, doublespeak, trying to put people away, trying to distract people. Then it goes to just ignoring us. And finally it goes to try to fire us out of a cannon, and that’s what they did in Thanksgiving, November 2019.
At that point a handful of us who’d been organizing, trying to talk about how to do this, how to build a union, and they fired one of us, my friend Sophie, who started a petition trying to get Google to not collaborate with government agencies responsible for concentration camps. And not only did they ignore our petition, they sent investigators to go and interrogate these workers and then ended up firing four and then five of them. But the bottom line is that when these companies try to go after us like this, it’s just making us all the stronger. We lost one person in that month and we gained 30 people. We started a union campaign.
I can’t highlight enough the importance of working with the Communications Workers of America. We have not only formed our union, we’ve formed our union and joined it with the CWA—currently within an existing local, but then we’re gonna split out into our own local. And for those who don’t know, a local is just a basic substructure, a unit of a union within it. But the CWA is a massive democratic organization of 700,000 people. They kind of decided, “Let’s reach out a hand and help.” And they started this initiative, the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees [CODE-CWA], of which we were a part. So we’ve been organizing with the CWA over the last year, and [laughs] it’s funny, you mentioned tech workers are innovative. Sometimes they’re a little bit too innovative, because I saw a lot of people talking in circles, like, “What do we have to do?” Like, “Are tech workers really workers? Can we really organize? Do we deserve a union?” And at some point you gotta stop asking questions and go talk to your coworkers, because the strategy for building a union hasn’t changed in 100 years.
It starts with going to an organizing training, learning how to do what’s called a one on one; you go out, talk to your coworkers, talk to the people around you. You find out what are people’s issues, what’s on people’s minds, ’cause really, when it comes down to building a union, it’s about teaching a culture of care and solidarity in our workplace. It’s like we’re raisin’ a country on this really silly myth that you can make it on your own, as if your decisions only affect yourself. And this pandemic is such a clear example of that: we are not in this alone, we’re in this together. And we have to care about one another, and that’s really what building union is all about.
So we’ve been organizing underground, doing these one on one conversations, bit by bit, trying to make sure we didn’t get caught, and we got to 100, 200 people over that year, and then we decided with the firing of Dr. Gebru a month and a half ago—and this is an AI ethics researcher that Google fired for speaking up about diversity issues, and this is a really remarkable engineer, remarkable researcher / ethicist who did a bunch of innovative work detecting how facial recognition technology and other forms of artificial intelligence can add to discrimination and kind of entrenched discrimination against racialized people—and Google can talk about how it likes diverse perspectives, but apparently only if they’re diverse in a way that the company agrees with.
So this is just another example that shows that what Google says it is is not what it is, and it’s why we need a union right now, because we can’t let people keep speaking up by themselves and getting taken out by the company; we need to speak up as a unified voice, because we’re stronger together. So we’re proud to have launched on Monday. I think we launched on Monday with 200 people; by the end of the day we’re 400 people, now I think we’re 600. Good on the number of people right now, but we’re growing more and more every day, and now the next path ahead of us is how do we teach everybody what it means to be in a union, what it means to organize?
Kim: Whew, I took some notes here. Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm. So one of the things I have a real issue with, and I’ve been thinkin’ about how to address it, and you may have given me the solution. I hate whisper networks. I really hate whisper networks. Because what they allow for is—and I understand why they exist, so it’s not that I don’t understand why they exist—they just do not… they privilege the people who are aware and then who have the information within the whisper networks, and then those who don’t, because they’re not privileged enough to be in the whisper networks, they get harmed by whatever the issue is. So I got kinda chills because I’m thinking, “OK, hm, whisper networks. They might check that box for me.”
