Google walkouts showed what the new tech resistance looks like, with lots of cues from union organizing

  • 20,000 Google employees poured from 40 offices around the world as part of a massive walk-out to protest the way the company handles sexual harassment.
  • As part of a recent surge of tech worker unrest, employees are harnessing the power of collective bargaining, even without traditional union representation.
  • "I've never seen anything like this in the tech sector," one expert says.
Jillian D'Onfro | CNBC

An atypical spirit of tech worker solidarity was on display Thursday morning, as 20,000 Google employees poured from offices in 50 cities around the world as part of a massive walk-out to protest the way the company handles sexual harassment.

The widespread demonstrations, spurred by a revealing New York Times report that detailed how Google has shielded executives accused of sexual misconduct, were the largest-scale representation yet of a new type of labor organizing catching on in the tech industry.

Brishen Rogers, an associate professor at Temple University who specializes in the relationship between labor and technological development, says that the scale of yesterday's demonstrations amazed him.

"I've never seen anything like this in the tech sector," says Rogers. "The numbers and level of coordination involved in the Google strike was unprecedented."

One Google employee, who asked for anonymity since they weren't authorized to speak about the company, says that Thursday's protests felt like lightning striking in how fast they came together.

A family or a job?

Collective bargaining hasn't traditionally had a place in Silicon Valley. Unions are nearly non-existent for white-collar tech workers, who typically enjoy large salaries, cushy perks and plenty of career mobility thanks to their high-demand skills.

Wendy Liu, the economics editor of UK-based publication "New Socialist" and a former Google employee, says that the protests overall were "incredibly inspiring" as the idea of employee dissent spreads in Silicon Valley.

"For tech workers to even think of themselves as workers — with the implication that their class interests may run counter to that of their bosses — is an exciting development," she says.

"Tech companies often try to get employees to see themselves as 'team members,' and part of a 'family' who should feel love and even gratitude for their company."

She, too, felt that way when she was at Google, she says, before realizing how unhealthy that dynamic was for workers.

On Thursday, Google employees borrowed tactics from historical labor organizing. In their statement of demands, the protest's leading organizers linked themselves to movements like the teachers strike in West Virginia and the "Fight for $15" demonstrations by fast-food workers.

Indeed, the San Francisco demonstration was even held in Harry Bridges Plaza — Bridges was an influential union leader in the early 20th century — and speakers spoke of his and other examples of historical labor organizing. Demonstrators in San Francisco also talked about the simultaneous union strikes by Marriott employees.

Blue-collar workers at major tech companies, like Facebook's cafeteria workers and Bay Area security guards, have started unionizing over the past several years. In another sign of the burgeoning "new tech resistance," organizers of Google's protests were deliberate about including those contract workers in their demands.

Tech firms are increasingly hiring contractors, vendors, and temps (TVCs), which can boost profits and speed up hiring. However, those workers typically make less, shoulder higher benefits costs, and lack the job security of direct employees. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported the astounding stat that Alphabet had more TVCs than direct employees. No small feat, as Alphabet had 85,050 direct staffers at the time.

Google employees hold signs at the protest in Mountain View, California. 
Jillian D'Onfro | CNBC
Google employees hold signs at the protest in Mountain View, California. 

Many demonstrators at Google's Mountain View headquarters leaned into the idea that the only way to achieve their demands — which include the end of private arbitration, a transparency report about sexual harassment, more disclosures about compensation and an employee representative on the company's board — were only possible if all employees at every level of the company were active and included.

"I'm here because every one of our voices matter and if we are not standing together the necessary changes won't happen," one employee protester told CNBC.

Many of the employees who spoke on stage or to CNBC from the crowd declined to give their full names. The Tech Workers Coalition is organizing a retaliation hotline, which employees will be able to call if they face retribution for their participation in the walk-out.

Google employees walked out on November 1, 2018 to protest what organizers describe as "a workplace culture that's not working for everyone."
Michelle Castillo | CNBC
Google employees walked out on November 1, 2018 to protest what organizers describe as "a workplace culture that's not working for everyone."

A woman named Sheree who spoke on stage elicited particularly loud cheers when she challenged attendees to think about how their advocacy would extend beyond a one day event.

"Showing up today is a really good start," she said. "But to be a true ally you have to sacrifice something. What will you sacrifice?"

"This doesn't end today"

Over the last year, there's been an increase in tech industry organizing, as workers have banded together to try to compel their employers to drop controversial projects or take a stand against government policies.

At Alphabet's shareholders' meeting earlier this year, a group of employees bucked leadership by presenting a proposal that called for Alphabet's executive compensation to be tied to diversity metrics. Employees also rebuked the company's lack of transparency around leaked plans fora censored search app in China and a controversial Pentagon contract. In June, following intense employee backlash, Google's cloud unit said that it would not renew contract next year.

"The Google walkout amplifies the wave of tech worker organizing that we see in #TechWontBuildIt and #NoTechforICE," says Sasha Costanza-Chock, associate professor of civic media at MIT who co-authored a recent open letter calling on Microsoft to drop its ICE contract. "It also links tech worker organizing with #MeToo, just as #NoTechforICE links tech worker organizing with immigrant rights."

Activists see Google's blow-out protests as being a bellwether for more organizing to come.

Employees from other tech companies in San Francisco joined in the Google walk-out on Thursday, and the Tech Workers Coalition says that in the last year its has attracted more interest, and seen an increase in both email subscribers and actual events.

"We are organizing to build worker power through rank and file self-organization and education," a spokesperson says. "It's clear the executives won't do this for us, so we're taking matters into our own hands."

While changing Google's culture will be a long haul, Google organizers' demands were specific and actionable. Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who spoke on stage at a conference the day of the protests, has not committed to any changes, but told employees in a memo that his team was taking in feedback to "turn ideas into action." Even though Google workers have no legal rights to collectively bargain with management without a union, the energy at the demonstrations indicated that employees will not give up quickly.

Celie O'Neil-Hart, one of the leaders of the protest who works at YouTube, rallied employees at the end of the protest to keep the momentum going.

"This doesn't end today," she bellowed over a loudspeaker in Mountain View. "Let's keep this effort going. Time is up in tech. Time is up at Google."