Inside the #MeToo revolt at Google

November 13, 2018

Kristen Sheets reports on the walkout at Google — why it happened, how it was organized, what it achieved and what it tells us about organizing the tech sector.

THE NOVEMBER 1 walkout by 20,000 Google employees at some 50 offices around the world may be the largest international action of its kind in modern labor history — and it shined a spotlight on the potential for tech workers to stand up for justice for themselves and their co-workers.

The immediate cause of the walkout — which involved more than 20 percent of Google’s nearly 95,000 workers worldwide — was the revelation of Google’s cover-up of sexual misconduct by Andy Rubin, a former top executive and the creator of the Android operating system.

Google protected Rubin, giving him a $90 million exit package, while keeping silent about his history of sexual harassment and abuse. But Rubin is clearly one of many sexual harassers that Google has shielded, contributing to a hostile internal climate.

The walkout gave voice to workers’ grievances about that work environment. At a rally at Google’s YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, one worker stated: “Where did they get that $90 million? They got it from every day you worked late. From every promotion you didn’t get. From every [temporary contract worker] who was never converted to full time.”

Google workers rally during their walkout
Google workers rally during their walkout

The walkout was organized in less than a week, and workers harnessed Google’s tools — Drive and Gmail, Docs and Calendar — to make it a success.

In the San Bruno YouTube headquarters, the many TVs mounted throughout the offices, which generally show music videos or cooking shows from the YouTube site, were repurposed by workers to display the flyer for the walkout.

Others committed a code change to the company’s internal Linux distribution, modifying the Linux penguin icon to hold a picket sign with the walkout information written on it that was displayed to everyone who used the tool.

In other words, Google workers repurposed the tools they themselves built for something exceptional. Google workers are famous for their innovation, but this time, the spec wasn’t to what the company required, but to what they needed and wanted.

ORGANIZERS OF the walkout drew crucial connections between race, gender and employment status in the industry. Google employs as many as 100,000 contract workers — referred to as Temps Vendors and Contractors, or TVCs — who are often described as a permanent “underclass” on the Google campus.

In their statement, the organizers of the walkout called for a workplace free of “the sexual harassment, discrimination and the systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture.” The statement put forward five clear demands:

An end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination for all current and future employees.

A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity.

A publicly-disclosed report on sexual harassment at the company.

A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.

A commitment to elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the board of directors — plus the appointment of an employee representative to the Board.

Immediately after the walkout, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an e-mail that the company was considering these demands.

One week later, Google’s leadership announced an end to forced arbitration — something with precedent at other tech companies including Uber — further training on sexual harassment, and more granularity and transparency in reporting on sexual harassment investigations and outcomes.

Ending forced arbitration should be understood as a key win. This has been a key tactic for companies, Google included, to hide incidents of sexual harassment and silence survivors.

But the fight is far from over. In his response, Pichai pointedly made no reference to the specific demands of the walkout, and the important questions of equal treatment for contract workers and the proposal for an employee representative on the board were left unaddressed.

As organizer Stephanie Parker wrote after the announcement: “We demand a truly equitable culture, and Google leadership can achieve this by putting employee representation on the board and giving full rights and protections to contract workers, our most vulnerable workers, many of whom are Black and Brown women.”

THE GOOGLE walkout was the biggest show of strength yet by tech workers, but it wasn’t the first, by any means.

Earlier this year, Google workers made international news with their opposition to the company’s contract with the U.S. Defense Department for the development of artificial intelligence for use in drone aircraft, dubbed Project Maven. Google was forced to not renew the contract for a second year.

There has been substantial worker backlash against Project Dragonfly — Google’s project to build a censored search engine in China.

Besides its deeply disturbing projects for governments, Google has been exposed for having an incredibly toxic internal culture. The revelations about Rubin just scratch the surface of the attempts to cover up incidents of internal sexual harassment, abuse and racism. This, too, was preceded by internal worker action — a petition against doxxing and harassment at work after the infamous James Damore memo.

The Google walkout shouldn’t be seen as external to broader fightbacks — not only in workplaces, but in social movements.

The organizers’ approach of concentrating on mobilizing the rank and file was deeply influenced by the “red state” teachers’ rebellion, organizing efforts of cafeteria workers and security guards on tech campuses, and the Fight for 15 among low-wage workers.

And, of course, the November 1 walkout signifies an important expansion of the #MeToo movement.

From its beginnings last year, #MeToo has had an obvious focus on exposing sexual harassment and assault in workplaces, along with the broader society. The walkout at Google shows how an action directly tied to the workplace can have a big impact.

In this context — and coming on the heels of the Kavanaugh confirmation to the Supreme Court — it’s not hard to see why Google workers, upon hearing that their company paid off a sexual harasser $90 million to leave, would want to take an action that is slightly more disruptive this time.

THE TRUMP era has served as a political awakening for many people, and workers in the tech industry are no exception.

A rebellion in high tech is well positioned to not only make demands around dignity on the job and an end to harassment and abuse, but to raise more political questions. The Project Maven and Dragonfly resistance, for example, tied the workplace to political and social struggles by asking the broader question: Who does our technology serve?

Likewise, shortly after the Maven petition at Google, and with the revelations about Trump’s family separation policy at the border in the news, Microsoft workers posted an open letter protesting the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Workers at Amazon have been challenging their company’s aggressive marketing of its facial recognition software as a tool for law enforcement, including ICE — and hundreds of employees at Salesforce put their names to a letter to the CEO protesting contracts with ICE and the Border Patrol.

All of the efforts have been united under the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt.

Many of the workers who initiated these protests have been involved with a group called the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC). Initiated in the San Francisco Bay Area, the TWC has spread to both coasts, with local organizations in Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and New York City.

The TWC is entirely volunteer-run, with nearly all of its participants working in the tech sector. The organization has been helpful in building the infrastructure for workers in the industry to build meaningful relationships and learn from one another.

This has opened up the possibility for actions that might previously have been an individualized moral decision to become collective.

WHILE THERE have been previous attempts at organizing workers in the tech sector — most notably at WashTech and Lanetix — the dominant view has been that tech workers are unorganizable because they are privileged.

In fact, the tight labor market in tech and the high salaries may allow workers to take risks that would be more challenging for workers in other industries.

But the Google walkout gave a different view of the people who make the tech industry run. It was multiracial and multigender, and included people of different sexual orientations, nationalities, age and employment status — contract workers, full-time employees and even some managers participated. This display of solidarity was empowering, demonstrating the power of workers to stand together.

And, importantly, the walkout achieved real progress immediately, while laying the basis for further organizing.

If you scratch beneath the surface of any workplace, even one with free lunch, you’ll find grievances. In tech, there are plenty: racism, with attrition rates for Black and Latinx workers the highest; long hours; rampant sexism that has been exposed intermittently via personal anecdote, occasional exposé or a misogynistic manifesto; and a workplace where workers feel like they don’t have a voice on the job.

Google workers are changing the rules of what it means to organize and challenging the perceptions of tech workers inside and outside the industry — starting with their own ideas about the company. They are learning through this struggle for respect and fairness that the company leadership’s interests are different from their own.

Like this summer with #TechWontBuildIt, we can expect this action to have a major influence on the continued development of workers’ ideas in the industry and beyond — and to be an inspiration for collective action to spread.

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