How The Google Walkout Transformed Tech Workers Into Activists

By Johana Bhuiyan
Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) On the one year anniversary of the Google walkout, Johana Bhuiyan reports that most of the protesters’ demands remain unmet, however, she says, “their efforts have given rise to a network of worker-led movements both inside Google and in the broader tech industry.”

Los Angeles Times

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 [email protected], 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.

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