Google fires fifth activist employee in three weeks

18 Dec 2019

Image: © wolterke/

Kathryn Spiers says she was fired after she used an internal alert system to send her Google co-workers a notification reminding them of their rights in the workplace.

On Tuesday (17 December), it emerged that Google has fired its fifth activist employee in three weeks. Google reportedly took action against a security engineer after she used an internal alert system to remind her colleagues that they had the right to take collective action.

Kathryn Spiers, who had worked on Google’s security team for two years, wrote in an article published by the Guardian this week that her employment had been terminated.

Spiers said that while working on the platform security team for Google Chrome, part of her job was to write internal browser notifications so that co-workers could be automatically notified of employee guidelines and company policies while they browsed the internet at work.

Tensions in Google

In recent months, Google employees have been protesting issues such as sexual misconduct, racism, pay inequality and mistreatment of contractors. Headlines were made after a major protest in November 2018 saw 20,000 Google employees walk out of work.

In her article yesterday, Spiers wrote: “Recently Google was forced to post a list of rights that we have in the workplace. So when I heard that Google had hired a union-busting firm and started illegally retaliating against my co-workers, I decided to make sure my co-workers knew about the posting.”

The list of rights that Google posted was to settle a complaint brought by the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Following this, Spiers decided to write a few lines of code, sending her co-workers a notification through the internal alert system that said: “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities.”

In the Guardian article, Spiers said that this kind of code change happens frequently, with employees adding things to share hobbies or interests or mark occasions. She described how during last year’s walkout, one employee changed the default desktop wallpaper design to an image of the Linux penguin holding a protest sign.

“The company has never reacted aggressively in response to a notification such as this in the past. It’s always been a celebrated part of the culture,” she wrote.

Google’s response

Spiers said that her performance up until this incident had been commended by Google, but after she had written the lines of code, she was suspended immediately and without warning. This was the same week that the ‘Thanksgiving Four’ were fired, reportedly in response to speaking at a demonstration at Google’s San Francisco office that was attended by more than 200 employees.

Some organisers of global 2018 walkout, including ex-staffer Meredith Walker, have also said that they faced retaliation for their roles in that protest.

During the time of her suspension, Spiers said that she was interrogated on three separate occasions, “with very little warning each time”. She claimed that the interrogations were “aggressive” and “likely illegal”, as she was not allowed to consult with any legal professionals.

A spokesperson for Google told Reuters: “The issue here is that a security engineer misused a security and privacy tool to create a pop-up that was neither about security nor privacy. This person did that without authorisation and without a business justification.”

On Friday 13 December, Spiers said that she received a call from Google to say that her employment had been terminated for violating company policies. “I asked him how I violated the security policies but he told me that he wouldn’t answer that question,” she added.

After Spiers lost her job, a member of management in Google emailed employees: “I want to be very clear: the issue was not that the messaging had to do with the NLRB notice or workers’ rights. The decision would have been the same had the pop-up message been on any other subject.”

‘The company is too powerful’

In her article, Spiers wrote: “This doesn’t just affect me. The company is too powerful and they must be held accountable. As long as the company can treat me this way, they can treat anyone this way.

“Workers need a voice in the company. We need to protect each other and stand together as a unit.”

She concluded: “For a company that holds personal information about billions of people’s lives, the company is afraid of its workers even knowing their own legal rights to organise to hold the company accountable.

“I encourage everyone in tech to stop giving management the benefit of the doubt, to join unions, and continue to organise to protect our users, our communities and ourselves.”

The Communications Workers of America union has now filed an NLRB complaint on behalf of Spiers and the Thanksgiving Four. The union argued that the firing was illegal because it aimed to “quell Spiers and other employees from asserting their right to engage in concerted protected activities”.

According to Reuters, the recent firings have “galvanised some employees into doing more to rally one another and protest company policies”, however, even with the support of the Communications Workers of America, some employees have been “intimidated” and are “speaking out less”.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic