The recent walkouts at Google may herald a new type of staff protest
Search Google Images for "workers strike". The first result is a photo of American protesters campaigning for a $15 minimum wage. Scroll down and there are countless more of aggrieved workers from the fast-food, textile, automotive and other blue-collar industries. If Google Images is anything to go by, workers' strikes are the preserve of the low-paid and disenfranchised.
Some might find it surprising that Google's own employees went on strike earlier this month by staging a world-wide walkout (the "www"). Google is one of the most prosperous and prestigious employers on the planet. Many of its employees are considered extremely talented. They get paid handsomely. Benefits are beyond generous. And if you think there's no such thing as a free lunch, you obviously haven't worked at Google - where it's a daily occurrence. So what's going on?
The www was in response to an article published by the New York Times in which it was revealed that several top male executives at Google were all given multi-million dollar exit packages, despite facing "credible" allegations of sexual misconduct. Consequently, Google employees from 40 offices across the globe got up from their desks to walk out. They also posted to Instagram a list of 5 demands:
- An end to Forced Arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.
- A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequality.
- A publicly-disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.
- A clear, uniform, globally-inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct, safely and anonymously.
- Elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the Board of Directors. In addition, appoint an Employee Representative to the Board.
I'm Feeling Plucky
The www clearly has its roots in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But it also echoes other cultural and political trends. Some commentators have seen in the demand for employee representation at board level the same yearning to be heard by aloof elites as drove Brexit and the election of President Trump (it is also current policy of the Labour Party). Others see renewed appetite for greater unionisation. This chimes with a recent MIT survey which found that almost half of American workers would join a union if given the chance, up from around one third in prior decades. Even Silicon Valley, it seems, can feel without a voice.
Further, its alignment with broader themes hints at the www's unique dual purpose. Clearly, one aim is to express condemnation at how sexual harassment is and has been handled at Google. Yet there is another. As discussed, many of the protesters are financially and professionally secure. Only a minority will have experienced the misconduct the www sought to reject. Further, it was never suggested by the New York Times (or anyone else) that such behaviours were particularly rife at Google. So the www is not just about fighting for changes at one's own workplace. It is also about taking a collective stand, and making an unequivocal statement, in a larger conversation about sexual harassment. This duplicity is perhaps best exemplified by Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai. Though he and his executives are, on the one hand, the objects of the protest, on the other they are not. And to the extent the www is concerned with wider moral and societal questions about acceptable conduct in the workplace, Pichai could, without hypocrisy, promise his protesting employees "the support you need".
The www is complex and multi-dimensional. Anticipating the trajectory of any spin-off(s) is extremely difficult. Some believe reverberations will be confined to the tech sector which, according to its critics, is only now beginning to address systemic failures relating to gender inequality. For others, the www is itself the successor to protests held by McDonalds' staff in September in that, once again, employees of a ubiquitous brand have decried sexual harassment by staging walkouts across multiple locations.
Some expected walkouts elsewhere simply in solidarity, without any underlying revelations of sexual misconduct. This creates the spectre of a future in which workforces increasingly mobilise for causes with which they themselves have little day-to-day relationship. The principle may start to become as important as the practical. Bloomberg sees an analogy with student protests: "If students can walk out over an important political-moral issue with solidarity and support from many of their teachers, there is no reason employees can’t do the same".
Whatever the future, things remain tough for Google. It ceded to many (though not all) of the demands only to find itself confronted with new ones. At the time of writing, employees are now campaigning for greater rights for temps and contractors, groups considered particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and disproportionately from ethnic minorities. So what began with sexual harassment has rapidly grown to encompass job security and race discrimination. It's left Google looking behind-the-curve and flat-footed. And you don't see that very often.