Science & Technology



How the Google walkout transformed tech workers into activists

Johana Bhuiyan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

At the end of October 2018, Claire Stapleton, then a YouTube employee, sent an email to an internal listserv where women discussed their experiences at Google. Employees had just learned that the company's board of directors had approved a $90-million payout to Andy Rubin, a former Google executive, despite finding that a subordinate's sexual misconduct claims against him were credible. Stapleton suggested she and her fellow listserv contributors do something about it.

She and a circle of collaborators started a shared document listing their concerns and demands, including an end to mandatory arbitration and a public sexual harassment transparency report. Days later, on Nov. 1, 2018, they and 20,000 other Google workers around the world stopped working and poured out of their offices in protest.

A year later, the legacy of the walkout has been far-reaching and complex. Although most of the protesters' demands remain unmet, their efforts have given rise to a network of worker-led movements both inside Google and in the broader tech industry, marking a new era of tech companies being challenged by their own employees.

At Amazon, Microsoft and Google, thousands of workers have lent their names or bodies to protests against doing business with oil and gas companies. Hundreds of Amazon workers joined together in a call for their employer to stop selling facial recognition software to law enforcement. Contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have inspired petitions within Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce. At Apple, Chief Executive Tim Cook was forced to defend a decision to block an app used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to avoid police.

It's a new strain of worker activism, one whose practitioners are as preoccupied with the social impact of the multibillion-dollar companies that employ them as they are with their own work conditions. And it's one that Google itself did much to facilitate by making Silicon Valley a place where software makers enjoy unprecedented levels of compensation and personal freedom. "Tech workers are paid well enough to be uniquely privileged to take strong ethical stances," said Irene Knapp, a senior software engineer who left Google in September.

Within Google, employees are taking their activism in new directions, including experiments that could yield the seeds of a union -- although how the average tech worker might expect to benefit from unionizing is far from obvious. One group of non-staff workers has already voted to unionize. Some of the organizers have split off to take on other issues, including fighting mandatory arbitration at the federal level.


The walkout and its aftermath have also altered the formerly easygoing relationship between Google's executive leadership and its rank-and-file. In the past, workers felt Google's much-admired culture was one that not just encouraged but at times rewarded them for taking stances on controversial topics. Even more than other tech companies, Google made space for its people to pursue activism through their jobs. Gestures such as co-founder Sergey Brin's airport protest against the Trump travel ban and the company's sponsorship of San Francisco's annual Pride parade sent a message that advocacy under Google's imprimatur was not just a privilege but a right.

Now, current and former employees say, the company has grown cagier and less transparent about how it responds to worker concerns and more restrictive in the types of political speech it countenances on the job. Google has also begun to employ tactics seen as having the effect of dividing workers and clamping down on the kinds of conversations that fuel workplace activism.

A Google spokeswoman said the company is one of the most transparent in the world and has introduced many of its newer policies, including community guidelines adopted in August, at employees' behest.

"We've heard that employees want clearer rules of the road on what's OK to say and what's not," the spokeswoman said in a statement. "Our culture of open discussion has mostly worked well for us, and it's something we want to preserve as we grow, so we are evolving to make sure our open discussions are still serving their original purpose and bringing us together as a community."


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