Thu, Nov 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Google walkout a fresh kind of worker activism

By Noah Feldman  /  Bloomberg Opinion

The global walkout on Thursday last week by Google workers, a response to Alphabet Inc’s reported protection of executives accused of sexual misconduct, might be a harbinger of something new in employer-employee relations: empowered workers’ moral-political protest directed as much against the general culture as against management.

Although the walkout is connected in a broad sense to workplace conditions, this is not the trade union strike of old. Google’s workers are mainly professionals: engineers, not laborers. They have well-paid, high-prestige jobs at a company known for recruiting top employees. Not all of the thousands of workers who walked out were personal victims of workplace sexual harassment.

Nor did the signs and slogans associated with the walkout suggest that Google’s workers feel oppressed as a class. The protest, in sum, was not about the classic struggle of labor against capital or oppressive management.

Rather, the Google walkout seems to have been about values, specifically the value of moral condemnation of workplace sexual harassment. The precipitating event was not, say, reports detailing that there have been widespread instances of sexual harassment at the company. That seems to have been the motivating force behind the McDonald’s global walkout in September.

The news that fueled the Google walkout was the New York Times report that the company had protected a series of very senior men associated with the company and accused of inappropriate sexual conduct connected to the workplace, offering them lucrative severance packages or keeping them on.

The charges resonated with the #MeToo movement. The walkout therefore needs to be understood partly in that specific context. Google’s employees were signaling to management that they feel serious unhappiness with the corporate and general culture in which the instances of harassment occurred and were, essentially, covered up.

Google’s sophisticated employees understood that their walkout would be covered in news media worldwide. They probably also understood that the Times story on its own would motivate Alphabet’s senior leadership to change internal sexual harassment policies.

The employees were therefore doing more than requesting workplace changes like the dropping of mandatory arbitration for contract-related disputes, or that the company’s chief diversity officer report directly to chief executive officer Sundar Pichai.

The Google employees who walked out were taking a public, collective stand in the broader conversation about sexual harassment. They were able to make that statement in part because they were Google employees, whose actions would make news and whose cultural prestige put significant weight into their protest.

Management seems to have interpreted the protest in this way.

In an e-mail, Pichai said that the problem of harassment “had persisted for far too long in our society” and he promised his employees “the support you need” in connection with the walkout.

In essence, Pichai was trying to get behind the walkout. That might have been clever corporate management, but it was also a recognition that the walkout did not need to be interpreted as criticism of Alphabet so much as an act of societal protest.

This aspiration on the part of employees to take collective action in furtherance of global political goals is important.

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