Google Violated Law By Spying On Staff, Complaint Alleges

An official complaint against Alphabet and Google has been filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the United States, over alleged spying on staff.

According to the US labor board complaint, Google allegedly violated US labor laws by spying on workers who were organising staff protests, then fired two of them.

The complaint named two employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, both of whom were fired by the company in late 2019 in connection with employee activism.

Labour complaint

Security engineer Spiers went public about the mater in December 2019, after she claimed she was fired because she was reminding fellow workers about their rights.

Kathryn Spiers had apparently created a Chrome popup notification to remind her fellow Google workers that they have the “right to participate in protected concerted activities.”

But Google bosses allegedly didn’t appreciate this, and Spiers was suspended in November, before she was fired in December 2019.

Laurence Berland on the other hand allegedly organised people against Google’s decision to work with IRI Consultants, a firm widely known for its anti-union efforts.

Berland reportedly was fired because he reviewed other staffers’ calendars.

But the NLRB feels that Google’s policy against employees looking at certain coworkers’ calendars is unlawful.

Several other employees were fired in the wake of the protests, but the NLRB found that only the terminations of Berland and Spiers violated labor laws.

“Google’s hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing,” Berland was quoted by the Verge as saying in a statement. “Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organising is protected by law.”

“This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf. They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues,” Spiers reportedly said. “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.”

If Google chooses not to settle, the complaint will go before an administrative judge on 12 April 2021.

Google could be forced to pay back wages to both Berland and Spiers, and rehire them, if it loses the case.

Staff tensions

Google has certainly been rocked by staff unrest, mostly in 2018 and 2019.

In November 2018, 20,000 Google staff around the world staged a mass walkout to protest at the lenient treatment and payouts for executives accused of sexual harassment.

Google staff have also previously protested against a number of Google projects, including a censored search engine in China (Project Dragonfly) and a contract with the Pentagon to analyse drone footage (Project Maven).

Then in April 2019 at a ‘town hall’ meeting, staff alleged that Google regularly retaliates against employees who speak out.

In September contract workers for Google in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers union.

And then on 21 October, several dozen workers at Google’s office in Zurich reportedly held an event about workers’ rights and unionisation, despite their managers’ attempts to cancel it.

That same month, workers also cited Google’s recent moves, such as implementing a tracking tool on employee’s web browsers. Google for its part denied those charges.

In November 2019 Google fired four employees as they were allegedly in violation of the Alphabet unit’s strict data security policies.

But activist workers claim the move was in retaliation for a demonstration at Google’s San Francisco office, which was attended by more than 200 Google employees.

In December 2019 the Communications Workers of America union filed a federal labour charge against Google, alleging it unlawfully fired four employees (the Thanksgiving four) to deter workers from engaging in union activities.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union is the largest communications and media labour union in the United States, with roughly 700,000 members.

Google response

In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Google spokesperson doubled down on the company’s position.

“We’re proud of that culture and are committed to defending it against attempts by individuals to deliberately undermine it – including by violating security policies and internal systems,” they said.

“We’ll continue to provide information to the NLRB and the administrative judge about our decision to terminate or discipline employees who abused their privileged access to internal systems, such as our security tools or colleagues’ calendars,” Google added.

“Such actions are a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility, and we will be defending our position,” it concluded.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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