And then I wrote a note, ’cause some of what I saw the day that the announcement was a whole bunch of people saying, “Why are these people complaining? They’re so privileged. They have everything.” So I want you to address that. Another note I wrote is, “This is so true; there’s nowhere else to go.” [Laughs] And this is what I keep telling people. It is like as soon as—we see this on Black Twitter all the time—someone gets this great job and everybody’s excited, but we all know—in particular somebody who’s new to the industry—and we all know in the back of our head, “Oh, this is gonna be a shit show.” [Laughs] And you’re trying to help them navigate, but you already know they’re gonna have a bad experience. You already know that very few, very few companies out there, particularly at scale, have an inclusive experience that is warm and psychologically safe for all of its employees. No one even thought about this until very recently. And the fact that the Alphabet employees—and I wanna be clear for people, ’cause everybody who listens to this is not a techie—so Alphabet is the parent company of Google. And do they have any other companies under Alphabet or is everybody just in Google?
Auni: They’ve got some 20 or 30 of them, so our union is open to all workers at Google, which is a massive chunk of the company, but there’s lots of other Alphabet companies. There’s Verily, which used to be Google Life Sciences; there’s Waymo, the whole self-driving car operation; and a bunch more. But beyond that, I should highlight that over half of Google’s global workforce is actually contracted through this elaborate system of temps, vendors, contractors and set up kind of a two tier work system, and because of the way that we’ve formed our union, we’re open to all contract workers, Alphabet workers, Google workers across America and Canada.
Kim: Oh, wow. OK, that’s great to know. And then, I’m always talking about—took a note also about action. There is—and you spoke to it—there’s so much… there is intention, and then some people come up with a strategy, but then very seldom is there an action step. Which means you get nowhere. And the fact that having this union, particularly when you’re talking about this training, helps people understand what the actions are. It’s pivotal, because that’s the thing I get most often when I’m talkin’ to people and I highlight or call out certain things; they don’t know what to do. They want to do something; they don’t know what to do. So I love that there’s an action part.
And when you talk about Timnit, I don’t think—I’m not gonna say I don’t think—I know Google had not anticipated the backlash that they were gonna receive from firing this woman, and had she not spoken out, we wouldn’t have known. But the biggest group that I saw of outrage were Black women, because she checks every box that society says we must check and they still gaslit her. She still was treated… I mean, every box. She’s an immigrant, she has the degrees, she has the experience, she is everything, and she still got shit on. And people are like, if it can happen to her, who can it not happen to?
Auni: And I saw the same thing with my coworker Sophia I mentioned; you know, top engineer, great performer on her team. Not only that, she’s built community at Google, she’s moderated spaces for trans people at Google and made it a more welcoming environment; even they did this to her too. So it doesn’t matter how excellent you are if you don’t have power.
Auni: They did this to her, too. So it doesn’t matter how excellent you are if you don’t have power.
Kim: And that’s the thing. It’s like you just said. And this is the… there’s a term, “Cut off your nose to spite your face.” [Chuckles] I don’t know how many people have… and it’s another one: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Some people may know that. But it is how easily these companies, in an effort to protect their bottom line, their reputation—and let’s be honest, most of it is about their fuckin’ feelings—will throw out—and they’re supposed to be competitive, innovative, they’re in the marketplace—will throw away great people in service to the status quo.
Auni: And let me throw one more thing at you, which is that these are giant companies. Nobody really runs Google. Nobody really runs Alphabet. Part of the reason we’re able to operate right now is because they’re not so quick to just manage sentiment. It’s not like a military operation, right? It’s not that disciplined. At this scale, when we’re talking about the sheer scale of Google, stuff happens by accident. It’s really less about the people in charge and more about the systems in play, and that’s why it’s important to talk about the union as part of the system now, right? It’s not just a matter of going up against our bosses, it’s about a bigger system where these things happen to people and they’re just left behind, left alone.
Kim: And that thank you for bringin’ it up, because this is the work. It is not about—when people get in their feelings—this is about the systems, institutions, and policies that are designed—or by default, because they weren’t designed—that cause harm.
