Google employees have no legal right to protest the company’s choice of clients, the internet giant told a judge weighing the U.S. government’s allegations that its firings of activists violated the National Labor Relations Act.
“Even if Google had, for the sake of argument, terminated the employees for their protest activities — for protesting their choice of customers — this would not violate the Act,” Google’s attorney Al Latham said in his opening statement Tuesday at a labor board trial.
National Labor Relations Board prosecutors have accused the Alphabet unit of violating federal law by illegally firing five employees for their activism. Three of those workers’ claims had originally been dismissed under President Donald Trump, because agency prosecutors concluded that their opposition to the company collaborating with immigration enforcement wasn’t legally protected, according to their lawyer. But that decision was reversed after President Joe Biden fired and replaced the labor board’s general counsel.
Google has been roiled over the past four years by a wave of activism by employees challenging management over issues including treatment of sub-contracted staff, handling of sexual harassment, and a contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which some of the fired workers accessed internal information about and circulated a petition against.
Google has denied wrongdoing, saying in a Monday statement that it encourages “open discussion and debate” but terminated staff in response to violations of its data security policies. “Google terminated these employees not because of their protest as such, but because in the pursuit of their protest, they accessed highly confidential information that they had no right to access,” its attorney told the judge Tuesday.
Federal labor law prohibits retaliating against employees for collective action related to their working conditions, but the exact scope of that protection has been debated for decades. Biden’s appointees have signaled they interpret the scope of what that covers much more broadly than their Trump-era predecessors.
Latham said he isn’t aware of any case in the labor board’s eight decades of existence in which it has held “an employer’s choice of customer” to be an issue workers have a right to protest.
“What we have here is a protest that does not seek to improve employees’ terms and conditions of employment,” but rather “a purely political protest that sought to use Google’s government contracts, or potential government contracts, as leverage,” he said.
Google violated the law “to discourage employees from engaging in” legally-protected activism, according to a July complaint issued by labor board prosecutors.
Along with accessing information about and circulating a petition against Google’s work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the activities for which employees allegedly were punished included creating a Google form to help co-workers express concerns about working conditions, organizing a protest on company premises, and reviewing code for a pop-up message about labor law rights that would show up when workers visited certain sites online.
In her own opening statement on behalf of the labor board’s general counsel, agency attorney Tracy Clark said Google’s stated commitment to ethics was a key reason activist employees chose to work there in the first place. Workers will testify, she said, that their organizing “was based on Google’s commitment to ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ and their own desire to maintain a safe work environment for coworkers, and the communities affected by the Trump Administration’s border policies.”