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How the Google walkout transformed tech workers into activists

Johana Bhuiyan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

The Times spoke to 10 former and current Googlers, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation and retribution. All said they see the walkout as just the start of what they expect will be a sustained effort by workers at Google and elsewhere to pressure companies to act more ethically -- toward their own workers and in the wider world -- instead of prioritizing the bottom line.

Ethical blinders

The walkout took just a few days to coordinate, but it was years in the making.

Many employees were critical of the way Google's leadership handled a controversial memo circulated by engineer James Damore challenging the company's pro-diversity initiatives. Although Google eventually fired Damore, some were unhappy that Chief Executive Sundar Pichai did not disavow the memo more explicitly or offer additional security for people whose personal information was exposed by Damore's supporters on the alt-right.

Meanwhile, employees were growing increasingly concerned about the ethics of some of the company's business decisions, including the development of artificial intelligence for the U.S. Department of Defense and a censored search engine for China. Compounding the concerns, Google placed unusual secrecy requirements on employees working on those projects. "To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we're building," employees wrote in an August 2018 open letter to executives first reported by the New York Times. "Right now we don't."

But the Rubin payout was uniquely galvanizing.

 

For many, it was a flagrant violation of the company's iconic motto "Don't be evil" (revised in 2018 to "Do the right thing"). For those who had witnessed or experienced instances of sexual misconduct gone unpunished, it was personal. Arriving during the rise of the #MeToo movement, amid a wave of women in tech and other industries opening up about sexual misconduct and forcing the men responsible to resign and apologize, the news of Rubin's payout resonated. "It was sort of a clear thing to rally behind," said Stapleton, who has since left YouTube.

The widening gap between Google's corporate leadership and the leaders of its various in-house activist and employee resource groups -- such as Gayglers and Woman@Google -- helped tip the balance toward a public response. That's something that would have been less likely in the past, said Liz Fong-Jones, who was among Google's prominent employee activists before leaving in February.

For nearly a decade, Fong-Jones was among a select group of workers invited at times to articulate employee concerns to executives. In 2010, she and a group of other representatives drafted a petition arguing that a policy requiring users of Google Plus, the company's new social media platform, to use their real names would endanger the safety of vulnerable users, including LGBTQ people. After a lengthy series of conversations, Google ultimately dropped that requirement.

What made negotiations like that possible "was enough trust and confidence between management and employees to actually allow us to bargain behind closed doors and not spill the dirty laundry," Fong-Jones said. "But you know, all good things come to an end."

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