On the first day of November last year, some 20,000 Google employees at more than 40 offices across the world staged a walkout protesting how the company had dealt with serious accusations of sexual assault and harassment and what many employees described as a culture of impunity for executives. The event was planned by a core group of seven organizers who work at Google. On Monday, two of those women, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, shared examples of retaliation they’ve face from the company since on a Google-internal mailing list. Wired first reported the two were facing blowback from Google for helping to organize the protest.
Stapleton is a 12-year veteran at Google. Two months after the walkout, she got word that she would be demoted and lose half of the people who report to her. “I escalated to HR and to my VP, which made things significantly worse,” Stapleton wrote in her letter. “My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick.” Eventually, she hired a lawyer. After an investigation, Google decided to walk back its decision to demote her, though Stapleton says her work environment remains hostile and she regularly contemplates quitting.
Whitaker, who leads Google’s Open Research Group and is the co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, received notice that in order to stay at Google, she’d have to “abandon [her] work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute,” according to the email. She received word of this demotion after Google announced it would cancel an A.I. ethics board.
So far, labor organizing at Google hasn’t taken the shape of forming an official union, likely in part because the company has been relatively permissive with allowing employees to vocally criticize and question Google’s external and internal practices. But even though Google employees aren’t unionized, under the National Labor Relations Act they’re still protected from retaliation when multiple workers address their employer about workplace conditions. Protesting an environment that’s supportive of sexual harassment may be a protected activity, meaning the two may have a legal claim, according to Steve Smith, the communications director at the California Labor Federation.
The employees’ efforts so far have not gone unnoticed. The day after the walkout in November, Google agreed to stop mandating forced arbitration in cases involving accusations of sexual harassment or assault. That change didn’t apply to contractors, however, who make up about half of Google’s workforce. In December, organizers of the walkout posted a letter addressed to Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, arguing that the company’s massive contractor workforce deserve better pay and benefits. Earlier this month, Google announced that it would start requiring companies that supply its contractor workforce to provide certain benefits like paid sick days, paid parental leave, tuition reimbursement, and health care. Additionally, contractor companies, which also include cleaning and food service workers, must also pay those who work at Google at least $15 an hour.