The most remarkable aspect of the walkout at Google last week may not have been that an estimated 20,000 people participated or that it had global reach, or even that it came together in less than a week. It was the way the organizers identified their action with a broader worker struggle, using language almost unheard-of among affluent tech employees.
“This is part of a growing movement,” the organizers wrote in a news release, “not just in tech, but across the country, including teachers, fast-food workers and others who are using their strength in numbers to make real change.”
At the beginning of their protest near the company’s San Francisco offices, the organizers even expressed support for Marriott workers on strike in the city.
For decades, Silicon Valley has been ground zero for a vaguely utopian form of individualism — the idea that a single engineer with a laptop and an internet connection could change the world, or at least a long-established industry. Class-consciousness was passé. Unions were the enemy of innovation, an anchor to the status quo.
But the issues that provoked the walkout at Google — the company’s controversial work with the Pentagon on artificial intelligence, its apparent willingness to build a censored search engine for China, and above all its handling of sexual harassment accusations against senior managers — proved too large for any one worker to confront alone, even if that worker made mid-six figures. They required a form of solidarity that would be recognizable to the most militant 20th century labor organizers.
“The myth of Silicon Valley is that all the power you need is embodied in you as an individual — if you want more money, go somewhere else,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “What they were saying here was that all the economic power they had as individuals wasn’t enough.”
And the consequences of that dawning realization, Mr. Shaiken and other labor experts said, could reverberate across the entire tech sector.
Tech executives have long maintained that unions are inefficient — the Intel co-founder Robert Noyce once described unions as an existential threat — and that skilled tech workers don’t need formal protections because employers can’t afford to alienate them. Many tech companies also promote themselves as inherently pro-worker because they are less hierarchical, and more democratically run, than old-economy businesses.
Google, for example, points to countless ways for workers to communicate with senior executives: Employees can raise a concern with the chief executive at a TGIF meeting that happens a few times each month. They can ask questions on an internal company platform before meetings, and management will respond to the ones that receive the most “up-votes.” Workers can even circulate petitions, and those that prove especially popular can earn their authors a sit-down with management.
Underlying the back-and-forth is the belief that truth bubbles up from an unregulated exchange of ideas. But some employees complain that it rarely leads to lasting change.
“As far as mechanisms for expressing feelings, there are plenty of them,” said Meredith Whittaker, a 12-year Google veteran who oversees a research group at the company and helped organize the walkout. “But as far as opportunities for agency and power — for real power over decision-making — some of what you’re seeing is a recognition that the former doesn’t equal the latter.”
When The New York Times reported in late October that Google had given a high-ranking official a $90 million payout as he left the company after allegations of sexual harassment, organizers said, it ignited these simmering frustrations.
Though unusual, there is precedent for well-paid, in-demand workers standing up to their employers.
In 2014, managers and executives joined rank-and-file workers in a weekslong protest at Market Basket, a low-priced grocery store chain based in New England.
The workers, joined by customers who boycotted the store, worried that the ouster of the company’s beloved chief executive, Arthur T. Demoulas, would undo its practice of paying generous wages and benefits and turning a profit through high productivity. The protest ended when a group including Mr. Demoulas struck a deal to buy the portion of the company they did not own. Thomas A. Kochan, a management professor at M.I.T., has called it the most successful strike of this century.
Two generations earlier, another group of affluent workers successfully faced down their employer: Major League Baseball players.
When the players hired Marvin Miller, a longtime steelworkers union official, to run their association in 1966, they were even more steeped in anti-union ideas than affluent tech workers.
“From time immemorial, the baseball powers-that-be force-fed the players propaganda,” Mr. Miller wrote in his autobiography, citing the claim that “the commissioner (although appointed and paid by the owners) represented the players” and that “players were privileged to be paid to play a kid’s game.”
But, according to Daniel A. Gilbert, an expert on the baseball union at the University of Illinois, the owners’ demeaning posture helped galvanize members — including a famously counterproductive 1969 meeting in which the St. Louis Cardinals owner aired concerns that “players are getting fat” and that they “only think of money.” The players, many of whom were well-compensated by this point, would within a few years overturn league rules that had prohibited them from accepting offers from rival teams.
As in baseball, where African-American players were among the first to reject the owners’ self-serving narrative, those on the margins of the tech world’s largely white male establishment were quick to see the flaws in its meritocratic ethos, Ms. Whittaker said. They understood that just because anyone could offer an opinion didn’t mean anyone’s opinion would be taken seriously.
The question is how far this sense of individual powerlessness has spread within Google. The walkout organizers argue that the feeling is quite widespread — extending from software developers to hardware engineers and from full-timers to contractors.
Some observers agree. Michelle Miller, co-founder of CoWorker.org, which educates workers in tech and other industries on how to assert their labor rights, said that employees at Google “had to start thinking of themselves as some kind of collective” with the internal release last year of a memo by an employee alleging that women tended to be innately less capable of certain technical work.
She said that workers who criticized the memo and defended diversity efforts on internal forums were threatened by people sympathetic to the memo’s author, James Damore, and had to band together to defend one another.
Since Mr. Damore’s ouster, Google workers have steadily received evidence that management will only heed collective action, Ms. Miller argued. That includes an ad hoc worker revolt that preceded the end of the company’s controversial Pentagon contract.
Google may have been uniquely vulnerable to a worker uprising given its ostensibly progressive values, including the company’s longtime exhortation, “Don’t be evil,” and the openness of its corporate systems. Organizers note that they executed the entire walkout using Google’s internal platforms and other company resources.
They say they’re confident that the protests will only escalate if the chief executive, Sundar Pichai, and his team don’t put forth a plan to act on some of their demands, among them a worker representative on the board of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and an end to employment contracts that prevent class-action lawsuits and require individual arbitration for discrimination and harassment cases.
“Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward,” Mr. Pichai said in a statement. “We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action.”
Labor experts said any changes precipitated by the walkout could spread through Silicon Valley.
“These companies are competing for employees,” said Matthew Bodie, a law professor at St. Louis University who is a former lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board.
“If employees at Facebook are looking at this and saying ‘Wow, that was impressive,’” Mr. Bodie said, then Facebook may have to follow suit.
Still, Bob Kocher, a partner at Venrock, a venture capital firm, expressed skepticism that Google would have to meet any of the organizers’ demands. He pointed out that most employees appear to enjoy working there and are satisfied with the way they are treated and compensated.
“If I worked at Google, I’d be upset and think, ‘I can’t believe they paid $90 million to a person who allegedly violated his employment agreement,’” Mr. Kocher said. “Then I’d go back inside and be glad I work at Google and keep working, and I would think my management would respond to that message and never do that again.”
But Mr. Kocher added that Google did not have a limitless ability to straight-arm angry workers and postpone substantive changes. If there are more walkouts, “productivity is impacted, recruiting gets harder,” he said.