When about 300 Oracle employees staged a virtual walkout on Thursday, they were protesting Chairman Larry Ellison's decision to host a fundraiser for President Trump this week, according to an organizer. Many expressed dismay. Why would Ellison support Trump so publicly? The financial support "damages our company," employees wrote in a petition that now has more than 8,300 signatures. But experts say that Ellison's support of the president is most likely all about protecting Oracle's business interests.
Companies as big as Oracle need to stay in the government's good graces. "When you get any industry that gets big enough, whether it's oil and the railroads, or automakers, or tech, they have different relationships with lawmakers," said Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who researches Silicon Valley. She said as tech has become increasingly dominant, leaders like Ellison may feel the need to engage with the administration even in the face of employee opposition.
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But Oracle may need the administration even more than other companies, at least right now.
The company is locked in a high-profile suit against Google. On Wednesday, the Trump administration submitted an amicus brief taking Oracle's side in the long-running copyright fight between Google and Oracle, which is going to be heard by the Supreme Court next month. There seems to be "crony capitalism going on with the Google-Oracle case. It does smell bad," said Jeff Cowie, a fellow at Stanford and a Vanderbilt University history professor who has written books on labor and politics.
This administration has been good to big business in general, notes Rebecca Eisler, assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State University. "The administration's position toward business and industry, broadly speaking, has been in support of deregulation, tax incentives and subsidies," she said.
Ellison, who co-founded the Redwood Shores-based database company and is No. 7 on the Forbes list of the richest people in the world, called himself a lifelong Democrat and a Bill Clinton fan in a Playboy interview in 2002. But since then he has supported politicians on both sides of the aisle: He donated to a political action committee for Republican Mitt Romney when he ran for president; hosted President Barack Obama on a weekend golfing trip; and hosted fundraisers for Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
"I remember many years ago when he was talking to engineering, he said he was a Democrat," said Pearl Ong, a software engineer who has worked at Oracle for more than 20 years. "Then I saw a couple years ago he was supporting Marco Rubio. But to have a fundraiser for Dumpster? I can't believe it."
Ong — who speculated that Ellison may be holding out hope that Oracle still has a chance to win the JEDI cloud-computing contract from the Pentagon — is one of the thousands of employees who has signed the petition, which called on the company leadership to urge Ellison to cancel the fundraiser.
"Every year Oracle employees must take ethics, harassment and diversity training reflecting Oracle's stated values of responsible business practice and treating everyone fairly and with respect," wrote Joe McClintock, another software engineer, in the petition. "Larry Ellison is the face of Oracle and as such he is supporting a person who is the antithesis of these values? This is so, so wrong."
Another employee, Steven Feuerstein, tweeted: "For me, opposition to Trump is no longer a matter of political viewpoint, of disagreeing with his mostly awful policies. It is a matter of whether you believe in the rule of law."
One of the organizers of Thursday's worker action — which asked employees to log off and spend the rest of the day contributing to causes such as immigration, gender equity or the environment — said the company also forbids making political donations on behalf of Oracle.
While Ellison may have been acting as a private citizen, it's hard to see him as such, said the organizer, an Oracle employee based in New York. "It's really hard not to see Larry Ellison as chairman, not to mention his symbolic meaning to the company," she said.
Several Oracle employees told Protocol the company has not addressed the worker actions at all. No emails or announcements. But the organizer said a handful of others were unable to access the worker-action website from their work laptops Thursday, getting the following error message when they tried: "Access to this site may not be permitted by the Oracle Acceptable Use Policy."
"The site was not intentionally blocked by Oracle," said company spokesperson Deborah Hellinger. "It was temporarily blocked by a 'false positive' from our McAfee network security and antivirus software."
The organizer also said her manager had told her that Ellison "is asking our bosses about us." She said that some employees partaking in Thursday's action fear the company could retaliate.
An Oracle spokesperson said the company would have no comment on the worker action.
Despite the fact that "everything has become political" in Silicon Valley, as O'Mara puts it, the Oracle employees' actions were relatively small compared with other higher-profile walkouts at companies like Google. And the Oracle action was not universally supported within the company. "If Larry wants to support Trump as a citizen of this nation, he has that right, and I support it (may not agree with it but that is not the point)," said Todd Fitzwater, a VP at Oracle Netsuite. Other employees expressed similar sentiments in the comments section of the petition.
But as recent employee activism in the valley has shown, if the Oracle protests continue or grow it could become a bigger problem for the company. "Silicon Valley has always been about the people, we shouldn't underestimate that," O'Mara said.