Why some managers still don't understand the role of unions

Employees are speaking up more now than they ever have before, and they're demanding change.

Zoom panel

At our latest Protocol Live event, Ifeoma Ozoma and Jack Poulson joined us in conversation with Expensify CEO David Barrett.

Image: Protocol/Zoom

Gone are the days when employees sit back and cower when they're mistreated in the workplace, or when their company does something unethical. In today's era, workers are speaking up, organizing and forming unions.

At our latest Protocol Live event, tech whistleblowers Ifeoma Ozoma, a former public policy and and social impact manager at Pinterest, and Jack Poulson, a former senior research scientist at Google, joined us in conversation with Expensify CEO David Barrett to talk about this new era of empowered employees.

Last June, Ozoma and her former colleague, Aerica Shimizu Banks, who are both Black women, alleged racial and gender discrimination at Pinterest. Ozoma's experience at Pinterest motivated her to co-author the Silenced No More Act, which aims to ban non-disclosure agreements that restrict workers from speaking out about racial discrimination and other forms of abuse.

Poulson resigned from Google in 2018 following a report that Google was experimenting with building a censored search engine for China. Since the firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru, once a leading AI ethicist at Google, Poulson said people started to better understand how leaders at Google behave.

"To some degree, I feel vindicated by some of the more enlightened views of what tech ethics is now," he said.

Barrett made headlines last year when he encouraged Expensify's 10 million customers to vote for now-President Joe Biden. During the panel, he described how all employees had a chance to weigh in on the decision and how Expensify sent the email only after reaching a supermajority of employees in favor of sending it.

Barrett represented the corporate voice in the conversation, but said he "would hope to align myself with this sort of tech employee perspective."

He noted his time as a programmer and how many of the employee concerns raised in the panel were part of the reason he started Expensify. Expensify, for example, tries to solve for any potential pay discrimination by having employees vote on compensation through an internal tool.

"And what's nice about this is it means there is no manager that has a thumb over you," he said.

Ozoma said she was fascinated by many of the things Barrett said, particularly around transparency. But she took issue with Barrett trying to associate himself with workers.

"You are, respectfully, management still," Ozoma said. "You are not a worker or an employee."

Ozoma later asked Barrett if he would support the Silenced No More Act, to which he said, "Sign me up."

Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann in April threw Pinterest's support behind the bill, adding at the time that Pinterest will no longer require employees to sign NDAs that would prevent them from talking about their personal experiences at Pinterest once they leave.

But Ozoma said Barrett's commitment is far more concrete than Silbermann's. Barrett agreed to include the following sentence in employee agreements: "Nothing in this agreement prevents you from discussing or disclosing information about unlawful acts in the workplace, such as harassment or discrimination or any other conduct you have reason to believe is unlawful."

Within a few hours following the event, Barrett tweeted that he spoke with Expensify's corporate counsel and received the go-ahead to update the company's employee documents.

"I like to see things codified, so I want to see it in writing somewhere that you are adopting this policy for your full-time and contract employees," Ozoma said during the event. "So far as that goes, no company has done that yet, although I'm encouraged and expect to see it from David and Expensify."

Poulson, who has observed his former Google colleagues unionize, thinks the best way to tackle conversations around pay and other big decisions is through negotiation with a union, he said.

"I think commitments to voluntarily recognize employee unions along the same lines as what Ifeoma was just talking about are critical," he said. "Unfortunately, even some of the most hallowed civil liberties organizations sometimes don't do that."

Pinterest does not currently have a union, but Ozoma said she is confident in the power of collective action.

"But I'm also confident that the company is doing everything it can to squash any sort of collectivism," she said. "[...] I heard that Ben is scared shitless about employees unionizing."

Pinterest declined to comment on Ozoma's characterization of how Silbermann feels about employees potentially unionizing at the company.

At Expensify, Barrett said he would willingly recognize a union, but would wonder what he did to "make anyone feel like that was the correct solution."

In Barrett's mind, unionizing is a "a really important solution to a problem. But it's also a recognition that there was a problem to be solved in the first place."

Ozoma interjected, saying Barrett's understanding of unions is quite common, but also a big misconception.

