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Google Urged the U.S. to Limit Protection For Activist Workers

Linked by Paul Ciano on February 1, 2019

Josh Eidelson , Hassan Kanu , and Mark Bergen, Bloomberg:

Google, whose employees have captured international attention in recent months through high-profile protests of workplace policies, has been quietly urging the U.S. government to narrow legal protection for workers organizing online.

During the Obama administration, the National Labor Relations Board broadened employees’ rights to use their workplace email system to organize around issues on the job. In a 2014 case, Purple Communications, the agency restricted companies from punishing employees for using their workplace email systems for activities like circulating petitions or fomenting walkouts, as well as trying to form a union. In filings in May 2017 and November 2018, obtained via Freedom of Information Act request, Alphabet Inc.’s Google urged the National Labor Relations Board to undo that precedent.

Citing dissents authored by Republican appointees, Google’s attorneys wrote that the 2014 standard “should be overruled” and a George W. Bush-era precedent—allowing companies to ban organizing on their employee email systems—should be reinstated.

If the Labor Board did what Google wanted, “it would have a huge chilling effect,” said Google employee activist Colin McMillen, one of tens of thousands around the world who participated in a November walkout following revelations about the company’s handling of alleged sexual misconduct. Google’s employee email system played a pivotal role in the organizing for that protest, he said, with more than a thousand workers joining an email list used to plan it. Given that employees are spread around the globe and don’t have most co-workers’ personal emails, he said, company email is key to facilitating workers’ ability to mobilize. McMillen currently works at Google’s Cambridge, Mass. office, but said he had quit his job and his last day is next month.

“It demonstrates that Google leadership is not operating in good faith,” said McMillen. “They can have a town hall and try to say soothing words and get people to not want to quit, but then if in the background they’re not just rejecting carrying out most of the demands of the walkout, but also trying to tamp down our ability to even coordinate and talk to each other about these issues, that’s extremely concerning.”

Google has long fostered a culture of employee feedback, allowing open debate in meetings and online forums, where staff have advocated for changes to products and facilities over the company’s 20-year history. But the last year has seen an unprecedented wave of concentrated and forceful advocacy from employees, often at direct odds with the positions of management.

On November 1, thousands of Google employees around the world joined a mid-day walkout urging the company overhaul its handling of sexual misconduct and change its governance, including by adding an employee representative to its board. A week later, CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company would make changes including ending forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault allegations. “Even in difficult times, we are encouraged by the commitment of our colleagues to create a better workplace,” Pichai wrote in an email to employees.

It was three weeks later, without fanfare, and in a case unrelated to the walkout, that Google’s attorneys made their latest filing urging the Labor Board undo the 2014 precedent protecting workers’ ability to organize.

“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,” organizers of the employee walkout wrote in a statement. “If these protections are rolled back, Google will be complicit in limiting the rights of working people across the United States, not just us.”

Paul Ciano

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