On Tuesday afternoon, a group of tech professionals in Pittsburgh who work at Google—but not for Google—voted to form a union. It’s likely the first time that white-collar workers in the technology industry have done so. The workers are employed by the India-owned firm HCL America. Forty-nine of them voted yes in the election, which they’ve asked the National Labor Relations Board to certify. Twenty-four voted against it.*
The contractors work on the Google Shopping platform, in the same Pittsburgh offices as full-time Googlers directly employed by the company. They’re colleagues, eating lunch together and working on the same projects, and like the Google employees, the contractors are skilled workers with college degrees. But unlike Google staff, they don’t have the company’s generous benefits, are paid less, and say they have little to no job security. The precariousness of their employment isn’t hypothetical: In March, Google swiftly cut the jobs of about 34 temp workers on its voice assistant. Google workers employed by HCL feared they could be let go at any moment too. “We have at-will employment, so there’s really not much protecting us, and that is one of the main things that we’re hoping to gain in bargaining, more security,” said Ben Gwin, one of the HCL workers. Currently, the subcontractor’s employees aren’t given any paid sick days either, Gwin said.
Every day, tens of thousands of TVCs—company lingo for temporary staffers, independent vendors, and contractors—show up for work at Google. As with many organizations, Google’s workforce is composed of both full-time employees with benefits and workers with different arrangements, many of whom come by way of firms like HCL. But the nonemployee staff at Google is notable for its large size: The approximately 135,000 TVCs at Google make up more than half of the company’s headcount, according to a report from the Guardian.
While relying on such a high percentage of contractors is unusual in tech, it’s easy see why a company with so many products and projects, which it often scales up quickly, would do it. Beyond the fact that they’re cheaper, keeping these workers off the employee rolls helps the company move fast, change directions, and nix things that aren’t working without having to worry about the personnel involved with the tasks. Often, contract work at tech companies includes the least pleasant, most draining work, like reviewing violent content on YouTube, a role filled by thousands of contractors at Google. Since they’re not on staff, the company doesn’t have to directly tend to their mental health care or field worker complaints. That’s the job of their direct employer. The Pittsburgh contractors worked in data analysis and other technical roles.
Though the HCL team is small, its unionization effort will likely be closely watched from Silicon Valley. Tech worker activism has been steadily growing over the past two years, but union organizing has largely not been part of it. The tech industry has traditionally prided itself on workplace flexibility and generous salaries—and at Google in particular, executives have long emphasized that workers should have a voice and communicate any concerns directly to company leaders. Along the way, though, the company hired more and more contractors. Now, the very mechanism that allowed Google and other tech companies to get around giving every worker those famous perks has led some of them to organize.
The HCL union drive happened relatively quickly. Workers began their efforts only in February, after Gwin contacted United Steelworkers to see if forming a union could help them address job security, pay, and time-off issues. Along the way, union organizers say they’ve met resistance from their direct employer. HCL has reportedly asked managers to hold mandatory meetings with workers in an attempt to discourage the union organizing. But when the company hired a consultant to try to quash the union effort, Google wouldn’t let that person meet with workers at the company building, according to a report in Vox. Google said in a statement that “whether HCL’s employees unionize or not is between them and their employer.” Considering that the company already has been criticized for having a large contractor workforce, it makes sense that it wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of being seen trying to stop some of them from organizing. And this union isn’t directly Google’s problem. It’s HCL’s. The contract employees will be able to collectively bargain for better conditions, but whatever happens won’t necessarily affect Google’s bottom line.
HCL’s staff are not the first workers in tech to have union representation. Some blue-collar workers at tech companies—like security guards, janitors, and food service workers—have organized and even unionized in recent years. Security guards started organizing across Silicon Valley in 2010 and just got their contract with major tech companies, including Google, ratified in 2018. But several unionization efforts in the industry have seen serious opposition from executives. Amazon has aggressively attempted to dissuade workers in its warehouses and at Whole Foods from forming unions, and even made a 45-minute animated video about why a union would be bad for the company, which was sent to team leaders last year. Tesla factory workers have described a “culture of fear” that surrounds discussions of potential unionization.
It’s worth distinguishing between the different strains of activism in tech right now. A lot of workers are trying to hold their employers to ethical standards, like the Googlers who successfully demanded that the company nix a drone-related artificial intelligence contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. Others want their employers to improve the purportedly utopian workplaces they’ve boasted about for years, like the Googlers who walked out over how the company has dealt with sexual harassment allegations. The HCL workers belong to a third category, one more familiar to union drives: They want better protections and bigger paychecks.
But these aren’t entirely separate currents. Gwin said he and his fellow contractors had the support of their co-workers who are full-time employees from the jump. Last December, the Google employees who organized the walkout shared a list of demands to executives from contractors at the company, who argued that they deserved a larger share of the company’s profits. “Even when we’re doing the same work as full-time employees, these jobs routinely fail to provide living wages and often offer minimal benefits. This affects not only us, but also our families and communities,” the letter read.
For its part, the HCL workforce has noticed the other white-collar tech union drive going on right now. “We would like to support our friends at Kickstarter in their organizing efforts and hopefully they will be next,” Gwin said after I asked if he wanted to add anything else. Workers began organizing earlier this year at the crowdfunding company, which opposes their efforts, as I reported earlier this month. That’s why the industry will likely be watching how things play out in Pittsburgh. The last thing that tech executives want is for these isolated union drives to start looking like a movement.
Correction, Sept. 26, 2019: This piece originally misstated that 44 HCL contractors voted to approve the union and 22 voted not to. In fact, 49 voted for approval, and 24 voted against it.