On November 1, around 20,000 Google employees walked out of work to demand systemic change in how the company handles workers’ rights issues such as sexual harassment and gender and racial discrimination.
And on November 29, the prospect of a much-longer walkout arose when outspoken engineer Liz Fong-Jones started a strike fund. The inciting point was the company’s latest scandal: a report that a group of Google managers had ignored the company’s usually rigorous privacy review process in order to jam through a project to build a censored, snooping search engine for China, code-named Dragonfly.
Fong-Jones promised that if employees together pledged $100,000 for a strike fund to help support workers while picketing, she would match it with $100,000 of her own. Within about three hours, Googlers met her challenge, and the fund currently sits at about $250,000.
“I’m aiming to raise money for the strike fund,” Fong-Jones tells me, “so that people feel empowered to speak up about issues in the future, whether they be security and privacy-related or workplace conditions-related.” Though currently on sabbatical, the engineer is still very engaged in Google matters–with a prolific activist Twitter feed that often makes news headlines (and has 14,000 followers).
“I’m coming around to the notion that that strikes are feasible in Silicon Valley, that picketing can be tremendously successful, as we saw in the Google walkout,” she says. “Perhaps the friction involved in going on strike is lower than the friction involved in quitting, as long as [strikers] feel that people are going to have their back.”
“If I hadn’t [started the fund], there’d be people that would potentially be willing to put in, maybe 5% of their salary or half of their bonus, that didn’t know to talk to each other,” she says. (Employees informed her of their pledges via Twitter direct messages.)
A quarter million dollars might not go far if a sizeable chunk of Google’s more than 80,000 global employees (plus contractors) decide to walk. But just a small number of people in key positions can seriously impact the company, says Fong-Jones. And the most vocal segment of employees is perhaps also the one with the greatest influence: engineers.
Fong Jones is consulting with the worker advocacy organization Coworker.org on labor rights and laws, and how to administer the strike fund and a possible strike. But having given an ultimatum to soon leave the company if certain reforms from the first walkout aren’t enacted, she says shouldn’t be the one to plan a strike. Aside from refuting the latest story about Dragonfly, Google has not replied to my questions about a possible strike and how it might respond. Fong-Jones says she hasn’t heard anything, either.
The tipping point
Fong-Jones, a transgender woman, has mainly focused on promoting diversity, inclusion, and tolerance as an internal employee advocate–and eventually, one of 15 whistleblowers who took the story of staff bullying to the press. But it was the latest reports about Drgonfly that convinced her employees had to take the next step in protest.
Dragonfly was first revealed by the Intercept in August. But a November 29 article was especially galling. The Intercept reports that management even threatened the few people working on Dragonfly with being fired if they so much as mentioned it to anyone.
You don't fuck with the Google Security and Privacy team. They're incredibly well-respected, so much so that I was able to raise $89k in a matter of hours to back a solidarity strike supporting that team. https://t.co/TUuwl1o5oi
— Liz Fong-Jones (方禮真) (@lizthegrey) November 29, 2018
(“We strongly dispute the allegations made in [the] story last week,” a Google PR representative told me by email, linking to a tweet by the company’s director of security and privacy, Heather Adkins, refuting the article.)
On November 27, about a dozen employees signed a letter demanding that Google scrap Dragonfly. Fong-Jones didn’t work on the letter, but she added her name shortly after it published, along with hundreds of other employees. By December 3, over 700 people had signed the letter. Five hundred eighty list their title as “engineer,” and 29 list “program manager.”
Just going public on a petition is a risky move in an industry that employees fear is starting to take note of troublemakers. But several engineers and scientists have risked much more by resigning in protest. About a dozen left in April, in opposition to Google providing AI services for the Pentagon’s Project Maven drone program. (In August, research scientist Jack Poulson became the first reported to resign over Dragonfly.)
About 4,000 employees also signed an internal letter opposing Maven. Management eventually dropped plans to renew the defense contract, as well as competition for a $10 billion cloud-computing project for the Pentagon.
The day of the Dragonfly letter, Fong-Jones announced that she would resign in February if the company didn’t appoint a rank-and-file employee to the board of directors–one of five demands of the original walkout. “I think that the employee representative on the board is a mechanism of ensuring all the other ones are met,” she says. “I would certainly run for it if it were a matter of elections,” she says of the potential seat.
But Fong-Jones has come to recognize the value for employees taking a middle position between signing a petition and resigning a position. “When you quit, you are sending a message to the company,” she says, noting the huge cost of recruiting and onboarding a replacement.
“At the same time, you’re also depriving the company of your internal voice,” she says. “You are giving this company an opportunity to get rid of its most vocal organizers by simply denying demands until they quit, and then there’ll be no one left to organize.”