WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.

The Fight Against Forced Arbitration – Tanuja Gupta

December 21, 2020 Cornell ILR School Season 1 Episode 15
WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.
The Fight Against Forced Arbitration – Tanuja Gupta
Show Notes Transcript

Tanuja Gupta, one of the original organizers of Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration, and ILR Dean Alex Colvin examine the role her group played in ending the practice at her company, as well as getting the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act passed in Congress.

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Julie Greco  0:03  
Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work impacts nearly every person on our planet, and the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice around the world. In this episode of "Work! Exploring the future of work labor and employment," Dean Alex Colvin speaks with Tanuja Gupta, one of the original organizers of Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration.

Alex Colvin  0:29  
Thanks for joining us today Tanuja. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and help our listeners learn a little about what happened with Googlers Against Forced Arbitration, which is it's a pretty interesting organization to have formed around an issue that was pretty obscure. Until recently, I mean I was started researching this area, maybe 20 years ago, and for a long time it seemed like one of these super obscure academic topics that nobody in the general public really cared about. But the last few years, this is, this is really turned around to become a big thing that people are talking about paying attention to. So I was curious, for yourself, when did you first become aware of this as an issue.

Tanuja Gupta  1:14  
I think a lot of the awareness around arbitration did grow with Me Too movement recently. I remember Samantha Bee did an episode when Gretchen Carlson had come out with her accusations and talking about how arbitration works. And I turned to my husband, who is a lawyer, and asking him, I was like, how could this be possible and he just like I didn't invent this! So you go down the rabbit hole after you hear that and then you realize you're under that agreement, most people are as well. And then, I think all the math starts to add up of why you haven't heard more about certain issues it's because they've been scuttled into arbitration.

Alex Colvin  1:57  
Yeah, it is really interesting that part of the effect is that you just don't hear about stuff. Right? It's almost like the dog that didn't bark. You'd expect to see more attention to something but this actually gives less attention to it. And that makes it go underneath the radar, in a way that takes takes longer to pay attention to. So, you hear about this issue. Right? You start becoming aware of it, and then how does this then become a thing at Google and how do Googlers end up paying attention to this.

Tanuja Gupta  2:26  
So if you cycle back to about, October, 2018. Just put your mind back there. You know the Kavanaugh hearings were happening at that time, as well. An article came out about how father of Android, as he's called one of the lead developers Andy Rubin received a $90 million payout to leave the company quietly, when it turned out there were multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct filed against him. And I think everybody just heard that and like something about the Zeitgeist at the moment, exploded. Right. Everything has just been building. And the elections the midterms were the following week. So, and we knew we had a moment to raise attention and awareness about this issue and it was just this kind of swarm started to form around how do we stop this once and for all. This is not the first person I think if you were at the company you felt this growing sentiment already. And this was the straw that broke the camel's back. And people just started coming together saying, you know, we're going to hold a walk out and city by city people started organizing logistics. But the key difference was we want a set of tangible actions coming out of this. This can't just be "we're angry". And so we put together a list of demands it was crowd sourced by hundreds of people in a Google Doc, not to sound like ... 

And the first thing was ended to ending the policy of mandatory arbitration. And we asked for it to end across the board for not just sexual harassment but also for racial discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, but the company only ended it for individual cases of sexual harassment. So narrow. Ridiculous because you can't tease out the differences, a lot of the times, as you well know. And so we kind of got this hollow change, but the company took a victory lap in the press. And now we had even more work right we had to go back and erase the myth that Google had fixed the problem, and we had to remind people what the original issue was to fix. And so, we as a group of us kind of broke out from the larger walkout group to focus on this issue, because I think it's really a gateway issue. You can't talk about structural inequity or, you know, issues of diverse hiring slates. If you don't even know your numbers to understand like what your offenses are and how you've handled claims to date. And so that's why we took up that issue is is our main focus.

