The Google Guy who wrote the memo about Google’s diversity efforts has provided great fodder for the take-makers. Was he doing free speech? Was Google doing political correctness? Can a non-government actor hurt free speech? These and other profound questions about the nature of liberalism are all at stake.
Curiously enough, nearly every person’s opinion about the correct application of underlying speech principles in this case can be predicted by their substantive political orientation rather than their views on liberalism per se. The same of course was true in the Kaepernick case before this one, or the Duck Dynasty case before that, or the Dixie Chicks case before that. If you were inclined towards cynicism, you might even conclude that nobody actually cares at all about abstract procedural liberalism, that society is simply an unending power game, and that nobody is actually motivated by the arguments they write for publication.
Thankfully, we don’t even have to consider any of that here because this post is not about that. It is about the Google Guy’s chances at the NLRB, a topic I have been urged to write about by multiple people.
I said on Twitter and still believe that, under current NLRB law, the Google Guy has a good chance of being reinstated for the following reasons:
- The Google Guy complained about working conditions to other employees, which is generally protected activity under Section 7 of the NLRA.
- Although the Google Guy used corporate email to communicate with other employees, the NLRB ruled in Purple Communications that you can do that.
- Although the Google Guy’s comments were offensive to many, they probably are not so offensive that they lose protection of the NRLA under the NLRB’s Atlantic Steel test. For example, this statement from Pier Sixty, LLC is not so offensive as to lose protection: “Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! Fuck his mother and his entire fucking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!”
- Although the NLRB has never directly confronted the issue of what to do where the way someone has engaged in protected activity could also be a violation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Administrative Law Judge in Arthur Young & Co. dismissed an employer’s attempt to use Title VII to defend its termination. The judge rejected the defense in a short footnote, saying the employer’s assertion that there may have been a Title VII violation was implausible. My best guess is that the claim this email represents a Title VII violation is similarly flimsy and thus a defense that said “we had to fire him because we needed to protect ourselves from a Title VII lawsuit” would be similarly rejected by the current members of the NLRB.
But this analysis will all change once Trump’s appointees to the NLRB come in:
- The Trump NLRB will want to overturn Purple Communications, which was decided in 2014 and reversed prior NLRB precedent on the question of the use of corporate email. The pre-2014 rule favored by conservatives says that corporate email systems are company property and so employees have no right to use them in ways not sanctioned by the boss.
- The Trump NLRB will also want to give employers as much latitude as possible in firing someone for offensive remarks, and so may even be willing to interpret Atlantic Steel to permit termination in this case. By lowering the bar for what counts as too offensive to be protected, they will make it easier for employers to find ways to get rid of union activists.
- Since the Title VII argument has not been directly confronted by the NLRB before, it is also conceivable that the Trump NLRB would rule that employers have the right to terminate employees engaged in protected activity where there is any colorable Title VII claim resulting from the way that activity was conducted.
In basically all cases, a conservative NLRB will want to reduce the ways workers can coordinate with one another, and increase employer discretion to terminate employees. When I raised this point on Twitter, someone said that this might be different under Trump because wouldn’t such a ruling feed into the political correctness and whatnot that he hates. And to that I can only laugh: at the end of the day, what conservatives want to do is shift power to bosses over workers, and they are really good at keeping their eyes on the prize.