The National Labor Review Board (NLRB) has charged Google with illegally surveilling, retaliating against, and interrogating software engineers involved in labor organizing in 2019 and alleged that a number of the company's practices and policies violated the National Labor Relations Act, according to a federal complaint issued Wednesday. The board's investigation has also found evidence that Google illegally fired two of those worker activists, Kathryn Spiers and Laurence Berland. "[Google has been interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise [of their rights],” the complaint said.
"My view, at least, is that we felt very strongly about everything we put to the NLRB," said Berland of the NLRB's new findings. "We feel strongly that we were right and that we think these findings are important not just for our cases, but for the whole country and society. The fact that even Trump’s NLRB made these findings should send a signal that says there’s only far you can stretch the law."
The NLRB complaint arrives close to a year after Google fired five employee activists who had been active in labor organizing at the company. Last December, the Communication Workers of America union filed the unfair labor practice charges on behalf of the fired workers with the National Labor Review Board, alleging Google had illegally dismissed workers and instituted new data policies and codes of conduct specific for employees who had organized. The complaint issued Wednesday is the result of an NLRB investigation that determined some of these unfair labor practices charges filed against Google had substantial efficient backing them up.
“Google has always worked to support a culture of internal discussion, and we place immense trust in our employees,” a spokesperson for Google said. “Of course employees have protected labor rights that we strongly support, but we have always taken information security very seriously. We’re confident in our decision and legal position. Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”
The complaint serves as vindication for the fired employees, but also serves as a warning to Google and other tech companies considering retaliating against workers who organize to improve their working conditions or join unions in an industry that is undergoing a wave of unprecedented worker activism.
Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, it is illegal to retaliate against workers who participate in concerted activities to improve their working conditions or who organize to form unions.
According to the complaint, on September 3, 2019, Google began “virtually surveilling employee protected concerted activities by, on numerous occasions, viewing an employee slide production in support of” a union drive at HCL, a Google contractor in Pittsburgh.
The complaint also alleges that on November 8, 2019, Google managers interrogated employees about accessing internal documents. Five days later, Google managers in a global investigations meeting in San Francisco allegedly interrogated workers again about their accessing of employees’ calendars and other documents. At the time, Google employees say they accessed these calendars to organize protests against Google's work with IRI, an anti-union consulting firm, hired by Google.
In December, managers threatened the workers “with unspecific reprisals requiring employees to raise workplace concerns through official channels including Code of Conduct,” according to the complaint.” While Google had maintained data classification policies, specifying who should access certain “need to know” documents,” the complaint alleges that the company selectively enforced these rules applying them solely “against employees who engaged in protected, concerted activities.” Beginning in November 2019, Google announced a Calendar rule “prohibiting employees from accessing other employees’ calendars without a business purpose,” the complaint states, specifically to “discourage employees from forming, joining, assisting a union or engaging in other protected, concerted activities.”
The complaint alleges that Google fired software engineer Laurence Berland on November 25 for accessing these calendars and documents, and suspended a second worker Rebecca Rivers to “discourage other employees from engaging in concerted activities.”
At the time, in November 2019, a memo, sent by Google's security and investigations team, informed employees that Google had terminated four employees for "clear and repeated violations of our data security policies." Those employees, including Berland, say they raised concerns about Google's work with Customs and Border Protection and YouTube’s handling of LGBTQ issues.
A fifth engineer, Kathryn Spiers, was fired days later after she wrote a few lines of code that created a pop-up message asserting Google employees’ labor rights whenever her co-workers visited the website of the union avoidance consulting firm hired by Google or Google’s community guidelines. The message read: "Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities."
At the time, a spokesperson for Google told Motherboard, “We dismissed an employee who abused privileged access to modify an internal security tool. This was a serious violation.” But the NLRB complaint alleges that Spiers was fired “to discourage other employees from engaging in concerted activities.”
The firings escalated tensions between Google’s management and a growing contingent of employee activists who have spoken out and protested the company's handling of sexual harassment, its treatment of contract employees, and contracts with federal border protection agencies, the Department of Defense, and the Chinese government. Employees have also organized against Google's hiring of a consulting firm, IRI Consultants, known for its union avoidance efforts.
Google will now have the opportunity to settle with the workers who were found to be wrongfully terminated, or take the case before an administrative judge for a hearing that’s been scheduled for April 12, 2021.
We’ve uploaded the full text of the complaint here.