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The protests at Google are about free expression, not money

Googlers are organizing, but not to form a union. They say they want to restore the open culture that drew them to the company in the first place.

The protests at Google are about free expression, not money
[Photo: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Google employees are organizing, and the company is trying to squash the effort—or so the workers charge based on the company hiring a labor-busting consulting firm (as the New York Times reported). But Googlers’ struggles are not about joining a traditional union, or even fighting for better pay. Instead, they say they’re fighting to return the company to the culture of openness that drew them there in the first place.

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The tension hit a new level in recent weeks with the firing of one employee for allegedly leaking company information, and suspension of two others whom Google claims accessed restricted documents (as Bloomberg reported). The employees deny the charges and call their suspensions retaliation for their organizing activities, such as demanding that the company not contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and related agencies.

Whether or not Google management meant to discourage employee organizing, its actions have prompted more such organization. The suspension of Google employees Rebecca Rivers and Laurence Berland drew several hundred of their coworkers to a demonstration outside the company’s San Francisco offices on Friday.

“Google promotes itself as an open company, an open culture, where you can challenge authority,” one engineer in the crowd told me. But he feels that is no longer the case. (Like everyone I spoke with, the engineer asked that I not publish his name.)

I don’t feel like Google has to agree with me on everything.”

The company has pulled back from the high expectations it had once set for itself. One example is the so-called TGIF meetings, once held weekly, where employees could ask management about essentially any topic. It was an unprecedented level of openness, but led to trouble starting in 2018 when workers grilled the leadership on issues like Google’s contract to provide artificial intelligence to the U.S. military’s Project Maven.

TGIF meetings continued to be contentious, with debates over developing a censored search engine for China called Dragonfly, for instance. Information has also been leaked from the meetings. As a result, Google has cut them back to monthly events and steered them away from touchy topics, reports the Verge.

The cutbacks in TGIF are one symptom in the steady clouding of Google’s once-famous transparency, workers told me. “I don’t feel like Google has to agree with me on everything, all of my political opinions,” said another employee. “But I do want to see more transparency and honesty from leadership, in terms of saying, ‘This is what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it.’

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Suspended Google engineer Laurence Berland [Image: Sean Captain]
Transparency is at the heart of the recent employee controversy. “I was put on administrative leave, without warning. My account was deactivated while I was working,” Laurence Berland told fellow workers at Friday’s demonstration. He claims that he was grilled for two and a half hours by Google executives—not allowed to take notes or even use the restroom—and that he was never given a clear explanation for his offense. “I had to find out from the press,” he told the crowd, referring to the Bloomberg article.

The only documents he claims he accessed were appointment calendars of Google executives—calendars that are open for any full-time employees to peruse. The motivation, he says, was to see if management was meeting to discuss ways to monitor activist workers like him.

Google employee organizing has always centered around ethical issues like the company’s cooperation with the federal government or its treatment of women, minorities, and contractors. It’s not been about money—at least not for the employees themselves.

It feels more like a cultural infringement than a monetary issue.”

“I think the current labor efforts that started were around a lot of our contractors—the people that do things that are not engineers, that are not treated the same as the full-time employees,” another engineer told me. He said that the notion of highly paid employees like himself unionizing is “interesting,” but says he views collective action at Google as better suited to resolving workplace issues like transparency and how employees are treated.

“It feels more like a cultural infringement than a monetary issue in the end,” that first engineer I spoke with said. “We are all high-salary, high-benefit employees.”

There is no single issue driving employee discontent at Google, but multiple concerns relate to freedom of expression. The unrest began over treatment of employees and contractors—especially sexual harassment—which eventually lead to the worldwide Google Walkout last year. Strife extended to political differences involving the military, China, use of AI, immigration policy, and other issues. Protesting employees aren’t of the same mind on all of these topics, but most or all of them highly value the ability to openly discuss concerns with each other and management.

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Berland, for instance, mentioned his dismay at how immigrants have been treated at the U.S. border, including the separation of children from their parents. “I’m sure many of you feel the same way about that issue as I do, and I’m sure some of you don’t,” he told the crowd. “But if we can’t speak up about these issues that concern us, about our work, how can we ever hold ourselves and each other to the high standards that we need and the world deserves?”

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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