Lessons on workplace activism from winning campaigns at Google

Forcing a company with Google’s market capitalization and branding power to change its policies is a massive achievement with important lessons to offer.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: Jillian D’Onfro/CNBC

On Sept. 14, 2020, Google CEO Sundar Pichai posted a blog outlining the company’s “Third Decade of Climate Action,” with its escalated commitments to addressing the crisis. Among them were an elimination of Google’s entire carbon legacy, a commitment to run all of its campuses and data centers on carbon free electricity, and promises to invest in tools to promote energy efficiency. The announcement came on the heels of an escalating pressure campaign from Google workers for the tech giant to do better on climate change. 

Like many campaign victories, it was an imperfect one. Many of the Google workers’ demands, like a commitment to cease funding for climate-denying think tanks, remained unaddressed. This did not change the fact that Google Workers for Action on Climate, or GWAC, had successfully changed one of the largest and most recognized companies in the world. 

This victory for workers at Google came on the heels of numerous wins in 2018. A concerted effort had killed Project Maven, a collaboration between Google and the Pentagon that effectively weaponized artificial intelligence. Worker action at Google also caused the company to drop its bid for Project JEDI, the Pentagon’s enormous machine-learning endeavor. Meanwhile, Project Dragonfly, which would have built a censored search engine for China, was similarly killed after employee outcry. Walkouts over the company’s sexual harassment policies ended forced arbitration. Again and again, Google’s staff wielded their power as workers to push and change their company.

Certain factors made organizing and these changes more likely, notably a strong narrative of utopianism in the company’s workplace culture and public image. This made their workforce more likely to radicalize when their company made immoral decisions, as well as handing advocates a narrative that leaves the company more vulnerable to public criticism. Their unofficial motto “Don’t be evil” is still well known in public parlance. Google had also fostered an internal policy of openness and discussion, with the ability for workers to directly question and challenge management’s decisions. Even if many factors made Google more vulnerable to pressure — and its workforce more likely to be radicalized — forcing a company with Google’s market capitalization and branding power to change its policies is a massive achievement with important lessons to offer.

A hybrid model

At the heart of organizing are two approaches, or poles: momentum-based organizing and structure-based organizing. The former seeks to harness and direct mass protest by rallying a critical mass of society around sweeping demands based on universal moral values. Change is created by transforming the system itself. The civil rights movement repeatedly used strategies characteristic of momentum-based organizing. They planted a moral flag of the value and equality of Black life in the face of systemic oppression. Then they rallied people to participate in disruptions, such as the Freedom Rides or the Birmingham uprising, that illustrated the brutal oppression of Black people’s basic rights, galvanizing public opinion and further participation. Their incredible victories were rooted in a transformation of the United States’ moral landscape to actualize the necessary pressure to create change. 

Structure-based organizing bands together a specific constituency to address issues affecting their self-interest. Change is created within the existing system by directly engaging its levers of power. Communities for a Better Environment, part of the coalition that banned new oil wells in Los Angeles County is an example of structure-based organizing. Labor unions also function based on these principles.

The Google workers’ campaigns had several features of momentum-based organizing, with broad appeals centered on ethics and wielding public opinion to pressure the company. Their campaigns also featured significant aspects of structure-based organizing. The agitating group was limited to a specific constituency, namely Google workers. Their methods, petitions and walkouts are tactics that would be familiar to any labor organizer. The internal cohesion and solidarity between workers underlying these efforts also depended on a principle at the heart of the labor movement: that their investment of labor in the company gave them a say over its decisions. 

Most importantly though, the ethical demands the workers made utilized their transactional power as workers by implicitly threatening Google’s management with bad morale, endangering their ability to recruit, retain and motivate top tech talent. To sum up: A specific constituency rallied around and achieved demands based on universal values by directly utilizing a lever of power within their existing system. This represents a fascinating hybrid of organizing approaches, essentially translating momentum-based organizing to the workplace. Embed from Getty Imageshttps://embed.gettyimages.com/embed/1181413202?et=bU8SnZgpQWdva0TZaRnygw&tld=com&sig=8w3USeIL4zlMbdbCkak_5z4Ca4SH0klZARRePfwOW6Y=&caption=true&ver=2

These changes came with strong pushback, as management responded to the worker mobilizations with tried and true union-busting tactics. Google mounted a secret campaign to show employees that unions weren’t cool. They also retained IRI consulting, a top union-busting firm. Lead organizers were fired or forced out of the company. The pushback is proof of the risks the workers were taking, but also showed that their efforts were a real threat to Google’s control over the workplace. 

Climate agitation at the tech giants was also not confined to Google. Amazon and Microsoft workers also participated in a walkout during the 2019 climate strike in a show of industry-wide solidarity.

Radicalizing another industry

The structural and cultural context of the tech industry, and Google in particular, made it a natural target for this type of campaign. However, that’s not to say it can’t be applied elsewhere. There are tremendous possibilities for workplace activism in other companies and industries.  The key question is how to translate it to less receptive workplaces.

To answer this, let’s look at one of the highest profile and most consequential climate campaign targets: JPMorgan Chase. Wall Street has long had a hyper competitive culture focused on individual — rather than collective — achievement. At the same time, it lacks the utopian strain of the tech industry, to put it lightly. Bankers and day traders are perhaps not the most likely bunch to band together and put their positions at risk for the greater moral good. However, these obstacles can be addressed, and to do so, we can look at lessons from structure-based organizing, specifically organized labor.

