Google contractors in Pittsburgh vote to unionize

Pittsburgh is a city with a rich history of labor strength and unionization. An important step in the future of Pittsburgh workers was made last Tuesday when Google contract workers voted to unionize.

The workers, contractors for Google working directly for a tech firm named HCL America, voted 49-24 to unionize with Pittsburgh’s United Steelworkers (USW). Now, they await approval from the National Labor Relations Board to certify the vote.

As contract workers, they don’t exactly work for Google. But the nature of their work means that their jobs are extremely similar to those of direct Google employees. They’re typically college-educated, yet don’t receive benefits such as paid sick days and are often paid as little as $40,000 a year for their work. They also lack job security, with workers saying that abrupt firing is also a constant worry.

Over half of Google’s workforce, or about 135,000 employees, are like the HCL America contractors: they work on Google projects, but are receive less compensation due to their temporary status, and do not get the same benefits that direct Google employees do. In joining with USW, HCL employees who voted for the union hope that better representation can address these issues.

USW’s first efforts to bring workers together and collectively bargain for better contracts came at a much different time in labor history. The tech workers of today certainly aren't working in hundred-degree factories, tapping blast furnaces and routing slag. However, even though the physical working conditions are inherently different, the goals of unionization are essentially the same: better conditions and better compensations.

For steelworkers in and around Cleveland, OH, where USW was founded in 1942, conditions were dire. It took several years to unionize the steelworkers, and after frequent strikes and other efforts, workers were able to collectively bargain for things like a $5 daily wage at Carnegie-Illinois Steel in 1937, and eventually, pension plans for workers at Bethlehem Steel in 1949.

Those efforts might have looked different than unionization efforts of today: there was no dramatic strike or stakeout with HCL workers. But their demands remain similar to labor struggles of the past.

Johanne Rokholt, an HCL employee working at Google’s Pittsburgh campus said, “currently, the power dynamic between workers and the company is imbalanced. By standing together as a union, we can balance that power dynamic, and turn the monologue into a dialogue to get the fair treatment we deserve.”

Ben Gwin, HCL employee and union organizer, told the Pittsburgh City Paper, “we just want a voice in the process... and to be able to negotiate our own contract and have a more equitable workforce for everyone.”

Google employees in the past couple of years have led the technology workforce to recognize the value of their own labor. A walkout last Nov. that questioned the company’s handling of cases of sexual harassment led to policy change. Internal backlash and mass resignations prompted the company to not renew its contract with Project Maven, the controversial Department of Defense project, a branch of which is currently operating out of Carnegie Mellon’s army AI task force.

At Google, these efforts have stopped short of unionization. Even if Google employees unionized, it would not necessarily lead to unionization of the majority of workers at the company, since contractors, like those at HCL, outnumber the company’s full-time employees. According to a tweet by the organizers of the Nov. walkout, this arrangement “permit[s] Google to abdicate its responsibility to the majority of its workforce.”

And HCL workers for Google are far from the only laborers working without full-time status benefits: in our economy, thousands drive for Lyft or Uber without benefits, warehouse workers for Amazon are frequently employed by temp agencies instead of corporate for lower costs, and content moderators for Facebook, who must view the most horrible and disturbing content on Facebook for hours on end, are mostly contract workers who make around $28,000 a year.

Intertwined with Pittsburgh’s deep history of labor organizing is the backlash that these efforts have faced. The Homestead Strike is famous not only for the new organizing techniques employed by the workers but also the bloody retaliation by the private security force, the Pinkertons and the state police.

In the modern gig economy, the temporary workers historically brought on as scabs and strikebreakers now constitute a large section of the workforce. Those workers are now beginning to recognize that their labor, whether temporary or not, is worth much more than what they get in return.