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Google walkout anniversary: Workers say management response is 'insulting'

Last November, 20,000 Google workers protested the company. Employees didn't get everything they wanted, but set a tech industry precedent.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
6 min read

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the Google walkout.

James Martin/CNET

On a typically bright day in Mountain View, California, last November, thousands of Google workers streamed out of their offices and onto the sprawling courtyards of the search giant's headquarters. As they marched through the heart of Silicon Valley, people in the crowd chanted "Time is up!" and "Stand up! Fight back!" They held up signs that read "Stand up for Google women" and "Google men stand with Google women."

A week earlier, The New York Times had published a bombshell report detailing sexual assault allegations against Andy Rubin, creator of Google's Android mobile software. The executive, once a member of co-founder Larry Page's inner circle, had allegedly coerced a female employee into performing oral sex on him. Google reportedly responded by quietly dismissing Rubin with a $90 million payout. Elsewhere at Google, male executives, including David Drummond, the company's legal chief, and Rich DeVaul, a director at Google's X research lab, had also been accused of sexual misconduct.

For Google's rank-and-file employees -- who'd steadily been building a playbook to protest what they saw as the search giant's immoral behavior -- the sexual assault accusations were the tipping point. 

"It was the $90 million straw that broke the camel's back," Celie O'Neil-Heart, one of the walkout organizers, told reporters at the protest. She's since left Google to work for Pinterest. 

The walkout, which took place a year ago Friday, was one of the most important events in Google's more than 20-year history, as significant as some of the company's biggest product launches. The demonstration saw 20,000 Google workers from Tokyo to Zurich march out of their offices to rise up against their employer. 

It was a historic event for the tech industry , too. Highly paid engineers had rarely taken much interest in activism, and the events at Google reverberated far beyond the search giant's global campuses. Unthinkable a few years ago, activism is now normal in the tech industry. Workers at Amazon and Microsoft have protested decisions their companies have made, speaking out against facial recognition work with US immigration agencies. Amazon employees have also raised their voices about climate change, holding the company's leadership accountable for Amazon's environmental efforts.

Earlier this week, Facebook , whose employees have been more reluctant than others to push back against their bosses, joined the fray. More than 250 employees signed an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg condemning the social network's policy of allowing politicians to make whatever claims they want -- true or untrue -- in ads that run on the platform. 

But before workers at those companies took any big stands, Google employees were the poster children for protest in tech. That's partly because of the search giant's traditionally open culture and mission, says Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of ReadySet, a consultancy that helps companies deal with diversity and inclusion issues. For workers questioning the decisions of management, perceived ethical shortcomings seem all the more hypocritical when your corporate mantra used to be "Don't be evil."

"It's no coincidence that it happened at Google first," Hutchinson said. "It had to happen at Google first."

A different kind of protest

The Google protests didn't achieve everything their organizers were seeking. Several Google workers and former workers are dissatisfied with the company's response. Organizers say the company has done the bare minimum to address concerns, and employees allege that it has retaliated against workers and sought to quash dissent. 

"They've been constantly paying lip service," said one Google employee who was involved with the walkout. "It's insulting to our intelligence," said the person, who requested anonymity because of fear of retribution from the company. 

Google declined to make its senior leadership team, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin , CEO Sundar Pichai and human resources chief Eileen Naughton, available for interviews. In a statement, Naughton touted changes Google has made over the past year, including streamlining the process for people to report abuse and other problems. 

"Reporting misconduct takes courage and we want to provide care and support to people who raise concerns," Naughton wrote. "All instances of inappropriate conduct reported to us are investigated rigorously."


Google workers held signs to protest management.

Getty Images

The lead-up to the walkout began long before the Times article. Last April, workers pushed back against Google's decision to take part in Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative aimed at developing better artificial intelligence for the US military. Two months later, reports surfaced about a secret project called "Dragonfly," an effort to build a censored search engine in China. A handful of workers quit and about 1,000 employees signed an open letter asking Pichai to be more transparent about the project. Participating in those protests gave Googlers experience to challenge management and emboldened them to speak out against their employers. 

I had covered those earlier protests, but the walkout took things to another level. From the start it felt different. Organizers created a Twitter account for the event, announcing the walkout to the world. Security was tight for the protest, which was to be expected given how much media attention it generated. (Helicopters hovered overhead to get aerial shots for news stations.)

Watch this: Google employees protest tech giant's handling of sexual misconduct

I'd been to Google many times before, and had roamed around the outdoor parts of the campus. I wasn't alone. Tourists often flock there to take pictures with the Android statue or giant Google logo on one of the glass facade buildings, a Silicon Valley version of the Hollywood sign or the Chinese Theatre.

On that day, security guards closed off the border of the campus, and plainclothes agents asked me, other reporters and nonemployees, to get off the premises. The media was relegated to Charleston Park, on the edge of campus, only to record the scene from afar. (When walkout organizers held a sit-in to protest alleged company retaliation exactly six months later, the same rules were in effect.)

Demands unmet

A group of Googlers went public with a set of demands for management. They included a call to end forced arbitration in cases of sexual assault and harassment. Forced arbitration means people waive their right to sue, and sometimes must obey confidentiality agreements. Organizers also demanded the company release a sexual harassment transparency report and make it available to the public. They also called for a commitment to end pay inequality between Google workers, including temps and contractors. 

Google's leadership capitulated to a few of the demands. The company ended forced arbitration in all cases. Google also eventually said it would require contractor staffing companies to provide full benefits for its workers, though that rule doesn't go into effect until January. 

Still, several demands remain unmet. One was a call to make the chief diversity officer, a role currently held by Melonie Parker, a direct report to the CEO. The CDO reports to Naughton, the HR chief. Another demand called for a rank-and-file employee to be included on Alphabet's board. 

Liz Fong-Jones, an activist and former Google employee who left the company in February, said the call for employee representation on the board was one of the most important demands to her. Google's refusal to consider it was one of the reasons she left, she said. 

Though activists at Google look back with pride at the walkout, they try not to dwell on it. They continue to call out management at the company. Most recently, they objected to Google's hiring of Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security official who'd publicly defended President Donald Trump's travel ban

Trust issues have also ballooned between Google employees and management. Workers have accused leadership of increased surveillance in an attempt to thwart labor organizing. Employees have taken issue with a required software extension for Google's Chrome browser that would automatically report staffers who create a calendar event with more than 10 rooms or 100 participants.

Still, they hope the movement continues to spread across the industry. One Google employee said the most lasting effect of the protest was its ability to empower other tech workers to do the same. 

"That's the real legacy of all this," the employee said.