Four Google employees who were fired on November 25 after participating in organizing efforts at the company say they will file unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB). The fired employees claim that Google likely illegally retaliated against them for “engaging in protected labor organizing.”
Google fired the four workers, Laurence Berland, Rebecca Rivers, Paul Duke, and Sophie Waldman, “for clear and repeated violations of our data security policies,” according to an internal memo reviewed by The New York Times. The firings and subsequent unfair labor complaints are yet another instance of escalating tensions between employees and management at the tech giant.
Duke, a software engineer who began working for the company eight years ago, said Google’s formerly collaborative and open work culture has shifted drastically in recent years, leaving its workers in the dark about many projects.
“Google is centralizing its power more and more. A lot of my organizing has been around the fact that workers have a right to know what we’re working on,” he told Motherboard. “Google shuts out workers, compartmentalizing what they need to know, limiting what they can find out by putting threatening policies into place. But the workers who make the product are the ones who are creating the value.”
Less than a week before the firings, the New York Times reported that Google had hired the anti-union firm, IRI Consultants, and had been meeting with its advisors since the spring. Google hired IRI Consultants after nearly two years of unprecedented internal dissent at the company that has since reverberated across the tech industry.
Google suspended Rivers and Berland in early November for allegedly accessing and sharing internal documents, and came to the conclusion last week that these were fireable offenses.
Rivers, a software engineer based in Boulder, Colorado, had been involved in a number of recent petition drives. “Last Monday, I got a phone call that I would be terminated. They gave me an extremely vague and misleading statement,” she told Motherboard. “Much of their reasoning about why I was fired was about what other individuals had done with stuff I had shared with other Googlers. I think Google chose us, specifically because they thought they could make an example of us and punish us severely to scare others.”
Berland, who had worked at Google for over 11 years, most recently as a site reliability manager, had been involved in a number of organizing campaigns at Google, including an effort to ban Google from San Francisco Pride after YouTube refused to protect LGBTQ+ community from harassment on the platform, and most recently, a recent petition signed by more than 500 employees calling on Google not to bid for contracts with Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Duke and Waldman, who came forward publicly for the first time today, were first called into Google for interrogation in September after writing and circulating a CBP petition requesting that Google not bid on contracts with the immigration enforcement agency. While they admit to sharing internal documents already available to all Google employees, they claim to have not leaked classified information that the company labels as “need to know.”
Last week, the company arrived at the conclusion that Duke and Waldman’s organizing surrounded the CBP petition should result in termination.
“I didn’t share anything externally except what was publicly available on CBP’s website,” Waldman, a former Google software engineer, told Motherboard. “And none of the information I shared within the company was ‘need to know.’”
Organizers at Google say the company has repeatedly revised its policies around accessing certain documents this year with vague language that makes it easy to target organizers. Each of the four workers denies that they leaked any internal documents to the press.
“They’ve been rewriting policies to make it clear that no matter what the document says, they can change their minds later, and decide something was restricted and you shouldn’t have been reading it,” said Waldman. “They’re trying to stop workers from building any real power because they know that we’re angry and building momentum.”
Duke, 31, who worked in Google’s New York City office and was also fired for his involvement in the CBP petition, told Motherboard he first got involved in organizing at Google when he learned about Project Maven, Google’s now-cancelled contract to make AI drone technology for the Pentagon. “I didn’t sign up for Google to build drones. I didn’t like that my work would be used even without my knowledge to make weapons, but that’s how software libraries work.”
The four workers say they hope their firings inspire others at the company to keep up the organizing. “Google wants to send a message to everyone: if you dare to engage in protected labor organizing, you will be punished,” they wrote in a statement published today on Medium. “But what they didn’t count on is the strength, the resolve, and the solidarity of Googlers and our allies. Even as you read this, our coworkers are organizing with a renewed passion.”
“We look forward to hearing the NLRB’s findings, which we expect will confirm that Google acted unlawfully,” the workers continued.
Most complaints filed with the NLRB are settled, withdrawn, or dismissed. In some instances where the NLRB finds sufficient evidence that a labor violation has occurred, a case will go before a judge.
In response to news of the complaints, a spokeswoman for Google said, "We dismissed four individuals who were engaged in intentional and often repeated violations of our longstanding data security policies, including systematically accessing and disseminating other employees’ materials and work. No one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company’s activities."