New chap­ter in labour ac­tivism

Google em­ploy­ees united glob­ally to con­vene marches against sex­ual ha­rass­ment at work­place

Millennium Post - - In Focus - B. SIVARAMAN (The views ex­pressed are strictly per­sonal)

The pace of events was amaz­ing. On Oc­to­ber 25, 2018, the New York Times car­ried an ex­posé on how Google top man­age­ment han­dled sex­ual ha­rass­ment com­plaints against their top ex­ec­u­tives. When sex­ual ha­rass­ment charges sur­faced against Andy Ru­bin, the cre­ator of the An­droid mo­bile soft­ware, Google not only hushed up the mat­ter but stealth­ily struck a deal for his res­ig­na­tion giv­ing him a $90 mil­lion exit pack­age; A hero’s farewell. The New York Times story also ex­posed that two other se­nior ex­ec­u­tives were given sim­i­lar com­pro­mise pay­outs. Google em­ploy­ees were highly in­censed at their own man­age­ment re­ward­ing the cul­prits in­stead of pun­ish­ing them. Legally they could well have been dis­missed with­out any “com­pen­sa­tion” but still, Google chose to hush up the mat­ter af­ter pay­ing them hefty amounts.

The Google em­ploy­ees de­cided that enough is enough and wanted to give con­crete ex­pres­sion to their anger in the form of a protest. They have no union. Google has been the best pay­mas­ter. The me­dian salary of Google em­ploy­ees in the US at $161,409 per an­num is the high­est for any ma­jor tech com­pany there. Hence, they never felt the need for a union. So, just seven em­ploy­ees first started or­gan­is­ing on this is­sue in the next two days. The gen­eral con­sen­sus among em­ploy­ees at the Google head­quar­ters in Cal­i­for­nia was that they should come out and protest. Many took to the so­cial me­dia to voice their anger. Ded­i­cated What­sapp groups emerged. Google em­ploy­ees in other of­fices over the world were con­tacted through e-mails and phone calls. Sug­ges­tions poured in on­line on a char­ter of de­mands to be given to the man­age­ment; five de­mands were con­cre­tised, and the char­ter took shape on In­sta­gram. No­vem­ber 1 was de­cided as the day of protest. It was de­cided to stage a walk­out that day. Em­ploy­ees from around 40 Google of­fices around the world — from Sin­ga­pore to Chicago, Hy­der­abad to Lon­don — walked out of work and staged marches. The global march of Google em­ploy­ees against the at­ti­tude of the man­age­ment to­wards sex­ual ha­rass­ment at work be­came a re­al­ity. His­tory was made within a week.

The world had never seen any­thing like this be­fore. They didn’t have a con­ven­tional trade union and didn’t re­quire one. Be­ing the cream of the tech work­force, they could plan and co­or­di­nate their syn­chro­nised di­rect ac­tion across 40 ma­jor ci­ties within a week. Labour or­gan­is­ing took new forms.

The Google man­age­ment was rat­tled so much that the CEO Sun­dar Pichai apol­o­gised: “I am deeply sorry for the past ac­tions and the pain they have caused em­ploy­ees.” In a let­ter he wrote along with Eileen Naughton, a vice-pres­i­dent of the com­pany, they also tried to re­as­sure that the man­age­ment would adopt a stern pol­icy to­wards those ac­cused of sex­ual ha­rass­ment: “Over the past two years, we have ter­mi­nated 48 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 13 se­nior man­agers and above for sex­ual ha­rass­ment. None of th­ese peo­ple re­ceived an exit pack­age”. But this let­ter alone could not pacify the em­ploy­ees. Left with no al­ter­na­tive, the Google man­age­ment had to en­dorse the walk­out!

When the D-day dawned, the first march started in the East in Sin­ga­pore. As the day pro­gressed, marches in other ci­ties ap­proach­ing the West were live-streamed. Footages were up­loaded on YouTube. Apps had been de­signed to track the marches and the em­ploy­ees were star­ing into their smart­phones and shar­ing their own ac­tion ex­pe­ri­ences on­line. Transna­tional sol­i­dar­ity and ac­tion tran­scend­ing na­tional bound­aries be­came a re­al­ity at the fin­ger­tips.

