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The New Workers’ Revolution is Afoot

Last year TechCrunch ran a piece postulating “What If Google unionized?” after over 20,000 Google workers walked out of their offices in protest of how the tech giant has handled harassment and discrimination cases in recent years. Google’s response to this walkout and internal protests related to the layoff of 34 contract programmers was to address some of the problems raised. For instance earlier this year, Google said that companies which contract out its internal jobs must offer all temp workers paid sick days, paid parental leave, comprehensive health care, and tuition reimbursement. Google also claimed that contracting companies would have to agree to pay these workers a minimum of $15 an hour.

Still, since August of this year, there has been much speculation over Google employees in Pittsburgh unionizing. Since this summer, about 66 percent of the eligible contractors at HCL America Inc., an Indian outsourcing firm based at Google’s Bakery Square offices, sought union representation according to the United Steel Workers (USW). With the assistance of the Pittsburgh Association of Technical Professionals (PATP), these Google employees are asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for the right to vote for union representation. The PATP is a project sponsored by United Steelworkers (USW) union with the aim of helping “Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania workers in high-tech fields organize and bargain collectively with their employers for improved working conditions and standards of living.”

While some are claiming this is the norm for what Google’s “shadow work force,” the masses of temporary workers and contractors that outnumber Google’s full-time workforce (about 54 percent of Google’s entire staff), this action raises flags to what are the clear class divisions of salary and labor rights within Google’s ever-expanding workforce. While Google’s shadow labor force mostly works alongside full-time Google employees, these temporary workers are generally employed by third-party contractors, they earn less money and have no paid vacation time. These differences are not minor in a world where more and more gig economy workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers who have stood by Google workers, faced similar battles in attempting to unionize both in the UK and the US. Basically, there is a rise of consciousness among temporary and gig economy workers who are viewing their role in a company’s enrichment as causing them great financial stress and personal instability while observing their colleagues who had the luck of snagging full-time contracts attain the rights that the majority of workers would also like to enjoy. From healthcare to sick leave to perks such as paid travel to include travel authorization and hotels.

So two weeks ago, the two-thirds of Google’s temp workers in Pittsburgh voted to unionize despite HCL’s urging of its temp workers to not vote to unionize. While employment law in the US is fairly cut and dry regarding how employees are defined as opposed to autonomous freelancers who are assumed to have control over their time and movement, these distinctions are increasingly becoming blurred. And all this, to include Uber’s refusal to consider its workers as employees, could be set to change in California under Assembly Bill 5, or AB5. Under AB5, gig workers would effectively be turned into employees, to include almost half a million Californians who work for app companies in addition to those who already work for ride sharing and food delivery companies which are pushing back on this effort. At this point it looks like AB5 which passed the state House and Senate last month as it was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, but it looks like AB5 might set a legal labor rights precedent.

Gig-type labor has been under the microscope for years as companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash (United States) in addition to Didi Chuxing (China) and Ola (India) have grown in size and power such that contractors are quite powerless individually to face down these behemoth corporations. Just as Google fought efforts for its Pittsburgh-based workers to unionize in recent months, so too have the likes of Uber hit back at class-action lawsuits from its drivers. Even BuzzFeed employees voted to unionize spurred on by the publication’s having cut over 15 percent of its workforce.  It is clear that a workers’ revolution is on the horizon and what we are learning from the recent actions in California and Pittsburgh that workers of the world really do need to unite. And now!

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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