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Technology

Google workers protest suspensions of activist employees

Google employees in Venice, Calif.
Google employees in Venice, Calif., join their counterparts around the world for a mass walkout in November 2018.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

About 200 Google employees and other tech workers assembled outside the company’s downtown San Francisco office on Friday to call for the reinstatement of two workers placed on leave this month for reasons they claim are connected to their internal activism.

The protesters accused the company of suspending the employees, Laurence Berland and Rebecca Rivers, to intimidate and silence others inside the Alphabet-owned internet giant who have spoken out on a variety of issues including the company’s pursuit of defense contracts and decreasing internal transparency.

“Our co-workers...have been on the front lines of this struggle for freedom and good jobs for all here at Google,” Stephanie Parker, a Google employee and one of the organizers of a November 2018 walkout by 20,000 Googlers, said at the rally. “Their reward? Google has suspended them from their jobs and interrogated them for speaking out. We are here today to show them our support and demand that Google bring them back immediately.”

The company said the employees were placed on administrative leave as they are investigated for violating company policy by accessing and sharing documents they did not have permissions for and tracking the publicly shared calendar of other employees on the communications and human resources teams. Sleuthing by staffers on calendar entries reportedly revealed Google’s hiring of a law firm known for its work against unionization campaigns.

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“We have clear guidelines about appropriate conduct at work, and we’ve had a number of concerns raised. We always investigate such issues thoroughly,” Google spokeswoman Jenn Kaiser said in a statement.

But some employees view the suspensions as part of a wider clampdown on attempts at organizing workers and retaliation for speaking out against the company’s policies and practices, including how it polices hate speech and the sale of technology to the military and federal government.

Rivers, who traveled to attend the rally from Boulder, Colo., said that none of the documents she accessed were categorized as “need-to-know” information or only permissible to be viewed by people in specific roles.

She also said that when she was being interviewed by the company’s global investigations team she was asked about her involvement in a petition against the company’s work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as her social media usage outside of Google.

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Berland said his access to internal servers was cut off without warning shortly after he sent an email to the company’s community moderation team. In it, he asked the moderators to stop deleting critical questions and memes that employees had posted to companywide forums. Hours later, he was notified he was being placed on leave without being told why.

Berland said during his interview with the Global Investigations Team that he was asked about accessing other employees’ calendars — specifically members of the HR, community platforms and communications teams. Employees often view the public calendars of their co-workers, and Berland said he was looking because he was “concerned about the censorship of our workplace” and wanted to know what was going on.

“We make this the place we all deserve, the place our users deserve, the place the world deserves, but to do that, Googlers need to know,” Berland said at the rally. “What are the executives so afraid of? What have we yet to find out?”

A group of 20 workers showed up at Berland’s meeting with investigators in solidarity and to provide support. The investigators, Berland said, asked him who they were and about others he discussed his workplace concerns with.

Friday’s protests mark the latest escalation in tensions between employees and management at Google, a rift that broke into the open with the November 2018 walkout. As The Times reported, that event reflected a widespread feeling that Google’s long-established corporate culture of extreme internal transparency is breaking down as Google matures from Silicon Valley startup to global behemoth. Even as Google increasingly embraces conventional corporate norms, its empowered workers continue to expect a say in its decision-making and the high degree of on-the-job freedom they’ve long enjoyed.

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Several employees previously told The Times that the company has become cagier in its communications with workers since the walkout, although a spokeswoman said the company remains among the world’s most transparent.

In the last two months, Google has announced it would be holding fewer “TGIF” all-hands meetings due to leaks, took down message board memes that criticized the hiring of a former Department of Homeland Security staffer, and deleted questions during an all-staff meeting about the hiring of that staffer. It also put in place new rules that limit the kinds of political speech employees can engage in on company time.

Meanwhile, efforts to organize workers, while embryonic, are beginning to find pockets of traction. In Zurich, employees recently held a meeting to discuss their rights as workers and what unionizing would entail in defiance of Google’s repeated attempts to cancel the event. Employees also accused the company of creating an internal tool that kept tabs on organizing efforts by automatically reporting staffers who created a calendar event that included more than 10 rooms or 100 or more participants.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Google hired IRI Consultants, a law firm that specializes in anti-union tactics. According to that report, employees learned of IRI’s hiring by examining the calendar of a human resources official.

Berland and Rivers are not the first activist workers who say Google retaliated against them. Others have included walkout organizers Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker, who left in June after Stapleton was demoted and Whittaker was told her role would significantly change; Irene Knapp, who departed in September; and Liz Fong-Jones, who gave notice in January.

When previously asked about these employees’ claims, Google said it does not comment on individual cases but always investigates claims of retaliation and noted that employees are regularly reassigned or reorganized in response to evolving business needs.

At Friday’s rally, Berland cast the departures as Google making examples of some workers to send a message to their colleagues.

“This isn’t really about me, or Rebecca, or any individual,” Berland said. “They are retaliating against us because they want to intimidate everyone who dares to disagree with leadership...They want us afraid, and they want us silent.”

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After the public rally wrapped up, many of the employees filed into the company’s cafeteria to lobby co-workers to support Berland and Rivers. Organizers of the rally gave the company until next week to reinstate the two employees, at which point they will “take it to the next level,” as Parker said in her speech. However the company responds, with Google workers increasingly taking their grievances public, it’s unlikely to be the last such protest.


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