Google’s apparent resistance to its employees’ unionization efforts came under scrutiny in November, as the tech giant generated headlines for firing four employees who were active in the burgeoning organizing movement. While Google insisted that the terminations were instead because the employees were “searching for, accessing, and distributing business information outside the scope of their jobs,” employees have contended the firings were an act of retaliation. Now, it seems that the federal government could be inclined to agree. CNBC reported Monday that the U.S. National Labor Relations Board has officially opened an investigation into Google’s labor practices, after the fired ex-Google employees filed a complaint with the NLRB last week.
The federal investigation, which is expected to take three months, comes as Google has seemingly started taking steps toward quashing its employees’ organizing efforts. The company hired a law firm known for its anti-union work in November, following a Bloomberg report that Google had developed an internal surveillance tool that workers believed was meant to monitor and dissuade employee organizing. (The extension automatically reports staffers who “create a calendar event with more than 10 rooms or 100 participants,” Bloomberg reports, which an Alphabet representative described as being merely “a pop-up reminder that asks people to be mindful before auto-adding a meeting to the calendars of large numbers of employees.”) Prior to their termination, two of the fired Google employees, Laurence Berland and Rebecca Rivers, had previously been placed on administrative leave, which they also believed to be tied to their organizing efforts. Days before their ultimate firing, 200 Google employees showed support for their suspended colleagues, holding a rally outside Google’s San Francisco office. The employees’ subsequent firing, Berland and Rivers wrote in a Medium post with fellow terminated employees Paul Duke and Sophie Waldman, was a way for Google “to send a message to everyone: if you dare to engage in protected labor organizing, you will be punished.”
Google, for its part, has denied the allegations of union busting. “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,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement regarding the firings. “No one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company’s activities.” But the company has faced a long period of employee unrest, as Google’s workers have raised objections to everything from Google’s handling of sexual harassment and planned censored search engine in China, to the company’s ties to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and hiring of a former Department of Homeland Security staffer. The new NLRB investigation, in fact, comes less than three months after Google settled a separate case with the federal agency, after an employee alleged Google fired him for his conservative views. That settlement requires Google to post a list of “employee rights” at its headquarters—which explicitly says the company will not “threaten you with the loss of your job or other retaliation if you engage in protected activity.”
The new investigation comes at a pivotal moment for Google and parent company Alphabet, as cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced last week they would be stepping down as Alphabet co-CEOs, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be taking the helm. This will be one of a number of investigations that Pinchai now has to contend with in his new role, as Alphabet and Google—and Big Tech at large—face ever-multiplying government investigations into their privacy and antitrust practices. But by building a corporate culture on the ethos of “Do No Evil” and fostering a workforce who believes in that mission, Google’s biggest problem may now be coming from inside the house. Unlike government fines that don’t put a dent in Google’s deep pockets—their latest fine from the Federal Trade Commission could be earned back in a matter of hours—employee dissent could ultimately make much more of an impact if it continues to escalate. “Google fails to understand that workers are the ones who built the company and its most successful products,” the fired employees wrote. “And that we can stop building them.”
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