Over the last year, workers at large technology companies have staged protests over military contracting, sexual harassment, and the treatment of temporary and contract workers.
On Wednesday, activists at Google and Facebook Inc turned their attention to what they describe as retaliation against those involved in such activism.
At over a dozen offices of Alphabet Inc’s Google, workers staged sit-ins, with the largest protests drawing hundreds of workers, according to people who attended. Employees told personal stories about suffering retaliation, and in some cases discussed the possibility of forming a union.
At Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, an employee activist in a cowboy hat handed out flyers to passersby, while discouraging workers from talking to a reporter. In New York, the largest protest, the group posed for a photograph.
The organisers then posted it on Twitter – with all the faces blurred out. The tech industry has always been unusually tolerant of outspoken and eccentric employees, an aspect of its culture reflecting the power of its highly-skilled workforce.
But over the last several months, internal dissidents have demonstrated a notably sustained outrage about how their employers conduct both internal and external business.
The latest charges of retaliation cast Google in a role much different than its own self-conception as a kind of overgrown computer club for programmers and winners of past science fairs. Instead, it’s become much more akin to the merciless corporations that came before it.
The hastily scheduled sit-ins corresponded with May Day, which the labour movement celebrates as a tribute to workers. They also came on the six-month anniversary of a walkout at Google that unofficially kicked off the current round of employee activism.
On Nov 1, about 20,000 people walked off the job in objection to Google’s approach to sexual harassment. Google quickly changed its policy, saying it would no longer force people claiming sexual harassment to pursue arbitration.
The impact of the walkout inspired similar activism at other companies, including a protest at Microsoft Corp last month in which employees pressured CEO Satya Nadella into promising to address sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
Last month, two of the organisers of the Google walkout – Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton – said Google had been punishing them for their activism. Stapleton said she was told she was being demoted, a move that was reversed after she hired a lawyer. Whittaker said her manager told her that her work on the ethics of artificial intelligence "was no longer a fit".
Participants in the sit-ins spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation. A Google spokeswoman said the company prohibited retaliation. "To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation,” she said in a statement.
Last week, Whittaker and Stapleton organised a roundtable for other employees to share their own experiences about retaliation. On Wednesday, they addressed a group of about 400 Google employees at the company’s New York office, according to a person who attended.
"Retaliation is part of a strategy to make speaking up frightening,” they said in a statement that was also read aloud at other offices. "It’s important to remember that whatever form retaliation takes, the company never admits it’s retaliating".
Facebook employees associated with Workers for Workers, an advocacy group for contingent workers at the social network, posted anonymous stories about retaliation on its website on Wednesday.
Outside the company’s office in San Francisco, organisers with Unite Here, a service worker union, passed out flyers accusing FlagShip Facility Services, a vendor that staffs Facebook’s cafeteria, with firing an employee for labour activism.
"Since winning union recognition, FlagShip management has disciplined several of our union's key leaders," the flyer read. Unite Here representatives declined to comment, citing ongoing bargaining discussions.
Facebook staffers associated with Workers for Workers also began circulating a letter among other employees expressing solidarity with the FlagShip Facility Services workers on Wednesday. Facebook declined to comment.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for FlagShip said it is committed to working with organised labour. "In response to a small, isolated protest, we have contacted those involved to explain that FlagShip has already expressed our desire to engage in formal discussions about any issues or concerns at a planned meeting with union members and staff,” he wrote.
Ari Wilkenfeld, a labour lawyer with experience working on retaliation cases, said companies often attempt to discourage dissent by making an example of outspoken internal critics. "Even sophisticated and large companies like Google do not always appreciate the fact that retaliating against someone for engaging in protected activity is just as illegal as discrimination,” he said.
Wilkenfeld said he’d followed the public reporting on Whittaker and Stapleton’s cases. "It sounds like every single retaliation claim I’ve tried in 21 years,” he said. – Bloomberg
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