Google walkout was 'unprecedented.' It could prompt more tech protests

Workers at other tech companies may learn from the example of Google employees.

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
3 min read

Google employees walked out of their offices in protest earlier this week.

James Martin/CNET

At Google offices around the world earlier this week, employees gathered en masse for the Google walkout, a coordinated demonstration to protest the company's handling of sexual harassment allegations against some key executives.

At one point at the search giant's global headquarters in Mountain View, California, thousands of Google employees streamed onto campus, through a large public park. The line of marching workers stretched as far back as could be seen.

Googlers from 50 of the search giant's offices worldwide, from Tokyo to San Francisco, left their desks to chant, hold up signs and listen to their co-workers share their personal experiences at a microphone set up in the courtyard. The walkout's organizers said more than 20,000 full-time workers and contractors participated in the Nov. 1 protest.

"I can't recall a walkout like this in the tech industry or any other," said Hannah Brenner, a professor at the California Western School of Law, who researches law and gender. "It seems unprecedented."  

The protest seemed especially remarkable in Silicon Valley. Because of the industry's often progressive mission statements, coupled with the companies' largely liberal workforces, it's been historically rare for employees to display mass unrest. But that's starting to change. Just this year, employees from Amazon and Microsoft have protested the companies' relationship with ICE, aka US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At Google, the appetite for protest has been particularly robust. A handful of employees have reportedly quit over reports of a project called "Dragonfly," an effort to build a censored search engine in China. In August, about 1,000 employees signed an open letter asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai to be transparent about the project and to create an ethical review process for it that asks for input from rank-and-file employees, not just high-level executives.

Employees have also pushed back against Google's decision to go after lucrative military contracts. Workers challenged the company's decision to take part in Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative aimed at developing better AI for the US military. More than 4,000 employees reportedly signed a petition addressed to Pichai demanding he cancel the project. In June, Google said it wouldn't renew the Maven contract or pursue similar contracts.

But the walkout -- in terms of scale and media attention -- took those previous protests to a new level. The organizers set up a Twitter account to document the day as it unfolded. They spelled out a list of demands for Google leadership, which includes a call to end "forced arbitration" in cases of sexual assault and harassment. Forced arbitration means that people waive their right to sue, and sometimes must agree to confidentiality agreements. Organizers also demanded the company release a sexual harassment transparency report and make it available to the public. Every major news outlet covered the event.

Some analysts say the success of the walkout could inspire workers at other tech companies.

"Every business should wonder if a protest could be staged on their campus sometime in the future," said Brian Solis, an analyst at the Altimeter Group. "The Google walkout sets the stage and standard for companies, that they have to take this seriously."

Google's walkout was in response to a bombshell New York Times report on sexual harassment at Google. According to the report, Android creator Andy Rubin was accused by a worker of having coerced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2013. Google reportedly found the allegation to be credible. The company then asked for his resignation, gave him an exit package of $90 million, and didn't mention the misconduct in his departure announcement, according to the Times.

In response to the article, Rubin tweeted, "These false allegations are part of a smear campaign." He also said, "the story contains numerous inaccuracies about my employment at Google and wild exaggerations about my compensation."

Google declined to comment.

Celie O'Neil-Heart, one of the walkout's organizers, summed up the frustration among thousands of Google's more than 85,000 workers worldwide: "It was the $90 million straw that broke the camel's back." 

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