Auni: Yeah, and I love how you talk about intentionality, right? Because when it comes to… you know, engineers bring you in front of a problem, but sometimes your engineering brain can get in the way of seeing what’s in front of you, right? Like thinking that you developed an algorithm and it’s gonna be neutral, which is bullshit. We know that nothing is really neutral. Everything has a politics, right? But even when it comes to union organizing, I think a lot of people kind of had maybe an esoteric path to this thinking, “We can do it special. We can do it different. We’re not like everybody else.” But you gotta study history; history is a science as well. History is a science of organizing, and I think treating organizing as a science is so important for me because I’m a leader in this union; if I make mistakes, if I make the wrong call on something, it’s people’s jobs at risk. So you don’t have the leeway to be wrong. You have to do everything you can to study and learn from the people who came before you, because the stakes are costly and it’s easier to… they’re cheaper if you read a book and see what somebody else has done first.
Kim: And I’m gonna push back on that, because you will make mistakes. And so the thing though is, like you said, you get—and I’m, oh I’m a stickler for history. I hate all these ignorant people who act like things that’re happenin’ right now are new. No, we’ve been here before! The thing though is, get the history, understand, use that as a guide, and when you make mistakes, which you will, learn how to come back, how to make amends, how to apologize, those things. Because we’re—I tell people all the time—we’re tryin’ to create an experience that was never meant to exist. We’re all tryin’ to figure this out, and when we go in with, “I am not perfect. I am human. I am doing the best I can by educating myself, by having conversations with the most vulnerable to find out what their pain points are. What are those things, what are those canaries that we keep throwin’ down the mine shaft that we don’t see because I don’t have the privilege, I don’t have the lived experience for that.” And still we can say, when I make a mistake, please know that I will do everything in my power to rectify that, because we’re all—we get there together or not at all. And so I’ve never been—I’m gonna tell you—I’ve never been this excited about unions in my life. [Both laugh] I mean…
Auni: And let me add, when you’re talking about mistakes here—and we have to put the mistakes in a context. So when I said that I treat organizing as a science, I mean that every single thing you do is an experiment, right? So when you make a mistake, that’s fine. Mistakes are definitely gonna happen. But you study to reduce the probability of a mistake, and when you do make a mistake, you take it seriously because this failure or whatever it is, it goes back into the science. It teaches you what to do next.
Kim: And this is why I had a problem with—I do not have a fundamental problem with “move fast, break things”—I have a problem with “move fast, break things, move fast, break things,” and we never stop to figure out what we broke, who we harmed, how can we fix it. We have all this shitload of data and nobody uses it to help with—”We’re iterating.” Iterating on what? Iterating on harm. So yes, absolutely. And this is why tech gets on my nerves when they only think about quantitative data. The qualitative data helps you understand how your products and services are impacting the lives of others.
Auni: Mhm. Yeah, definitely true. Comes up in our one on ones too. We gotta report back and hear what people are saying. We can turn it into a quantitative thing, that’s great. But data is data. Even if you have to do an imprecise science, you have to try.
Kim: Yes! Oh, and that’s another thing: we think we can get stuff perfect. [Laughs] And so we sit and wring our hands constantly because “It’s just not right.” If you have done the work—now, most of you people have not done the work that Auni and his team have done. You haven’t. You have not done the science, you have not done… and you just out here just flingin’ shit on the wall and hoping something sticks. But if you have a strategy—this is why “intention without strategy is chaos” is one of the guiding principles—if you have a strategy, the quantitative and qualitative data you receive back should help you inform the strategy. Where did we miss? What did we get right? How can we scale that? How can we make sure we don’t do that again? Is there a variable that we’re missing? That’s how this work should happen.
