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Dec. 3, 2020, 12:16 p.m. EST

Google wrongfully spied on and terminated employees, NLRB complaint says

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By Levi Sumagaysay

The National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint against Google, finding it violated various labor laws last year, including engaging in unlawful surveillance of employees who were organizing and wrongfully terminating two of them.

The complaint says Google engaged in unfair labor practices when it fired site reliability engineer Laurence Berland and security engineer Kathryn Spiers.

Berland was fired in late November last year for what the company said were “repeated violations” of data-security policies, but what he said was his activism over issues such as YouTube’s LGBTQ policies and his organizing work related to Google’s hiring of IRI Consultants, which is known for its anti-union work. Spiers was fired last December for creating a browser pop-up that could be seen by the company’s employees, which read: “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities.”

In a statement Wednesday, Berland said, “This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management.”

Google, owned by Alphabet Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -0.19% , appears to be prepared to fight.

“Of course employees have protected labor rights that we strongly support, but we have always taken information security very seriously,” a Google spokeswoman said Wednesday. “We’re confident in our decision and legal position. Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.” 

The employees’ lawyer, Laurie Burgess, noted that the NLRB did not include in its complaint other Google employees who were terminated. Those employees were protesting Google’s work with the border patrol, which the NLRB’s general counsel found was not protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

“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,” Burgess said in a statement.

Spiers told MarketWatch on Wednesday that “it’s nice to see the correct outcome in my case but all of us were illegally fired. Google still has a lot of work to do, both in terms of organizing and in security work, [that] I’d love to be a part of.”

Google must respond to the complaint by Dec. 16, and a hearing before an NLRB administrative law judge is set for April 12, 2021.

The firings of Berland, Spiers and other employees last year came soon after Google hired IRI, whose website says it helps”organizations navigate workplace challenges.” For the past few years, Google employees have protested the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against its leadership; its treatment of temporary and contract workers; its various contracts and bids for government work, including with Customs and Border Patrol; and more.

Some of the worker actions have been successful in getting Google to change course, including putting on hold plans to bring its search engine back to China, and ending mandatory arbitration at the company.

This story has been updated to include information from the NLRB complaint.

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