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Google fires workers protesting against $1.2bn Israeli contract

Google fires workers protesting against $1.2bn Israeli contract
The Google logo in front of Google's Bay View building during a media tour in Mountain View, California, US, 16 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JOHN G. MABANGLO)

Alphabet’s Google has fired 28 employees after they were involved in protests against Project Nimbus, a $1.2-billion joint contract with Amazon.com to provide the Israeli government with AI and cloud services.

The protests, which were led by the No Tech for Apartheid organization, took place on Tuesday across Google offices in New York City, Seattle, and Sunnyvale, California. Protesters in New York and California staged a nearly 10-hour sit-in, with others documenting the action, including through a Twitch livestream. Nine of them were arrested on Tuesday evening on trespassing charges.

Several workers involved in the protests, including those who were not directly engaged in the sit-in, received a message from the company’s Employee Relations group informing them that they had been put on leave. Google told the affected employees  that it’s “keeping this matter as confidential as possible, only disclosing information on a need to know basis” in an email seen by Bloomberg. On Wednesday evening, the workers were informed they were being dismissed by the company, according to a statement from Google staff with the No Tech for Apartheid campaign.

“Physically impeding other employees’ work and preventing them from accessing our facilities is a clear violation of our policies, and completely unacceptable behavior,” Google said in a statement about the protesters. “After refusing multiple requests to leave the premises, law enforcement was engaged to remove them to ensure office safety. We have so far concluded individual investigations that resulted in the termination of employment for 28 employees, and will continue to investigate and take action as needed.”

Google has long favoured a culture of open debate, but employee activism in recent years has tested that commitment. Workers who organised a 2018 walkout over the company’s handling of sexual assault allegations said Google punished them for their activism. Four other workers alleged they were fired for organising opposition to Google’s work with federal Customs and Border Protection and for other workplace advocacy.

US labour law gives employees the right to engage in collective action related to working conditions. Tech workers will likely argue that this should grant them the ability to band together to object to how the tools they create are used, said John Logan, a professor of labour at San Francisco State University.

“Tech workers are not like other kinds of workers,” he said. “You can make an argument in this case that having some sort of say or control or ability to protest about how their work product is being used is actually a sort of key issue.”

Tech companies like Google have a reputation for having “more egalitarian and very cosmopolitan work cultures, but when they encountered labour activism among their own workers, they actually responded in a sort of quite draconian way”, Logan added. 

Two Googlers who were involved in the protest in California told Bloomberg that a group of workers gathered on the sixth floor of Google’s Sunnyvale bureau, where Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian’s office is located, to show support for those who were staging the sit-in. It’s unclear how Google identified participants in the protest, as only some had their badges scanned by security personnel, and some of those who were fired were outside Google’s offices, according to the employees.

One worker said Google may have framed the move to initially place employees on leave as “confidential” to save face publicly, and argued that the protesters did not violate any company policies. The protesters left the building as soon as they were asked to and did not obstruct or disrupt others at the company, the person said.

Beyond the protest, Google has struggled with how to manage internal debate about the Middle East conflict. After the demonstration, posts on internal Google forums featured a mix of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli sentiment, with a number of other workers saying they felt the topic was inappropriate for the workplace, a Google employee said. Moderators locked down some threads on the subject, saying prior discussions had gotten too heated, the employee added.  

Despite Google’s response, employees demonstrating against Project Nimbus have seen an uptick in support since the sit-in, said one of the fired workers.

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