Alex Colvin  5:02  
Yeah, I think that's a really important point that you don't actually know what all the issues are unless you can get them out of the table right so you have something structurally that keeps the issue from being expressed, yeah, you don't even know what's going on and what it is. You mentioned like you know sexual harassment being the focus, but you know there's kind of a couple of things that easily jump to mind. Well okay, if it's not okay for sexual harassment does that mean it's okay for racial harassment right or, you know, somebody with disabilities. And then also just a question of, you know, what exactly is going on in the workplace right that somebody could be sexually harassed but you know maybe there's other stuff going on that needs to be addressed as well and you literally won't know if it's not on the table. 

Tanuja Gupta  5:46  
Absolutely. Absolutely agree.

Alex Colvin  5:48  
So you're talking about how your how the group kind of formed out of the walkouts. Can you talk a little about you know how it was trying to organize a group around this issue because this isn't your regular job. Right? You're doing this on top of you know your work and my understanding is Googlers work pretty hard. It is a pretty tough job you have right so how do you go about organizing organizing a group around an issue.

Tanuja Gupta  6:14  
So by day I'm a program manager on the search engineering team and so in a lot of ways you just take the skills that you use to organize an engineering team, and use them to organize a group around a social issue like this earlier, issue like this one. So it was a lot of kind of understanding all your different stakeholders, what they're in it to do and accomplish. Understanding your resource strengths, so we have someone who's really good at press we have someone who's really good at analyzing large sets of data, we have another person who's really good at outreach. Right. And so I tried to find any similarity to my current job to take those skills and apply them and bring people together. Also similar to work, a lot of us were across the country, you know, to this day, I still never met two of the organizers that I've worked with, day in and day out for over a year in person because we're just scattered across the country, but it's also kind of great I mean we have people in Washington, California, Massachusetts, New York coming together around this issue because we are all affected. So we started to think like how would we tackle this if this was our product to launch. I was really starting to think about okay well what would we do? We would define kind of what's the PRD or the product requirements documents we said like here are the things that we want. What's, what's important to get done first. How do we build awareness around it, how do we get more people bought in? You know, I think, at Google it's a really large company and you're often kind of working on these concentric circles of consensus. Right and building waves of momentum and it was the same thing. Working with different activist groups working with different employees at different tech companies than other sectors then as you know kind of going to Congress as well to get lawmakers on your side. And just continuing to chip away at it.

Alex Colvin  8:09  
Yeah, so it was really interesting you went with your group down to Washington DC to do some lobbying. Can you tell us about that experience that must have been kind of wild I mean I'm assuming this was your first time lobbying. Right.

Tanuja Gupta  8:21  
That was definitely my first time, and then we went six times after that. It was fascinating, right, because if you think about the size of Congress right it's, it's like half the size of my graduating class of high school. When you think about it and you're like, Okay, so now I need to really work like each person kind of has their own trigger points and their and their own areas that they're looking at whether it's a business concern, whether it's a civil rights concern, you know everybody's. Yeah. So I think, you know, we did a lot of research before we went, of what is this Congress person care about and how do we make arbitration relevant to this person. I was shocked with the amount of chaos that there is in DC. It is the revolving door of activist groups after activist group trying to get five minutes. So that was really interesting. I had no idea that nobody really sits in a hearing the full time or just wouldn't show up. Um, so I was like, well, this is just like meetings in our company.

I think like once we appreciated that it  suddenly felt like everybody's just trying to do their best, and we have just as much a reason to be here and a right to be here as anyone else. So I think gave us a lot more confidence, especially when we started to bring kind of survivors of the process, and or of harassment with us, it was just really clear like, this is a top story. 

Alex Colvin  9:47  
Right, yeah. It's seems like one of the important things is getting somebody on your side there. And ironically, you know, in past years, the senator had really pushed the issue a lot with Al Franken who ends up you know being brought down by the Me Too movement, but he was like the big champion on forced arbitration you know sort of a big irony there. Who did he who you particularly impressed by down there? Who do you think was really responsive or sort of you know somebody who who really stood out to you?

