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How the Google walkout transformed tech workers into activists

Johana Bhuiyan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

"A union is the structure that, under U.S. law, gives us the most chance to have a say in many of the types of decisions we want to have a say in, such as helping individual workers with HR situations," said Irene Knapp, the former senior software engineer. Knapp said early discussions about a centralized structure to represent workers have been held on email lists distributed to thousands of employees.

But others have questioned whether employees who enjoy median annual pay of almost $200,000 and relative job security would find themselves aligned with the aims of a traditional labor union. Two current employees privy to discussions about organizing workers say insufficient support exists for a union drive in the near term.

One idea being advanced as possibly more suited to the particular aims of Google staff is a solidarity union, according to four former and current Google employees. Lacking the protections of a labor union with a collective bargaining agreement, a solidarity union involves the creation of a central committee to mobilize workers for common causes.

Labor expert and lawyer Veena Dubal said a solidarity union sidesteps some of the disadvantages of unionizing for white-collar employees. Whereas labor unions traditionally focus on working conditions, solidarity unions offer "a much more fluid way to address ... the social implications of the work that they're doing," Dubal said. Such an instrument could be a way for Googlers to throw their weight around on issues like privacy and climate change without tying their earning potential to their colleagues', or throwing in their lot with workers from very different financial circumstances.

A conventional labor issue motivating many Googlers is protection from harassment and retaliation. An employee support group formed a few months after the walkout specifically to assist people experiencing harassment or retaliation, in part by accompanying them in HR meetings. The right for employees taking complaints to HR to bring a colleague, or "companion," into meetings with them was one of the walkout demands. The company granted that demand -- with a proviso that employees acting as HR companions could only do so twice per year and aren't allowed to ask questions during meetings, three employees said.

Google explained the restrictions as a way to ensure workers not become over-burdened with extraneous work. But members of the group, who see it as a potential nucleus for a body representing workers, say the two-meeting limit impairs the quality and continuity of the support they're able to provide. "Nothing is going to get resolved in two meetings and if you have to bring someone new to the next meeting, then that makes you feel alone and breaks up the process," Dubal said.

Eileen Naughton, the vice president of people operations at Google, said in a statement that the company works to be "extremely transparent" about how it handles complaints.

"Reporting misconduct takes courage and we want to provide care and support to people who raise concerns," Naughton wrote. "All instances of inappropriate conduct reported to us are investigated rigorously, and over the past year we have simplified how employees can raise concerns and provided more transparency into the investigations process at Google."

Clampdown

The policy on HR companions is just one of a handful of recent actions on Google's part that employees say have the effect of discouraging organizing efforts. In spite of the company's post-walkout promises to be more transparent, they say the company has become less forthcoming, less responsive, and has introduced policies that could suppress activism.

Google told The Times its default is to share as much as possible internally. But the new guidelines discouraging political speech on internal channels mark a significant culture shift.

Google is far from unique in asking employees to talk politics on their own time. But exhorting people to "bring their whole selves to work," as Google once said of its embrace of diversity, was exactly what did make Google different. "They're trying to sharply veer their culture away from the openness and transparency that was sort of the hallmark of Google before," Stapleton said.

Per community guidelines, moderators of some of the bigger email lists in the company, such as eng-misc, have asked members to take discussions of politics off-thread, according to two employees. While the company was forced by the National Labor Relations Board to make it clear to employees that it's legally prevented from blocking their discussions of working conditions, several employees questioned how the company would enforce limitations on political speech in cases where they overlap. Just last week, Google took down an employee's post about the hiring of a former Department of Homeland Security staffer who defended the immigration ban, BuzzFeed News first reported and The Times confirmed.

A number of employees active in organizing protests have left the company in the last year, saying they believed they were victims of retaliation. Fong-Jones left the company in January after 11 years. Stapleton and Whitaker left in June after Stapleton was demoted and Whitaker was told her role would significantly change. Knapp departed in September, saying they felt retaliated against and could do more activism outside of the company.

 

When asked about these employees' claims, Google said it does not comment on individual cases but broadly denied retaliation, claims of which the company said it always investigates, and noted that employees are regularly reassigned or reorganized in response to evolving business needs.

But Fong-Jones said her departure was a stark contrast to her past treatment. In 2013 and 2016, she received companywide citizenship awards for her internal activism work that came with additional stock. But when she gave notice for Feb. 25, the company pushed for her to leave a month sooner, agreeing to accelerate her stock grants as severance. Fong-Jones used the $90,000 from those grants to create a fund for striking workers and retaliation victims.

"The fact that they were just in a rush to get me out the door -- that says they are afraid of me, of the organizing work I was doing," she said.

The legacy of the walkout

Whatever concerns Google's executives may have about employee activism, so far it hasn't had much effect on the company's business of selling advertising, cloud services and other software and hardware products. Parent company Alphabet has set new records for quarterly revenue and profit in the year since the walkout. Nor has the fracturing of its image as one of the world's happiest workplaces dented its recruitment efforts: In April, the company said it had added more than 18,000 employees over the previous year, an increase in its workforce of more than 20%. Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have all enjoyed record financial performance in 2019 as well.

But the bigger and more profitable they get, the more emboldened their employees have become to push for change from within. In September 2019, almost 1,800 Amazon employees staged a walkout calling out executives on their inaction on climate change, drawing a pledge from CEO Jeff Bezos to accelerate the company's transition to renewable energy. On Monday, 1,100 Google employees asked the company to stop doing business with the oil and gas industry and release a public climate plan. At Facebook, hundreds of employees recently signed their names to a message urging CEO Mark Zuckerberg to reconsider a policy allowing politicians to make false claims in ads. Unlike Google, neither Facebook nor Amazon has a long history of open employee activism.

Most recently, employees at GitHub and its parent, Microsoft, publicly called on their companies to cancel their contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As The Times first reported, one employee has now resigned over the contract.

Google walkout organizers have offered support and knowledge to the leaders of many of these efforts.

Most crucially, perhaps, they've offered inspiration.

In May, six months after the Google walkout, 200 employees at Riot Games walked out of their office to protest the company's policy of mandating arbitration in cases of sexual misconduct allegations. An organizer at the Santa Monica-based video game company, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told The Times it was only a matter of time before Riot workers took some sort of public action to make themselves heard. But it was witnessing those 20,000 Googlers filing out of their offices, and the long shadow their act cast across the tech landscape, that helped them choose the form.

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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