Human Capital: What’s next for Dr. Timnit Gebru


Congrats on surviving this wild first week of 2021. Outside all-things political, a few labor developments happened that are worth noting. Also, shortly before the mob of Trump supporters wreaked havoc on the U.S. Capitol, I caught up with Dr. Timnit Gebru, the prominent AI ethics researcher who said she was fired from Google last month for speaking out about diversity issues. Our full conversation will be available to listen to next Saturday on the newest episode of TC Mixtape, but I’ve included some snippets for y’all below.

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Google, Alphabet workers unionize

A group of more than 200 Google and Alphabet workers announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union. With the help of Communication Workers of America Union’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA), the union will be open to both employees and contractors.

Of the roughly 227 workers who had signed on to support the union as of earlier this week, they all committed to set aside 1% of their yearly compensation to go toward union dues. Those dues will be used to help compensate folks for lost wages in the event of a strike. The bulk of the workers who have signed on are mostly based in offices in the San Francisco Bay Area and one in Cambridge.

To be clear, though, the Alphabet Workers Union is a bit untraditional. The current union consists of just 227 workers out of Alphabet’s 132,121 people. For the Alphabet union, the intent is not necessarily to be able to bargain with Alphabet-owned companies but to be able to work collectively toward common goals.

Labor department issues filing ruling re: gig workers

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a final rule pertaining to gig workers. The rule, which goes into effect March 8, 2021, makes it easier for gig economy companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart to legally classify workers as independent contractors throughout the country. 

However, it remains to be seen if this rule will fully manifest under the new leadership of President-Elect Joe Biden, who is set to be inaugurated on Jan 20, 2021. According to the Wall Street Journal, Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki previously pointed to the labor rule as an example of regulation Biden could stop or delay on his inauguration day. 

Independent Drivers Guild Chicago forms

Rideshare drivers in Chicago recently teamed up with Independent Drivers Guild to launch a local branch of the drivers’ rights organization. IDG, which is affiliated with the Machinists Union, has historically advocated for the rights of rideshare drivers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“IDG beat the odds to win higher pay and benefits for drivers in New York City and working together, we know we can do the same here in Chicago,” Steven Everett, a Chicago rideshare driver-organizer, said in a statement.

What’s next for Dr. Timnit Gebru

Many of you are likely familiar with Dr. Timnit Gebru, but the TL;DR is that she recently left Google after speaking out about diversity issues in artificial intelligence. Google says Gebru resigned and it merely accepted her resignation, while Gebru says Google fired her. 

I caught up with Dr. Gebru on Wednesday to chat about what’s next for her, as well as some recent developments in tech’s labor struggles.

On the Alphabet Workers Union:

This is a combination of a lot of peoples work and frustration. And i think this is the only way because this is a way to give workers power, and so that they can be at the negotiating table, because right now, they don’t have power.

[…] One thing I really appreciate about this union is that it’s all workers. It’s not just, you know, full time workers, it’s temp workers and full-time workers, which is extremely important because the tech industry is right now running on the backs of these contract workers who have zero security.”

[…] What I worry about though, is that [Google has] been extremely aggressive with trying to union  bust and trying to stop these kinds of organizing — any type of organizing and now that it’s become something real, I think  they’re going to intensify their efforts, like a lot more in trying to stop this organizing from happening. And there are many well-known tactics to do this, right. This kind of like propaganda and kind of dividing and conquering and all that. So that’s my worry. And I think everybody needs to stay vigilant to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

On fighting for severance:

“I don’t know if I’m going to, you know, explain to you exactly what I’m thinking right now about that,” she said, adding that “I definitely have lawyers.”

Obviously, what they did to me was wrong and I definitely want to, you know, take some sort of action but what that is is not necessarily crystal clear.

On working at a tech company again

Prior to joining Google, Dr. Gebru held roles at Apple and Microsoft. While, she still plans to work in the field of artificial intelligence ethics and work with Black in AI, Dr. Gebru said “it’s very hard for me to imagine joining a corporation right now.”

I’m just sick of these institutions because you spend so much of your energy, fighting for simple things, just simple things that people don’t have any incentive to change.

[…] I want to spend more time thinking about how we can have our own institutions rather than just you know, fighting these people over and over again. That’s my current thinking.

Envisioning a firm or a non-profit that does what the ethical AI team at Google was doing under her leadership, but that’s not affiliated with any corporation.

“We want to create technology that would also work for us, rather than just playing catch up,” she said. “So I think that’s the idea of Black in AI.”



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