Four recently fired Google engineers who were active in company worker movements say they will push for a federal investigation into the search and advertising giant for unfair labor practices.
On Tuesday, the four former employees announced their intent to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board for what they allege was retaliation from the company against their roles in organizing workers. Two of those employees had been on leave and spoke up during an employee protest at Google’s San Francisco offices last month, while two others had not publicly revealed their names until Tuesday. All four were terminated last week.
“We participated in legally protected labor organizing, fighting to improve workplace conditions for all Google workers,” read a letter penned by Laurence Berland, Rebecca Rivers, Paul Duke, and Sophie Waldman. "Google didn’t respond by honoring its values, or abiding by the law. It responded like a large corporation more interested in revenue growth than in ensuring worker rights and ethical conduct."
The firings, which happened the Monday before Thanksgiving, came during a fraught two and a half years at Google, in which groups of employees have protested against contracts with the military, plans for search in China, payouts to executives accused of sexual misconduct, and more recently, the company’s work with US Customs and Border Patrol. Among labor organizers at the company, the firings were seen as a crackdown by Google management and an attempt to rein in the company’s once open, speak-your-mind culture.
Last month, the New York Times reported that Google had hired a consulting firm that specializes in anti-unionization efforts, while the company, in light of the unrest, canceled future all-hands meetings which employees had used to pose questions to leadership. For Berland, a site reliability engineer who had worked at Google for more than 10 years, the changes indicated that the executives making decisions at Google were “opposed to any sharing of power, on any terms.”
“It’s pretty typical that those with concentrations of power don’t want to give it up, at any cost, but is that what’s best for Google? For its shareholders? For its users?” he asked in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It’s certainly not the best for the workers, and I think many of us feel that we as workers are well-positioned to ensure that our workplace remains a place that honors all of that.”
A Google spokesperson declined to answer specific questions, though a widely reported internal memo written at the time of the firings suggested that the employees had accessed information “outside the scope of their jobs” that was then later leaked to the press. Other alleged activity, which included the examination of other employees’ calendars, created a working environment that made others feel unsafe, the memo said.
Following the publication of Tuesday's letter, the spokesperson said that "no one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company's activities."
"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," they said.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, the employees pushed back on those allegations. All four denied leaking information, with Waldman, a former engineer at Google’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, office, noting that she sent reminders to other organizers specifically not to do so. Waldman and Berland didn’t deny that they accessed information outside the purview of their jobs, but noted that these actions were not against Google policy and that the information was available to anyone at the company.
“Viewing of others’ calendars, documents, etc., is a longstanding tradition at Google, very intentionally, and Google provides users, including employees, a wide range of access control features to limit things when needed,” Berland said. The fired employees added that under this policy, they were able to access and view company documents that pertained to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) that had not been limited by higher-ups, but maintained that they did not share them externally.
Duke, an engineer who worked for Google for eight years, most recently out of its New York office, likened his “interrogation” and firing to McCarthyism. He became active in the internal push to prevent Google from working with CBP and had been previously been interviewed by the company’s internal security team in September before being abruptly fired last month.
“This is about the company being scared about worker power,” he said. “It’s being scared of workers demanding accountability or a say in what they’re working on — even a right to know what they’re working on.”
In August, more than 1,300 employees signed a petition that asked the company to not provide cloud services to CBP, which Google executives reportedly allowed to test a new product for free. That relationship led to further employee questions about the company’s ties to the federal government, including its hiring of a former Department of Homeland Security senior staffer who previously defended a version of the travel ban against citizens of Muslim-majority countries and the family separation policy at the US–Mexico border.
Google management would go on to censor questions about the former DHS staffer’s hiring ahead of an all-hands meeting in October and later canceled all future company-wide meetings. Last month, Berland and Rivers, who by then had been placed on leave by the company, spoke to a crowd of more than 100 protesters outside of the company’s San Francisco office, decrying the erosion of Google’s open culture.
“I want to believe that it still is possible,” Rivers said when asked if the company could return to an environment where employees wouldn’t fear retaliation for speaking up. “But it will only be possible if we see a real, credible change in executive leadership, and a push to engage more with employee concerns.”
For now, they’ll have to push for change from the outside. The group, which was originally known as the “Thanksgiving Four” before ditching the name out of concerns regarding its association with a colonialist holiday, said it will file charges with the NLRB later this week. A regional director with the agency will then have to determine whether the charges are worth investigating.
In September, the company previously settled with the NLRB over accusations that the company had prevented employees from discussing workplace issues. It did not have to admit any wrongdoing.
“Google fails to understand that workers are the ones who built the company and its most successful products,” read the fired employees’ letter. “And that we can stop building them. No company — tech giant or otherwise — should be able to interfere with workers’ rights to organize for better working conditions, including ethical business practices.”
The story had been updated with a statement from a Google spokesperson on the company's data privacy policies.