“Google’s lawyers might not be so down with employee activism, after all”
Mashable, January 26, 2019
By Rachel Kraus
The Google brass was totally in favor of those massive employee walkouts, right?
Google CEO Sundar Pachai has said that he and the company support employee efforts to organize and improve Google; however, Bloomberg reported Thursday that Google attorneys have simultaneously advocated that a federal legal precedent protecting employees’ rights to organize over company email should be undone. And Google’s arguments could actually have an impact on national policy around worker’s rights.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under the Trump administration has been working to roll back many of the precedents created during the Obama administration that protect employee organizing. It has even been looking to reassess the statute about employee organizing over email specifically. Inadvertently or not, Google’s statement may provide cover and legitimacy for the effort to overturn this precedent.
“Google seems to be stealthily supporting the current administration’s policies when it comes to repressing workers’ rights to come together for their own empowerment,” attorney Bryan Schwartz, a member of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), who has advocated for the rights of Tesla workers, told Mashable over the phone.
Employee organizing at Google has gained mainstream attention in recent months, in large part thanks to the 20,000 employee-strong Google Walkout for Real Change staged in November to protest the company’s mishandling of sexual assault allegations, diversity, and more. The campaign has also launched subsequent initiatives, such as an end to all forced arbitration. Employees have also advocated against Google programs seen antithetical to Google’s values, such as a Chinese search engine and Department of Defense contracts. Internal organizing on Google’s workplace forums and emails were reported to be central to these efforts.
The action from Google attorneys was reportedly unrelated to these employee campaigns. The attorneys filed the argument as a rebuttal to a complaint brought by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about a separate case in which Google is accused of retaliating against an employee who expressed dissent against liberal causes in employee forums.
In the filing, obtained by Bloomberg via a FOIA request, Google denies wrongdoing in that case. But amongst a host of other defenses, it also advocates that the NLRB undo a legal precedent, created in 2014 in a case called Purple Communications, that protects employees’ ability to organize over company email, without employer retaliation.
Despite the fact that the Google walkouts and the NLRB case are unrelated, Google employee organizers responded to the Bloomberg report with a statement on Twitter calling out the seeming disingenuousness of their employer:
In an email to all of Google, Sundar assured us that he and Google’s leadership supported the Walkout. But the company’s requests to the National Labor Relations Board tell a different story, showing that Google would rather pay lawyers to change national labor law than do what’s right. Google is aiming to silence us at a time when our voices are more essential than ever: from Maven, to Dragonfly, to the Walkout, collective action and worker organizing has helped check unethical and selfish executive decision making, where “official channels” continually failed. If these protections are rolled back, Google will be complicit in limiting the rights of working people across the United States, not just us. We will continue to stand up for justice, equity, and a safe workplace, in solidarity with all workers.
Google maintains that it supports its employees, and that the legal defense was just one of many used in the filing. Google provided the following statement to Mashable when asked about how this legal action might impact Google employees:
Google is one of the most open workplaces in the world. Employees have multiple internal forums to express their views, raise concerns and connect, including thousands of internal communities and tens of thousands of email groups. We’re not lobbying for changes to any rules. This was a legal defense that we included as one of many possible defenses in the response to a charge. This case is without merit and we are defending the claim vigorously.
But challenging the 2014 NLRB ruling would have an impact beyond Googlers since it is a national precedent, not a company policy. Last August, the NLRB put out a call for input on the Purple Communications decision, the case that created the precedent protecting organizing over company email. If enough companies weigh in against the precedent, it could justify the NLRB’s decision to reverse the precedent — an act that would be consistent with similar recent NLRB efforts.
A complaint from liberal-leaning Google would be a high profile way to do just that.
“They seem to be trying to lay the paperwork to give themselves cover to flip the Purple Communications decision,” Schwartz said. “It seems that Google is helping forward the administration’s agenda on that.”
Weakened worker protections, enabled through the legal actions of some of our most powerful and supposedly progressive corporations, could be a frightening prospect for workers. In our era of shutdowns, furloughs, and layoffs, employee organizing often proves to be workers’ best hope for exercising power in the workplace. And Google’s actions, paired with the administration’s agenda, could threaten that power.
“It sounds like Google is talking out of both sides of its corporate mouth, trying to pacify employees,” Schwartz said. “But then it advocates to the government to squelch workers’ rights to concerted activities.”
That might just be something to walk out for.
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