Technology

One year after Google walkout, key organizers reflect on career risks

Employees walked out to protest sexual harassment

NEW YORK - One year ago on November 1, tens of thousands of Google workers spilled out of their offices around the world, protesting sexual harassment, misconduct and a lack of transparency at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world.

In New York City, hundreds of workers gathered in a park near Google HQ, holding signs like "Women's rights are human rights" and chanting "time is up." Organizers took turns using a megaphone to address the crowd, reading anonymous stories from colleagues who said they'd been treated unfairly by the company.

It was certainly not the first worker uprising at a tech company — nor was it the last, but the sheer numbers of Googlers who participated that day were staggering, galvanizing a broader movement of worker activism.

But orchestrating the act of resistance was not without personal risk.

In the year since then, at least four of the core group of walkout organizers have left Google, including Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker. Both have been very public about what speaking out has cost them and the alleged retaliation they experienced. As a result, they've been thrust into the spotlight as faces of the movement.

In a joint interview with CNN Business this fall, Stapleton and Whittaker said they didn't calculate the risk versus reward or think much about how the effort might impact their jobs. The two women talked about what inspired them to advocate for change and why they ultimately had no choice but to walk away after working at the company for more than a decade each. Stapleton said she accepted severance when she left earlier this year, although she declined to provide details. Whittaker declined to comment, as did Google on the matter.

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Whittaker, an artificial intelligence researcher, called speaking out "an ethical imperative," while acknowledging that "when you do labor organizing, you are in an adversarial relationship with the people who control your livelihood."

 

Going up against Google

 

As tech companies have grown more powerful, dissension has been brewing among rank-and-file workers. At Google, an explosive report opened the floodgates for many.

In October 2018, the New York Times published an investigation revealing that Android creator Andy Rubin was given a $90 million payout when he left the company following a sexual assault allegation. Rubin was accused of coercing a female employee, with whom he'd been having affair, into performing oral sex in a hotel room in 2013. A Google investigation found her claim to be credible and then-CEO Larry Page asked Rubin to resign, the Times reported. A lawyer for Rubin disputed the allegations, calling them "demonstrably false." Google had remained silent about the allegations against Rubin as well as two other executives over the past decade, the Times said.

Stapleton, a marketing manager at Google-owned YouTube, said the report spurred a lot of conversation among women about difficult experiences they have had at the company. She called the news of the payout to Rubin "such a slap in the face to the women of the company."

According to Stapleton, the revelations in the article were compounded by a "flimsy and so not accountable" response from executives at an all-hands meeting. "That really got people ready to take that next step."

The day after the Times story dropped, Stapleton, who is based in New York, created a Google group to rally other employees who were upset. The original idea was to plan something like a walkout or "a day without women" to "register our dissatisfaction about how this has been handled," she said. It was not, however, intended to be "some great subversive act."

Stapleton initially shared the group with an internal list-serv of expectant and new moms. The company has tens of thousands of list-servs related to both work and non-work-related topics. Over the weekend, the momentum was swift. A core group of seven to nine organizers banded together, serving as central operations for the walkout and helping craft unified messaging and demands. Countless others also stepped up to organize walkouts in Google's locations throughout the world.

"It just seemed like we had the iron hot," Stapleton said, adding that a Google form was also used to collect hundreds of anonymous stories, including from workers who shared about being harassed at the company and what happened after reporting it to human resources.

"It was a massive collective effort and it speaks to just how deep the rot at the core of Google and the industry overall is," said Whittaker.

 

Agitating for change

 

Stapleton and Whittaker had been recruited to work for the company shortly after graduating college. Stapleton, who joined in 2007, spent several years in Google's communications department, where she worked closely with co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

"One of my first jobs was announcing TGIF — the weekly Larry and Sergey-hosted meeting," she said. "I would write these sort of whimsical and silly notes, but they were really about how this place is just so magical to be in, and shouldn't we all feel so lucky."

Stapleton said her role was "the Google cheerleader," adding she joined right after Google was named the "best place to work" by Fortune Magazine, which described a company "oozing cash" with "happy-go-lucky" employees.

Whittaker also acknowledged the opportunities she'd had during her 13 years at Google and her ability to rise through the ranks to become a "researcher and a public voice on AI issues" in a farewell e-mail. But the tensions between Whittaker and Google predate the walkout. She had previously organized "around a number of ethical issues involved with Google's choices about where and how to deploy their technology," she said.

She spoke up against Google's work with the Pentagon's Project Maven program, which leveraged artificial intelligence for things like enhancing drone strikes, and its China search engine effort known as Dragonfly. While at Google, she co-founded the AI Now Institute which is housed at New York University and produces research on the social implications of artificial intelligence.

