Google to NLRB: Shut Down Employee Email Access

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Published January 30th, 2019 - 01.30.1921


This past November, 20,000 Google employees staged global, rolling walkouts protesting gender and racial discrimination at the company. Employees had been organizing to address these issues for some time when a New York Times article, published in late October, described the lengths to which the company had gone to protect high-level executives who had been accused of sexual harassment. These revelations spurred the walkouts, which were planned over the course of a few days using the company’s communications tools like gmail and google docs to coordinate actions around the world. The use of these tools made it possible to not only plan the action but to formulate demands by workers in multiple offices, whose primary convening spaces were forums and shared docs. It was a marvel of modern workplace organizing.

By all outward appearances, Google execs responded benignly (if inadequately) to the walkouts. But last week Bloomberg revealed that just weeks afterward, they submitted the second of two briefs to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protesting Purple Communications, the 2014 ruling that ensured organization of the walkout was protected activity. In Purple Communications, the NLRB ruled that workplace communications tools like email and internal message boards were protected spaces, given that in an age of remote workplaces and sprawling multinational companies, email and digital communications are often the primary and most practical way for employees to talk to each other about working conditions.

As Bloomberg noted, the company has maintained a robust internal culture of employee voice and debate for many years through its internal forums. Some are places to share memes and jokes, while others help workers discuss issues that are important to them. Googlers considered these forums a sign of their employers’ open and enlightened acceptance of employee voice. In fact, when Coworker.org started meeting with tech workers during the winter of 2016, we were repeatedly assured by employees that while there might be a problem in other companies, Google encouraged its employees to speak up.

This environment began to shift in 2017, as Google responded to complaints from workers who had been disciplined for discriminatory language and behavior on internal company forums. Counsel for one employee argued that because these workers were questioning “workplace diversity,” they were engaging in protected speech about working conditions. Google countered that the employee had been disciplined for creating a hostile workplace for women and people of color, not for engaging in workplace discussions. The most high profile of these cases was James Damore, an employee who had been terminated for publishing a memo on company channels that included discriminatory language about women. Counsel for Damore filed an NLRB claim saying that Google infringed on Mr. Damore’s National Labor Relations Act rights to engage in conversation about his working conditions. The NLRB rejected Damore’s claim, stating that while some parts of his memo related to working conditions, his “… use of stereotypes based on purported biological differences between women and men should not be treated differently than the types of conduct the Board found unprotected in [other] cases.”

In other words, the Board (and, at the time, Google) made a clear distinction between the kind of language that relates to working conditions and that which threatens the working conditions of others. Google seems to have ignored that distinction, when it filed a second brief urging the board to reconsider Purple Communications just weeks after the walkouts.

In the midst of the debate about the Damore case, employees who shared his beliefs ramped up harassment of Googlers on internal forums any time they brought up issues related to diversity. Googlers who were the targets of harassment responded on internal platforms by collectively advocating  for changes to address this behavior, campaigning for them through the spring of 2018. Their suggestions included content moderation, updates, enforcement of the employee code of conduct, and transparency into how HR investigations would be conducted so employees could safely raise concerns. While the code of conduct was revised, not much progress was made on the other issues. What these workers were ultimately asking their employer to do was to take responsibility for discriminatory and harassing content posted on its own forums and to use its vast resources to ensure that those spaces remain safe for workers to share ideas. Google’s response, in both briefs, was to attempt to entirely eliminate employees’ ability to raise concerns about their own safety.

In positioning the filing of these briefs as an antidote to harassment, Google is taking a cue from the Damore playbook and purposely conflating harassment with protected concerted activity. In taking this position, Google is trying to limit the resources workers have for the kind of coordinated action that is a cornerstone of workplace organizing. There is an obvious difference between using a workplace platform to marginalize one’s fellow workers for their gender, race, or identity—and using those same platforms to identify, name, and organize around ending that behavior.

Google is not just an employer expressing a private interest, with private consequences, to the NLRB. It is a provider of workplace communications infrastructure to many companies through its G Suite office products. Google brings to bear outsized influence on any debate about the use of the technology it provides. In the case of Purple Communications, we see a company that promotes itself publicly as an arbiter of open communication and the free exchange of ideas, while privately seeking to restrain these ideals not only for its own employees—but for all of us.

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