"We have a bill of rights and we have rights that are codified for a reason," she said. "Not because you have to wait until said right is violated to then reference the document. The purpose of a union is not to be in conflict with management, it's to ensure that workers have a seat at the table. It's to ensure that workers have their voices heard in a way that is not the same for everyone."

Poulson, for example, spoke about how a conversation with his manager resulted in his pay doubling, but Ozoma said she and Poulson would have different conversations with a manager "because of how we present, because of who we are," even if they use the exact same words. Ozoma used that as an example of how unions can help empower employees who don't have the same amount of privilege as other workers.

"While I understand your understanding of unions," Ozoma said to Barrett, "I would encourage you to reframe it a little bit to understand that if your workers came to you, that doesn't mean anything is in conflict. They may love working at Expensify and want to ensure that if you were to be hit by a bus and someone else were to become the CEO of Expensify, they retain the rights and they retain the culture that you have said you've established."

Poulson added that he believes it's critical to look back at Hewlett-Packard's role in establishing what it looks like for companies to negotiate with workers in order to prevent them from unionizing.

"You know, providing employees with this cushy lifestyle — and I think that's part of why we see such immense comforts for workers — is that it is part of this deal that was kind of hinted at earlier, which is that you shouldn't have a union until things are sufficiently bad," he said. "[...] Basically these niceties are often framed explicitly as how you prevent a union. I think we need to know the history there — that it actually comes from a very reactionary right-wing history."


Why CrowdStrike wants to be a broader enterprise IT player

The company, which grew from $1 billion in annual recurring revenue to $2 billion in just 18 months, is expanding deeper within the cybersecurity market and into the wider IT space as well.

CrowdStrike is well positioned at a time when CISOs are fed up with going to dozens of different vendors to meet their security needs.

Image: Protocol

CrowdStrike is finding massive traction in areas outside its core endpoint security products, setting up the company to become a major player in other key security segments such as identity protection as well as in IT categories beyond cybersecurity.

Already one of the biggest names in cybersecurity for the past decade, CrowdStrike now aspires to become a more important player in areas within the wider IT landscape such as data observability and IT operations, CrowdStrike co-founder and CEO George Kurtz told Protocol in a recent interview.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Election markets are far from a sure bet

Kalshi has big-name backing for its plan to offer futures contracts tied to election results. Will that win over a long-skeptical regulator?

Whether Kalshi’s election contracts could be considered gaming or whether they serve a true risk-hedging purpose is one of the top questions the CFTC is weighing in its review.

Photo illustration: Getty Images; Protocol

Crypto isn’t the only emerging issue on the CFTC’s plate. The futures regulator is also weighing a fintech sector that has similarly tricky political implications: election bets.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has set Oct. 28 as a date by which it hopes to decide whether the New York-based startup Kalshi can offer a form of wagering up to $25,000 on which party will control the House of Representatives and Senate after the midterms. PredictIt, another online market for election trading, has also sued the regulator over its decision to cancel a no-action letter.

Keep Reading Show less
Ryan Deffenbaugh
Ryan Deffenbaugh is a reporter at Protocol focused on fintech. Before joining Protocol, he reported on New York's technology industry for Crain's New York Business. He is based in New York and can be reached at

The Uber verdict shows why mandatory disclosure isn't such a bad idea

The conviction of Uber's former chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, seems likely to change some minds in the debate over proposed cyber incident reporting regulations.

Executives and boards will now be "a whole lot less likely to cover things up," said one information security veteran.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If nothing else, the guilty verdict delivered Wednesday in a case involving Uber's former security head will have this effect on how breaches are handled in the future: Executives and boards, according to information security veteran Michael Hamilton, will be "a whole lot less likely to cover things up."

Following the conviction of former Uber chief security officer Joe Sullivan, "we likely will get better voluntary reporting" of cyber incidents, said Hamilton, formerly the chief information security officer of the City of Seattle, and currently the founder and CISO at cybersecurity vendor Critical Insight.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at


Delta and MIT are running flight tests to fix contrails

The research team and airline are running flight tests to determine if it’s possible to avoid the climate-warming effects of contrails.

Delta and MIT just announced a partnership to test how to mitigate persistent contrails.

Photo: Gabriela Natiello/Unsplash

Contrails could be responsible for up to 2% of all global warming, and yet how they’re formed and how to mitigate them is barely understood by major airlines.

That may be changing.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol covering climate. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at

Latest Stories