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Google Employees Hope To Turn Last Year's Walkouts Into Real Change


And it's time now for All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: This month, we've been examining what's ripe for disruption in the tech world. And today we're going to look at where some of that disruption is coming from. In November, 20,000 Google employees worldwide took to the streets to protest how the company handled sexual harassment claims.



CORNISH: It was the first show of force of this size among tech workers and one that their boss, CEO Sundar Pichai, said he supported. This year, the walkout organizers are hoping to channel their momentum into real change in how Google operates. Google linguist Vicki Tardif led the protest in Cambridge, Mass. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

VICKI TARDIF: Thank you.

CORNISH: So can you take me back to that moment in November. I'm from Massachusetts, so I'm guessing what the weather was like. But what did it feel like to actually walk out of the job?

TARDIF: I think for - if you weren't within Google's four walls, it seemed like it was sudden. But there was a lot that led up to this. There was - the sort of internal communications had broken down of how people voiced dissent about things. It was this moment of saying, you know, we're sick of asking for changes and not seeing them. You know, I'm tired of seeing women colleagues transfer teams to avoid some creep on their team. I'm wondering why it is I have colleagues who aren't treated as fairly simply because they're contractors and I'm a full-time employee. I'm wondering why it is there all these diversity and inclusion efforts, and yet we don't see increased representation for people of color or for trans people or nonbinary people. And so it was this moment of, like, being very tired of that and wanting to do something.

CORNISH: And at the time, the CEO Sundar Pichai said like, look. We don't always get it right. We're committed to doing better. But since then, do you see evidence of that?

TARDIF: So I think it's important to separate the rhetoric and real meaningful change.

CORNISH: But they did, for instance, drop arbitration for full-time employees when it comes to sexual harassment cases.

TARDIF: So to clarify, they issued a press release saying they would do that, but our contracts haven't been updated. So it's unclear what that means legally. And for our colleagues who are vendors or contractors, it's unclear if they'll ever get that carved out.

CORNISH: So now you have the social media campaign, and it seems to be sending the signal that you feel like you guys aren't being listened to.

TARDIF: I think that is the feeling - is that we aren't being listened to. You know, when we talk about this, we aren't just talking about Googlers (ph). Things like forced arbitration affect people outside of the tech industry even. There are more than 60 million Americans who are bound by forced arbitration agreements. And so some of this is building a coalition of workers - not just tech workers, not just Googlers - to say, how do we address inequity and unfairness in workplaces across the country?

CORNISH: It's interesting because I think to the broader public for so long we were used to hearing a couple of kind of threads out of Silicon Valley - you know, number one, that you guys, like, were creating this vague utopia-like tools how would make our lives better, even if none of us really knew what they were, and that the workers were really happy because they had, like, free bowling and, like, never wanted to go home because there was awesome food. So it did feel sudden. Do you think there is a shift in how workers themselves see the industry?

TARDIF: Yes, particularly for members of underrepresented groups. It was easy at one time to say, oh, these issues exist, but we're going to fix them. But it was four years ago that a Googler named Erica Baker started a spreadsheet to say, hey, let's track how people are paid and see if it's equal across the board across demographics. That was four years ago. And we haven't seen meaningful change since then. For all of the industry patting itself on the back, for all its diversity and inclusion efforts, we aren't seeing numbers shift at all.

CORNISH: We've seen these conversations bubble up in places like Amazon as well. Looking ahead into 2019, where do you see these movements going? Do you see them actually getting stronger?

TARDIF: I hope so. One of the goals for 2019 is definitely to continue to build broad coalitions because our power really is in our numbers. And you see that in things like the LA teachers' strike, right? It's important we all support each other as workers.

CORNISH: I don't know if you've feared retaliation at Google, but there is a sense that workers at other big tech companies are afraid. And do you think that's valid?

TARDIF: I think it's valid. I think a lot of us are knowingly taking a risk. But at some point, you get so tired that it's the best alternative to live with yourself.

CORNISH: Vicki Tardif is a linguist at Google. Thank you for speaking with us.

TARDIF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.