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‘Google is no longer listening’: four fired workers file charges against tech giant

Julia Carrie Wong
Photograph: Noah Berger/Associated Press

The four worker-activists who were fired by Google during Thanksgiving week plan to file federal charges alleging that their former employer fired them to quash worker organizing, in violation of federal labor laws.

Google told its staff of approximately 100,000 last week that the employees were fired for “clear and repeated violations of our data security policies”, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg. But in defiant interviews with the Guardian on Monday, the workers rejected that justification as a pretext.

“Google fired us not just to target us, but to send a message to other employees in the company,” said Sophie Waldman, one of the fired software engineers.

Related: Google worker activists accuse company of retaliation at 'town hall'

“It’s not about us, but intimidating everyone else,” added Laurence Berland, another of the fired Googlers. “They want us afraid, they want us resigned, and they want us cynical.”

A Google spokeswoman said: “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. No one has been dismissed for raising concerns or debating the company’s activities.”

The four will file charges known as unfair labor practices (ULPs) with the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency tasked with enforcing US labor law. US law generally prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for engaging in collective activity around their working conditions.

The firings represent a serious escalation in long simmering labor unrest at Google, which has seen growing discontent from employees over issues such as the corporate response to sexual harassment, the treatment of the vast “shadow workforce” of temps, vendors and contractors (TVCs), and the ethics of some of Google’s projects and clients. The firings were announced less than a week after the New York Times revealed that Google had hired an anti-union consulting firm.

While employee activism at Google has burst into the public view over the past two years, it has long been a tradition at the company, the fired workers said. The company’s code of conduct concludes with a statement that many Googlers take to heart, “And remember … don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!”

“That’s what we were doing,” said Waldman, who was involved in a petition calling on Google not to provide services to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

“We used to be able to engage in these issues and give feedback,” said Berland. “At some point that stopped,” he said.

Paul Duke, another of the fired employees who had been at Google for more than eight years, said he believes Google has become less willing to engage with employees’ objections to company decisions. “The company at one time was willing to listen,” he said. “They understood that their employees were their best assets; they took feedback. Now, Google is no longer listening to its employees. It’s consolidating power.”

Three of the fired workers – Berland, Waldman and Rebecca Rivers – identify as LGBT, and some of their activism involved organizing within employee resource groups (ERGs) for trans or gay Googlers to push the company on issues such as equal benefits for same-sex partnerships.

“From the beginning, queer and trans people at Google have banded together to make sure we have great benefits and a strong community,” said Waldman. “A lot of us feel very directly that it’s us and people like us that are on the line” when it comes to the company’s ethical decisions.

Berland recalled successful efforts organizing with other “Gayglers” for equal health insurance benefits for same-sex partners before gay marriage was legalized across the US. “Back then, the results of our workplace organizing were successes,” he said. “I remember a time when we got real wins from our employer.”

Now, much of the goodwill has been broken.

“Google is a lovely place to work if you are transgender and don’t care about what is going on in the world,” said Waldman.

Rivers said that she first got involved in activism at Google when the company appointed Kay Coles James, the president of the Heritage Foundation who has a track record of fighting trans rights and LGBT protections, to its AI ethics council. At a public protest just days before her firing, Rivers told the 200 Googlers who rallied in opposition to her suspension that Google had wiped her personal phone when it suspended her, erasing many months of photographs documenting her gender transition.

The fired workers said that they plan to continue their activism. After he was fired, Duke said, the first response he heard from co-workers was, “We need a union.”

“The faith hasn’t been broken with all of the workers, it’s been broken with executives,” said Berland. “People are more geared up and ready to fight. We’re all going to continue to fight and we’re going to win.”