A rash and highly publicized personnel decision has put Google in the crosshairs of its own workers—and soon, the National Labor Relations Board, which may well find the company broke the law.
Google took the extraordinary step of firing four of its most outspoken engineers just before Thanksgiving as part of ongoing attempts to stifle internal dissent, a policy shift that has included the hiring of famous union-busting firm IRI. Despite approximately 25 years combined tenure with the company, none of the terminated employees received severance, and their healthcare—which they claim was extended through the end of the month—has since run out. “Google has not been kind to us, and I think their timing was kind of intentional,” Sophie Waldman, a former software engineer, told Gizmodo. “They’re trying to send a message.”
These four former Googlers—Waldman, Paul Duke, Laurence Berland, and Rebecca Rivers—are now sending a message back, in the form of unfair labor practice charges, which they plan to file with the NLRB this week. It’s one of several options they’re likely to pursue.
Waldman and Duke, who was unceremoniously fired on November 25 along with the other three, claim they were made to meet with Google’s internal investigations team in September. The purpose of those meetings was supposedly to track down how information leaked to the press regarding the company’s relationship with Customs and Border Protection, the agency most closely tied to the current policies of separating, detaining, and/or deporting migrants and asylum-seekers. All four deny ferrying internal information to the media. Nonetheless, they were fired “on the same day within more or less the same half hour and with no warning,” according to Waldman.
Berland—who said Google tried to call him unsuccessfully as he was on the subway and without reception at the time—eventually received an email with the subject line “Information concerning your employment at Google.” It explained that he, like three of his colleagues, was being terminated for alleged violations of data security policy, as well as Google’s code of conduct and standards of conduct. “If you’re wondering what all those policies are and how [I] violated them, well, so are we. I don’t have access to them anymore,” Waldman said. “What I did was, I went to Google’s internal search engine—I went to the intranet and I typed in ‘Google Customs and Border Protection.’ I clicked on some links. And I share those links with other employees. I told them, ‘this all needs to stay within the company.’”
Under new or recently updated policies, according to Rivers, “if you access a document and it’s outside the scope of your work, it can be retroactively declared need-to-know and you can be punished for it.” Even setting up large meetings can raise a red flag—something she finds ridiculous. “In Mountain View, there are book clubs with more than 100 people. If you organized that meeting that day, that is now against policy. These are all things that are explicitly designed and came in response to worker organization”
“This is the very same code of conduct that ends with, ‘And remember, don’t be evil. If you see something that isn’t right, speak up,’” Berland said. “We all were speaking up, and that’s what they fired us for.”
Google hasn’t directly accused any of these former employees of leaking, but it has seemingly tried to do so obliquely. Days after it was revealed that Rivers and Berland had been placed on administrative leave, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company’s normally-weekly all-hands meetings would end. Among the reasons why, he wrote, was “a coordinated effort to share our conversations outside of the company.” When all four were fired last week, an internal memo announcing as much, from heads of the investigations team, references “a recent increase in information being shared outside the company.”
Most infamous among the four fired employees is a Bloomberg story, wherein Berland and Rivers’s disciplining first became known to the public, that leads with the detail that a third, unnamed worker was fired “for leaking staffer names and personal details to the media.” This mysterious operative, they believe, was fired well in advance of this current crackdown. “The company has a very large organizing community at this point, and so quite a number of people have been asked the question of ‘do you know who this person is that they’re talking about who was fired? And why?’” Duke told Gizmodo. “None of us have a clue.” Gizmodo previously asked Google to clarify when this firing took place. The company declined to answer.
“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 spokeswoman told Gizmodo. “No one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company’s activities.”
Waldman, Duke, Berland, and Rivers, according to a statement on Medium, did not share the same managers or offices. The major through-line between all four was their involvement in worker-organized campaigns within Google—often against objectionable company initiatives like the aforementioned relationship with CBP. Three of the four publicly signed their names an open letter demanding Google end support for an agency engaged in “caging and torturing vulnerable people.” Beyond prior campaigns, Berland and Rivers were at the center of a 200-person protest on Google’s own campus days before their firing.
If the purpose of these firings and policy changes is truly, as all four suspect, to chill dissent within the company, there’s every reason to believe it will backfire. In October, the company’s massive satellite office in Zurich, Switzerland, set up a mass meeting with representatives from the union syndicom. When management found out and tried to cancel the meeting, Swiss Googlers simply attended anyway, in Google’s office space as originally planned—albeit somewhat more annoyed than before. And according to Duke, these abrupt firings are having a similar effect, and organizing within Google is continuing in earnest.
“If the company’s goal was to scare people out of something like that, they’ve done the opposite,” he said. “There’s just more and more situations where it’s really clear that something like a union might be what we need.”
Updated to include a statement from Google