But that’s on a systems level, and everybody wants to still be in silos. We are all in systems. What happens in one group happens throughout. It has some impact—long term, short term, immediate or not—to other things. And I want to go back to the fact that you said there is no leadership, because that is the problem. That is one of the huge problems when I go into these companies and I look around—particularly when you have all these altruistic people who want to have these flat organizations—people have to be responsible. If something needs to be done, somebody has to own that thing. And when you don’t do that, or we have all these people who know how to code, and then they needed a manager, and no one told them how to be a manager, and now they’re doing this, it’s like there is a vacuum, a huge vacuum in leadership in tech that is informed about…
So you talked about the bottom line. So they’re only thinkin’ about shareholder value. My research, my work is about stakeholder value. You have to be concerned about who works for you first. Because if your employees feel psychologically safe and welcoming, your products and services will improve. Then you have to look—it’s a circle—then you have to look at next, who partners with you? Because the wrong partner can ruin everything you’ve done within the inner circle. Then the next circle is who buys from you? The last one is who invests in you, because if you’ve taken care of all of those things, the investment takes care of itself. But no, not in tech. We have an idea, we don’t even think about, we have an idea, haven’t proven a business model—particularly if you’re a white dude, because everybody else who, particularly marginalized, you will get nothin’ if you don’t have a proven business model—they get money, and as they’re getting money, they’re talkin’ about a IPO. All they’re thinkin’ about is, “gotta get to that point.”
Auni: Yeah, and you know, when you’re talking about a system, I think part of the science is also finding out, how is the system working? I think when people look at politics in the country, or if you look at one of these corporations, I think people are often a little bit surprised, like, “Why does it keep on making so many mistakes?” Like, “Why is Google doing all this stuff year after year? Why is America like this year after year?” But I know that there’s almost a natural selection process, like the same way you look at Darwinian evolution, right? These systems correct themselves. So it’s not that they’re makin’ mistakes over and over again, it’s that you don’t understand what is driving them. What is the incentive here.
Kim: And they’re workin’ as designed.
Kim: I mean, the economic system that this—every system, institution, and policy within the United States and we have exported—is rooted in white supremacy. Our systems are working as designed. So everybody who was sittin’ around today flustered and doesn’t understand what happened at the Capitol? You haven’t been payin’ attention.
Auni: Oh my god. I know we gotta talk about what happened yesterday. People’re saying, “This is not the America that we know.” [Kim laughs] I thought this was a place where Black people couldn’t vote 70 years ago, and you’re talking about 200 years of democracy? It’s absurd.
Kim: I’m gonna stop you there. What do you mean 70 years ago? Hell, they just had the Georgia election. If it weren’t for the Black women on the ground, Black folx weren’t votin’ then.
Kim: Let’s not go back 70 years. That was last week. But again, goin’ back to when you were talkin’ about there is no neutral, there’s no apolitical; when it’s not your lived experience, you don’t even know it exists or you get a choice to decide not to even engage if you know it exists. There’s so much about these systems that are working as designed. When you create a business and did not think about accessibility until it became a crisis management issue, that system is working as designed if it harms people who have accessibility needs. Particularly in 2021. I could see you started a company in the 90s, people weren’t talkin’ about ADA, people weren’t talkin’ about accessibility. Now?
This—oh my god—this is a great example. So on Twitter—whew, as much as Twitter is the bane of my existence—Twitter has one thing right—well, I’m not gonna say right; they’re closer than anybody else—when it comes to alt text. So if I do a picture or a GIF, they give me, I think, 1000 characters to add a description to that. Facebook is a sentence, and so is LinkedIn. How do you describe if I’m putting—let’s give you an example. Every time I post the image of the #CauseAScene logo? ‘Cause I use that—I mean, not Cause a Scene, the guiding principles—’cause I use that often in my tweets so people can see what I’m talkin’ about. I can’t even put anything in the LinkedIn one besides “the guiding principles.” That’s the only words I can put in there, “the guiding principles.” And that is supposed to be specifically for business.
Auni: And when it comes to these incentives, you know, for what is causing it to be one way or the other, I think that’s where it’s not enough to make people feel bad about it, right? You can go and email 100 CEOs, tell them they’ve gotta be accessible, but if they don’t have the incentive to do it, then what’s the point? And that’s where we have to talk about what is the leverage we have as workers? And why is it that we’re starting with Google workers and not Google users? Because it’s not just about what people are angry about, but also who has the prospect of building power. The reason for building power among workers first is not because we don’t care about anybody else using Google products, it’s because we have a unique leverage here. We know that we’re the ones who run the company, and that means we have a kind of power that nobody else does. So there’s a lot of people in the union who are bringing that issue up all the time: what about the users? How can we bring this democracy and expand it further, involve more users in what Google is doing? But it does have to start with the work because that’s where we see the actual path to building power and having leverage there.
