A federal agency said on Wednesday that Google had most likely violated labor law when it fired two employees who were involved in labor organizing, a spokesman for the agency said.
The pair were fired in November last year as Google grappled with a vocal contingent of workers who protested its handling of sexual harassment and its work with the Defense Department and federal border agencies.
Although Google fired several employees who participated in the protests, the complaint on Wednesday from the National Labor Relations Board said only the rights of Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers had been violated.
Mr. Berland had researched Google’s relationship with a firm known for its union-busting activity, and Ms. Spiers had created a digital notice that informed co-workers of their rights to organize. In a memo at the time, Google said the employees had been dismissed “for clear and repeated violations of our data security policies.”
But the N.L.R.B. complaint said several of Google’s policies that prohibited workers from viewing internal documents were unlawful and selectively enforced, according to Mr. Berland and Ms. Spiers, who were briefed on the complaint, which has not been made public. Google also surveilled employees who viewed a presentation about an effort to unionize Google contractors at one of the company’s Pittsburgh offices, the complaint said.
Alan Hyde, an expert on labor law at Rutgers Law School in Newark who has written extensively about the tech industry, said the case sent an important message. Unlike other Silicon Valley employers, which have taken a relatively subtle approach to remaining nonunion, Google appeared to have acted “as if labor laws didn’t apply to them and they could treat employees any way they like,” Mr. Hyde said.
Mr. Berland, an engineer who had worked at Google for over a decade, said he felt vindicated by the complaint.
“This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management,” he said. “This is a significant finding at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society.”
Ms. Spiers, an engineer who worked at Google for just under two years, said that the N.L.R.B. could order Google to reinstate her, but that it couldn’t reverse the harm done to her credibility.
“Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me,” she said.
A field office of the N.L.R.B., which reports to the agency’s general counsel, will take the complaint before an administrative law judge in the coming months if Google does not settle. If the judge rules in favor of the workers and the ruling survives what is in effect an appeal to the labor board in Washington, which is separate from the general counsel’s office and sits in judgment of cases, Google could be forced pay wages for the period since the workers’ dismissal and rehire them.
Mr. Hyde predicted that Google would settle the case. “Google is not very popular in Washington right now with either Republicans or Democrats,” he said.
But Google suggested that it planned to fight. “We’re confident in our decision and legal position,” said Jennifer Rodstrom, a Google spokeswoman. “Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”