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In First Person: Chewy Shaw

September 15, 2021

Chewy Shaw serves both as vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union and as a software engineer at Google. Adam Bryant, editor with People + Strategy, spoke with Shaw about how unions give employees a voice and why great ideas come from groups of people working together.

This article was published in print and online in the Summer 2021 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy. 

Unions Empower Employees to Speak Up

People + Strategy: Let’s start with the backstory of how and why the unionization effort at Google happened.

Chewy Shaw: A large part of it started with the core values that Larry Page and Sergey Brin established when they started Google. They started off with inclusivity. They wanted to help make the internet accessible to everyone. Their idea of “don’t be evil” sent a clear signal to people about the kind of company they were building. It was core to how the culture came to be defined, so that when we hit a point of intense growing pains, this unionization effort came about because we wanted to hold onto that initial culture.

A big growing-pains moment came with the election of Donald Trump. It polarized everyone. People who previously felt like politics don’t belong at work now had strong opinions. Many conservatives felt like Trump was a hero, and this was their rallying cry to speak up. They began an internal First Amendment free-speech battle, arguing that they should be able to say anything they want without being punished for it.

At the same time, some people on the liberal side who were really inflamed by Trump’s extremely harmful rhetoric felt that the company wasn’t pushing hard enough against it. All that led to the first meaningful conflict within the company. There had been disagreements before, but now you have people saying they do not want to work with certain colleagues.

I think the leaders of the company just didn’t know how to respond to it in the moment. They started responding with steps that took a more authoritarian approach, out of concern that this fracturing will end up causing the company to fall apart. As they started moving more in an authoritarian direction, unionization become the only solution that we had left for us to have our voice used for meaningful change for how the company operates.

P+S: You call them authoritarian steps. What were they?

CS: Some context helps. I joined Google full-time in 2013. Back then, during the weekly TGIF meetings, the two founders would come onstage, and in their remarks, they were often open about the arguing that was happening within the company. They were proud of the fact that we were a company in which people could argue. It became a core part of our culture to have multiple avenues to complain.

Then they began shutting down different avenues for people to bring up complaints. They shut down people being able to ask live questions at a microphone so that they could vet questions ahead of time instead. They made strict rules for every mailing list about what could be discussed. They started punishing people for sharing certain documents internally, firing five people in late 2019. They were trying to silence dissent by creating a culture of fear around speaking up.

They also started tracking any meetings that were organized with more than 100 people attending. We’ve seen a large shift away from the idea that our executives want to hear our complaints and more toward the idea that they want us to follow orders.

P+S: As a union, what do you want? What are your priorities?

CS: Overall, we want workers to feel empowered to speak up about things that they think are ethical concerns, whether it’s how the company is working internally or how it is affecting the world externally. We want people to feel safe and supported in bringing up a concern and in trying to work with the company to come up with a better solution.

Now, we feel like the avenues to do that have been shut down, so that when somebody sees something that they think is ethically concerning, they aren’t given space to meaningfully engage and try to work toward a solution. Instead, they are at best tossed a kind of softball answer and told in so many words to never speak about these problems, and that if they do, they might get fired. We want to be able to counteract that. Whatever tools we can find, we want to use them to give the ability for somebody who sees a concern to be able to raise that concern and to be able to strategize toward a solution.

P+S: Have you had meetings with leadership, and if so, how did those play out?

CS: We have not. What we’ve heard is that they’re basically telling managers

to treat us as if we’re just another employee resource group and to not really make much of it. I think they’re waiting to see what comes of our group. It’s a legitimate concern because what we are doing is a meaningful, hard task. Just because you want to do it doesn’t mean you can do it. There’s a reason why a lot of efforts like this one do end up stumbling in a number of different ways.

P+S: Just to step back, there has been this broader push, particularly within Silicon Valley, around this idea of “bring your whole self to work.” Google was part of that. Can you talk more about how that factors into your thinking?

CS: In many ways, Google really presented itself when it started as being a haven for activists. And when the haven for activists starts turning on the activists, that is then going to lead to a fight.

But there’s also another element. The idea of bringing your whole self to work also helped raise the issue of mental health in the workplace, which is an issue that a lot of companies were avoiding. The ideas of psychological safety and unconscious bias became really important.

Part of Google’s approach in the past was to analyze what makes you as productive as you can be. That requires a better understanding of how your mind works. Let’s step back in terms of micromanaging your day-today work and focus instead on setting up a system for you to do your work and achieve your goals on a quarterly basis. If you start struggling, then we will have your manager step in a bit more. But the default was to give you the benefit of the doubt that you are able to identify a flow that will get your work done each quarter.

