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Google Fiber Workers Vote to Unionize

Retail associates at a pair of Google Fiber stores in Kansas City, Missouri, have voted to unionize, 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 on Friday voted 9 to 1 in favor of representation by the AWU, which is part of the Communications Workers of America. 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 4 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.” The model 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.

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When Derickson discovered AWU’s petition, she signed and decided to become a dues-paying member of the union. Eight of her Google Fiber colleagues later joined. (Unlike workplaces with majority unions, minority union membership is voluntary.)

“We deserve more because we uphold the Google name really high,” says Sam Espinoza, a worker at the Westport Road store. “Our job demands a lot of knowledge. We help so many people in ways that go beyond selling internet. We teach people how to use new technology that is sometimes daunting for older adults. They come to us because they see the Google name on the store.”

One of the reasons the AWU structured itself as a minority union, which doesn’t seek certification from the NLRB or broad collective bargaining rights, is because they wanted to include TVCs, who wouldn’t be eligible for a majority union.

The Fiber workers filed their election petition with the NLRB on January 4, the one-year anniversary of AWU’s launch. Next, they sent a letter to Google and BDS requesting that the companies voluntarily recognize the union, which would have avoided a lengthy NLRB election, and refrain from union-busting. They did neither. BDS’ national operations manager sent employees a letter outlining why they should vote against union representation. The company also held a series of anti-union meetings. In one of them, a consultant implied that Google could cancel the contract if workers unionized, according to Derickson and Espinoza. The exchange was also captured on an audio recording leaked to Vice. Under US labor law, canceling a contract in retaliation for unionizing would be illegal.

But the workers came itching for a fight. They prepared the night before and repeatedly interrupted to challenge the consultant’s talking points. “It was amazing, honestly,” says Derickson. “Everyone was having a great time. We all got out of that meeting and started laughing and were like, this guy was so unprepared for us.”Nonetheless, they considered the possibility that Google could retaliate against them. Even if the company canceled the contract illegally, the penalty would amount to back pay, chicken feed for a trillion-dollar company. Derickson thought public pressure would be the bigger deterrent to keep them from losing their jobs. The workers wanted to ensure they had the backing of a larger union and got their story into the media “because we knew that the more visibility we had, the better protected we were.”

Soon the union will prepare to bargain for a contract. Since Google controls so many of the members’ working conditions, including wages, and won’t be at the bargaining table, they may find themselves constrained.

For now though, they’re celebrating. Now that their union has become the latest link in the chain, Derickson wants to help extend it. “We want to try and reach out to the other stores that do our same job in other parts of the country and say, 'hey, we did this. It's possible. You can do it too.'”

Update 3/28/2022 4:00 PM ET:This story has been updated to clarify that the Amazon Workers' Union is part of the Communications Workers of America

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