Google illegally fired two employees who had sought to inform fellow workers about their job rights, federal labor regulators alleged this week.
In a complaint filed on Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board charges that Alphabet-owned Google fired two workers as a way to squash further employee activism. Google "surveilled" and "interrogated" employees over their activities, the NLRB alleges, and selectively enforced workplace policies to discourage workers from organizing.
The complaint stems from an incident last year, when Google fired four workers shortly after Thanksgiving. Some of the fired employees had protested the company's involvement with Customs and Border Protection; others objected to Google's hiring of an anti-union consulting firm, IRI Consultants.
A fifth worker, security engineer Kathryn Spiers, who was initially suspended but then fired in December, had created a pop-up notification that reminded workers of their rights to discuss workplace issues without fear of retaliation.
The notification appeared when Google workers visited internal message boards or IRI's website. Another worker, Laurence Berland, one of the original four workers fired, made posts challenging Google on MemeGen, an internal communication tool, and assisted with Spiers' pop-up.
Google at the time claimed these and other employees were fired for violating security policies.
But the NLRB now says Google's firing of Berland and Spiers was illegal and designed to prevent other Google employees from speaking out. According to the board's complaint, Google dismissed the two workers "to discourage employees from engaging in these or other concerted activities."
Google also enforced its security policy "selectively and disparately by applying it only against employees who engaged in protected, concerted activities," the labor board charges.
A judge will decide
Google denies the allegations, saying in a statement: "We strongly support the rights our employees have in the workplace, and open discussion and respectful debate have always been part of Google's culture. We're proud of that culture and are committed to defending it against attempts by individuals to deliberately undermine it — including by violating security policies and internal systems.
"We'll continue to provide information to the NLRB and the administrative judge about our decision to terminate or discipline employees who abused their privileged access to internal systems, such as our security tools or colleagues' calendars. Such actions are a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility, and we will be defending our position," the statement said.
The complaint will now move to a hearing before an administrative law judge, who will determine if Google broke the law. If so, the company will have to rehire the two engineers and offer back pay.
Spiers welcomed the complaint as a chance to clear her name. She said she hoped that other tech workers would feel encouraged to speak out in their jobs.
"Google thoroughly trashed my integrity as a security engineer the last time I had press around this, when I was fired," Spiers said. "It would be nice to demonstrate that Google is not all-powerful."
The complaint excluded three other fired Google workers who had objected to the company's work with the U.S border protection agency. Laurie Burgess, the attorney representing the workers, plans to have them included in the complaint before the case is argued, she told CBS News.
The case is significant not only because of Google's size, but because the company's behavior "is typical of what employers try to do when workers organize," said William Brucher, an instructor in labor relations at Rutgers University.
"Employers, of course, know that it is illegal to outright fire someone for organizing" he said. "They often will try to break that law anyway because it sends a message to other workers, that this kind of [organizing] activity is not going to be tolerated."
Speech at work
Google is just one of many companies scrambling to deal with a wave of worker organizing. This year has seen workers protest a range of economic, political and other issues, from wearing slogans in the workplace to the right to criticize their employer to being told for whom to vote. Companies, including Google, have typically responded by imposing policies restricting speech.
"There's been a real shift. Where in the past Google said, 'We want you to see everything and tell us if we're misusing our power,' they don't want to hear it anymore," Burgess said.
She added, "This case is important for the Googlers and for the country in terms of having a dialogue about who's the watchdog at these big monolithic corporations, who have such impact in everyone's life. Google's saying it's not the workers."
First published on December 3, 2020 / 6:30 PM
© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.