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Economy & Business

Google Contract Workers In Pittsburgh Formed A Union Over A Year Ago. They Still Don’t Have A Labor Contract

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Liz Reid
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90.5 WESA
Organizers from United Steelworkers and pro-union Google contractors in September 2019.

The labor movement suffered a setback last week, when Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama voted not to join a union. However, the experience of unionized employees at Pittsburgh’s Google office suggests the fight might not have ended even if the Alabama workers had voted "yes."

It’s been a year-and-a-half since the Pittsburgh workers were believed to become the first white-collar employees to organize while doing work for a major tech firm. But they still don’t have a labor contract.

The roughly 65 union members work for a Google contractor, called HCL America, meaning they’re technically not employed by Google. Still, they work on the Google Shopping platform alongside permanent employees at the tech giant’s Bakery Square office.

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Katie Blackley
Gabrielle Norton-Moore at her home in Shaler, Pa.

Data analyst Gabrielle Norton-Moore said she and other HCL workers voted for a union in the fall of 2019 because they were being treated unfairly.

“Normally if you have seniority,” Norton-Moore said, “you will be getting benefits, like you would be getting maybe more vacation days or a bigger raise – just something. And they don't even remotely offer that. And the fact that they only give us like a 1%, or barely that, raise annually … [it] doesn't even remotely cover inflation.”

Norton-Moore said pay equity has also been a problem at HCL. She said the company’s California-based human resources department has been inattentive to workers’ needs. And at the time of the union vote, employees said, they had no paid sick leave and inadequate bereavement benefits.

In September 2019, HCL employees voted to affiliate with the United Steelworkers union by a two-to-one margin. But not much has happened since then. HCL analyst and union organizer Ben Gwin said that's because HCL is slow-walking contract negotiations.

“They’re not willing to meet more than twice a month. It's insulting," Gwin said. "And it just feels like a complete joke that they're not taking the process seriously."

HCL has denied the complaints against it, but didn’t directly address specific concerns when 90.5 WESA requested a comment. Instead, the firm said in a statement, “We take the concerns of our Pittsburgh-based employees seriously and remain committed to their professional growth.”

“With respect to the collective bargaining discussions,” the statement continued, “we have been and remain engaged in honest and meaningful negotiations. Our prerogative throughout has been to listen, learn, and negotiate seriously as we work to close a contract.”

Last fall, the National Labor Relations Board, which handles complaints about unfair labor practices, charged HCL with failing to bargain in good faith. A hearing had been scheduled for this week, but it’s been postponed until June 8.

Among other things, the labor board accused HCL of unilaterally implementing stricter time-off policies and workplace rules after the union vote. The agency also said the company has left positions in Pittsburgh unfilled and instead transferred them to Krakow, Poland.

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Katie Blackley
Ben Gwin poses for a photo in Friendship Park.

Gwin said the company’s actions feel like retaliation.

“They just keep bringing in more and more people to our team in Krakow, and then they're giving them part of the task work that we used to do,” he said. “So that's sort of another reason why I have one boring task that I do all day long.”

Legal limits for labor

The HCL workers might not have much recourse under labor law.

Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the pro-union Economic Policy Institute, noted that the National Labor Relations Act requires employers to bargain in good faith. But she said only “really egregious conduct” violates that rule.

“That's why you so often see companies dragging their feet at the bargaining table,” she said. “They don't really face any penalties. And there are no tight time structures within the law as it exists now, so workers can end up bargaining for years.”

But legislation proposed in Congress known as the PRO Act would expand worker rights, McNicholas said, in part by requiring employers to negotiate first contracts in a timely manner.

The U.S. House passed the PRO Act last month, but its chances in the closely divided Senate are less certain.

Under the measure, companies would, for the first time, face financial penalties for violating federal labor law. They could also be considered “joint employers” even when they contract out work to another firm. Google, therefore, could be forced to come to the negotiating table rather than leave matters entirely in the hands of a contractor.

McNicholas couldn’t say what the PRO Act would mean specifically for the HCL employees in Pittsburgh, but she said it would give more leverage to workers overall.

“If you have any kind of influence over the way in which this workforce operates, you're going to be compelled to bargain with them, so that workers are not trying to chase down different employers in a complicated contracting system,” she said.

Temps, contractors, and vendors are believed to make up about half of Google’s workforce worldwide. The company declined to disclose exact figures, but a spokesperson said it uses temporary workers to cover for employees who take short-term leaves, and to perform specialized services such as medical care and transportation. Since 2019, the company has required contractors to pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide leave, education, and healthcare benefits, the spokesperson said.

HCL’s Pittsburgh employees, however, work as data analysts. And some of them said they have been with the company at Google’s Bakery Square office for several years.

University of Pittsburgh law professor Mike Madison said firms like Google rely on contractors as part of their “basic financial risk management” strategy.

With vendors, Madison said, “the big company is no longer responsible for unemployment insurance, no longer responsible for Social Security contributions, no longer responsible in terms of classic employer-employee legal regulations. All of those requirements are offloaded to the vendor.”

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Katie Blackley

A future for unions in tech?

Sean Redmond, executive director of labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important to give businesses the flexibility to contract out work and related employment costs. He warned that expanded joint employer liability under the PRO Act would give workers too much power.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “some of this stuff really does impact the bottom line and can frustrate growth, or at least slow it down. And that's been the experience of many employers.”

Madison said that tech workers themselves often prefer the flexibility of working on a temporary basis for different companies. But he said, “The bargaining relationship between the company and the employee is hardly level.”

And he noted that, during the steel era, local unions had a lot of sway and helped workers to win high wages. Since then, union membership has fallen dramatically. And Madison said workers have lost power in today’s modern service economy.

“At the end of the day, some of this stuff really does impact the bottom line and can frustrate growth, or at least slow it down. And that's been the experience of many employers.”

“So one of the things that you're seeing in a place like Pittsburgh is a revival of interest in labor organizing as a way to recapture some of the equity associated with income distribution that used to be associated with steel,” Madison said.

In fact, the United Steelworkers union, which represents the HCL employees, has sought to unionize more tech employees through its Federation of Tech Workers.

“As employers come in and really see Pittsburgh as a place to have a low cost of living with a highly-educated workforce, it opens the door to exploitation,” said Mariana Padias, the USW’s assistant director of organizing.

“Just because something's a tech job doesn't necessarily mean it's a highly-compensated position,” she added. “There's a lot of positions – the HCL employees are a really good example – [where employees] work side-by-side with Google employees [but] are much less highly compensated and treated to vastly different working conditions.”

Padias agreed with Madison that an increasing number of tech employees view “union democracy” as key to having “more of a say in their work environment.”

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