Google terminates 28 employees after multicity protests: Read the full memo

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Google and Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai arrives at the federal courthouse in Washington, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.
Jose Luis Magana | AP

Google terminated 28 employees Wednesday, according to an internal memo viewed by CNBC, after a series of protests against labor conditions and the company’s contract to provide the Israeli government and military with cloud computing and artificial intelligence services.

The news comes one day after nine Google workers were arrested on trespassing charges Tuesday night after staging a sit-in at the company’s offices in New York and Sunnyvale, California, including a protest in Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian’s office.

Some of the arrested workers in New York and Sunnyvale, who spoke with CNBC earlier on Wednesday, said that during the protest they were locked out of their work accounts and offices, placed on administrative leave and told to wait to return to work until being contacted by HR.

On Wednesday evening, a memo sent by Chris Rackow, Google’s vice president of global security, told Googlers that “following investigation, today we terminated the employment of twenty-eight employees found to be involved. We will continue to investigate and take action as needed.”

The arrests, which were livestreamed on Twitch by participants, follow rallies outside Google offices in New York, Sunnyvale and Seattle, which attracted hundreds of attendees, according to workers involved. The protests were led by the “No Tech for Apartheid” organization, focused on Project Nimbus — Google and Amazon’s joint $1.2 billion contract to provide the Israeli government and military with cloud computing services, including AI tools, data centers and other cloud infrastructure.

“This evening, Google indiscriminately fired over two dozen workers, including those among us who did not directly participate in yesterday’s historic, bicoastal 10-hour sit-in protests,” No Tech for Apartheid said in a statement, adding, “In the three years that we have been organizing against Project Nimbus, we have yet to hear from a single executive about our concerns. Google workers have the right to peacefully protest about terms and conditions of our labor. These firings were clearly retaliatory.”

Protesters in Sunnyvale sat in Kurian’s office for more than nine hours until their arrests, writing demands on Kurian’s whiteboard and wearing shirts that read “Googler against genocide.” In New York, protesters sat in a three-floor common space. Five workers from Sunnyvale and four from New York were arrested.

“On a personal level, I am opposed to Google taking any military contracts — no matter which government they’re with or what exactly the contract is about,” Cheyne Anderson, a Google Cloud software engineer based in Washington, told CNBC earlier on Wednesday. “And I hold that opinion because Google is an international company and no matter which military it’s with, there are always going to be people on the receiving end… represented in Google’s employee base and also our user base.” Anderson had flown to Sunnyvale for the protest in Kurian’s office and was one of the workers arrested Tuesday.

“Google Cloud supports numerous governments around the world in countries where we operate, including the Israeli government, with our generally available cloud computing services,” a Google spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday evening, adding, “This work is not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.”

The demonstrations show Google’s increased pressure from workers who oppose military use of its AI and cloud technology. Last month, Google Cloud engineer Eddie Hatfield interrupted a keynote speech from the managing director of Google’s Israel business stating, “I refuse to build technology that powers genocide.” Hatfield was subsequently fired. That same week, an internal Google employee message board was shut down after staffers posted comments about the company’s Israeli military contracts. A spokesperson at the time described the posts as “divisive content that is disruptive to our workplace.”

On Oct. 7, Hamas carried out deadly attacks on Israel, killing 1,200 and taking more than 240 hostages.  The following day, Israel declared war and began implementing a siege of Gaza, cutting off access to power, food, water and fuel. At least 33,899 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip since that date, the enclave’s Health Ministry said Wednesday in a statement on Telegram. In January at the U.N.’s top court, Israel rejected genocide charges brought by South Africa.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense reportedly sought consulting services from Google to expand its access to Google Cloud services. Google Photos is one platform used by the Israeli government to conduct surveillance in Gaza, according to The New York Times.

“I think what happened yesterday is evidence that Google’s attempts to suppress all of the voices of opposition to this contract are not only not working but actually having the opposite effect,” Ariel Koren, a former Google employee who resigned in 2022 after leading efforts to oppose the Project Nimbus contract, told CNBC earlier on Wednesday. “It’s really just creating more agitation, more anger and more commitment.”

The New York sit-in started at noon ET and ended around 9:30 p.m. ET. Security asked workers to remove their banner, which spanned two floors, about an hour into the protest, according to Hasan Ibraheem, a Google software engineer based in New York City and one of the arrested workers.

“I realized, ‘Oh, the place that I work at is very complicit and aiding in this genocide — I have a responsibility to act against it,'” Ibraheem told CNBC earlier on Wednesday. Ibraheem added, “The fact that I am receiving money from Google and Israel is paying Google — I am receiving part of that money, and that weighed very heavily on me.”

The New York workers were released from the police station after about four hours.

The workers were also protesting their labor conditions — namely “that the company stop the harassment, intimidation, bullying, silencing, and censorship of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim Googlers — and that the company address the health and safety crisis workers, especially those in Google Cloud, are facing due to the potential impacts of their work,” according to a release by the campaign.

“A small number of employee protesters entered and disrupted a few of our locations,” a Google spokesperson told CNBC Wednesday evening. “Physically impeding other employees’ work and preventing them from accessing our facilities is a clear violation of our policies, and completely unacceptable behavior. 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.”

Read the full memo below.

Googlers,

You may have seen reports of protests at some of our offices yesterday. Unfortunately, a number of employees brought the event into our buildings in New York and Sunnyvale. They took over office spaces, defaced our property, and physically impeded the work of other Googlers. Their behavior was unacceptable, extremely disruptive, and made co-workers feel threatened. We placed employees involved under investigation and cut their access to our systems. Those who refused to leave were arrested by law enforcement and removed from our offices.

Following investigation, today we terminated the employment of twenty-eight employees found to be involved. We will continue to investigate and take action as needed.

Behavior like this has no place in our workplace and we will not tolerate it. It clearly violates multiple policies that all employees must adhere to — including our Code of Conduct and Policy on Harassment, Discrimination, Retaliation, Standards of Conduct, and Workplace Concerns.

We are a place of business and every Googler is expected to read our policies and apply them to how they conduct themselves and communicate in our workplace. The overwhelming majority of our employees do the right thing. If you’re one of the few who are tempted to think we’re going to overlook conduct that violates our policies, think again. The company takes this extremely seriously, and we will continue to apply our longstanding policies to take action against disruptive behavior — up to and including termination.

You should expect to hear more from leaders about standards of behavior and discourse in the workplace.

Chris

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