Contract workers at a Google’s Pittsburgh office voted today to join the United Steelworkers union, in what is believed to be the first instance of tech workers unionizing in the US.
The vote gives 80 tech workers at HCL Technologies, a multinational Indian IT consulting firm, the right to bargain with their employer, which has an annual contract with Google.
“Welcome to the 21st century is what’s ringing in my mind,” said Josh Borden, a technical analyst at HCL, via text. “I hope this lets all tech workers know that this is possible and extremely doable!”
Two-thirds of those eligible for the union voted in favor of it. HCL did not respond to a request for comment on the vote, which was held at Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Carnegie Library. Ahead of the vote, a Google spokesperson said, “We work with lots of partners, many of which have unionized workforces, and many of which don’t. As with all our partners, whether HCL’s employees unionize or not is between them and their employer.”
The unionization effort at HCL has gained national attention as an indicator of the broader swell in employee activism among tech workers, including recent walkouts at tech giants like Google and Amazon. Unionization efforts are still very rare among white-collar tech workers, but several employees at HCL said they hoped to set a new precedent for other workers in their field.
“A good chunk of middle-class jobs are in tech fields, whether as programmers or data quality work like we do,” said Borden. “The reason the middle class is in decline, I think, is because unions have been in decline.”
How the HCL workers unionized
The path to unionizing at HCL began earlier this year when Ben Gwin, a technical analyst at HCL who joined in June 2018, got in touch with the United Steelworkers. Gwin says he had several reasons for reaching out. Early in his tenure on the Google contract, the mother of his child died unexpectedly, and he received three days’ bereavement from HCL before he had to return to work. The loss of child support put him under fresh financial strain while trying to raise his daughter, who had just started middle school. “In the hierarchy of needs, none of those things were being taken care of by this job,” he said.
Conversations with co-workers revealed that a lot of people had common concerns about their jobs with HCL, centered around issues like pay, paid time off, and job security. “A lot of people feel like second-class citizens in the Bakery Square facility,” said Damon Di Cicco, the United Steelworkers’ lead organizer on the HCL campaign.
The Google contract workers did not receive sick days, and had 10 vacation days which accrued over time. Employees reported that their managers expected them to come into work even when sick and try to isolate themselves from their colleagues, and to use their own vacation time on national holidays like Martin Luther King Day and President’s Day, when the Google offices were closed and they were unable to enter the building. They received an annual raise of less than 1%, below the increase in cost of living, on salaries that in some cases were as low as $40,000 per year.
“I don’t want to seem entitled, but I don’t think I should have to go to work sick,” said Gwin. “I feel like I should be able to take my kid on vacation during the summer. A lot of this about being able to spend more time with my family and provide for my daughter.”
Another common concern for workers was the desire for greater job security. Borden, who’s been with the company since May 2016, said, “The entire time I’ve been here, working for HCL Pittsburgh in the Google office, I’ve had this feeling like there was no security in my job. At any moment, they could let me go for any reason.” Witnessing a round of layoffs about a year into his time at Google’s Bakery Square office only compounded that impression.
“I saw unionizing not only as a way to bring more democracy to the workplace, which I think is desperately needed, but as a way to collectively bargain for some semblance of job security,” he said.
Employees also noted that they were grateful for the privileges they enjoyed by virtue of working in the Google office, including free meals at the company cafeteria and access to the building’s laundry and gym. That said, the discrepancy between their professional circumstances and that of full-time employees could be striking. “I tell people, I work at Google but not for Google, so I have a cool office but I’m poor,” said Gwin. “I’m still one disaster away from being in trouble.”
The road to recognition
While the union drive found support among a majority of HCL workers, the road to recognition was not necessarily a smooth one. The United Steelworkers alleged that HCL engaged in union-busting tactics, and noted the company’s hiring of Eric Vanetti, a consultant at Vantage Point Alliance who had previously worked against a unionization effort at a glass factory in Ohio. HCL did not respond to our request for comment about the union-busting allegation, but told The Guardian, “We respect our employees’ legal right to decide whether or not they want to be represented by a union and are dedicated to fostering an inclusive and open office culture for all of our team members at HCL.”
Chief among the concerns of HCL workers was the possibility that Google would respond to the unionization by declining to renew its contract. “That was certainly a possibility the organizing committee has discussed,” said Di Cicco. “At the end of the day, folks decided it was worth the risk, in part because every signal we’ve gotten from Google so far has indicated they don’t plan on terminating this contract as a result of this.”
HCL workers say reactions from Google employees in the Pittsburgh office and from afar have been supportive. Organizers of the Google walkout got in touch. Google workers in San Francisco sent a cake to the HCL workers wishing them luck with the vote, along with a message: “HCL works best when we say union yes. Good luck tomorrow, solidarity from SF workers.” One Google employee in the Pittsburgh office organized a “solidarity table” where HCL and Google workers could eat together.
“All the employees at Google I’ve talked to are great people, super supportive,” said Gwin. “Our issue is certainly with HCL and what they’re paying us.”
What’s next for HCL—and for tech
Now that HCL workers have voted to unionize, they’ll begin the process of polling employees about their top priorities and elect a bargaining committee to negotiate a contract with HCL management. (It’s worth noting that their choice to hold the election at the East Liberty Carnegie Library had a certain poetic justice to it; steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was notoriously anti-union, and just last month, workers at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh chose to form a collective bargaining unit themselves.)
The day before the union vote, several of the people behind the organizing push said they were hopeful about what its outcome could do not just for themselves and their colleagues, but for tech workers more broadly.
“I think people should feel empowered to try to organize if they feel they’re being mistreated,” said Gwin, noting that this is not an easy option for many contract workers, upon whom many tech companies rely heavily but who are not full-time employees. “Hopefully this sheds some light that not everyone who works in tech is making six figures.”
Of course, many tech workers are well-paid and enjoy a good amount of flexibility in their jobs, which may lessen the impulse to organize. That said, “it’s important to reiterate that the concerns of workers in the tech industry are the same as people in most types of industries,” said Di Cicco. “What people want out of a union is dignity on the job and to know that they’re going to be able to continue to support themselves and their families. What we’re seeing is not unique, it’s just a new sector recognizing that these concerns apply to them, too.”
Borden said it took him a while to realize that unions were an option for white-collar jobs. “I was originally a little scared of the idea,” he said. Having lived in Europe for many years, he was familiar with how unions worked. But he thought: “Here in the US, is that even a thing? We don’t work in a factory.”
Now, he says, he realized, “Oh, it’s possible. And it’s exactly what we need.”