Kim: And that also—I’m glad you brought that up, because that is a great example of what I mean by the stakeholders and why the employees have to be first, and then you go to the partners. The users are number three because once the employees have the power and are influencing how things are built and designed and scaled and then you have the partners who now agree and are doing the same, then the user experience is improved.
Auni: Yup. ‘Cause it’s not like we as a union are going to get things perfectly right. If we control Google, that’s still not perfectly democratic. We have our own skewed sample, even the way that Google hires effects who can be in the union, but it’s an important step because at the very least, we’re gonna do better than our executives will.
Kim: And that’s another thing. It’s important, one of the many steps. It’s not the end all and be all. It solves a certain problem. It does not solve all problems. And that’s another thing people need to understand. So in the community, how I engage, I now engage at a PhD level when we’re talkin’ about these things, particularly antiracism, when we’re talkin’ about the guiding principles, then I have people who’ve been in the community for awhile, who when folx are struggling, I can send them, “Hey, take care of that. Go answer that question.” Because what happens is, I’m only me. Nothing scales, nothing gets… I can’t innovate if I’m always teachin’ kindergarten, and that’s how now if I wanna look at it as what you just said, like employees within the union, now I’ve given them the space to empower themselves and to do that same thing. So it’s like this ladder effect. And as people graduate, if we want to use K-through-12 as an example, as people graduate through every class that they matriculate through, they bring another cohort with them.
Auni: Yeah, and I think how we talk about this in the union, we talk about consciousness, because when it comes down to it, we as workers do have the power—when our bosses take the day off, it’s not like Google shuts down—but it only takes a handful of workers in the right place to really bring a big change because of the kind of leverage we have. But when it comes to building that power, it’s not enough to just bring in the people who agree with you. It’s gonna be a hard pill for people to swallow, but a union is for all workers at the company, including the people that don’t like me, that I don’t like, people who I might not politically agree with. But the point is that how are we going to teach people, how are we gonna build this consciousness except by a union? So we might have a certain kind of politics dominant in the union right now, but we know that in order for us to really grow and build power, we need to have as many workers as possible and appeal to as many workers as possible, because it’s inside that structure, inside that union that we can have these safe spaces to educate ourselves and have this discussion and education without the company watching over our head and then retaliating people who say things they don’t like.
Auni: …without the company watching over our head and then retaliating people who say things they don’t like.
Kim: So I wanna talk about that, because I have this thing called the rules of engagement, and that speaks to that right there: how do you manage spaces when you have privileged and various marginalized communities in the same space, how do you create a safe space? And the first one is, we have no conversations about denying humanity or the right to exist to anybody. We’re not havin’ that conversation. Then the caution—’cause I do it in a stoplight—so that’s the red; we’re not having that conversation. We’re not debating the right of trans people to exist. We’re not doin’ that. And then you get to a space where, if you want to learn, which is the caution—I’ll just use trans people as an example—let them share their stories, but they’re not sharin’ their stories to prove anything to you. It’s just adding to the body of knowledge because they have a lived experience. And then the green light is to have real conversations about how what we’re doing impacts the lives of trans people, and that’s how you get people in the same space who have various perspectives. It’s not about equality of speech, it’s equity of speech.
Auni: And let me add one more thing, which is how do you bring solidarity into this? Because I’m with you about lived experiences and identities, right? At the same time, I’ve seen some of this stuff being taken too far in a wrong way. I’ve seen circumstances where, for example, like I’m a racialized person, I’m a brown person; I can say something and it counts, and a white comrade saying the same thing doesn’t count for anything. And it’s like at some level or the other, we almost create a space where people are afraid to speak up unless you’re a member of that community.
