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Google under federal investigation over firing of four employees

Former workers at the search giant said they were fired for speaking out over workplace conditions.

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Google employees held a rally in San Francisco last month accusing the company of retaliating against its workers.

James Martin/CNET

The US National Labor Relations Board said Monday it has opened a probe into Google over its labor practices, a week after a complaint against the search giant was filed on behalf of four employees fired before Thanksgiving. 

The complaint, filed Dec. 5, accuses Google of "unlawful conduct" in the terminations of the workers -- Laurence Berland, Rebecca Rivers, Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke -- who had spoken out against working conditions at Google. The charge was filed by the Communications Workers of America, a labor union founded in 1938. CNBC earlier reported the investigation had begun. 

Google's "actions are the antithesis of the freedoms and transparency it publicly touts," the complaint reads. 

The search giant last month said it fired four employees for violations related to data security. The terminations came just days after approximately 200 Google workers and other supporters held a rally outside one of Google's San Francisco offices. The activists at the rally alleged that Google management was retaliating against employees for speaking out against the search giant.

"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 said in a statement. "No one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company's activities."

The NLRB investigation intensifies relations between Google management and rank-and-file employees who've protested the company's decisions on issues including immigration and sexual assault. The search giant has hired an outside firm with a history of anti-union efforts, as Google deals with uprisings from workers. The company earlier this month said it'd scale back its TGIF town hall meetings, a long-standing company tradition. 

The complaint was addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Last week, Page and Brin said they're stepping down from executive leadership roles at Alphabet, Google's parent company, though they retain voting control over its board. Pichai was named Alphabet CEO. 

In September, Google said it settled a separate NLRB charge. One complaint was filed by Kevin Cernekee, a former employee who said he was fired from Google for his conservative viewpoints. The settlement with the NLRB doesn't cover Cernekee's discharge, a person familiar with the matter said at the time. Another complaint was reportedly filed by a current Google worker, unnamed, who said he was punished for speaking out against a top executive on a Facebook page.