In many ways, Google really presented itself when it started as being a haven for activists. And when the haven for activists starts turning on the activists, that is then going to lead to a fight.

That gave me so much space to do a lot of mental health growth. I’ve become so much more adept at understanding my own experience and how to connect with and communicate with a lot of other people because I’ve had the space to really grapple with it and not feel constantly pressured to have daily output.

That approach by the company encouraged a more holistic analysis of what is going on within people’s lives rather than just assuming that compartmentalization will work. But now the company is sending signals that you have to go back to compartmentalization. And we’re reacting to that by saying, well, no, this is not how it works. This is not how we’ve been able to get work done. This is not how we became an innovative company.

That’s why a lot of us really feel emotionally invested to stay in this battle rather than just go off to another company. We came to this company from other places where we felt like we were not given the space to rally, speak up and push against the system. We want this company to stay in that mentality of pushing against these types of expectations.

P+S: To be clear, wages and benefits are not the focus of your organizing effort.

CS: Right. To a large extent, the narrative of unions over the last almost 100 years was to carve out a pathway for legal protection to give workers power. But one limitation of that path was that it encouraged the mentality of simply replacing one set of leaders with another set to be the voice of the workers.

That’s a very aggressive mentality for giving workers a voice, because it’s based on the idea that there needs to be one person who is speaking for the workers at any given time. That strategy has led to a lot of meaningful improvements throughout labor history, but it has had big limiting factors. It created a framework that made it antagonistic every time a union brings up an issue.

It’s always about fighting during contract negotiations to pressure the other side to get what you want. I don’t see that as being the only way for workplace organizing and for workers to use their collective power to have a say and try to change the decisions of a company.

P+S: We are moving increasingly into this era of employees feeling like they have a voice and vote on their company’s policies, including who they do business with. Your thoughts on that?

CS: To a large extent, it’s very much the same type of battle that has been part of the government revolutions of history, which start off essentially with people saying, wait, there are more of us with strong opinions on this issue that you recognize, and you’re not doing anything about our views.

In a similar way, our society is in a revolutionary mindset now. Just look at how many people are lining up with the Black Lives Matter movement. We also have more ways to connect people globally who share an interest in pushing for change. Now more people are looking to corporations to effect change because they often have the power to change something.

Our society still looks to individual heroes to fix the next problem, but all these challenges are more than any one person can reasonably handle.

P+S: All this is creating an incredible leadership challenge for CEOs and their executive teams.

CS: Part of the problem is the perspective that CEOs should be the funnel of every decision at the company. For example, people are now putting pressure on Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook to be the funnel to solve all the issues that Facebook is dealing with. Our society still looks to individual heroes to fix the next problem, but all these challenges are more than any one person can reasonably handle. Sure, we’re paying them as if they were able to handle it, but just giving someone money does not automatically give them the ability to know how to handle the hard problem.

The real problem is that individuals are not suited for the complexity of the challenge we’re facing now. These are such complex problems that the best types of solutions are going to come out of a group of people with different perspectives.

We need, as a society, to find a better process for getting a bunch of people who are thinking directly about these problems to spend the time it takes to come up with meaningful solutions. We’re basically scapegoating each of these problems onto whoever we can by saying, “You were the most powerful person at the time. Why didn’t you do anything?”

P+S: How are all these trend lines going to play out over time?

CS: My hopeful perspective is that more people will start to recognize that there has been a continual problem of us expecting one person to have the perspective to address all these different needs and concerns. We’re at a place now where we are seeing that one perspective just can’t see all these concerns.

My hope is that this will then push us all toward a mentality that, rather than trying to find the one person who can solve each problem, we instead try to find a good group of people who are focused on the right set of values, core concepts and initial structure to then start solving these issues in a meaningful way.

Over time, advertising has focused more on conveying why a company or brand is trustworthy because of its values. In a similar way, companies should use those values to provide structure for employees from different backgrounds to solve problems. How do we structurally make sure that the technical details consistently meet these values?

When that starts to be the way that employees and customers start to see companies, then they are going to engage more with those companies that are pushing positively for what they care about. That will lead to companies being seen as defenders of a set of values. There will be overlap between different companies, and they may become allies. We’ll see more of them fighting together for the changes that they want to see in our society and talking more directly about it.