Retail associates at a pair of Google Fiber stores in Kansas City, Missouri have voted to unionize Friday, becoming the first group represented by the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) to gain collective bargaining rights and win National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognition.
After a campaign that subjected workers to anti-union meetings and messages despite a request for neutrality, the workers voted 9 to 1 in favor of representation by the AWU. Several of them huddled around a computer to watch the vote count on Zoom. As the deciding ballot was counted, they grinned and threw their arms in the air.
While the unit is small, AWU hopes it’s the start of something big. “I absolutely think this is going to be the first of many,” says AWU chair Parul Koul. The workers are employed by BDS Connected Solutions, a staffing firm that Google contracts to provide customer service for its broadband offering. The union petitioned to designate Google as a joint employer, which would require it to bargain with the employees, but the company resisted. Rather than fight a protracted battle that would delay the election, the AWU and the workers decided to forfeit the inclusion of Google, meaning the employees will negotiate with BDS alone.
Last summer, when the workers asked BDS management about compensation for extra work they’d been performing, they say they were told that the budget was not available. When the new Google contract rolled around in October, they received four percent raises. “That wasn’t even a cost of living increase for 2021 to 2022,” says Eris Derickson, a worker at the Westport Road store and organizing committee member. What’s more, they’d foregone raises and bonuses in 2020, despite the fact that the business appeared to be doing well. “Everyone was understandably pretty upset about that. So the decision to unionize came from that.”
“As time went on, it became more clear that if we wanted to protect the things we liked about our job, we needed to unionize,” says Derickson. She was inspired by the wave of labor activity that arose during the pandemic, including the high-profile union campaigns at Starbucks stores. “We felt like we could be the next ones in the chain,” she says.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson wrote, “We have many contracts with both unionized and non-union suppliers, and respect their employees’ right to choose whether or not to join a union. The decision of these contractors to join the Communications Workers of America is a matter between the workers and their employer, BDS Solutions Group.” BDS did not respond to requests for comment.
Derickson heard about the AWU soon after the group went public in January 2021. Later that year, she saw a petition the union was circulating, calling on Google to fairly compensate its temps, vendors, and contractors (TVCs). TVCs comprise more than half of Google’s workforce and typically face lower pay, inferior benefits, and less job security than full time employees. The practice has become rife within the tech industry since Microsoft popularized it in the 1990s, says Laura Padin, a labor attorney for the National Employment Law Project who coauthored a 2021 report titled “Temps in Tech.” It allows companies to dodge paying stock options, retirement contributions, and health insurance and avoid responsibility as an employer. After Microsoft settled a lawsuit over the practice in 2000, companies changed their approach, ironically to an even more precarious arrangement, often requiring temps to take six months off before returning to a similar role.