U.S. Labor Board Alleges Google Retaliated Against Activists

Google illegally fired, interrogated and surveilled activist employees, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board alleged in a complaint Wednesday.

The complaint, issued on behalf of the agency’s general counsel, accuses the Alphabet Inc. unit of violating the New Deal law that protects employees’ right to engage in collective action about workplace issues, including non-union workers like Google’s. According to the regional director, Google broke the law by questioning and terminating employees because of their activism, maintaining rules restricting legally protected organizing, and enforcing other rules in a discriminatory manner.

Google said the “actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”

“We strongly support the rights our employees have in the workplace, and open discussion and respectful debate have always been part of Google,” the company said in a statement.

The company has been roiled over the past three years by a wave of activism by employees challenging management over issues including collaboration with the Pentagon, treatment of sub-contracted staff, and handling of sexual harassment, which spurred a walkout by thousands of employees in 2018. Many of the leaders in such efforts have since resigned or been terminated by the company. Google has denied retaliating.

Google violated the law “to discourage employees from engaging in” legally-protected activism, according to Wednesday’s complaint. Among the activities for which employees allegedly were punished was writing code for a pop-up message about labor law rights that would show up when workers visited certain sites online. Allegations in the complaint were brought to the labor board last year by the Communications Workers of America union.

The agency dismissed some of the union’s other allegations, regarding the terminations of employees who were organizing against collaboration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, because lawyers from the agency’s advice division concluded that such activism fell outside the scope of federal labor law protection, according to Laurie Burgess, an attorney for the fired activists.

Burgess said the workers plan to appeal the dismissal, which was based on a determination that the company’s work for a federal agency wasn’t among the terms and conditions of employment that employees have the right to protest over.

Google said the agency determined the company was justified in terminating three employees who violated its data security policies.

“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,” Google said in its statement.

Absent a settlement, the complaint is slated be heard in April by an agency judge, whose ruling can then be appealed to the five-member labor board in Washington, and from there into federal court. The agency can require companies to reinstate fired employees and provide back pay, but can’t levy punitive damages.

The labor board’s general counsel, Peter Robb, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, is a former management-side attorney who helped Ronald Reagan vanquish the air traffic controllers union. Labor advocates including CWA’s national president have urged President-Elect Joe Biden to fire Robb at the start of his presidency rather than waiting for his term to expire next November.

A separate complaint, issued in October by the Labor Board’s Pittsburgh office, accused the Google contractor HCL America Inc. of illegally refusing to bargain in good faith with the United Steelworkers union after workers there voted to unionize, and instead shifting some work from Pittsburgh to Poland. HCL has denied the allegations.

Google agreed last year, as part of a settlement in a different Labor Board case, to post notices at its headquarters promising not to interfere with employees’ right to discuss working conditions. The company did not admit wrongdoing in that case, which was brought by a Republican engineer who claimed he was punished for raising issues about employees’ freedom to criticize “the Social Justice political agenda.”

Despite staff protests, Google has continued to work with the U.S. border agency. Earlier this year, the company’s cloud chief, Thomas Kurian, defended the contracts and told staff CBP was not using Google’s software for “any projects associated with immigration enforcement at the southern border.”

Laurence Berland, a software engineer who Wednesday’s complaint alleges was illegally fired, said in an interview that Google’s terminations of activists had a chilling effect on those still working there, hurting the momentum of organizing.

The complaint, he said, “sends a very strong message that even weak U.S. labor law has some pretty clear protections, that there’s a line that can’t be crossed, and that Google flagrantly crossed it.” Still, he said, given the agency’s slow pace and limited remedies, “The ultimate prevention in response to things like this is worker organizing, not any kind of legal process.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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