Unknown Speaker  10:20  
Senator Blumenthal from Connecticut has valiantly introduced the Arbitration Fairness Act, year after year after year right and then finally got a little bit of a marketing bump and now call the Fair Act. It got more co-sponsors and simultaneously introduced in the House and the Senate, which was great. So I'm really grateful.  Chairman Nadler also took time to really talk about the importance of ending forced arbitration not just for workers but for consumers as well. So, you know, they've been great. Congressman congressman Bustos has been great, just lots of, Congresswoman Speier who was the first person to talk to us when everything was happening, and so super super grateful.

Alex Colvin  11:06  
Yeah that's cool yeah i mean is that as we get kind of cynical about politics and you see that there's a fairly you know there are people who are working on issues kind of not in the limelight but really, you know, pushing things over a long period of time right to try and really make a difference so you know it is good to to hear those kind of positive stories too I think.

Tanuja Gupta  11:24  
Yeah, absolutely. And there were a lot of new people, right, and representative Lori Trahan. First term, Congresswoman, and we met with her chief of staff, and he simply hadn't heard of the issue or the bill. And so you kind of go in being like, Why haven't you signed on as a co-sponsor. And then you just realize they haven't heard of them, you know?

And then we got an email the next day. Thanks for meeting with us. She's on the bill. And so it's, I think sometimes we think things are malicious and it's really just. They haven't gotten to it, or they haven't heard of it and yeah there's enough a million things on the plate. 

Alex Colvin  12:02  
Yeah, it's cool when you can actually make a difference. I mean you you guys seem like you did make a difference at Google, right you got some changes there so you've got some responsiveness there. Why Why do you think you're able to make a difference there what was the key things that helped make a breakthrough?

Tanuja Gupta  12:18  
You know, I think, only the legal team at Google will ever be able to officially answer that question right but I will note that we did our best to make this about the issue, not just being kind of angry at the man type of campaigning

Alex Colvin  12:36  

Tanuja Gupta  12:36  
But more about, "Hey, I think there's some misinformation being spread about this practice. Let us help debunk those myths." And so using materials such as yours, that was published in EPI, right, we held the town halls, we brought in experts like you to have a panel to educate coworkers. We requested one on one meetings with executives as well. It wasn't like let's just rail against them, it was asking for Hey, we'd love to talk to you about this. And when we launched the campaigns on social media, it was about stories it. Again, it wasn't about why Google is a bad place to work. It was about why this practice is unfair and that we believe our company should be a leader. And here's a way lead.

Alex Colvin  13:22  
Yeah, I actually I was really impressed when you had me and some of the other academics in that, you know, we had like a panel discussion and really kind of delved into the issue. You know, and tried to kind of provide some real information there. It was very different from, you know, as you say it just sort of attacked the man thing it was like okay, they're trying to do a process of educating people about this issue and trying to understand like okay why, why are people upset about this what, why do they feel it interferes with their rights, bringing bringing their concerns forward. 

Tanuja Gupta  13:55  
And there was genuine interest I mean, 800 people tuned into that panel over lunch. Right. And so, and that was just something that was relatively quickly put together so I think people generally wanted to understand the impact. 

Alex Colvin  14:09  
So, it was one of the weirder panels I've been on I'll say because we were in this beautiful room, it was like a TED talk type stage, and there was nobody in the room. And I was thinking like this is so weird, then somebody's like oh no there's like 800 people watching, you know, they're just not here. So, you have made some changes but you are also I know still trying to campaign to get Google to get its contractors to end the practice, why is that important?

Tanuja Gupta  14:37  
Well about 54% of our workforce is actually temp vendor contractor, right? So over half the people that you see in the halls or that are making this company run are not actually  full time employees of Google. And we work with a number of different vendors and services, and some of those have certain types of labor that are unionized and others don't. So, if you're part of a union, that's a very different ballgame and you do have collective bargaining rights. Those are not the people that we're necessarily concerned about.

