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The long history behind the Google Walkout

Tech companies ignore labor history at their own peril

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Photo by Russell Brandom / The Verge

Last week, tens of thousands of Google employees around the globe a took part in a largely women-led walkout, organized in response to Google’s shielding and rewarding men who sexually harass their female co-workers. Protesters held signs that said “I reported and he got promoted,” “Worker’s Rights are Women’s Rights,” and “Time’s Up, Tech.”

The seven main organizers wrote that they were demanding “an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture” in tech. Among their demands were an end to forced arbitration that disadvantages women who are sexually harassed and pay transparency that would ensure that women and minorities do not continue to be underpaid and underpromoted relative to their white male peers. Yesterday, Google agreed to some of those demands — most notably, allowing arbitration to be optional in cases of sexual harassment — but others are still unaddressed.

This may seem like a new development, but the Google walkout is steeped in a long history — both of women being minimized and discriminated against in tech, and of women asserting their power to force change. As I wrote my book Programmed Inequality, I found plenty of evidence of discrimination throughout tech history, but I also saw that when women in tech fight back — particularly by organizing or taking their labor elsewhere — the effects are tremendous. For instance, women’s forced exodus from the UK’s burgeoning early computing industry resulted in British computing’s premature decline. When they put their talents to work, however, they created multibillion-dollar software companies. Their experiences show us that not only can undervalued employees often wield an unexpected amount of power, but they also offer a blueprint for what’s to come in the US if the movement started by Google employees continues.

In 1973, a series of strikes by computer workers closed down 26 computer centers in the UK

In the 1970s, a computer worker strike nearly took down the British value added tax (VAT) system. Money collected through the computerized VAT system powered critical state services, like the National Health Service. But computer workers — most of whom were women — were treated poorly.

Computer operators were paid well but did not have much room for promotion. Punch card operators, in particular, who provided the system with the data it needed to run and had to punch hundreds of characters per minute at near-perfect accuracy, had low pay and often worked dozens to a room in conditions so noisy that they violated safety standards. The women trapped in these jobs were seen as unimportant, and the work was erroneously believed to be simple. But good punchers were hard to find and usually better educated than their peers. In fact, poor punchers were often promoted out of punching work to higher-level computer operation work.

When these punchers and computer operators went on strike in the 1970s, their importance became vividly clear. In March 1973, a series of strikes by computer workers, acting in solidarity with other government workers, closed down a whopping 26 computer centers, and disrupted the work of nine others, striking at the nation’s very ability to function. Computer workers had, until then, been treated like “machine workers” because they used machines and because the work had long been feminized. Even though many of these workers were women, and limited in their pay, promotion, and work opportunities due to sexism, their proximity to the literal machinery of government gave them a great deal of power. The single most damaging part of the strike was the walkout by 25 computer operators working in the computer installation for the VAT system. By stopping work, they also stopped, for a time, the government’s ability to collect this critically important tax.

a multibillion-dollar company, built on the work of women who had been discarded by mainstream corporations

Even worse than the initial strikes, however, were the slowdowns and passive resistance that followed, with computer workers returning to their jobs but refusing to work mandatory overtime or perform any other needed work that was not explicitly spelled out in their job requirements. This “work to rule” approach, an old union tactic from the industrial era, worked just as well for information work in the postindustrial age. Like factory workers before them, high-tech workers used the power of the strike to force their employers to give them better working conditions and to assert their power within the new digital economy. Computer operators, programmers, and even the lowly punchers, whose data-entry work had been seen as unimportant, were recognized as crucial after the strikes.

Women didn’t just leave work during strikes, however. In fact, many women were forced out of jobs in computing because they married or had children. Today, women continue to be forced out of tech (and other fields) by hostile maternal leave policies. But in the early digital age, leaving work upon getting married was not only likely, it was all but required for the mostly white, middle-class women who held these tech jobs.

That is how the UK got one of its most successful early software startups. In the early 1960s, fed up with the glass ceiling she had encountered working in tech, Stephanie “Steve” Shirley quit her job, and, with barely any money, she set up her own software company out of her home. This was a gamble for many reasons, particularly because software was not seen as a product in its own right at this point in time, but rather something computer purchasers expected would come included with their mainframe. Shirley, however, knew better. She understood the growing need for people who could program.

“A company is nothing without its workers,” Google organizers declared, and they’re right

Her company was unusual in another way: it had an explicitly feminist business model. Married and with a young child at home, Shirley knew how hard it was for women. So she explicitly set up her company so people could work from home, and she focused on hiring women who needed flexible, family-friendly working arrangements. Eventually, Shirley’s startup became a multibillion-dollar company, built on the work of women who had been discarded by mainstream corporations.

As Shirley’s example shows, feminist, worker-centric business practices aren’t just feel-good; they’re incredibly important to retaining talent and succeeding. And as the examples of harassment and discrimination in Silicon Valley show, discriminatory business models are often destructive. Major corporations in Silicon Valley brought products to market that heightened racist and sexist divisions within American society, arguably doing major damage to our democracy. In an economic sense, our collective wealth as a nation is diminished every time a corporation like Google hands a harasser a multimillion-dollar payout because these companies are supported by taxpayer-funded infrastructure. In a very real sense, this is an issue that affects us all.

While Shirley’s feminist company prospered, other British computing companies using outdated, discriminatory business practices floundered, dragging down their industry as a whole. As the nation struggled to computerize, strikes by disgruntled computer workers demanding better treatment not only derailed major national projects, but they also showed the unmistakable power of technical workers — especially when they took collective action. In the US, we are starting to see the cracks appear in our tech industry in similar ways. Although the UK went down this path much earlier, the similarities that echo in our current context in the US are striking and cautionary. “A company is nothing without its workers,” the organizers of the Google walkout declared. They’re right. The sooner Google and Silicon Valley take this fact seriously, the sooner we can start to repair the tech industry as a whole, and through that, undo some of the damage that it has done to US workers and citizens.