In high-tech breakthrough, workers at Google contractor vote to join union

PITTSBURGH—In a breakthrough on two fronts—high-tech and contract workers—two-thirds of voting tech workers at a Google subcontractor, HCL Technologies USA, voted to unionize with the Steelworkers.

The Sept. 24 tally marks the first time high-end subcontract workers in the high-tech field—and especially those who work along with the high-tech firm’s workers, doing the same jobs and in the same office—voted union. The HCL workers toil alongside regular Google employees in Google’s Bakery Square office building in Pittsburgh.

Google hired HCL Technologies USA, a subsidiary of Indian-owned, Indian-based HCL, to provide tech services. HCL USA, in turn, hired the workers. But they were paid less, had few benefits, and even had to use personal leave for days off on federal holidays. They turned to the United Steel Workers (USW).

“I’m honored HCL workers chose to join our union and our fight on behalf of all working people,” said USW President Thomas Conway. “They deserve to have their voices heard. Together, we’ll make sure that they are.”

The USW win, through its new Pittsburgh Association of Technical Professionals project, is important. While low-paid and exploited janitors and bus and van drivers for Silicon Valley high-tech firms have unionized, principally with the Teamsters, the high-tech workers at those firms have not.

Many of those workers view themselves as “professionals,” “independent contractors,” or both.

HCL brought in a “management consultant,” i.e. union-buster, conducted anti-union captive audience meetings and pressed workers to, in so many words, sit down and shut up.

“Over the past few months, management has implied—and in some cases outright told us—that it’s better to just be quiet than fight for what’s right,” HCL worker Johanne Rokholt told local media. “We have proved that we are not willing to do that.”

“‘Welcome to the 21st century’ is what’s ringing in my mind,” Josh Borden, a technical analyst at HCL, texted to local media after the win. “I hope this lets all tech workers know that this is possible and extremely doable!

“We deserve more respect, dignity, and democracy in our relationship with our employer,” he added. “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.”

Key issues were low pay for the HCL workers—$40,000 or less annually—compared to their Google colleagues, lack of benefits such as paid holidays and little bereavement leave, and management demands they come into work even when they were extremely sick.

All are characteristic of how the tech industry treats its engineers and other workers.

“The labor movement sent a powerful and potentially revolutionary signal to the tech industry,” according to a posting from a law firm specializing in high-tech issues. “This marked the first time contract tech workers have unionized in the United States in an industry that is almost entirely non-union.

“The vote for union representation strikes at the heart of the business model used by companies like HCL, a multinational Indian IT services company,” the law firm added. High tech’s lower pay and fewer benefits for contract workers “is often the case” in that industry, “thanks to the lower costs of employing them.”

But it also noted recent activism by high-tech workers, both direct employees and contractors, around wider issues, notably the 20,000-worker walkout from Google last fall over the tech giant’s terrible record on sexual harassment on the job.

“Multinational tech companies whose labor models are built on the low costs of contract workers should take note: Nothing in federal labor law prevents employee unionization, as HCL learned. Tech employers would do well to consider how attractive a target they may be for unionization and address employee concerns well before a petition for a union election is filed with the National Labor Relations Board,” the law firm concluded.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.