About 80 Google contractors in Pittsburgh voted to unionize with United Steelworkers on Tuesday, in a historic move for white-collar workers at the search giant. The tech workers, who are employed by Google contractor HCL Technologies, are only a few of the many contractors that comprise the bulk of Google’s labor force. But Tuesday’s vote makes them one of the first groups of tech workers to unionize in the country, according to United Steelworkers.
Organizers say that unfair treatment inspired the push for unionization at Google’s Bakery Square offices, where contractors work alongside full-time Google employees doing similar work but are paid less and receive fewer benefits than their direct-employee officemates.
It’s far from an isolated complaint. Google’s dependence on contractors, temporary employees, and outside vendors has long been a source of controversy. Though the company’s so-called shadow workforce outnumbers full-time employees, few of the legions of nontraditional workers receive comparable pay, benefits, or job security—a discrepancy that has been highlighted by full-time Google employees and activists. During a November employee walkout, organizers called for better treatment for nontraditional workers; in April, more than 900 Google employees signed a petition in support of contractors who worked on Google Assistant and were let go. And last August, over 3,000 security guards who had been contracted to work for tech giants like Google and Facebook ratified their first union contract after raising similar issues.
The HCL employees announced plans to unionize with United Steelworkers, which represents over 850,000 workers in several industries, in August, after more than 66 percent of employees signed cards indicating they favored the union. The Pittsburgh Association of Tech Professionals, an affiliate of the Steelworkers, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board on August 29 for a vote to be held on the effort.
“We deserve more respect, dignity and democracy in our relationship with our employer,” HCL employee Joshua Borden said in a statement. “We fought for a seat at the table, and today we won. We look forward to bargaining a contract that reflects our important contributions to HCL’s continuing success.”
Many of the 80 HCL employees work as analysts on Google Shopping. Before the vote, some had expressed fears that unionizing could lead Google to drop HCL for a less expensive contracting firm. Steve Gyrgo, who has worked for HCL for two years, told the Pittsburgh City Paper that he was concerned the union couldn’t protect workers if Google cut ties with HCL in response to their organization, since they don’t technically work for Google.
Some Google employees expressed support for the unionization push in the lead up to the vote. An internal petition published by Google workers reportedly asked the company to condemn anti-union efforts by HCL and commit to keep their contract with the company regardless of the vote’s results.
“We work with lots of partners, many of which have unionized workforces, and many of which don’t,” Google spokesperson Jenn Kaiser told WIRED. “As with all our partners, whether HCL’s employees unionize or not is between them and their employer.”