And while we respect the people who have the lived experience first and follow their lead, as a union we recognize that it’s not just enough for racialized people to be combating racism. It’s not just enough for trans people to be combating transphobia. We identify that these structures of oppression are historical, and they’re tools to divide us that are unnecessary. So the reason that we don’t allow somebody to deny a trans person’s existence is because that’s hurting solidarity. You’re appealing to an arbitrary division that shouldn’t have a place in our union. But also it means that if we wanna make a change, we have to include everybody. Antiracism isn’t just something to be carried out by racialized people; it’s carried out as a program for the whole union, including and especially white people.
Kim: Oh, most definitely. And we’re not saying anything differently. What I’m saying is I have a strategy for making sure that happens in the spaces. That’s all that is.
Auni: You should write that down and share it, ’cause we have a lot to figure out now, going from 200 to 1000, but yeah.
Kim: Oh no, I have written that down. I’ve spoken about it. I’ve given talks about it. Yes. So that is how that works. And so it is not the work of the racialized to do this work. It is the people with the power and privilege to challenge the systems that they benefit from. What we do though, is to help them inform their decisions and actions.
Kim: They can’t—they don’t have the lived experiences to act without us, which has what’s been happening. So just like—so I’ve been sayin’ this with what happened in the Capitol—I, as a Black person, do not want to hear from white political pundits. It is time for you to hand the mic and camera over to Black and brown people who understand why these terrorists were treated differently. Because you don’t have the lived experience; you can’t talk about that. But what you can do is take the information you learn from that, and use your power and influence and privilege, because it’s informed by what you know, to move the systems that you control, because we don’t control the system.
Auni: Yeah, and this comes up a lot when we talk about democracy in a union. Democracy means a tyranny of a majority, right? And that’s kind of hard for people to grapple with, because when you talk about so-called minorities, marginalized people, we are always in a minority, but the point is that it’s not enough to structure these, like if I had veto power over everything as a brown person, is that really teaching people? The reason that it’s a majority vote, that it’s a democracy, is because it’s a program of the union for us to have an antiracist stance, and we need to mobilize the whole union to do that. If it’s not a majority opinion, then what is the union gonna do in the first place? That education, that process is a really active and organic one.
Kim: So I agree with that, and I wanna up that one bit because I have a problem with the word democracy. We’ve never had a democracy. The marginalized people in this country have never been able to actively participate in the democracy, so that’s a misnomer right there. That is a false narrative. We’ve never had a democracy. We’ve had people who we have to go to to get permission to participate at a level that they deem important, or they deem necessary, or they deem as far as we can go. So even after all of this—so here’s an example—after all of this pattin’ on the back for the Secretary of State and the General Counsel in Georgia because they wouldn’t bow to Trump’s request to overturn the election, they voted for this man and, as of today, they’re tryin’ to enact legislation that will—because they now they see, “Oh, there’re too many Black and brown people voting!”—so now they’re tryin’ to… We’ve had no excuse absentee ballots for the last 10 years. Worked perfectly. ‘Cause Black and brown people weren’t doing it. We would go to the polls. So now that Black and brown people are using the system in place, now it’s time to change the system.
When we talk about democracy, when we talk about equality, we really need to be careful because there has rarely been equality. There’s rarely been democracy. So starting from a place where everybody is on the same footing is your task as a union person, but I know that there are unions that exist today that discriminate against Black and brown people. So what you don’t want to do is replicate the harm that has already been there. This is the same thing I tell people about when they’re talkin’ about defund the police and when they’re talkin’ about it in the sense that they’re not talkin’ about abolition, they’re saying take those funds and put them in more appropriate situations. So instead of calling the cops when somebody is having a mental crisis, you would call a social worker. Well, as a marginalized person, as a person in my community, I also know that our social work system is rooted in white supremacy and it’s actively harmed people. So we don’t want to replicate, we don’t want to give them money to do the same thing and replace the police.
Auni: And you know, when when it comes to democracy and what it means, it’s not down to voting, it’s not down to having the nominal idea of a vote, a structure, whatever. Democracy can’t be separated from class, it can’t be separated from inequality, and really democracy is about a process of active structure—oh sorry, active struggle…
Auni: …in order to really reach it, and it never stops.