Alex Colvin  15:11  
 Right, right.

Tanuja Gupta  15:12  
It's for those who don't. And say for example, everybody who works in our cafes, right, through Bon Appetite management, they are forced to sign arbitration agreements. And so, maybe Google's not forcing them into arbitration, but the company that is supplying those workers to Google is forcing them to sign an arbitration. And we both know that the people most susceptible to discrimination and harassment are going to be in jobs that are not necessarily front of house or knowledge worker jobs. They're in other areas of labor. And so I think it would be incredibly hypocritical of us as full time Googlers to say you know we got ours, we're done, when the whole point is to make sure that the most vulnerable people are not subject to arbitration. So that's why we're still fighting for it and we've gotten a run around from leadership of how we can't interfere with labor practices by our temp vendor contractor suppliers. But I think, a company as strong as Google should be able to take a moral lead, and I'm pretty sure others would follow. And so that's what we hope.

Alex Colvin  16:20  
Yeah, I think it's a really powerful argument I mean I think it's like you know also recognizing that you know, you know, you're working at Google, one of the most desirable companies to work at in the world. You know I'm an Ivy League tenured professor, right? You know, I mean we have concerns, but you know remembering that you know there's enormous swathes of the workforce that are in these kind of more vulnerable positions that tend to be the people who are subject to harassment, discrimination more often and really need their rights protected.

Tanuja Gupta  16:49  
You and I are not the faces of arbitration. It's more likely a black woman who's making you know 13 to $14 an hour. 

Alex Colvin  16:56  
So, after kind of couple years working on this issue and making this organization I think really an interesting kind of success story. What lessons, do you have that you can take away that may be to give to people at other companies or working on other issues that you've learned from this experience that might be useful for them? 

Tanuja Gupta  17:17  
Oh, what lessons. I think a handful. One would be to not expect quick wins. Right. And I think really understanding what your risk profile is the people that you're organizing with. Are you on the same page in terms of how far you're willing to go. How long you're willing to be in this. And that you're working on this not from a place of anger, necessarily, but from a vision of what the future can be. Because I think sometimes anger essentially runs out. in the end it has to be about something else. So that's one thing I would say. The second thing would be, you know, for a long haul like people will tag in and tag out. And I think it requires all of us being okay with that. You know, we had certain people that said, I just can't participate this month, you know, I, I am responsible for my kid this month you know she's not with her dad, like, that doesn't mean you can't work on this anymore. We'll see when you come back. Right. And so, I found that to be another thing that when you're organizing with your co workers. That's okay don't take that as a sign of something, falling apart. And I think like the third thing would just be, there's going to be days where you feel like this is all pointless, and just kind of hold on, because you'll get to the point where it felt like it was all worth it as well. So, clarity of mission, keeping that really succinct and kind of narrow to the thing that you're trying to do, hanging on through when there's no press attention or anything because you know you're trying to get to something that will eventually do good for people. Those are the things that I would take away.

Alex Colvin  18:55  
Yeah, I think that's a great message. You know the reality is, you know, the world doesn't like you know turn on a dime but if you know you're really committed to an issue you really work at it you can make a difference. And I think that's a pretty inspiring message. Well thanks so much for talking to us and I really appreciated the conversation and good luck with the organization. I think you're doing a great work and it's an inspiring organization so.

Tanuja Gupta  19:18  
Thank you so much. And if I hadn't said enough thank you, thank you, thank you, for guiding us along the way and helping us understand all these crazy legal jargon and pieces along the way as well it's been incredible.

Julie Greco  19:30  
Thank you for listening to Work! You can subscribe to our podcast at, or on iTunes. Do you have a recommendation for a guest or topic to be discussed on a future episode? Just click on the link in the show notes of this episode and leave your suggestion. Again, thank you for listening.

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