June 4, 2019 Mountain View / CA / USA - The Google Maps Icon near their offices in the Google campus (Googleplex) in Silicon Valley; employee crossing the street; south San Francisco bay area

Are white collar unions the next big thing in the fight against sexual harassment?

In early April, software engineer Emi Nietfeld shared her personal account of being sexually harassed at Google. 

In her widely read New York Times op ed, Nietfeld spoke glowingly of the fun, collegial workplace culture she first encountered and juxtaposed it with the ugly surprise of being treated in sexually inappropriate ways by a superior (the person in charge of her day-to-day work, not her manager.) 

After Nietfeld’s piece was published, over 2,000 Google employees signed an open letter calling for the company to stop protecting sexual harassers.

Lately Google workers are throwing off some big structural NOPE energy when it comes to sexual harassment. It's kind of their thing. 

The origin story of tech unions is one of fighting harassment

On October 25, 2018, the New York Times published a bombshell story about Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment

The story revealed that Andy Rubin, sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of the Android,’ had been paid $90 million and praised by Google leadership as he left the company, despite a credible claim against him of “coerced” sex. The Times also reported that after Mr. Rubin left, the company invested millions in his next venture.

Just a few days after the report was published, more than 20,000 Google workers participated in a global one-day walkout to protest the company’s gross mishandling of Rubin and two other harassers. 

While the impact of the walkout was significant, the systemic problems at Google remained in place. 

On December 2, 2020, Google fired one of its star ethics and AI researchers, Timnit Gebru. Dr. Gebru is one of the most prominent Black women in her field and a powerful presence in the field of ethical AI. She was fired after she wrote an email criticizing what she saw as the company’s silencing of marginalized voices.

Many were outraged over Gebru’s firing, including Meg Mitchell, another prominent AI researcher on the Google Ethics AI team. In early February, Mitchell publicly called out the sexism and discrimination that she says led to Gebru’s termination. In mid-February, the company fired Mitchell. 

Exactly 34 days after the firing of Timnit Gebru, workers at Google voted to form the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU).

Harassment and discrimination emerge as key tech labor issues

About a year before the AWU came together, Kickstarter workers voted to unionize, becoming the first major tech company in the U.S. to do so. 

When asked why they wanted to unionize, Kickstarter workers said that among other things, that they wanted to work on changing the company’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies. 

When the AWU was created, Google workers named sexual harassment as one of its key issues and characterized the very formation of the union as the natural evolution of the 2018 global walkout. 

Several unions, of course, have taken a stand against sexual harassment and discrimination in the past, but Google and Kickstarter’s unions seem to be the first to have formed specifically around the mission of eliminating sexual harassment, racism, and other structural inequities. 

Google workers: unafraid afraid to flex

What’s unique about the way Google workers are fighting sexual harassment is that instead of focusing on the harassment itself, they have focused primarily on changing management’s response to harassment as well as the policies that guide those responses. 

It’s an approach that shifts accountability dramatically upward. 

In doing this, Google and other tech workers are sending a clear signal that they understand their own power. In its mission statement, the AWU says, “Our work impacts other Alphabet workers, our communities, and the world.” 

That’s not a brag. Big tech companies compete fiercely for a huge portion of the 20,000 Google workers who walked out on November 1, 2018. Highly sought after engineers and product managers in particular know they have enormous leverage and they aren't afraid to use it. 

Case in point: shortly after Google workers all over the world participated in the one day walkout, Alphabet announced it would stop using a secretive corporate court for handling sexual harassment claims. 

In the weeks following that announcement, several other big tech companies dropped the practice of forced arbitration as well including Facebook, Lyft, Square, Airbnb, eBay, and Uber.

Then, over the next two years, hundreds of publicly traded companies including BlackRock, MGM Resorts, Wells Fargo, and Dell Computers went on the record to say they don’t use the practice. Prior to 2018, only a handful of companies had made public-facing statements to this effect.  

To a large extent, that cascade effect was brought to us by the organized workers of Google.  

Will white collar unions grow beyond tech?

As the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements continue to unfold, many workers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the systemic injustices they see and experience at work.

Recently, a third of Basecamp’s workers resigned after the company banned workplace political discussion, a move that many interpreted as backlash against historic social justice movements. 

While traditional labor organizing has focused primarily on adequate pay and time off, much of the organizing in tech is being fueled by workers who may already feel well compensated, but who still see glaring inequity in the workplace and want to fight for change.  

White collar unions have been very lucky in that they've been able to use existing labor union infrastructure to organize, but it’s still depressing that most traditional union leadership remains overwhelmingly male and that even among heavily unionized workforces, rates of sexual harassment remain high

By contrast, women are leading the white collar unionization effort in tech. Google software engineer Parul Koul, is now also the executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union. At Kickstarter, it was senior designer Clarissa Redwine who served as the public face of the drive toward unionization. 

Will other industries with high rates of sexual harassment follow suit? Will women in finance see what women and their allies in tech are doing and rally too? Will tech's labor leaders see a role for themselves in collaborating with other arms of the labor movement, such as the South’s new wave of Black labor organizing?

It remains to be seen but one thing is for certain: today’s tech unions are a formidable force and they’re just getting started. Watch this space. 

How can you help?

One easy thing you can do right now to support organizing workers at Google and elsewhere is to contact some U.S. Senators and tell them you support the 2021 Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO). If it becomes law, the PRO Act would make it much harder for companies to engage in union busting activities and retaliate against organizers. Hefty fines would be imposed for violating terms.  

This bill already passed the U.S. House in early March 2021 and is currently sitting with the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The emphasis now should be on encouraging lawmakers to bring the bill to a vote. The following members of that committee have not yet expressed support for the bill. Give ‘em a call. Let them know what you think: 

  • Richard Burr (North Carolina) -  (202) 224-3154
  • Rand Paul (Kentucky) - (202) 224-4343 
  • Susan Collins (Maine) - (202) 224-2523
  • Bill Cassidy (Louisianne) - (225) 929-7711
  • Lisa Murkowski (Arkansas) - (202) 224-6665
  • Mike Braun (Indiana) - (202) 224-4814
  • Roger Marshall (Kansas) - 202-224-4774
  • Tim Scott (South Carolina) - (803) 771- 6112
  • Mitt Romney (Utah) - (385) 264-7885
  • Tommy Tuberville (Alabama) - (202) 224-4124
  • Jerry Moran (Kansas) - (202) 224-6521

Fun fact: You don’t have to live in these senators’ states to let them know how you feel. In fact, one thing that’s always valid to say to lawmakers whether you live in their state/district or not is that if they don’t support the legislation, you’ll consider donating to their opponent in the next election. Cash knows no constituency! 

Other ways to help and/or organize:

  • Contact Google and let them know you agree with the National Labor Relations Board and want to see justice for the employees who have been unfairly fired for trying to organize
    • Head of Corporate PR - David Krane (press@google.com)  
  • Let President Biden know you support his strong pro-union stance:
  • Form a union of your own: the AFL-CIO has tons of resources to help if you’re considering forming a union of your own. You can find info about the Google union aka the AWU here and Kickstarter United here.