Last Friday, Nov. 2, some 20,000 worldwide employees of the Google division of Alphabet Inc. walked out at 11:10 AM local time, presumably taking a long weekend off. The reason? According to the seven core organizers who published an essay detailing their demands, the proximate cause was the news from the New York Times that Android developer Andy Rubin received a $90 million severance package after being credibly accused of sexual harrassment, and other top executives who were allegedly guilty of similar escapades have also been let go with generous golden parachutes. The #MeToo movement has raised the visibility of such things to the extent that the Google organizers found enough grass-roots support among both male and female employees around the world to stage a successful job action that garnered headlines and brought a promise from Google CEO Sundar Pichai to meet with them the following week.
As Bloomberg editorial writer and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman pointed out, this is not your traditional labor-management strike, with demands from a homogeneous group of laborers for higher pay and shorter hours. Feldman likens it more to a student protest at a university aimed at a cultural or value issue such as racism, sexism, or whatever the popular -ism of the day happens to be. For example, students last March staged protests about gun control, a subject that their universities have relatively little say in.
I partly buy Feldman’s argument, but partly not.
He’s right in that this is something new in the area of labor-management relations. One novelty is the international scope of the protest, reaching literally around the world in countries with radically differing labor laws and cultural milieus of their own. Such international reach is necessary for the global-capitalist world we live in if a labor action is to be effective against a multinational corporation. Another novelty is the type of worker involved: well-paid professionals (largely engineers), not low-level manual laborers and semi-skilled workers. A third novelty is the subject matter of the protest: It is no skin off most workers’ personal noses that Andy Rubin got a $90 million severance package—such an amount is chump change to Google, and dividing it up among the protesters is not the point. The point is that a certain type of wrongdoing—sexual harrassment, in this case—was tolerated by management, and Google didn’t punish the wrongdoers, who were treated financially as well as any other upper management person leaving the company for a neutral reason. So it’s the company’s culture and its moral implications that people are angry about.
But I part company with Feldman when he says a company can deal with these kinds of things with little if any economic cost, and can usually even support the demands themselves without much trouble. Topping the list of demands the core organizers published was a call to end forced arbitration and the right to have a “representative of their choosing” with them to any meeting with Human Resources. Unionized workers will recognize in this a move toward the standard right of having your union rep with you when you meet with management about a personnel issue, and to have disputes settled not in company-provided arbitrators’ offices, but by a third party such as a law court or independent arbitrator. The second demand was for an end to “pay and opportunity inequity,” which sounds to me like it could cost quite a bit. The devil is in the details of such inequity and how to fix it, but you can bet the walkout organizers won’t be happy if male engineers get their pay cut in order to increase the pay of female engineers, for example.
So in these and the other demands, one can perceive some of the same types of demands that classic unions such as the AFL-CIO imposed on automakers in the 1960s: adjustment of pay inequities and improvement of working conditions. The organizers of last week’s walkout have carefully refrained from using the word “union” in any of their statements that I have seen, but if it talks like a union and acts like a union, they are effectively in the early stages of forming a union, but one that is very different from the classic national unions.
Personally, I am no friend of unions in general, but a saying I came up with while I was employed at a university which had a faculty union may apply here: “Unions are a sign of bad management.” In a well-run company that values both the labor and opinions of its employees, management will create a working environment that is positive enough so that any attempts at organizing the workers into a union will fail. (Of course there are underhanded ways of suppressing union organizing, but I’m not talking about that.) In most cases of unionized workers, at some point the management has been greedy and negligent enough that their employees decided to take united action to get justice from their employer, whether that amounts to an eight-hour day and basic safety regulations, as it did in the 1930s, or higher standards regarding sexual harrassment and its consequences, as it does in the 2010s at Google. It looks to me like Google’s management has crossed the line into union-creating territory, and now they’re going to have to deal with the consequences of their actions, or inaction.
Feldman is right in that this situation may have initiated a new era in labor-management relations. Historically, by and large engineers have not been unionized in the U. S., but there are examples of well-paid professions which are, and arguably to the benefit of the employees (think airline pilots, who have been unionized for decades). So there is nothing intrinsically contradictory, illogical, or particularly immoral about a union for engineers. Perhaps if engineers design a union, it will leave behind some of the potential for corruption, graft, and union-management wrongdoing that were endemic in some of the classical unions like the Teamsters. Instead, maybe engineers will create lean, mean, and focused virtual labor organizations that form, achieve their intended purposes, and then go away until the next crisis comes along. That’s how this job action happened, and the organizers have perhaps found a new path forward for engineers to assert themselves collectively in the face of soaring executive compensation and job uncertainty.
Well, I better quit before I start sounding like a union organizer myself. But the Google walkout is the first instance of a novel form of labor-management relations that may bear interesting fruit in the future.
Sources: The demands of the core organizers of the Google walkout were carried by the website The Cut at https://www.thecut.com/2018/11/google-walkout-organizers-explain-demands.html. The New York Times article about the sexual-harrassment issues of Andy Rubin and others can be found at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/technology/google-sexual-harassment-andy-rubin.html. And Noah Feldman’s commentary on the situation was carried by Bloomberg News at https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-11-02/google-walkout-isn-t-a-traditional-union-workers-strike.