The first lesson is that no one is unreachable. Everyone in a workplace should be seen as having the potential to be organized, given the right circumstances. Bankers are people, and like any person, they have dreams, aspirations and families. Most parents want their children to have similar, if not better, lives than they had. Climate change directly threatens that aspiration. Many times workers in ethically questionable industries know about the problems, but stick with it because they tell themselves they can have a bigger impact by working within the company. 

There is also an opportunity to appeal to bankers on their long-term self interest. Endless economic growth is a dangerous fantasy. However, climate change’s abiding threat to growth — plus the fact that it is accelerating and happening faster than previously projected — threatens the long-term profits on which the bankers and their firms rely, thereby making it a less lucrative career. Lastly, JPMorgan’s own economists have stated in a report about climate change that: “We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened.” Saving the human race, despite perhaps feeling abstract in the midst of Global North comforts, is still a powerful organizing pitch. All of these circumstances make JPMorgan employees ripe for being workplace advocates.

It would be foolish to wait around for this to happen by itself. That’s why organizations should take their second lesson from organized labor: having organizers actively reach out to and radicalize workers. The thought of mobilizing their workplaces has perhaps never occurred to many investment bankers, but if advocates actively reached out and made themselves available to give workers outside guidance and support, they might be more likely to take this chance. 

Another tool that can be borrowed from organized labor to get a campaign off the ground is “salting,” or having people get hired at these places for the specific purpose of organizing them. Younger people, including recent college graduates, are much more alarmed about climate change than older generations, and many of them may be interested in working towards using such a consequential lever of power. Combined with support from dedicated organizers, they could make the most of their positions. 

Building power and exerting pressure

Once a campaign has a core group of people who are motivated, supported and ready to put in the work, it will need to attract others to the cause. To do this, the workers need to choose the right demand or demands for fellow workers to rally around. A good demand will be essential in winning over coworkers during the endless conversations entailed in building a critical mass of fellow workers. The best demands are specific enough to not allow the target wiggle room, while still being simple and strong enough for other workers and the public to rally around. It is also worth considering where other organizations or groups are putting their energy, since coordinated pressure around the same issue can be a force multiplier. 

With all these aspects in mind, what demand might work to pressure JPMorgan? In early 2022 a shareholder petition from Harrington Investments and Mercy Investment Services asked the bank to align its lending practices with its public net-zero commitment by ending support for new fossil fuel development. It got 10.9 percent of the shareholder votes and was defeated. However, coordinating pressure from activist shareholders, outside advocates and workers at the bank has the possibility of making this number much higher. At minimum, it would up the pressure on the financial industry. At best, it could build the pressure to win. 

Even if it doesn’t win outright, scaring the financial industry through coordinated pressure on shareholder votes could have a significant impact on their fossil fuel policies. Workers speaking out on this issue would also bring a degree of credibility that has the potential to be a difference maker. Publicly making demands can also facilitate growth by providing an in for workers to have “water cooler talk,” helping facilitate the all important conversations between workers that grow campaigns.

The outsized impact of coordinating campaigns can also work both ways. On April 1, 2020, a group of Extinction Rebellion NYC activists (myself included) published a fake webpage where “Google” announced that in lieu of its traditional April Fool’s prank, it would instead be “getting serious” — and that it was ceasing its funding of climate-denying lobbying organizations while also acquiescing to the demands of Google Workers for Action on Climate. The stunt quickly went viral and put Google in the hot seat because it publicized the fact that Google does in fact fund climate-denying think tanks and organizations, which was featured in all the press coverage our action got. 

Publicizing this was a win, but it wasn’t the only reason we did it. The action was designed and carried out to complement the GWAC campaign, hitting a pressure point that another organization was already targeting. Possibly the best, unplanned consequence of this action was providing energy and hope to Google workers. One GWAC organizer described it as “the clouds parting and the sun shining through.” Solidarity is not just about maximizing pressure, it’s about facilitating the optimism and morale that holds organizations together for the long haul, something every campaign needs to create the sustained pressure necessary to win. 

There are already some rumblings of worker solidarity in the finance industry. Junior Goldman Sachs workers banded together to catalog the inhumane conditions they work under and present them to management. This is a far cry from advocating for broad moral changes on the part of their employer. But workers understanding their position in the company, and coming together to use collective action over shared concerns is fertile ground for organizing. They are workers who have actively experienced the division between workers and management. 

Conditions and possibilities for the future

One of the big reasons that the Google actions were so effective is that, by and large, tech workers who lose their jobs are more likely to be able to find work elsewhere than many other industries. In 2021, financial firms were having trouble recruiting and retaining workers. Wherever there is a more slack labor market, workers can take more risks and utilize their power. 

With a possible recession on the way workers may be less likely to take these risks. But the discontent underlying mass resignations during COVID likely still reverberates. Workers who are fed up with degrading, meaningless jobs are more likely to demand ownership over their workplaces and may not be as compliant as before.

This general model has potential in any industry and setting, including unionized workplaces. A resurgent labor movement has the potential to use the structures built through fighting for better pay and working conditions to advocate for their labor to have a more positive social impact. Worker’s movements, whether in the form of the current No Tech for Apartheid Campaign or Starbucks Workers United, can claim their right to have a say over their labor’s effect in the world.

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