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They already took on Google. Now they want Congress to change the law.
Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration — a group of Google workers who successfully lobbied the search giant to end the controversial yet common practice of forcing employees to settle disputes outside of court — is organizing a massive phone bank to inundate Congress with calls tomorrow. They’re demanding that lawmakers pass legislation introduced earlier this year to ensure all U.S. employees and contractors can bring sexual harassment or discrimination claims in front of a judge and jury.
“Are we going to do this company by company?” said Tanuja Gupta, one of the lead organizers of the group. “We'll never be finished. We really need to get this fixed at the level of the law.”
These activists are hoping they can get enough workers on board -- in the tech sector and beyond -- to bring the debate over forced arbitration that's been brewing for years in Silicon Valley to Washington. The phone bank event is an early sign that tech workers, not usually considered organized labor, are banding together to become a more traditional political force -- and even adopting old-school ways of getting their message across.
The organizers are in contact with employees at other companies such as Starbucks, PayPal and more ahead of Wednesday’s event, Gupta tells me. “How can we claim to just fight for ourselves?” she said. “No worker is safe until all workers are safe.”
The Googlers are "energizing" the debate in Washington, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told me in an interview. “They are able to be a powerful face and voice for the unfair, unjust and even un-American effects of forced arbitration." Some of the Google employees appeared with him on Capitol Hill when he reintroduced the legislation, known as the FAIR Act in February. His bill does not currently have any Republican co-sponsors and may be a long shot in a GOP-controlled Senate and White House.
Forced arbitration agreements came under scrutiny in the #MeToo era. They are commonly included in contracts employees sign at the start of a job before any legal issues arise. But critics say this legal fine print can limit a victim's options for recourse if or when something potentially illegal does happen -- and allow companies to keep repeated sexual harassment claims secret.
The Google employees want to ensure mandatory arbitration is eliminated in all employment disputes -- from wage theft to discrimination -- at companies throughout the country.
They've had some impact already at their own workplace. After a New York Times report exposed Google’s long history of shielding executives such as Andy Rubin from sexual misconduct accusations, 20,000 of the company’s employees walked out of their offices around the world and protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims. The company first ended forced arbitration in individual sexual harassment cases, but this year it scrapped the mandatory requirement in all employee disputes under intense employee pressure.
Other technology companies have also changed their policies on forced arbitration, particularly in sexual harassment cases. Microsoft was the first company to do so at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, and Uber, Facebook and Lyft have also changed their policies when it comes to sexual misconduct claims.
“[The tech industry] was in the depths of forced arbitration practices just like every other industry,” Blumenthal said. “Maybe it’s raising the bar for other industries and inspiring others to take voluntary action.”
But activists and Blumenthal say even Google's recent changes to its forced arbitration policy have their limits. A large part of Google's workforce is made up of contractors who are employed by outside contracting firms. These workers could still be subject to forced arbitration agreements. Google's policy also does not apply to all employees in its parent company, Alphabet. Blumenthal says it's time for the law to change so that all workers have the same rights under the law.
He said the changes the companies are making to their forced arbitration policies -- and their promises -- should be closely scrutinized. “Just like the forced arbitration clauses themselves, the devil is in the details and the fine print," he said.
BITS: A Federal Bureau of Investigation official said the agency received multiple reports about an online manifesto that appeared to announce the plans for the attack on a California synagogue this weekend. But the shooting began before law enforcement could identify the shooter and intervene, Buzzfeed News's Julia Reinstein writes.
"Approximately five minutes before the shooting at Chabad Synagogue in Poway, California, the FBI received submissions through its online tip website and tip phone number regarding an anonymous threatening post on a social media site," the official said. "The submissions included a link to the post, but did not offer specific information about the post's author or threat location. Although FBI employees immediately took action to determine the post's author, the shooting occurred before the suspect could be fully identified."
Colin, a 25-year-old from Yucaipa, Calif., spotted the manifesto on 8chan and reported it to the FBI, he told Buzzfeed. As I wrote in yesterday's Technology 202, the manifesto had many similarities to a screed that the New Zealand mosque shooting suspect posted on 8chan before that attack weeks ago.
“I can’t remember why, but the picture and the first line of the preview caught my attention," said Colin, who asked that his last name not be used by Buzzfeed to avoid 8chan trolls. "And I thought, is this like New Zealand?"
Colin said the FBI operator he spoke to knew about 8chan, but his approximately five-minute call with the operator concluded just minutes before the gunman opened fire. The shooter posted on 8chan about 30 minutes before beginning the attack.
"The FBI thanks the alert citizens who saw and reported the post," the FBI official told Buzzfeed.
NIBBLES: The Labor Department said workers at a gig economy company are contractors, not employees -- and therefore the company will not have to offer minimum wage, overtime or pay a share of Social Security taxes, Noam Scheiber reports in the New York Times. Though the decision only officially applies to one, unidentified company, experts say it could impact a much broader swath of the industry.
The issue at stake could be worth billions to gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft, who have relied on contract labor to run their ride-hailing busineses. As these companies hit the public markets and reckon with hefty losses, requiring them to classify their workers as employees would raise their labor costs by 20 to 30 percent, according to industry experts.
The Labor Department made the decision in an "opinion letter," which will now provide a powerful defense to the company that requested it if its workers try to seek legal recourse over their classification. It's standard practice to not idenitfy the companies in such letters, the Times notes.
“Today, the U.S. Department of Labor offers further insight into the nexus of current labor law and innovations in the job market,” Keith Sonderling, an official in the division that oversees such issues, said in a statement to the New York Times.
The Obama administration previously signaled gig economy workers may be considered employees, but the Labor Department rescinded that directive shortly after Trump took office.
BYTES: The list of profitable companies paying zilch in corporate taxes nearly doubled last year as a result of Trump's 2017 tax overhaul. And Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Berne Sanders (I-Vt.) are hammering the issue on the campaign trail -- specifically targeting technology companies.
“Amazon, Netflix and dozens of major corporations, as a result of Trump’s tax bill, pay nothing in federal taxes,” Mr. Sanders said this month during a Fox News town hall-style event. “I think that’s a disgrace.”
Amazon, Netflix, IBM and Salesforce were listed among the New York Times list of 30 most profitable companies that paid no federal income taxes. (Amazon co-founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns the Washington Post).
The message appears to be resonating with some voters, like Colin Robertson, who wonders why he's paying taxes on his $18,000 annual income while companies get a break. He compared his salary to Bezos, who has a net income of approximately $150 billion, and said taxation should benefit the public good.
“He could be taxed at 99.9 percent and still have millions left over,” Mr. Robertson said, “and I’d be homeless.”
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