Earlier this month, 20,000 Google employees along with temps, Vendors, and Contractors walked out of their respective Google offices to protest against the discrimination, racism, and sexual harassment that they encountered at Google’s workplace. As a part of the walkout, Google employees had laid out five demands urging Google to bring about structural changes within the workplace.
In the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, yesterday, six of the Google walkout organizers, namely, Erica Anderson, Claire Stapleton, Meredith Whittaker, Stephanie Parker, Cecilia O’Neil-Hart and Amr Gaber spoke out about Google’s dismissive approach towards the five demands laid out by the Google employees. A day after the Walkout, Google addressed these demands in a note written by Sundar Pichai, where he admitted that they have “not always gotten everything right in the past” and are “sincerely sorry”. Pichai also mentioned that “It’s clear that to live up to the high bar we set for Google, we need to make some changes. Going forward, we will provide more transparency into how you raise concerns and how we handle them”.
The ‘walkout for real change’ was a response to the New York Times report, published last month, that exposed how Google has protected its senior executives (Andy Rubin, Android Founder being one of them) that had been accused of sexual misconduct in the recent past. We’ll now have a look at the major highlights from the podcast.
The podcast talks about how the organizers formulated their demands, the rights of contractors at Google, post walkout town hall meeting, and what steps will be taken next by the Google employees.
How the walkout mobilized collective action and the formulation of demands
As per the Google employees, collating demands was a collective effort from the very beginning. They were inspired by stories of sexual harassment at Google that were floating around in an internal email chain. This urged the organizers of the walkout to send out an email to a large group of women stating that they need to do something about it, to which a lot of employees suggested that they should put out their demands. A doc was prepared in Google Doc Live that listed all the suggested demands by the fellow Googlers. “it was just this truly collective action, living, moving in a Google Document that we were all watching and participating in” said Cecelia O’Neil Hart, a marketer at YouTube. Cecelia also pointed out that the demands that were being collected were not new and had represented the voices of a lot of groups at Google.
“It was just completely a process of defining what we wanted in solidarity with each other. I think it showed me the power of collective action, writing the demands quite literally as a collective” said Cecelia.
Rights of Contractors
One of the demands laid out by the Google employees as a part of the walkout, states, “commitment to ending pay and opportunity inequity for all levels of the organization”. They expected a change that is applicable to not just full-time employees, but also contract workers as well as subcontract workers, as they are the ones who work at Google with rights that are restricted and different than those of the full-time employees.
“We have contractors that manage teams of upwards of 10, 20, even more, other people but left in this second-class state where they don’t have healthcare benefits, they don’t have paid sick leave and they definitely don’t get access to the same well-being resources: Counseling, professional development, any of that”, adds Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist on Trust and Safety, YouTube.
Other examples of discrimination against contractors at Google include the shooting at YouTube Headquarters in April where contractor workers (security guards, cafeteria workers, etc) were excluded from the post-shooting town hall meeting conducted by Susan Wojcicki, CEO, YouTube. Also, while the shooting was taking place, all the employees were being updated on the Security via texts, except the contractors. Similarly, the contractors were not allowed in the town hall meeting that was conducted six days post walkout, although the demands applied to them just as much as it did to full-time employees. There’s also systemic racism in hiring and promotion for certain job ladders like engineering, versus other job ladders, versus contract work.
Parker mentioned that by including contractors in the five demands, they wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention that despite Google striving to be a company with the best workplace that offers the best benefits, it’s quite far-off from leading in that space. “The solution is to convert them to full-time or to treat them fairly with respect. Not to throw up our hands and say, “Oh well” said Parker.
Post walkout town hall meeting
Six days after the walkout, a mail was sent over to the employees regarding the town hall meeting, which Google said was accidentally “leaked”. Stapleton, a marketing manager at YouTube, says that the “the town hall was really tough to watch” and that the Google executives “did not ever address, acknowledge, the list of demands nor did they adequately provide solutions to all the five. They did drop forced arbitration, but for sexual harassment only, not discrimination, which was a key omission”.
