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Protocol | Workplace

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."

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