Judge Orders Google to Disclose Secret Anti-Union Documents

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Google must “immediately” produce more than 70 subpoenaed documents related to its anti-union campaign.
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

A National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that Google must “immediately” produce more than 70 subpoenaed documents related to a secret anti-union campaign, known as code name “Project Vivian,” that Google ran to crush a union drive at the company. 

The files include internal communications and strategy documents created in conjunction with IRI Consultants, a "labor relations" firm that Google contracted to craft and amplify anti-union messaging at the company. The judge wrote that Google sought to withhold the documents in ongoing court proceedings related to the firing of four activist employees by improperly citing them as legally privileged communications with their attorneys. 

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The anti-union documents include “campaign materials prepared for distribution to employees, training materials for staff on how to campaign against unionization among persons they manage, anti-union messaging and message amplification advice for [Google], and updates on how the campaign is being viewed among employees and/or in various reports.”

A spokesperson for Google told Motherboard, “As we confirmed in 2019, like most companies, we engage dozens of outside consultants and law firms to provide us with advice on a wide range of topics, including employer obligations and employee engagement. This included IRI Consultants for a short period. We disagree with the Special Master's ruling which mischaracterizes various legally privileged materials and are reviewing our options.”

The subpoena is part of an ongoing National Labor Relations Board hearing involving the five fired Google software engineers who filed unfair labor practice complaints alleging that Google illegally terminated them in 2019 for engaging in collective activity. (One of these workers settled.)

In early 2021, Google workers launched a company-wide union with the Communications Workers of America. The union is open to all employees and contractors at the company, but did not hold an official National Labor Relations Board election, and has not been recognized by Google. 

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Earlier this year, Google identified 1,507 documents pertaining to a subpoena filed by four software engineers who were fired in 2019 after organizing against the company’s contracts with immigration detention agencies, according to the court order. Last week, National Labor Relations Board judge Paul Bogas issued a ruling in a 13-page report that stated that Google must “immediately” produce the documents, which include materials produced by an anti-union firm IRI Consultants that Google hired to advise it on labor unrest at the company.  

An appointed special master reviewed 80 of the withheld documents, and found that only nine of them had been properly classified as privileged. 

In his report, the judge also scolded Google for “ma[king] significant contemporaneous efforts to give this non-legal, 3rd-party material, the facial appearance of privileged communications.” He also noted that at Google’s “request,” consultants from IRI “funnel[ed] the materials through outside legal counsel so that outside counsel [could] then forward it onto [Google] under privilege.” 

Though the documents have not been made public at this juncture, Bogas's filing confirms the breadth and scope of Google's anti-union activities, confirms that Google retained IRI Consultants to help stop collective action at Google, and also shows that Google attempted to improperly keep these documents secret by funneling communications through lawyers (to claim attorney-client privilege) even when they apparently had no legal relevance.

In January, Motherboard reported that IRI Consultants compiles dossiers on its clients’ employees during the lead-up to union elections. One of these dossiers obtained by Motherboard, included detailed information about each employee’s personality, temperament, motivations, ethnicity, family background, spouses' employment, finances, health issues, work ethic, job performance, disciplinary history, and involvement in union activity in the lead up to a union campaign. 

The National Labor Relations Board judge will now continue reviewing six additional notebooks that Google has deemed “privileged.” On December 2, the parties will resume meeting to schedule new trial dates.

On November 29, three of the fired Google employees who organized against the company’s contracts with immigration detention agencies sued Google in Santa Clara County in California for breaching part of its contract that states “Don’t Be Evil.”