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How the Google walkout transformed tech workers into activists

Johana Bhuiyan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

When asked whether leadership has changed its approach to hearing out employee concerns, a spokesperson said the company has several informal and formal ways for its workforce to submit feedback to executives, including manager feedback surveys and an internal tool called Memegen that enables employees to create and share memes. However, on Friday, employees accused the company of censorship after memes posted to the forum criticizing the recent hiring of a former Department of Homeland Security staffer were deleted by moderators, according to Bloomberg News.

The birth of an activist network

Despite the unanswered demands, organizers of the walkout say it helped them see the influence they could wield through collective action. Afterward, there were disagreements about how to capitalize on the momentum they'd created, according to five former and current employees. The group splintered, with several offshoots taking up individual issues.

One group, led by program manager Tanuja Gupta and linguist Vicki Tardif, focused on ending forced arbitration, a policy that prohibits employees from taking their employer to court. Gupta and Tardif believed it allowed Google to conceal harassment and misconduct cases. Google initially responded to the walkout demand to end mandatory arbitration for all by making it optional only for cases of sexual misconduct. Gupta and Tardif didn't think that went nearly far enough.

"I think for us, the walkout was actually just the beginning," Gupta said.

They were approached by the American Assn. for Justice, a nonprofit lobbying group for plaintiffs' lawyers that was pushing a bill to ban mandatory arbitration across the U.S. Soon, the employee group, End Forced Arbitration, began organizing phone banks, launching educational campaigns, and organizing trips to lobby legislators in Washington, D.C., in their personal time.

 

Days before Gupta was scheduled to introduce the Fair Act at a press conference with Congress members and victims, Google announced it was doing away with arbitration for all full-time employees. It was among the first tech companies to do so.

Another group, whose members include walkout organizers Diana Scholl, Stephanie Parker and Amr Gabr, focuses specifically on issues affecting temporary, vendor and contractual, or TVC, workers, who make up more than half of Google's workforce. When a group of TVCs who worked in Google's Pittsburgh offices through a firm called HCL voted to unionize, Scholl's group worked with organizers to craft messaging and lobbied Google to commit publicly to remaining neutral. In response, Google's head of external workforce, Adrienne Crowther, said the union drive would have "no impact on any business decisions," in an email The Times reviewed.

Getting organized

After the HCL workers voted to unionize in August, some circles of full-time Google employees picked up a conversation they'd been having since the walkout: Should they have a union, too?

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