Are the protests we’re seeing in the US a watershed moment for industrial relations in the West? Or are they a flash in the pan?
Earlier this year HRM wrote an article about a petition 3000 Google workers sent to management, protesting the company’s involvement in a US military project. Since then tech employees in the US have continued to participate in organised, public protests against their organisations.
It happened at Amazon, with workers seeking to stop the company from offering it’s facial recognition technology to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has been widely viewed as a controversial institution since the detention of immigrant children earlier this year. Microsoft workers had a similar problem with their company’s cloud services.
But the biggest protest so far again happened at Google, where last week a reported 20,000 workers staged a global walkout after a New York Times article revealed the company had a troubled history with sexual harassment.
The most damning revelation to come from the article was that the company heaped praise on and gave a $90 million dollar exit package to Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, while keeping quiet about a claim of misconduct against him. This is despite the fact that the company found the claim – that Rubin coerced an employee into performing oral sex – to be credible.
After the organisation failed to calm their concerns, Google employees staged a global walkout (the organisers had five demands, that they outlined on The Cut).
More than any previous protest, this one had commenters suggesting that we’re seeing a sea change in employee relations. Some argued that the protest is a sign that Silicon Valley workers are rejecting their long-held individualism and embracing something close to unionism. In Australia, Michael Walker on The Conversation called it “a hugely significant, symbolic development for labour relations in the 21st century” (though he notes the scope of the protest was limited).
Will we hold the same view years from now, or will this moment of tech worker discontent be seen as a flash in the pan?
One of the defining features of late 19th and early 20th century labour movements was the sense members had that they were fighting for their livelihoods; their families, friends and future. They were in a struggle for a living wage, the ability to be sick and not get fired, and to have basic laws protecting them from workplace injury and death.
While the protest efforts from US tech companies are serious, the stakes are nowhere near as high. Firstly that’s because the protesting workers are exceptionally well paid, and in top demand. If there is any blowback, most will get to walk into another high-paying job.
Secondly, they’re fighting for changes that are harder to grasp. Transparency around sexual harassment complaints is obviously crucial, but it’s hard to know whether or not you have it. It took a thoroughly researched investigation by one of the world’s largest news organisations for Google staff to know what was happening in their own offices. Other changes are more tangible – they’ve asked for the promotion of the Chief Diversity Officer so that they answer to the CEO and can make recommendations to the board – but have unproven efficacy.
Many of the protestors’ other concerns are quite far removed from their day-to-day lives. Questioning the morality of enabling ICE is a legitimate political position, but it’s doubtful many employees at Microsoft, Salesforce, or Amazon have a strong personal connection. They may refuse to help build or maintain technology for ICE or the Pentagon, but how many will quit over their company’s association?
It’s also worth noting that what makes unions effective is having a lot of workers from different organisations unite into a powerful faction. Some are questioning if Silicon Valley staff will do that, and whether coming together over single issues (in isolated companies) will create meaningful change.
As was his approach with the staff revolt over a US defence contract, Google CEO Sundar Pichai is nodding his head to the concerns of his employees, agreeing to a limited number of demands (in this case more transparent sexual harassment investigations), and being careful to project an image that the C-suite is very much in control.
“Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward. We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action,” Pichai wrote in an emailed statement to Recode. The tone of the correspondence makes it seem as if Google were dealing with a few suggestions made to HR, rather than a mass walkout.
Is he wrong to do so? Damage to recruitment and productivity have been highlighted as the possible impact of these protests, but it hasn’t happened yet.
What’s more, even though some tech workers have quit in protest; Microsoft has not dropped it’s lucrative contract with ICE; Amazon and Microsoft have defended their defense contracts; and Google may have dropped its defense contract and established “no harm” AI principles, but seems to be going ahead with work on a Chinese search engine effort many of its workers don’t like.
It certainly seems these tech companies are treating the protests as an employee engagement and retention issue, not as a crisis. And if that approach ends up being effective, then any positive changes that come as a result of these protests will be limited to the companies, and limited within the companies.
Learn about basic industrial relations legislation and legal and ethical requirements in the workplace, with the AHRI short course ‘Recruitment and workplace relations’.