Men and women marched shoul­der to shoul­der. Unity in strug­gle con­sid­er­ably dis­solved the gen­der di­vide in re­spond­ing to the sex­ual dis­crim­i­na­tion and abuse. They no longer re­mained just “women’s is­sues”. Men too were equally on board. It was a class united as one. The word union it­self ac­quired a new ex­pres­sion as uni­fied will, given ex­pres­sion through dig­i­tal union- ism—in which us­ing mes­sage boards, con­tact and com­mu­ni­ca­tion apps, and other so­cial me­dia de­vices which, iron­i­cally enough, they them­selves de­vel­oped for Google be­came their own tools of or­gan­is­ing.

It was a march of the mil­len­ni­als. Most of the Google em­ploy­ees are in their twen­ties and thir­ties. In Google es­tab­lish­ments, it is rare to come across a hon­cho in for­mal four-piece suits with a tie on. The youth­ful crowd that strolls around in faded jeans and T-shirts at the work­places, how­ever, came up with a stern mes­sage to the man­age­ment. A new at­ti­tude re­flected in their char­ter of de­mands, which in­cluded end to forced arbitration in cases of ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion; com­mit­ment to end pay and op­por­tu­nity in­equal­ity; a pub­licly dis­closed sex­ual ha­rass­ment trans­parency re­port; a clear, uni­form, glob­ally in­clu­sive process for re­port­ing sex­ual mis­con­duct safely and anony­mously; and pro­mo­tion of the chief di­ver­sity of­fi­cer to an­swer di­rectly to the CEO and make rec­om­men­da­tions di­rectly to the board of di­rec­tors. In ad­di­tion, the ap­point­ment of an em­ployee rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the board was also de­manded.

It needs no elab­o­ra­tion that th­ese de­mands went far be­yond merely vent­ing their anger. ‘Forced arbitration” is the com­mon clause in the em­ploy­ment con­tracts, forc­ing em­ploy­ees to avoid tak­ing re­course to a court of law to re­dress their griev­ances and use in­ter­nal com­pany arbitration in­stead. That an end to gen­der wage dis­crim­i­na­tion and the need for equal­ity in op­por­tu­ni­ties be­tween the sexes fea­tured on top as the sec­ond im­por­tant de­mand speak­ing for the new mil­len­nial val­ues un­der­ly­ing the protest, catch­ing up with the spirit ig­nited by the BBC women em­ploy­ees who de­manded equal pay in re­cent times. The em­ploy­ees wanted in­sti­tu­tional guar­an­tees against ret­ri­bu­tion — the dou­ble vic­tim­i­sa­tion of em­ploy­ees who re­port sex­ual mis­con­duct — by se­niors and higher-ups. They also wanted mech­a­nisms to be put in place to sort out rou­tine in­dus­trial is­sues and dis­putes.

‘Time’s Up’— this was one of the cen­tral slo­gans in the marches. Yes, time is up for those ex­ec­u­tive bul­lies who use the skewed power re­la­tions at work to sex­u­ally ex­ploit women em­ploy­ees who are their ju­niors. In this sense, th­ese marches of the mil­len­ni­als are for equal em­pow­er­ment. They mark a new chap­ter in 21st-cen­tury labour ac­tivism.

‘Time’s Up’ was one of the cen­tral slo­gans in the marches. Yes, time is up for those ex­ec­u­tive bul­lies who use the skewed power re­la­tions at work to sex­u­ally ex­ploit women un­der them. Th­ese marches are for equal em­pow­er­ment and mark a new chap­ter in 21st-cen­tury labour ac­tivism

Labour or­gan­is­ing took a rev­o­lu­tion­ary form with the global ex­pres­sion of protest when Google em­ploy­ees staged a uni­fied march against the man­age­ment’s mis­han­dling of sex­ual ha­rass­ment

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