"You can't be complicit, right?" said Whittaker. "It is worth it, I think, to push for change in one of the industries that, at this point, has more power than most nation states."

According to Stapleton, after the walkout there was a brief "kumbaya moment with management" where leadership seemed open to hearing concerns from workers. Google CEO Sundar Pichai expressed support ahead of the walkout and chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, walked out alongside workers at 11 a.m. local time.

But in January, Bloomberg reported that Google had asked the National Labor Relations Board to undo a rule allowing employees to organize using their work email without fear of retribution.

"That was really disconcerting for me," Stapleton said.

In April, Stapleton and Whittaker publicly alleged retaliation in response to their roles in the walkout, as first reported by Wired. The retaliation they described took different forms: Stapleton described a demotion, with a manager informing her that her role was being restructured in January. When she started reporting possible retaliation to human resources, it was suggested she go on medical leave, despite not being sick.

"When we talked about the retaliation, it became clear that there was more of a division, that we're agitating for change in a way that management didn't like or that they were trying to clamp down," said Stapleton, who said that when organizing, she naively expected Google would "love" the idea of a protest given how much it touted its "open culture."

Whittaker called what happened to her a "constructive discharge," where it became clear to her that there wasn't a place at the company for her to continue doing AI ethics work, which she had made a career out of. She said she was told she could stay on in a different role or leave the company.

Whittaker described retaliation as something that requires gaslighting. "Suddenly you're being shunned or you're being treated differently," she said, calling it "deeply destabilizing."

In a statement to CNN Business, Google denied that there was any retaliation.

"Google does not tolerate retaliation," a company spokesperson said in a statement. "When employees raise claims of retaliation, the company investigates them and takes action when necessary. In both instances, our employee relations team did a thorough investigation of their claims and found no evidence of retaliation."

Notably, Stapleton and Whittaker weren't the only organizers to mention retaliation. In a Medium post in September 2019, another organizer said they had been retaliated against after speaking out against Google's practices.

 

An impact beyond Google

 

While the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects some organizing by employees outside of a union, the law has many weaknesses, said Sharon Block, an executive director of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program.

"The law is pretty narrow," said Block, a former policy office head at the Department of Labor under President Barack Obama. She added that there's some understanding that workers are protected if they organize related to something that has an "immediate nexus to their working conditions."

"It can be hard for workers to figure out where that line is," she said. "We're seeing now, workers wanting to have a voice and caring about how the product of their labor is being used. In a full-blown democracy, it seems workers should have rights to be protected around that—but it can be tricky."

For the past 15 months, Block has been part of a group developing recommendations for fundamentally rewriting the Labor Relations Act; they expect to present their findings in January 2020.

If an employer is concerned about the outcome of collective action in terms of their bottom line, Block noted that it can be "cost-effective to violate the law" and retaliate against workers. Workers can report retaliation by an employer to the National Labor Relations Board, but the process of investigating and determining an outcome can take years, said Block.

Google aside, Block said retaliation by companies is a "huge" problem, but that it is difficult to get good data on how frequently it occurs.

"These Google workers are relatively powerful employees," she said. "They work in an industry that's growing or there's competition for employees. And yet they still fear that kind of retaliation."

The past 12 months have seen a surge in worker pushback over issues ranging from gender discrimination and climate change to questionable government contracts and the use of forced arbitration — one that the Google walkout organizers took particular issue with.

For Tanuja Gupta, a program manager at Google, the momentum from the walkout was the perfect opportunity to home in on ending forced arbitration more broadly. The agreements, which are often signed as a condition of employment and have gained more attention in the Me Too era, prohibit employees from suing the company or participating in class action lawsuits against the company. Complaints are instead brought through arbitration, a sort of alternative legal system, with the company. Critics say the practice helps companies keep issues like sexual violence and discrimination out of the public record.

"How do you have a conversation about sexual harassment or discrimination if we can't even honestly talk about how many claims there are? I thought that was the gateway to everything else," Gupta said.

Gupta is one of nine Google workers who have publicly identified themselves as working on Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration (there are others who volunteer with the group anonymously). The group has spent months organizing and gathering momentum around the issue. They traveled to Washington on their personal time to appeal to lawmakers in support of the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, or FAIR, which passed in the House in September.

In February 2019, one week before a planned trip, Google announced it would end forced arbitration for employees for all claims. (After the walkout, Google announced it would end the use of arbitration for sexual harassment and assault claims only — meaning the practice would continue to be used for other types of complaints, including discrimination claims.)

