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Labor watchdog accuses Google of illegally firing staff in union-busting push – as AI ethics guru Dr Timnit Gebru is pushed out

Web giant could be dragged in front of a judge to justify its actions

Updated Google unlawfully spied on and interrogated staff to prevent them from organizing a union, and fired two employees in the process, it is claimed.

The allegations were raised in a complaint [PDF] filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of the two dismissed staffers – Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spier – plus the Communications Workers of America union and one other person. Berland and Spier claim they were let go from the search giant in November last year for pro-union activities, and Google claims they were fired for other reasons.

In an attempt to stand up against Google for working with IRI Consultants, an independent contractor hired by Google to to quash union organizing, Berland voiced his concerns using an internal image-based message board known as MemeGen.

Google retaliated by moderating messages on the platform, it's claimed. When Berland tried to find out why the posts were removed, by seeking out internal files, he was placed on administrative leave. Berland was one of four staff axed in the so-called Thanksgiving Day massacre for "data security violations."

“Google’s hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing,” Berland said in a statement. “Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organizing is protected by law. But the real strength of organizing at Google is that it did not heed the message.”

A similar situation unfolded for Spier, too, it is said. She created a text box that popped-up whenever Googlers visited internal webpages discussing community guideline rules, or a union-busting website. The pop-up reminded colleagues they had a "right to participate in protected concerted activities," such as union forming, and reminded them of a previous NLRB case involving Google. The web giant responded by reviewing the code defining the pop-up, and then fired her in December for unauthorized use of internal tools.

“This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf,” Spiers said in a statement. “They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues. Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me.”

I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues. Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me

Google also implemented new rules that the NLRB believes unlawfully quashes employees’ rights to unionize. Staff members were no longer allowed to create calendar events inviting more than a hundred people, or congregate in more than ten rules without “a business purpose,” according to the complaint, all moves that would hinder labor organizing. It's also claimed Google inappropriately quizzed its staff to spill the beans on their attempts to organize, kept close tabs on their activities at work, and threatened people with reprisals.

Now, Google has until December 16 to respond to NLRB’s complaint with a settlement offer. If both parties fail to reach a deal, the case will go before an administrative law judge in a San Francisco court.

“We strongly support the rights our employees have in the workplace, and open discussion and respectful debate have always been part of Google’s culture. We’re proud of that culture and are committed to defending it against attempts by individuals to deliberately undermine it – including by violating security policies and internal systems,” a spokesperson for Google told El Reg in a statement.

“We’ll continue to provide information to the NLRB and the administrative judge about our decision to terminate or discipline employees who abused their privileged access to internal systems, such as our security tools or colleagues’ calendars. Such actions are a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility, and we will be defending our position.”

Laurie Burgess, a lawyer representing Berland and Spiers, told The Register she’s confident the case will go to trial, considering Google will probably deny the allegations in the complaint.

It’s the first time to my knowledge that Google will be hauled into a hearing before an administrative law judge regarding unlawful actions

“I think this is a very important case," she said. “It’s the first time to my knowledge that Google will be hauled into a hearing before an administrative law judge regarding unlawful actions. We hope that in general the discussion about Google’s termination of these employees will trigger broader dialogue in worker’s rights and protections that should be afforded to the private sector.”

If the court rules in favor of Berland and Spiers, Google will potentially have to rehire the pair with back pay. “I’m two minds about if I would go back,” Berland told The Register in a phone interview. “It’s very clear Google is not the place it used to be and that upsets me. How will I be treated if I went back? Would I be a subject to further harassment?

"On the other hand, there are two big reasons for going back: I love my co-workers and the work we were doing, and it’d show that I can go back to my job after having spoken out. It’d act as an unchilling effect, if I could go back. But I don’t know, it’s not a question I’m going to have an answer for a little while.”

Top Google ethical AI researcher ousted

Google’s public commitment to being a happy-happy-joy-joy place for the brightest people to work continued to unravel this week, as it landed in hot water with the machine-learning community – for abruptly ejecting one of its managers from its Ethical AI team.

Dr Timnit Gebru said on Wednesday evening she was kicked out by Google AI supremo Jeff Dean for sending an email to the Google Brain Women and Allies mailing list that railed against a wide range of failures, from Google's Kafkaesque processes to a depressing lack of enthusiasm by management to diversify the tech goliath's workforce. Dr Gebru is a prominent researcher well-known for her work tackling the issues of bias in facial-recognition systems.

She went as far as suggesting her coworkers are wasting their time drafting policies and plans to reshape the ad giant's talent pool because no one above is listening. “What I want to say is stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference," the now-ex-Googler said in the email, a copy of which made its way to The Platformer.

"The [Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Objective Key Results] that we don’t know where they come from (and are never met anyways), the random discussions, the 'we need more mentorship' rather than 'we need to stop the toxic environments that hinder us from progressing' the constant fighting and education at your cost, they don’t matter. Because there is zero accountability."

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“There is no incentive to hire 39 [per cent] women," she continued, referring to one manager who achieved that percentage despite what's described as no tangible support from upper management. "Your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration. There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.”

The email was sent in response to Google asking her to retract a research paper she submitted for internal review prior to publication. When she asked for the reason why, she said she was told any feedback on the piece would be privileged and confidential and delivered via the HR department, and that she would not know who said what during the review. She said she was subsequently told, quoting Google, "certain aspects of the email you sent last night to non-management employees in the Brain group reflect behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”

However, Google claims that's not strictly why she left. In the wake of the paper's rejection by the internal review teams, from what we can tell, Dr Gebru told her bosses she would remain at Google if certain conditions were met, and then took a break from work. She returned to find that management had interpreted that request as a resignation letter because they had declined to agree to the conditions proposed. Dr Gebru, however, said her email didn’t explicitly say she had resigned.

Dean later sent a memo to Googlers that claimed the research paper was not up to par, however we understand the article was noncontroversial and typical of many other published works. It explored the environmental effects and ethical implications of large-scale energy-hungry AI-powered language models typically used at the heart of Google products.

Dr Gebru was not immediately available for comment, and Google declined to comment. On Twitter, Dr Gebru, who previously threatened to sue the internet titan as an employee, said she is seeking legal advice.

At the time of writing, just under 200 Googlers have signed an open letter backing Dr Gebru and demanded a full explanation for the paper's rejection. ®

Updated to add at 23:59 UTC, December 6

The number of signatories to the open letter now exceeds 3,200.

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