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Google illegally spied on workers before firing them, US labor board alleges

Google illegally spied on workers before firing them, US labor board alleges


Company policies violated labor law, according to the complaint

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Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Google violated US labor laws by spying on workers who were organizing employee protests, then firing two of them, according to a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) today.

The complaint names two employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, both of whom were fired by the company in late 2019 in connection with employee activism. Berland was organizing against Google’s decision to work with IRI Consultants, a firm widely known for its anti-union efforts, when he was let go for reviewing other employees’ calendars. Now, the NLRB has found Google’s policy against employees looking at certain coworkers’ calendars is unlawful.

Several other employees were fired in the wake of the protests, but the NLRB found that only the terminations of Berland and Spiers violated labor laws.

“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 she created a pop-up for Google employees visiting the IRI Consultants website. “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities,” the notification read, according to The Guardian. The company said Spiers had violated security policies, a statement that hurt her reputation in the tech community. Now, the NLRB has found the firing was unlawful.

“This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf. They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues,” Spiers said. “Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me. The NLRB can order Google to reinstate me, but it cannot reverse the harm done to my credibility.”

If Google chooses not to settle, the complaint will go before an administrative judge in the coming months, according to The New York Times. The company could be forced to pay back wages to both Berland and Spiers, and rehire them, if it loses the case.

Google, once known as the happiest company in tech, has been roiled in scandal in recent years. The company paid former executive Andy Rubin $90 million in the wake of a sexual harassment investigation, which set off a wave of protests at offices across the globe. More than 20,000 employees and contractors participated in the walkouts.

Workers have also protested the company’s decision to work with the Department of Defense on Project Maven, an AI initiative that could help the US improve its drone strike capabilities. In 2018, more than 3,100 employees signed a petition urging CEO Sundar Pichai to pull out of the project.

In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Google spokesperson doubled down on the company’s position. “We’re proud of that culture and are committed to defending it against attempts by individuals to deliberately undermine it — including by violating security policies and internal systems,” they said. “We’ll continue to provide information to the NLRB and the administrative judge about our decision to terminate or discipline employees who abused their privileged access to internal systems, such as our security tools or colleagues’ calendars. Such actions are a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility, and we will be defending our position.”

Update December 2nd, 11:14PM EST: This article has been updated with additional information from the NLRB filing, as well as a new statement from Google.