As per the employees, Google seemed to use the same old methods to get the situation under control. Google said that they’ll be focusing on committing to the OKRs (Objective and Key Result) i.e. the main goal for the company as a whole. Moreover, they also tried to play down the other concerns and core issues such as discrimination (apart from sexual), racism, and the abuse of power while only focussing on one kind of behavior i.e. sexual assault. They mentioned how Google refused to address any issues surrounding the TVCs (temps, vendors, and contractors), despite being asked about it in the town hall. Also, Google did not acknowledge that the HR processes and systems within the company are not working. Instead, Google decided to conduct a survey to ensure how people really feel about the HR teams within the workplace.
“They heard loud and clear from 20,000 of us that these processes and reporting lines that are in place are set up the wrong way and need to be redesigned so that we normal employees have more of a say and more of a look into the decision-making processes, and they didn’t even acknowledge that as a valid sentiment or idea”, said Parker. All in all, there wasn’t much “leadership”, and there wasn’t an understanding that “accountability was necessary”.
Employees want their demands to be met
Employees want an employee representative on board to speak on behalf of all the employees. They want accountability systems in place and for Google to begin analyzing the cultures within companies that use racism, discrimination, abuse of power, sexism, the kind that excludes many from power and accrue resources to only a few.
The employees acknowledge that Google is continuing to discuss and talk about the issue, but that the employees would have to keep pushing the conversation forward every step of the way.
“I think we need to not be afraid to say the real words. I want to hear our execs say the real words like “discrimination,” which was erased from their response to the demands. Like ‘systemic racism’.I want to hear those real words” said Cecelia.
Employees also want the demand no. 2 i.e. ending pay inequity specifically to be addressed by Google as all they keep getting in response is that Google is “looking into it” and “studying” about it. “I think that what they have to do is embrace the tough critique that they’ve gotten and try to understand where we’re coming from and make these changes, and make them in collaboration with us, which has not happened,” said Stapleton.
Employees continue to be cautiously hopeful
Employees believe that Google has incredible people at the company. Thousands of people came together and worked on their vision for the world altogether on something that really mattered.
“You know, we’ve called this the ‘Walkout for Real Change’ for a reason. Even if all of our optimism comes true and the best outcome and our demands are met, real change happens over time and we’re going to hold people accountable to that real change actually going down, and hold us accountable for demanding it also, because we’ve got to get the rest of the demands met”, says Cecelia.
Our thoughts on this topic
Just as history has proven time and again, information and data can be used to drive a narrative that benefits the storyteller and their agendas.
Based on collecting feedback from workers across the company, the Google walkout organizers pointed out systemic issues within the company that enabled the sexual predatory behavior. They pointed out that sexual harassment is one of the symptoms and not the cause. They demanded that the root causes be addressed holistically through their set of five demands.
To extinguish a movement or dissension in its infancy, regimes and corporations throughout history have used the following tactics:
- Be the benevolent ruler
- Divide and conquer the crowd by appealing to individual group needs but never to everyone’s collective demands
- Find a middle ground by agreeing to some demands while signaling that the other side also takes a few steps forward thereby disengaging those whose demands aren’t met. This would weaken the movement’s leadership
- Use the information to support the status quo.
- Promote the influencers into top management roles
It appears that Google is using a lot of the approaches to appease the walkout participants. The Google management adopted classic labor negotiation tactics by sanctioning the protest, also encouraging managers to participate, then agreeing to adopt the easiest item on the list of demands which have already been implemented in some other tech companies but restricted it to only their employees. But restricting the reforms to only their employees, and creating a larger distance for TVCs, they seem to be thinning out the protesting crowd. By not engaging in open dialog on all key issues highlighted and by removing key decision makers on top out of the town hall, they have created a situation for deniability. Lastly, by going back to surveying sentiments on key issues, they are not only relying on time to subdue anger felt but also on the grassroots voice to dissipate. Will this be the tipping point for Google employees to unionize?