Tech

Google's 'Thanksgiving Four' present a challenge to leadership as campus activism rises

Key Points
  • Overnight reactions to Google's firing of four employees point to deepening cultural problems at the company.
  • The firings of the so-called Thanksgiving Four have inspired employees past and present to join organizers in protesting Google's tactics.
  • Tensions are rising between employees and management as the company appears to crack down on activists.
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Developers Conference in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Google leadership may consider the leaking of sensitive information by employees as the biggest threat to its culture. But the more pressing issue the company faces is a massive wave of activism that's now turned some of its loudest critics into heroes.

After weeks of investigation, Google fired four employees on Monday, claiming they shared confidential documents and breached security. In an internal memo, the company's security and investigations team called it a "rare" case.

News of the dismissals went viral immediately because all four employees had either organized or participated in petitions or protests against the company. At least two of them identified as LGBTQ. The group earned the label the "Thanksgiving Four" because of the timing of the firing ahead of the holiday, and employees past and present weighed in on social media with their own stories of being targeted by leadership for their activism.

Just hours after the firings were reported, Google organizers posted a blog entry titled, "Google's Next Moonshot: Union Busting." The post, which didn't include the names of any authors, claimed that Google framed the employees.

"They think this will crush our efforts, but it won't," the post said.

U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the leading Democratic candidates for president, chimed in Tuesday evening on Twitter with their support for the employees and criticized Google for being "anti-worker."

While Google parent Alphabet continues to crank along financially, pushing the stock up 26% this year, the company appears to be limping toward the 2019 finish line as tempers rage between top brass and rank-and-file staffers. Google recently ended a tradition of weekly all-hands meetings after 20 employees in San Francisco protested the treatment of two employees, Laurence Berland and Rebecca Rivers, who had been placed on sudden and indefinite administrative leave for allegedly sharing sensitive information.

The latest flare-up follows a settlement between Google and the U.S. National Labor Relations Board in September, which called on the company to allow greater debate and more open discussion on campus after an employee filed a complaint last year, alleging Google restricted free speech and fired him for expressing conservative views.

Far from establishing a truce, the agreement with the NLRB has created even more tensions, with The New York Times reporting last week that Google hired a firm known for its anti-union efforts to help it deal with rising unrest.

Protests get bigger and louder

One reason these protests are gaining so much attention is that there are names and faces attached to them, providing human stories that inspire other employees to get involved.

Berland and Rivers were at the center of recent worker protests in San Francisco, rousing a rally on Friday that attracted roughly 200 Google workers, nearly every major news outlet and even some employees from other companies. The No. 1 purpose of the rally, which was livestreamed and watched by people globally, was to reinstate Rivers and Berland. Their photos were on fliers promoting the protest. Berland and Rivers are part of the Thanksgiving Four.

At the rally, Rivers and Berland each described their personal experiences, eliciting boos and jeers from the crowd as they slammed leadership for not communicating to them what they did wrong. Rivers was brought to tears recalling how she was put on leave and explaining how her personal photo collection had been deleted and the rest of her equipment confiscated.

"I stand with Rebecca Rivers and her colleagues," Elizabeth Warren tweeted Tuesday evening.

It's a bad look for Google. Berland had been involved in a protest against YouTube's hate speech policy earlier in the year, and Rivers spoke out about Google's contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The other two fired employees haven't been publicly identified.

Further complicating the matter for Google is that some view the move as targeting individuals for their sexual orientation because at least two of the employees identified as LGBTQ. Members of the company's LGBTQ community have spoken up recently about feeling "unsafe" following Google's hiring of former Department of Homeland Security staffer Miles Taylor and after some were allegedly doxxed and received death threats on internal channels.

Google isn't helping itself. Of the recent investigations and firings, leadership has been largely mum, choosing not to elaborate publicly on the specifics. Google's only explanation thus far was in the internal memo, which indicated that the employees were involved in security breaches.

"Our thorough investigation found the individuals were involved in systematic searches for other employees' materials and work," the global investigations team wrote.

In a statement to CNBC on Tuesday, a Google spokesperson provided additional reasons for the terminations.

"The documents and links contained customer data, business partner information, and information relating to business strategy issues," the statement said. "They were also documents that were clearly intended for a limited group."

Unclear explanations

The vagueness of Google's public response has allowed critics to come up with their own conclusions, and to spread them widely.

Advocacy group the Tech Workers Coalition, tweeted on Monday that the four employees had been fired for "organizing at work" and encouraged employees to "speak out against this draconian act."

Meredith Whittaker, a former Google worker who organized a massive companywide walkout last year, called the firings a "craven retaliation," adding "I ask everyone who can to show up and support."

Earlier this year, organizers of the big walkout said they'd been placed on leave for reasons that were unclear. Berland echoed that sentiment on Friday, saying he didn't learn that he was placed on leave until the news showed up in a Bloomberg story. Rivers said the company told her it was investigating her document access, but in the interrogation, many of the questions were about her opposition to the company's government contracts.

Whether they were fired for legitimate reasons or not, internal dissent at Google is no longer a fringe concern and executives appear perplexed when it comes to dealing with it.

Former employees are also staying vocal. Whittaker, Irene Knapp and Liz Fong-Jones are among activists who are no longer at the company, showing that Google increasingly has to contend with people who have little to lose.

"For every one they retaliate against, there are hundreds of us who will fight, and together we will win," the organizers wrote in Monday's blog post, repeating a statement made by Knapp at the company's annual shareholders meeting and again at Friday's rally. "One of the most powerful companies in the world wouldn't be retaliating against us if collective action didn't work."

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