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Google Contract Staff That Helped Train AI Seek To Unionize

(Bloomberg) -- A group of Alphabet Inc. contract workers are launching a unionization campaign, saying they need a greater voice at the company that has tasked them with work on its most high-profile products, including training generative AI answers in Google’s search engine and chatbot.

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The workers, who are employed via the vendor Accenture Plc, are seeking to negotiate directly with Alphabet, which they argue is legally also their boss.

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The group is organizing with the Alphabet Workers Union, and said it has signed up the vast majority of its proposed bargaining unit, which includes about 120 writers, graphic designers and launch coordinators who create internal and external Google content, including all of the materials for Google Help support pages. They’ve also recently helped to review AI-generated content.

The workers said they hope to bargain for changes including increased paid time off, control over accepting assignments outside the scope of their usual work and competitive pay that reflects their skill sets. The employees are asking management to voluntarily recognize and negotiate with the union. The workers contend Alphabet is a “joint employer” — a company with enough control over a group of employees to be liable for their treatment and obligated to negotiate if they unionize, even if it doesn’t sign their paychecks.

“We’ve spent two years organizing and are trying to get a fair shake,” said Laura Greene, a multimedia team leader with Accenture. “Basically, we decided that the only way to get real, lasting change is to formally unionize and, ideally, negotiate at the bargaining table.”Accenture acknowledged that it received a letter from workers requesting that the company recognize its union. “We always value the ability to listen directly to our people and respond to their concerns,” Rachel Frey, an Accenture spokesperson, said in a statement.

Google said it expected all of its vendor workers to be treated fairly, in compliance with its supplier code of conduct. “We, of course, respect these workers’ right to join a union or not, but this is a matter between them and their employer, Accenture,” said Courtenay Mencini, a Google spokesperson. “Google does not control their employment terms or working conditions.”

In a letter sent to management Wednesday afternoon, workers said that over the four-year life of their contract, they had consistently requested that Google and Accenture consider their expertise and experience in executing their work, but were routinely disregarded. “Instead of recognizing us as highly specialized workers worthy of respect, we are treated as resources for Google to exhaust, despite our expertise and how much genuine care we put into this complex work,” they wrote.

In January, the workers said, they were recruited for a top secret project — working on the company’s then-unannounced chatbot, Bard. They were told to answer theoretical prompts and fact-check Bard’s responses, a job that required research and creativity. For a brief period on the Bard project, Accenture workers were also asked to handle obscene, graphic and offensive prompts, they said. Though the workers were told they could skip certain tasks, they also risked getting penalized in other ways for passing on the work.

At least one person filed a complaint with human resources at Accenture. In February, the work they had been doing was transferred over to their Accenture counterparts based in Manila, the workers said. The change raised concerns among the US staffers that the work they are assigned could be taken away at any point and offloaded to cheaper labor elsewhere.

The Accenture labor struggle is one of several partially motivated by AI concerns. TV and film writers have been on strike for a month, demanding protections including restrictions on the use of computer-generated manuscripts; some picket lines have featured the chant “AI? Bye-Bye.” In May, journalists at CNET announced a unionization campaign, saying they wanted a voice in workplace decision-making “especially as automated technology threatens our jobs and reputations.”

The outcome of the Google workers’ organizing effort may not be immediately clear. When a majority of employees at a work site sign up to unionize in the US, a company can voluntarily recognize and negotiate with the labor group or refuse to do so unless the union first prevails in a government-run election. The process of determining who should be eligible to vote in an election can take weeks or months, and companies often use that time to fight organizing efforts by using tactics such as mandatory anti-union meetings.

And even after securing union recognition, progress can be slow. YouTube Music workers hired via the staffing agency Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. voted to unionize in April, but Alphabet is appealing a US National Labor Relations Board official’s decision deeming it a joint employer of the workers. The legal battle could drag on for years, as could also end up happening with the Accenture staff.

The Accenture workers said they’re undeterred by the prospect of a long campaign. “What we really want is longevity in the job, and more respect and autonomy from Google,” said Tahlia Kirk, a writer and team trainer with Accenture.

(Updates with Google comment.)

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