Google employees hold signs during a walkout to protest how the tech giant handled sexual misconduct in Mountain View, California, U.S. (Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg)

The Google Walkout Is a New Kind of Worker Activism

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The global walkout by Google workers, a response to Alphabet Inc.’s reported protection of executives accused of sexual misconduct, may be a harbinger of something new in employer-employee relations: empowered workers’ moral-political protest directed as much against the general culture as against management.

Although the walkout is connected in a broad sense to workplace conditions, this isn’t the trade union strike of old. Google’s workers are mainly professionals: engineers, not laborers. They have well-paid, high-prestige jobs at a company known for recruiting top employees. Not all of the thousands of workers who walked out were personal victims of workplace sexual harassment.

Nor did the signs and slogans associated with the walkout suggest that Google’s workers feel oppressed as a class. The protest, in sum, was not about the classic struggle of labor against capital or oppressive management.

Rather, the Google walkout seems to have been about values, specifically the value of moral condemnation of workplace sexual harassment. The precipitating event wasn’t, say, reports detailing that there have been widespread instances of sexual harassment at the company. That seems to have been the motivating force behind the McDonald’s global walkout in September.

The news that fueled the Google walkout was the New York Times report that the company had protected a series of very senior men associated with the company and accused of inappropriate sexual conduct connected to the workplace, offering them lucrative severance packages or keeping them on.

The charges resonated with the #MeToo movement. The walkout therefore needs to be understood partly in that specific context. Google’s employees were signaling to management that they feel serious unhappiness with the corporate and general culture in which the instances of harassment occurred and were, essentially, covered up.

Google’s sophisticated employees understood that their walkout would be covered in news media worldwide. They probably also understood that the Times story on its own would motivate Alphabet’s senior leadership to change internal sexual harassment policies.

The employees were therefore doing more than requesting workplace changes like the dropping of mandatory arbitration for contract-related disputes, or that the company’s chief diversity officer report directly to Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai.

The Google employees who walked out were taking a public, collective stand in the broader conversation about sexual harassment. They were able to make that statement in part because they were Google employees, whose actions would make news and whose cultural prestige put significant weight into their protest.

Management seems to have interpreted the protest in this way. In an email, Pichai acknowledged that the problem of harassment “had persisted for far too long in our society.” And he promised his employees “the support you need” in connection with the walkout. In essence, Pichai was trying to get behind the walkout. That may have been clever corporate management, but it was also a recognition that the walkout did not need to be interpreted as criticism of Alphabet so much as an act of societal protest.

This aspiration on the part of employees to take collective action in furtherance of global political goals is, I think, new in an important sense. 

To be sure, it is part of to a growing trend among tech companies for employee petitions protesting policies the employees don’t like.

But Google’s employees are going a step further with their walkout. And the accommodating response from management may contribute to it.

In the future, it’s possible to imagine employees at other companies staging similar walkouts. The immediate impetus may be upsetting news about their own companies.

But that’s not even necessary. One can easily imagine, for example, employees at other tech companies staging future walkouts in solidarity with the Google employees – even without precipitating events at their own companies.

The most apt analogy may be student walkouts and protests, which don’t necessarily reflect dissatisfaction with their own educational institutions. The national student walkout over gun control in March is a good example.

If students can walk out over an important political-moral issue with solidarity and support from many of their teachers, there is no reason employees can’t do the same.

Unlike the general strikes of the 1920s, the goal of such symbolic walkouts wouldn’t be to paralyze industry in order to win important structural victories for workers as workers. There would be relatively little economic cost, if any. As a consequence, management in the future might well support the walkouts, the way school administrators frequently do.

The consequence for companies whose employees walk out in a show of political-moral solidarity with some national or international issue is rather that the company may come to be identified with a particular political position. When that position is sufficiently universal, or doesn’t harm the company in some consumer market, or is strongly shared by management, there is reason to expect management acquiescence.

Things would be much trickier for management if employees were taking positions that the companies don’t want to associate with themselves. But that would probably represent a different stage in the possible future development of this new practice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”

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