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Another fired Google engineer alleges retaliation for union activity

A Google business analyst, Marie Collins, addresses protesters outside Google offices in San Francisco last month. (Greg Bensinger/The Washington Post)

A fifth Google engineer has claimed she was fired in retaliation for protected workplace activism, the latest example of what a small but vocal group at the search-engine giant says is evidence of management overreach as it attempts to revamp its freewheeling culture to resemble a more conventional company.

Kathryn Spiers, who helped keep Google’s Chrome browser secure, said she was fired Friday after two years at the company. This happened, she said, after company officials questioned her about who else she had worked with as part of her activism and whether she had intended to be disruptive to the workplace, among other matters.

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Spiers created software that showed a pop-up message when employees on company networks looked at the website of IRI Consultants, which is known to help corporations with anti-union pushback and which was recently hired by Google, or when they reviewed a company employee rule book. The message said, “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities.”

Spiers’s firing follows that of four other workers in November over what they also said was retaliation for discussing unionization at Google and other workplace activism. The four engineers have become a central example for other activists at the company who say Google is trying to snuff out anti-management messages.

Google has denied the allegation, saying those four employees were fired for violations of company policy, including reviewing colleagues’ calendars and other documents unnecessarily and outside the scope of their work.

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“You don’t need to fire everyone, you just need to fire enough to scare everyone into compliance,” said Spiers, who filed an “unfair labor practices” complaint Monday night with the National Labor Relations Board. The other four workers filed a similar complaint jointly this month. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Washington Post revealed that three additional complaints were filed with the NLRB in the past three weeks. It could not be determined how many workers were involved in those complaints.

The NLRB investigates all such complaints and generally completes its reviews in three to four months.

“We dismissed an employee who abused privileged access to modify an internal security tool,” said Google spokeswoman Katie Hutchison. “This was a serious violation.”

Spiers said she probably caught the attention of Google officials earlier for helping to create software that sent notifications to top internal attorney Kent Walker whenever any employee opened any document, a reaction to Walker’s reminder to workers about the rules around reviewing information deemed outside their regular work.

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Google in the past few months has been working to reshape its freewheeling culture, including scaling back the frequency and openness of weekly companywide meetings and reminding employees to keep conversations focused on work projects and to eschew politics. It recently elevated Google chief executive Sundar Pichai to the role of CEO of Google parent Alphabet, replacing co-founder Larry Page.

Activists at the 100,000-worker company have sought to halt projects they oppose, such as Google’s efforts to create software that could be used in China, where the search engine is largely banned, and partnerships with U.S. government agencies or vendors that are directed at the Department of Homeland Security.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect day for when Kathryn Spiers was fired.