Kim: And so that goes back to that when we were talkin’ about earlier, people were like, “This is not America.” Yes it is. The fact that we even call this country America is problematic. This is the United States of America. There are other Americas. But because America’s a default, that’s problematic.
Auni: And when you talk about the democracy in America, what’s one part we talk about democracy is representation. But what do you look at when you see politicians, you see people who are owners, who make an average of a million dollars in the US Senate, something like that. Is that what the body of American workers in the United States look like? Is that really representative? And what you can see is that they can’t keep up with the way that the world is evolving, with the way that economics is changing, with global imperialism and foreign policy, regime change, colonialism, all this sort of stuff is coming back home to roost, and we can see that people in charge can’t do anything about it. And so when it comes down to like what happened yesterday makes our work more urgent than ever because in order to build a real democracy, we have to start with working class power and building a workers democracy.
Kim: And the fact that you said… and see, this is where the harm comes with that word, “working class.” Because for most white folx, working class is white people. Everybody else is excluded. So it’s gonna be a challenge for you and your team and union people everywhere who are trying to build this better thing when you say everyone included is included, that whiteness is not the default for working class.
Auni: Yep. And also like being able-bodied isn’t the default for worker either.
Auni: We think about workers as somebody necessary for production, somebody who’s gotta work to live. Even if somebody is getting subsidized by the government or whatever, they have to work to live. We draw the distinction between people who are in the system of having to sell their labor and be part of this exploitative system versus the people who own everything but don’t understand what needs to be done.
Kim: And that is where definitely we’ve seen during this pandemic. We’ve definitely seen… just like, is it North Dakota? Where the person—I don’t know if it was the governor or someone—said that illegal aliens who are the essential workers there won’t be able to get the vaccine.
Auni: I mean, where’re the surprises? We’ve seen this over and over again.
Kim: Exactly. [Laughs] Exactly. It is like, again, don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. This shit’s gonna come back and bite you inna ass.
Auni: Yeah. And I think this is where going back to history is so important, because if they wipe out the working class history from us, then—you know, I really love what you said before: people feel disempowered if they don’t have a plan. And I see that at Google, over the years, I see it in America too; if you present people with a horrible, existential problem and give them nothing to do about it, what are people going to do with the cognitive dissonance? They’re gonna find a way to ignore it and pave it over.
Kim: Yup. Yup. Yup.
Auni: So our union training is about kind of agitating. Bringing this to the surface, bringing what people have been buried and bring it to the surface because we have work to do. And as much as everything has been horrible over the last year, it’s never made me depressed because the worse the world gets, the more I know that I have work to do. I have a way to build and fight against this and I go back to my work.
Kim: Yes! So you’re gonna be the first person I say this publicly, which means everybody on air is gonna be: yesterday what happened at the Capitol was heartbreaking. I cried—I’m an empath—I cried when I saw that. And yet I felt so emboldened because I was like, “They’re ready. The country is now ready to do the real work.” They couldn’t say, “Oh, that just happens in Portland. That just happens there. That’s just that group of people.” No. These people came from all over this country, and they descended on this place that treated Black and brown protesters mere months ago, months ago, as terrorists, and they went into a place where the woman who makes the most, has the most, $800 million was not going to save her from these damn people. For the first time, probably in her damn life, she knew in that moment what it felt like to be everybody else. And I’m talking about Kelly Loeffler. She has the most money of anybody and she is worth $800 million and yet she was crouching on the floor like everybody else.
Auni: But then we gotta watch what are these people going to do? On opposite sides now, but people’s interests change so easily when there’s money on the line, right?
Kim: Oh yeah. Yeah. [Laughs] Their attention spans is ridiculous.
Auni: This is why I tell everybody to read about the 1930s, because that’s an example where there was a mass working class movement, a mass industrial movement that built independent working class power and we kinda see how these class dynamics played out and what that resulted in for the country leading up to World War Two. This is a history that, if people knew about it, they wouldn’t be sitting still. They’d realize, “Oh shit, we can do that too.”
