Four former Google employees who were unceremoniously fired from their positions just before Thanksgiving said Tuesday that they will file charges of “unfair labor practices” with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But it may be a long road ahead with few available options for the group, who were attempting to organize a Google employee union prior to their terminations.
A spokesperson for the NLRB confirmed to us that they have not yet received a filing for this complaint in the board’s system, but that the NLRB has reached settlements with Google on a number of issues. The four consist of engineers Laurence Berland, Sophie Waldman, Paul Duke, and Rebecca Rivers.
In a statement, Google told Digital Trends that “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.” News of the group’s plan to file a complaint coincided with Google’s announcement that company founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are stepping down from their executive roles at Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
Jeffrey Hirsch, a University of North Carolina law professor and former National Labor Relations Board attorney, told Digital Trends that this case is rather run of the mill — but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
“There seem to be real questions about Google’s motivations here,” he said. “That’s going to be a big factual question: Where the terminations of these people because of their activity? Or because of the mishandling of information?”
Hirsch said next steps — assuming the four do file their NLRB claim — would be an investigation, in which the NLRB would look at facts, give Google an opportunity to respond, and then make a judgment as to whether the case has any merit any NLRB-related statutes. The board often receives complaints that are violations, but do not fall under its jurisdiction, Hirsch explained.
This could be a factor that could trip the four up. One of the issues on the agenda of Google labor organizers was Google’s cooperation with the Pentagon, and plan to build a censored search engine for China. While they may find these morally objectionable, these projects have nothing to do with actual work conditions. The four could not immediately be reached for comment.
Another factor could be precedent: If other workers have been fired from Google for similar reasons, or if Google can show that these people were already on the chopping block — “even if protected conduct was a factor,” Hirsch said — the case might be dead on arrival.
All in all, it’s likely that Google will settle, Hirsch said, which could come in three different options: One, the four would get their jobs back; two, they would receive back pay for the months (or, more likely, years) of time when they should have been employed; three, Google will have to post a notice stating how they violated the law, and that they won’t do it again.
“You’d be surprised the number of times companies really get ticked off about posting that notice,” Hirsch said with a laugh.
This is all a reminder that this comes with being high profile, said Hirsch. “Beyond legal interpretations, Google has to worry about how this looks.” He pointed to Google’s recent actions hiring the notorious anti-union consulting firm IRI Consultants as an example. “This contradicts with the way they’ve been selling themselves.”
Update 12/9: A spokesperson for the NLRB confirmed to Digital Trends that they had received a complaint in this matter. The complaint states that Google “engaged in…unlawful conduct to discourage and chill employees from engaging in protected concerted and union activities in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.”