MOUNTAIN VIEW (CBS SF / CNN) -- Google violated labor laws when it fired two vocal employees in 2019, according to a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday.
The employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, were among several that were terminated after organizing in late 2019 but were the only two the federal agency identified as being unlawfully fired, according to a copy of the consolidated complaint filed by the NLRB office in San Francisco.
The complaint alleges that Google wrongfully applied workplace policies, such as restricting how calendars could be used, to target employees engaged in organizing activities. It also alleges that employees were unlawfully surveilled while organizing; that workers were interrogated about organizing activities; and that the company placed employees like Berland and Spiers on administrative leave and terminated them in order to discourage other workers from organizing.
Berland had accessed the calendars of several employees as part of organizing efforts against Google's decision to hire a consulting firm known for its anti-union work, according to the complaint and a press release by the employees and their counsel. Spiers had created a pop-up notification to make colleagues aware of their right to organize on the company's community guidelines page and its anti-union website, the complaint and press release state.
"We strongly support the rights our employees have in the workplace, and open discussion and respectful debate have always been part of Google's culture," Google said in a statement. "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"
The statement adds: "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."
The NLRB complaint highlights the escalating tensions inside Google, which was long considered one of the best companies to work for.
In recent years, Google employees have protested over issues ranging from its handling of sexual harassment allegations, climate action, and the pursuit of military contracts.
Google must formally respond to the complaint by December 16, with a hearing scheduled for April 12, 2021.
The legal action comes roughly one year after the federal agency confirmed that it had launched an investigation into Google's labor practices shortly after four employees fired the day before Thanksgiving filed a complaint with the NLRB.
The workers, including Berland, alleged they were terminated as retaliation for workplace organizing; Google said it fired the workers for allegedly violating its data-security policies.
"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," said Berland in a statement in the press release. "Workers have the right to speak out about and organize, 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."
Spiers was fired shortly after the so-called Thanksgiving Four. In a statement at the time, a company spokesperson said, "We dismissed an employee who abused privileged access to modify an internal security tool."
"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," said Spiers in a statement from the press release.
The company previously settled a case with the agency in September 2019 over a claim that it had fired an employee for expressing conservative views. While it did not admit to wrongdoing, Google agreed to post a list of employees' rights and protections under the National Labor Relations Act for staffers.
The counsel for the terminated Google employees in the ongoing NLRB case, Laurie Burgess, said the NLRB did not issue complaints for wrongful termination of other employees, including those organizing against the company's business with US Customs and Border Protection.
"We intend to vigorously appeal the dismissed charges to the NLRB to ensure that the right to engage in this type of protected activity is not encroached upon," said Burgess in a statement.
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