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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."

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."

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?

"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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