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Google Contractors Officially Vote to Unionize

The contractors work at a company called HCL, which strongly encouraged its employees to vote against the union.

by Brian Conway
Sep 24 2019, 7:13pm

Stefan Sidelnick and Ben Gwin leave the Carnegie Library moments after HCL America contractors voted to organize with United Steelworkers. Image: Brian Conway

Eighty Google contract workers in Pittsburgh employed by HCL America voted Tuesday to unionize with the United Steel Workers (USW). They will organize under the name Pittsburgh Association of Tech Professionals (PATP).

The vote to unionize passed, with 49 voting in favor of unionization and 24 voting against unionization.

Damon Di Cicco, organizer with the United Steelworkers, said that PATP was formed with support from the Department for Professional Employees (DPE), a semi-autonomous branch of the AFL-CIO, representing more than four million professional, technical, and other highly skilled workers. The vote to unionize is historic for white collar tech workers, and could spur others in the industry to take similar action.

The idea, said Di Cicco, was to create an umbrella organization to facilitate organizing in the tech sector, and eventually to help tech locals coordinate and cooperate amongst themselves.

Di Cicco said the formation of PATP happened separately, but simultaneously, with the push to unionize by HCL workers. Now, the group has its first victory.

The vote comes despite attempts by HCL to prevent its employees from unionizing. Emails shared with Motherboard show that Jeremy Carlson, HCL America’s deputy general manager of operations sent at least a half-dozen emails to contractors in the two week period before the vote. Many of them urged employees not to unionize.

“The Steelworkers are typically ‘blue collar’ workers, not workers in a tech industry like us, and the overwhelming majority of the contracts they’ve negotiated are for employees working in industries completely unrelated to ours,” one of the emails reads. “Do you really think the Steelworkers understand our needs, our industry, our business, or even what you do on a daily basis? I don’t.”

“I truly believe that the best way forward for us is to work together with you and our leadership team—is without a union,” he continued. “Especially a union who doesn’t understand us, what we do, or how we work. While the Steelworkers may understand what steel workers need or how steel companies operate, the technology industry is different—and those differences make us unique.”

Other emails sent by Carlson suggest that groups that unionize with the United Steel Workers have “buyer’s remorse” and that decertifying a union is a difficult process: “If the Steelworkers win the election on September 24th, you should plan on the Steelworkers making decisions for you for years, even if you’re not happy about it.” Another email sent by Carlson one week before the vote alleged that the Steelworkers have a history of strikes, and that such action could have a deleterious effect on contractors: “Most of us would struggle to make ends meet if our paychecks stopped, and I wouldn’t want any of you to have to go through something like this,” he said, referring to the ongoing General Motors workers strike.

Reached by phone, Carlson said he couldn’t comment without permission from HCL’s PR department. HCL America did not respond to a request for comment.

“We work with lots of partners, many of which have unionized workforces, and many of which don't," A Google spokeswoman, Jenn Kaiser, said. "As with all our partners, whether HCL’s employees unionize or not is between them and their employer. We’ll continue to partner with HCL."

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"Red Badge" google contractors with HCL America, Alexa Grazio, Allie Hosinski, Mary Zuzack, and Francesca Caisden, after casting their votes to organize with United Steelworkers. Image: Brian Conway

Motherboard interviewed more than a dozen Google contractors at HCL. These interviews reveal that workers—both those in favor of and against the union—are concerned that their wages are lower than official Google staffers and that they receive fewer benefits.

According to a New York Times report, temp workers, vendors and employees contractors outnumber actual employees at Google. Worker castes can be determined by the color of their badges. Full-time Googlers have blue badges, while contractors have red badges.

The vote was scheduled after two-thirds of the approximately 80 Google contract workers with HCL signed cards in late August indicating their support for a union, according to USW.

In recent months, tech contractors have begun to flex their muscle. Google workers signed a petition that eventually lead to the tech behemoth dropping its work on Project Maven. Security workers have also organized, but instances of tech contractors themselves working to unionize have been few and far between.

Christian Sweeney, Deputy Organizing Director for AFL-CIO, said that his organization is proud of the work the labor movement has done historically with low wage and low-skilled workers, but in the past year especially there has been “a lot of militancy amongst pretty highly educated and high-skilled workers,” everyone from video game workers to university researchers.

Today’s effort, he says, “It’s not a big surprise; we’ve seen this trend emerging.”

The vote took place at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, East Liberty branch, a few blocks from Google’s headquarters in Pittsburgh. Last month, over 300 library workers in Pittsburgh voted to join the USW.

“We’re seeing an increased consciousness among tech professionals along with a lot of other professionals,” said Ethan Miller, Research and Outreach Manager at DPE. He cited recent unionization efforts at Kickstarter and software company Lanetix, but commended HCL contractors and USW organizers for being one of the first campaigns to hold, and win, a NLRB election.

HCL contractor Ben Gwin was first to reach out to USW. Shortly after joining HCL, the mother of his daughter died, and he found himself short on both personal days and income.

“I had no flexibility; I was one disaster away from being totally screwed financially, and so I just got to the breaking point of like, I need to do something about this,” he said.

The unionization vote caused a rift within the contractor workforce. Pro-union workers alleged unauthorized emails were sent to workers’ emergency contacts by anti-union workers. Anti-union workers allege that a presentation made by PATP before the vote contained spurious claims, and that pro-union advocates would not share the presentation with them afterward. (Members of PATW would not share the presentation with Motherboard, either, claiming it was for internal, educational purposes.)

Ten days before the vote, a half-dozen workers opposed to unionization met at a local library to coordinate their efforts to hinder the unionization campaign. They weren’t fundamentally opposed to unions, they said, but had too much to lose.

One worker opposed to the unionization effort, Steve Grygo, said their perk-filled jobs were in many ways an “adult daycare,” and while they had some to gain in terms of increased salary and benefits, they risked losing everything should Google not re-up their contract with HCL.

Several contractors said they are prohibited from discussing their salaries with each other, but that they have had conversations anyway that reveal a gap of tens of thousands of dollars between workers performing the same role, let alone between them and full-time “Googlers.”

Organizing committee member, Johanne Rokholt, said that while contractors enjoy some of the same perks as full-time Google employees, ”the thing I really don’t like is how I need to be worried my job isn’t going to be here in 2 weeks because we don’t have the job security Googlers do.”

Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day are paid holidays for Google workers, but not HCL contractors. As a result, several HCL contactors said they must use personal days on those holidays, as they aren’t allowed in the office without Google employees present.

Contractors are not permitted to share much about the work they do at Google, but Rokholt said that many of them work on projects with teams of contractors around the world, and she believes that it would take months for Google to retrain workers to do the work they currently perform.

“We’re definitely an integral part of how Google functions,” she said.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Google and comments from HCL contractors for and against unionization.