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Google employees at protest: 'They want us afraid. They want us silent'

Workers at the search giant hold a rally to support two activist workers placed on leave.

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- 03:56
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Rebecca Rivers, a Google employee who was placed on leave, speaks at a rally Friday.

James Martin/CNET

Google employees on Friday accused the search giant's management of retaliating against some of its workers and showing a lack of transparency as the company tries to rein in Google's famously open culture. 

Employees gathered for a rally in the courtyard of one of Google's San Francisco offices near the city's waterfront. Attendees held up signs that said, "Shame on Google," "This is OUR company," and "Solidarity Forever." Speakers stood on a bench as they addressed the crowd, with views of the Bay Bridge in the background. 

The protest was spurred by administrative actions Google took against two employees, Laurence Berland and Rebecca Rivers. The two were placed on indefinite leave earlier this month while the company investigates alleged policy violations, including accessing documents and calendar information that Google says was outside the scope of their jobs. Activists at Google, though, said the move is punishment for workplace organizing.

"They want to intimidate everyone who disagrees with leadership," Berland said at the rally. "They want us afraid. They want us silent." 

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Attendees held up signs in support of the employees placed on leave.

James Martin/CNET

Google workers at the protest urged the company to reinstate Berland and Rivers. At one point, the crowd chanted "Bring them back" and "Shut it down."

A Google spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment Friday. Earlier this week, though, a spokeswoman defended the decision to put the workers on leave, adding that it's common for the company to do so during an investigation. 

Tensions rising

The rally comes as tensions escalate between Google management and rank-and-file employees. Activists within the search giant have protested several decisions by leadership, including the signing of an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon, Google's work in China, and leadership's handling of sexual assault allegations.

Relations between Google management and some workers have grown more intense in recent weeks. The company has hired an outside firm with a history of anti-union efforts, as Google deals with uprisings from workers. The company last week said it would scale back its TGIF town hall meetings, a long-standing company tradition. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the meetings will be held monthly, instead of weekly or bi-weekly, because of a "coordinated effort" to leak comments made at the internal meetings. 

"TGIF wasn't perfect, but at least we got the chance to ask the questions," Berland said.

Google workers have also taken issue with a calendar tool the company has required employees to install on their computers. The software, an extension for the company's Chrome browser, is designed to flag meetings with more than 100 attendees or more than 10 rooms. Google employees accused the company of spying on activist or organizing efforts. The company said it was only trying to cut down on calendar spam. 

Rivers, who works at Google's Boulder, Colorado, office, had previously been involved in creating a petition urging the company not to bid on contracts to work with US Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On Friday, she said she was placed on leave while the company looks into her access of internal documents. But she said many of the questions Google's investigations team asked her were about her creation of the petition.

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Attendees gathered outside one of Google's San Francisco offices.

James Martin/CNET

"I'm proud of what I did," she said. "And I believe everyone has a right to know what their work is being used for."

Google workers have held rallies before. Last November, 20,000 employees walked out of the company's offices around the world in response to Google's handling of sexual harassment claims against key executives. Six months later, employees held a sit-in to protest what they said was a "culture of retaliation" at Google. The company at the time denied the claim. 

Employees at the rally also called out Google's treatment of the company's temps, vendors or contractors, called TVCs in Google parlance. Workers say TVCs, who make up about half of the company's workforce, are treated like second-class citizens at the company, with wage disparities and less access to information. At the rally, one full-time employee read statements from three TVCs, who declined to speak at the rally themselves out of fear of retaliation. "It's easier to fire us than an employee," one TVC wrote.  

Attendees at the rally also said Google has lost touch with its workforce. 

"Leadership doesn't know us anymore. They thought we would take this lying down," Berland said. "I don't know why they thought that."

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