Kim: And then, even in that, there was discrimination because with the GI Bill, Black people could not—Black men, soldiers, just like fought in Normandy, fought in Okinawa just like their white counterparts—could not participate in home ownership or in college educations. And that was one of… I did a talk—and I never remember the acronym, but it’s the group that actually maintains the Internet—I did a talk with them over the holidays because there is this mis—they have this collective misnomer that the Internet is apolitical. No it’s not apolitical, because who got to build the Internet? And too many people were kept out of building the Internet that no, it’s not apolitical. It is built the way it is because…
Auni: People think something built out of the military is apolitical? [Laughs]
Kim: Exactly. [Laughs] Exactly. Before we wrap up, I really wanted you to answer this question, ’cause it has come up a lot. Why complain when you’re privileged? Why are tech people unionizing? They’re not pipefitters; they’re not electricians; why are tech people, who make so much money, why are they unionizing?
Auni: So I mean, there’s lots of reasons, right? And people come to the union for all sorts of reasons. You’re hearing my story here but a union’s like a live body of lots of people coming for different reasons. But here’s a couple of things.
First of all, some of us might be paid really well, but at the same time, we still don’t have a say, we don’t have a voice in how the company works. I came to this work because I don’t want my work to go for warfare. I don’t want to be paid well if it’s at the cost of other people suffering.
The second thing is that it’s not an equal system, it’s not a utopia, right? There’s people who don’t have safety in this workplace. We saw it with the women’s walkout two years ago. Google won’t address sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination seriously unless there’s a big a big power imbalance.
And to elaborate on that myth of the workplace goes back to the idea about contract workers. We have over half of our workforce is contracted, and not receiving the same sort of fancy benefits, pay, whatever, but they’re workers all the same, and we know that we need to put them first because they’re the ones who need it.
I think the last thing I’ll say is that when it comes to building working class power, the reason we need this union, you know, people at Google might have it nice, but we at Google set the standard for the rest of the tech industry, right? What we do over here matters, because when we raise the bar at Google, we raise the bar for everybody. And so we’re joining the CWA, we’re building up this union campaign in tech, but this is gonna be something that’s opening the doors for lots of people across the tech industry, including people who aren’t paid that well, and across the bigger working across in America too. It’s not just about us. It’s about a bigger movement that we’re part of.
Kim: And when you said that, that reminded me of how Facebook contracts out the worst parts of it’s business, which is the moderation part, and pays those people absolutely nothing to look at the most disturbing images and sounds every day and barely… and doesn’t take care of their mental health, none of that stuff. So what would you like to say in your final moments on the show?
Auni: I mean, go start a union. Go read some books. This stuff is all around you. We’re with the CWA—Communications Workers of America—but it doesn’t matter what you join, but get trained, get organized, because as you said before, everything is becoming clear now; the contradictions of the world can’t really be hidden anymore. At the same time, we the working class are behind. We see these people busting in through windows, it’s not something to celebrate because we have a lot of work cut out for us and there isn’t time to sit around to be depressed about it. We’ve got to get moving.
Kim: Yeah, we got to get outta our feelings and get to work. It’s all about action. Activism has the word “act” in it for a reason. It is something to do. It is—this is why I don’t like “allies.” That is a title. I need you to do something. [Both laugh] Thank you so much for being on the show. This has been wonderful. And I wish you and your fellow union members very much success because you are absolutely right, and I say this all the time, and this is why I stay in tech, ’cause once tech gets it right, every other industry has to follow because we touch everything.
Auni: Exactly. It’s so great to share all this with you. And you know, if anybody wants to reach out, find us. Go to code-cwa.org or reach out to some organizers, get trained, look up the union. We’ve gotta get moving and get this stuff done.
Kim: Thank you so much. Have a great day.
Auni: You too. Bye bye.
Alphabet Workers Union
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Originally posted on August 19, 2018 I will begin this post as I begin each talk, with a list of my credentials because there’s always
There are many reasons that businesses succeed or fail but in an Information Age economy, one looms bright. The reason organizations like Amazon and Walmart