Google broke labor law by retaliating against workers, federal agency alleges

The move follows years of labor tumult at the search giant.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

Laurence Berland, who was fired from Google, at a rally last year.

James Martin/CNET

A federal agency on Wednesday alleged that Google broke US labor laws by surveilling, interrogating and firing employees who organized protests against the search giant, according to a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board.

The filing addresses the firings of Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, who were terminated by the search giant last year after the company said they had violated its internal policies. The NLRB complaint, however, alleges some of those policies are unlawful and that Google illegally questioned its employees about "protected concerted activities."

Google on Wednesday defended the action it took against employees. "We strongly support the rights our employees have in the workplace, and open discussion and respectful debate have always been part of Google," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. "We're proud of our culture and committed to defending it against attempts by individuals to deliberately undermine it -- including by violating security policies and internal systems."

Google has until Dec. 16 to respond to the NLRB complaint. If the two sides don't reach a settlement, the case is scheduled to be heard by an agency judge on April 12. 

The complaint comes after a tumultuous period at the search giant, which has dealt with uprisings from its workforce over the past few years. Rank-and-file employees have spoken out against the company's work in China, its contracts with the US military, and Google's handling of sexual misconduct allegations against senior executives. 

Berland and Spiers both organized protests at Google, including an employee response to the company's hiring of IRI Consultants, a firm known for its anti-union efforts. Google fired Berland last year for accessing documents and calendar information outside the scope of his job. Berland said he didn't break any rules by reviewing the information.

The NLRB said in its complaint that the calendar access policy is unlawful.

"Google's hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing," Berland said in a statement. "Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organizing is protected by law."

Spiers was fired after creating a pop-up notification that appeared whenever Google employees visited the IRI website from a company computer. The notice described workers rights when it comes to labor organizing. The NLRB alleges Google violated labor law for punishing workers involved in creating the pop-up.

The NLRB, however, dismissed other allegations against Google for wrongful termination. Laurie Burgess, attorney for the fired Google employees, said they "vigorously appeal the dismissed charges."

After Google suspended Berland and other Google employees last year, 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.