Google Hit With Surprise Labour Rights Complaint Over Fired Workers

Google Hit With Surprise Labour Rights Complaint Over Fired Workers
File photo of Google's main campus in Mountain View, California in 2019. (Photo: Amy Osborne, Getty Images)

The U.S. National Labour Relations Board filed a surprise complaint on Wednesday accusing Google of illegally surveilling and firing two workers who had tried to form a union at the tech giant. What’s so surprising? The Trump administration isn’t exactly known as a defender of labour rights.

Google fired several employees in 2019 over what the company called in an internal memo, “clear and repeated violations of our data security policies.” Those policies included use of work calendar apps for protest organising, a policy the NLRB says didn’t actually exist before they were fired according to the new complaint.

Two of the fired employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, have identified themselves as being named in the new complaint, though the copy that has been issued redacts many of the names involved.

“This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management. This is a significant finding at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society,” Laurence Berland said in an emailed statement to Gizmodo.

“Workers have the right to speak out about and organise, as the NLRB is affirming, but we also know that we should not, and cannot, cleave off ethical concerns about the role management wants to play in that society,” Berland continued.

But Google says the company supports labour rights and insist that the workers who were fired committed “serious violations” of Google policies.

“Google has always worked to support a culture of internal discussion, and we place immense trust in our employees. Of course employees have protected labour rights that we strongly support, but we have always taken information security very seriously,” a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo via email. “We’re confident in our decision and legal position. Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”

Some initial coverage of NLRB complaint has been misleading, even suggesting that Google has been found “guilty” of violating the rights of these workers. And while it is indeed surprising that anyone associated with Donald Trump might pursue a case for workers, this is just the first step in a long process.

As Josh Eidelsen, a labour reporter for Bloomberg News and Businessweek, explained in a recent Twitter thread, this case could take years before any kind of agreement or ruling is reached, and even then, things can be appealed. But the workers who made the complaint are at least pleased that they’re being taken seriously.

“This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf. They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues,” Kathryn Spiers, another worker who was fired, said in a statement to Gizmodo via email.

“Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me. The NLRB can order Google to reinstate me, but it cannot reverse the harm done to my credibility,”

The NLRB hearing before an administrative law judge will take place on April 12, 2021, provided a settlement between Google and the former employees isn’t reached before that. Again, this is a very long process.