Tech workers rebel against powerful employers

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The states investigating Google have asked rival search engine DuckDuckGo to reproduce any information it has provided to the Justice Department in connection with the federal agency's own Google antitrust probe.

In the lead-up to the holidays, as many people put up their final out-of-office replies for the year, workers at grocery-delivery startup Instacart are fighting for their livelihoods.

Each day this week, Instacart workers plan to take a variety of measures, including filing wage claims, requesting an audit from the Department of Labor over “missing tips,” contacting legislators, and hand-delivering binders to partners of the company to inform them of their grievances, such as low pay and worker safety concerns. That’s according to a blog post outlining the plan of action signed by more than 250 Instacart contract workers.

“I’ve never had another job where, after three years, I make significantly less than when I started,” one of the Instacart organizers, Vanessa Bain, told CNN Business. Bain, who is based in Menlo Park, California, has worked primarily for Instacart for four years and been a key agitator against the startup for the majority of that time. “We are regular workers trying to find our footing.”

The campaign marks a fitting end to a year that has seen widespread protests across the tech industry. Gig economy workers at companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart have waged new pressure campaigns over long-standing issues such as pay transparency, wage protections and job security. Meanwhile, rank-and-file staffers at giants such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft are banding together to push back on issues ranging from gender discrimination and climate change to questionable government contracts, worker retaliation and the use of forced arbitration.

Altogether, there’s a new sentiment among tech workers: their employers’ power must be checked.

Workers are using social media platforms like Twitter, Medium, Facebook and Google to organize virtually and spread their messages. There appears to be a sense of camaraderie among the workers challenging the companies they work for — contract workers, employees and competitors are all championing similar causes.

“When one group of workers does something, it has an emancipatory impact on other workers,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law expert and an associate law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “It opens the possibility. The Google walkout absolutely influenced the May Uber strike.”

But some companies now appear to be reaching a limit in how much they’re willing to appease and tolerate dissent from their employees and contract workers.

Tensions rise in Silicon Valley

On November 1, 2018, tens of thousands of Googlers walked out of the company’s offices around the world to protest sexual harassment, misconduct and a lack of transparency at their employer. It marked a significant turning point at a company long viewed as an ideal of workplace culture.

It was just the beginning of the heightened tensions between Google and its workers. While Google once prided itself on valuing and promoting open discussion, workers are now discovering there is only so much the company will endure. Late last month Google dismissed several outspoken workers for allegedly violating its data-security policies. This week, a security engineer said she was fired for “violating Google’s security policies” after creating a “little notification” to pop up in a browser when colleagues visited the community guidelines policy, for instance. It read “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities.” Some employees, though, say Google had another reason: Retaliation.

From Google’s perspective, the content of the notification was irrelevant. “The decision would have been the same had the pop-up message been on any other subject,” read a copy of an email from Royal Hansen, VP Technical Infrastructure Security & Privacy, provided to CNN Business by a Google spokesperson.

Last month, Google reportedly hired a consulting firm that has helped clients convince workers not to unionize.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said the company engages with “dozens of outside firms to provide us with their advice on a wide range of topics,” adding that “to suggest this particular firm had anything whatsoever to do with … any internal policies whatsoever … is absolutely false.”

Google isn’t alone in grappling with employee dissent. Amazon workers have protested over issues ranging from what the company is doing to combat climate change to working conditions for fulfillment center employees. Microsoft staffers penned an open letter calling on the company to end its controversial work with the US military. Facebook employees have protested its political advertising policy.

But rather than shift strategies based on the demands of their workers, some leadership has stood their ground. Microsoft, for example, won a $10 billion cloud computing contract from the Department of Defense in the face of concerns expressed by workers.

“To ignore the range of issues just breeds more distrust and will lead to more aggressive forms of protests in the future,” said Thomas Kochan, George Maverick Bunker professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “American companies haven’t quite grasped the lessons of history yet,” he said, referring to companies like General Motors and Ford in the 1930s and early 40s, which sharply resisted unionization of their workers. “It will come back to haunt them.”

Workers get creative in pushing back at tech companies

As hard as it’s been for high-skilled employees at the big tech companies to push back, it’s even harder for the millions of gig economy contractors trying to be heard.

Leading up to Uber’s highly-anticipated IPO, rideshare drivers around the globe banded together in early May to strike against the company, its compensation practices and their lack of job security. Drivers similarly went on strike ahead of Lyft’s IPO roadshow in March. Meanwhile, Uber and other on-demand companies are working to exempt themselves from a new California law that would require them to provide more benefits associated with employee status.

In November, Uber drivers rallied outside the wealthy homes of some early investors in Uber — on the day the stock lockup period ended — to bring attention to the working conditions and low wages of workers.

It’s just one example of a new approach to protesting in the industry: Don’t just go after the company, go after their stakeholders, too.

Workers at Instacart have done this by petitioning key business partners of the company, such as Costco, which accounts for 24% of the startup’s business by one account. Costco also prides itself on its culture. Its founder James Sinegal, who retired as CEO in 2011, once said, “no one was going to be able to say we’re making money off the backs of our employees, because we were going to pay the highest wages in all of retail.”

“The hope is that if we call out Costco and get them to stand behind us, Instacart will see that it is not okay,” said Schana Cummings, a contract worker for Instacart in San Diego who also volunteers for the Working Washington PayUp campaign.

In a statement, an Instacart spokesperson told CNN Business, “our relationship with all shoppers is important and we take their feedback very seriously. We recognize we have more work to do but we remain committed to listening to and applying that feedback to improve their experience.”

Costco did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Instacart workers are “looking outside the gates of their workplace,” said Katie Wells, an urban studies foundation postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University who researches the social and economic effects of on-demand services.

“I think we are seeing a shift in where people believe power exists,” added Wells. “It is no longer the boss who is going to make the world better. … It is about drawing attention, about getting the public to care.”