Ending forced arbitration for Google employees, however, did not extend to other Alphabet companies like Verily, Nest, and Waymo, for example. Nor does it apply to contract workers, who make up a larger portion of Google's workforce compared to full-time employees.

The group is continuing its efforts to draw attention to the practice, which impacts workers in industries across the country — and most affects black female workers, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute. Timed to the anniversary of the walkout on Friday, the group announced a podcast featuring conversations with eight trial lawyers, who hold corporations accountable, about the practice of forced arbitration.

"When companies like Google eliminate forced arbitration for their primarily white, wealthy tech workers, but don't demand the same for their [temp, vendor, contractors] suppliers, whose workers are primarily low-wage black and brown workers, they reinforce this systemic racism," according to an announcement from the group about the podcast.

"We've been profoundly disappointed by the non-answers we've received from our VPs and at this point, we've abandoned hope that our leadership team recognizes or is willing to work towards changing this persistent and racist difference," the announcement continued.

Harley Shaiken, a professor at Berkeley who studies labor and the global economy, called the walkout and the continued worker advocating efforts at Google thereafter "part of a larger awakening on issues related to the workplace."

Shaiken said the Google walkout was "both historic when it happened and, in some ways, even more relevant now since it's within the context of shifting political winds in the country."

As worker activism reaches a fever pitch, employees at companies ranging from Riot Games to Wayfair to Amazon have similarly felt emboldened to push for changes from their employers. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have made labor issues central to their campaigns.

 

One year later, what's next?

 

While Stapleton and Whittaker are no longer at Google, the tensions between workers and leadership have far from dissipated.

In November, after the walkout, Google expanded harassment training and overhauled its system for handling employee complaints. A number of other demands have yet to be met, including a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity, and a call for Google's chief diversity officer to report directly to the CEO.

There have been several protests since the walkout, including a May sit-in over the alleged retaliation against staffers like Stapleton and Whittaker before they resigned.

In August, there was renewed criticism of the behavior of male executives at Google and a perceived lack of accountability, particularly after new allegations came out against the chief legal officer of Alphabet, Google's parent company. Also that month, contract workers in Google's Pittsburgh office announced plans to unionize with the Steel Workers Union. More recently, contract cleaning workers for Google in London are protesting their working conditions. The company is also facing an accusation of pregnancy discrimination.

In a statement, Eileen Naughton, vice president of people operations at Google, said, "reporting misconduct takes courage and we want to provide care and support to people who raise concerns. 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. We work to be extremely transparent about how we handle complaints and the action we take."

Among those simplifications, in April 2019, the company provided employees with a guide to understanding the reporting and investigations process for harassment, discrimination, retaliation and bullying claims. The company also formed an investigations team and a "support person program" to allow workers to elect to bring a colleague to provide emotional support through the process.

The company's own actions, however, have continued to raise questions about how much it is willing to hear its workers out. Google has long prided itself as being a haven for open discussion on a variety of issues. It revisited this position in late August, when it issued new guidance discouraging staffers from "disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story," saying that doesn't help build community.

This month, Bloomberg reported that Google leadership is creating an internal calendar extension that is allegedly meant to fight spam, but some employees believe will also monitor internal organizing.

And last week, the Washington Post reported that Pichai had acknowledged that the company was "genuinely struggling" with employee trust and "transparency at scale." The comments came during one of the weekly TGIF meetings and were leaked to the Post. In them, Pichai also criticized the leaks, saying they created "mistrust" among colleagues.

Despite the personal consequences, both Stapleton and Whittaker unequivocally say that the walkout was a success.

For Stapleton, the full impact of her speaking out and her ability to land her next job remains uncertain. She left while pregnant with her second child and said she'll eventually be in the market for a new job and will likely look for something in marketing or communications. She's undecided about the rest.

When asked if she's concerned about being labeled a corporate troublemaker, Stapleton offered a spin on Groucho Marx's famous line: "I don't want to belong to any club that wouldn't accept me as one of its members."

"I was in such an untenable work position, I didn't really know if I had a choice," she said, adding that she doesn't consider herself a "rabble-rouser" but rather "someone who cares."

Life after Google was perhaps easier for Whittaker, who is continuing her AI ethics work at the AI Now Institute at NYU on a full-time basis.

But both say that the walkout is only just the beginning.

"The labor consciousness within tech has changed dramatically," said Whittaker. "There is still a massive opportunity for real structural change, which is gratifying ... We are two people here. There are thousands and thousands of other people who are also doing this work, who are also taking personal risk to put themselves and their careers on the line to make this change happen."

— Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Meredith Whittaker declined to comment on any financial terms of her departure from Google.


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