Swiss Google Employees Defy Managers, Stage Labor Event

(Bloomberg) -- A few dozen Google employees in Switzerland held an event on Monday on labor law and worker rights that the tech company’s executives had repeatedly tried to shut down, according to four Google employees familiar with the matter.

Though relatively small, the incident was the culmination of a monthslong dispute between Google staff members and senior managers who had taken steps to control such action, according to the employees and internal messages seen by Bloomberg News. The employees said the purpose of the event was to better understand their rights amid rising tensions between staffers and managers at Google.

In June, some of Google’s more than 2,000 employees in Zurich had tried to organize an event on workers’ rights, inviting representatives from Syndicom, a Swiss labor union, according to the Google employees, who are based in Europe and the U.S. That event was canceled at the request of Google’s Zurich leadership team, said the four employees, who requested anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to the press.

The Zurich employees decided to reschedule the event for this week, posting on an internal message board that the workers in Switzerland “have a legal right to hear about unions, including by bringing union reps to company premises.”

But Google’s leadership again intervened, internal messages show.

‘Google Premises’

Cathy McAllister, Google’s site program manager in Zurich, wrote in a message to employees last week that the company was “very supportive of hosting talks” discussing workers’ rights, but would “prefer to host events on this topic on Google premises organized in partnership with us, so we’ll be canceling this talk.”

Senior managers in Zurich subsequently announced that they would later organize and mediate a series of talks on labor rights issues, inviting some of the same union representatives that the employees had wanted to hear from, along with talks from a company human resources representative and unspecified “labor law experts,” according to three of the Google sources.

A Google spokeswoman, Jenn Kaiser, acknowledged the event in Zurich, but she declined to answer further questions. The event was reported earlier by Recode.

In an internal message board post, the employee who organized the canceled Zurich event accused the company’s leadership of “actively preventing Zurich Googlers from learning and exercising their rights” and said the company was “trying to spin this as support for collaboration and healthy debate. Googlers are smart enough to recognize this for what it is: an irrational fear of anything that could possibly lead to systematic change.”

On Monday, the Zurich employees decided to proceed with their event, despite the leadership canceling it. The event, held at Google’s Zurich office, went ahead without intervention from managers or security personnel, and representatives from the union Syndicom attended to speak to a group of employees about their rights, according to two of the Google sources and Syndicom. There were about 40 people at the event, which was also streamed so people could watch remotely, according to an employee who attended.

“The talk went well,” said Lena Allenspach, a spokeswoman for Syndicom. “We don’t understand why Google management tried to cancel the event -- many of the Google employees in Zurich are disappointed at how they handled this.”

Latest Tensions

The conflict at Google in Zurich is the latest example of tensions between rank-and-file employees and senior managers at the company, which has been rocked in the last year by a series of internal protests over ethical concerns and leadership’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

Last year, an estimated 20,000 Google employees walked out of the company’s offices in at least 47 countries to protest multimillion dollar payouts that were made to male executives accused of sexual misconduct. Two key organizers of those protests later said that they faced retaliation from the company and resigned.

Google said in a statement earlier this year that “there has been no retaliation” at the company and said that it would “investigate all allegations.”

A Google employee based in Europe said employees in some of the company’s offices have managed to maintain a constructive relationship with managers through a workers council where there can be dialogue about employee rights issues. But he said there have been attempts to thwart employee efforts to formally unionize.

“They would never publish in writing a policy saying, ‘you cannot unionize’,” said the employee. “But definitely when active unionization happens in one country or another, generally we have seen underhanded tactics to at least make those efforts harder.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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