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Google workers worldwide protest handling of misconduct allegations and demand change

At Google offices around the world — from Japan to Germany to Ireland and across the United States — waves of employees walked off the job and into the streets Thursday to protest how the company reportedly has handled sexual misconduct allegations and demand structural change.

At Google offices around the world — from Japan to Germany to Ireland and across the United States — waves of employees walked off the job and into the streets Thursday to protest how the company reportedly has handled sexual misconduct allegations.

It was an unprecedented show of solidarity among the company’s workers. Thousands of Google employees from more than 40 offices joined together, calling for structural changes to address what organizers of the protest called a “culture of complicity, dismissiveness, and support for perpetrators in the face of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse of power.”

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The walkouts came less than a week after the New York Times reported that in 2014, Google protected the reputation of Andy Rubin, who created the Android mobile operating system, after an employee accused him of coercing her into performing a sex act. Rubin has denied the allegation. The company found the allegation to be credible but kept it quiet and gave Rubin a $90-million exit package, the report said. It said other executives received similar protections.

Early this week, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai apologized for the Alphabet Inc. arm’s “past actions” and gave his blessing to the walkout plan. On Thursday, he agreed to take protesters’ ideas into consideration, though the company has not pledged any specific changes.

“It is nice that they support us,” said one of the walkout’s organizers, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from Google. “But this isn’t about [public relations]. This is about meeting our demands. And doing the work to ensure structural change. I’m not terribly interested in words of support.”

At Google’s Los Angeles headquarters in Venice, workers gathered in an enclosed courtyard. A crowd of more than 200 — a significant portion of the approximately 600 employees who work in the building — joined a group chant of “no justice, no peace.”

Google employees in Venice joined their counterparts around the world and staged a mass walkout Thursday.
Google employees in Venice joined their counterparts around the world and staged a mass walkout Thursday. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The protesters worldwide — led by a team of seven organizers in the United States who started planning the walkout Monday — had specific demands.

They urged Google to commit to giving all its workers equitable access to pay and opportunities. Such equity would help uproot power structures that prevent misconduct from coming to light, organizers said.

They also demanded more transparency about pay disparities — including data on gender, race and ethnicity — and about sexual misconduct allegations at the company; a uniform process for anonymously reporting sexual misconduct; and an end to the requirement that workers agree to resolve complaints of misconduct or discrimination through arbitration rather than by suing the company.

The organizers said Thursday afternoon that company executives had not reached out to them. The walkout was just the beginning of their work, they said, though they haven’t mapped out their next steps.

“This manifested in a matter of days,” one of the organizers said. “We have tens of thousands of people who walked out from nearly three-quarters of all Google offices.… We have the power to push this issue.”

In Venice, the crowd of workers left the office courtyard, filed out to the building’s back door, walked across a short crosswalk and entered another private, gated Google courtyard, flanked by company security guards. Some carried handwritten signs with slogans like “Fairness for all,” “The future is female” and “Don’t be evil,” a company motto that Google removed from its official code of conduct this year.

That afternoon, Pichai spoke at the New York Times’ Dealbook Conference. He said that the company “clearly didn’t live up to expectations” and that there were “concrete steps coming up,” but that Google was a different place now.

“It doesn’t feel like they’ve absorbed the full import of what’s happening, but I’m looking forward to when that happens and when demands are met,” one organizer said in response to his comments at the conference.

Employee frustration with a lack of equity and other structural issues has been bubbling up for the better part of a year. Workers have also pushed back on other issues, such as Google’s effort to create a search engine that complies with China’s censorship requirements and the company’s Defense Department contract letting the U.S. military use its artificial intelligence tools to analyze data from drones.

The walkout organizers’ demands are not unprecedented in the tech industry. In May, ride-hailing giant Uber — under pressure from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and a handful of women who were suing the company — decided to stop requiring arbitration for passengers, employees or drivers who want to individually sue the company over claims of sexual assault or harassment.

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California policymakers have tried to ban mandatory arbitration agreements on more than one occasion, to no avail. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed such a bill, saying it violated federal law.

The organizers of the Google walkout also asked that the company’s chief diversity officer report directly to Pichai and that the company appoint an employee representative to its board of directors.

The company said it would take all of the feedback into account but did not reply to questions about when employees could expect a response or action.

A statement from the company attributed to Pichai read, “Earlier this week, we let Googlers know that we are aware of the activities planned for today and that employees will have the support they need if they wish to participate. Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes.... We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action.”

In a Tuesday email to employees, Pichai apologized for what he called the company’s past actions and later said that executives had fired 48 employees accused of sexual harassment — including 13 senior managers — without any severance packages.

“I understand the anger and disappointment that many of you feel,” Pichai wrote. “I feel it as well, and I am fully committed to making progress on an issue that has persisted for far too long in our society and, yes, here at Google, too.”

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Still, the organizers fear reprisal from the company.

“This is one of the most powerful institutions the world has known. All of us are worried about repercussions,” an organizer said. “But we’re at a time that many of us see this is an ethical duty. We have a responsibility to speak up when we see this culture of discrimination, racism, misogyny and problematic decision making. Tech is too powerful to have people at the helm who trade ethics for profit.”

4:05 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.

10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional walkout locations, more background information and additional details.

This article was originally published at 6:55 a.m.

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