2021 was a year with unprecedented levels of collective actions, especially unionization, in the tech field. Wynnie Chan spoke with Sunday Mills, one of the union organizers at Google Pittsburgh vendor company HCL about the state of organizing in tech.
WC: Who do you think should be organizing in tech?
SM: Everyone. But, contract, temp, and vendor workers really need extra protections. Most big tech firms have some sort of bifurcated system, where some employees are permanent salaried employees who work directly for the company, but other workers are not employed by the given tech firm and are employed by some other entity. Those other workers typically have a lot more limited rights. They’re paid less. Their benefits are worse. They don’t have job security. They often end up signing non-compete or arbitration agreements that are sneaky. People like me– temps, vendors, and contractors– might be people who are already more vulnerable. Older folks, people fresh out of school, people who need flexible hours because they’re still going to school, or people who have to worry about child care or need to work remotely because they’re immunocompromised in the pandemic. These workers might already be at a high risk for being manipulated and having their rights be taken advantage of by a big corporation, and their position as a temp or contractor really increases that.
WC: What should workers be organizing about?
SM: Equitable pay for equitable work is the biggest one, but the only way to solve that is to stop these dual employment situations, or these quasi-dual employment situations. The only reason that they exist in the first place is to save the company who’s hiring the contracting firm money. It’s very difficult when these situations exist because we are only permitted to bargain with our direct employers and not with any larger firm who might be causing the direct employer to do certain things.
There’s a lot of legal protections that workers like me often don’t get. A lot of the time, these employment agreements are long and complicated, and nobody gets any support from the company about them. These are the non-sexy issues that nobody really wants to talk about. But these issues, like forced arbitration, dual employment, non-compete, all of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) heavy issues are things that I think are really important. And at least in our unit, once they knew about these problems and had them explained in a way that was applicable to their lives, they did care about them. But this was the first time that anybody had been explaining why these agreements were problematic, why this could be dangerous. There’s an assumption that tech workers somehow automatically will be more educated on labor law because they work with computers, or they’re the tech savvy or business savvy people. But that’s not really the case.
WC: I thought that was really interesting how you brought up that lots of workers don’t get the support they need to understand these contracts. How can we best support workers in terms of understanding the contracts?
SM: Our USW lawyers and organizers looked over our agreement with our employer. That really helped us understand those issues, and obviously it was something that was heavily scrutinized in bargaining. But, for groups of workers who aren’t near that process at all yet, I don’t know. I could imagine some sort of workshop where people could ask, “Okay, my agreement says this. Could somebody explain that to me?” With a labor lawyer or somebody who’d be willing to sit with people and talk through it with them. I think that could be helpful in just identifying the issues that people care about, because a lot of the time, it’s hard to know what rights they already do and do not have and what they’d like to see improved.
WC: How can workers organize in tech?
SM: The nice thing about working in tech is that you’re always on a computer. There’s a lot of caveats with that; in the organizing phase, you’re never going to want to use work machines to make union communications. But the benefit is that a lot of these people already have some fundamental tech knowledge and they tend to know how to use tools like Microsoft Teams, G-Suite or Zoom. That can be helpful, because getting people to show up at these virtual events in the pandemic can be really difficult. And if somebody already knows how to do it, that’s one less barrier to them showing up.
For our union, we use the entire Google Suite of products because those are the products we use at work. So, we could be sure that everybody knows how to look at our calendar and subscribe to our events, etc. Now that we’re in a pandemic, online organizing is a great time to reach out to tech workers because these are some of the only people that we can reach out to right now in a really effective way. There’s so many barriers for other groups.
WC: What can labor win in tech?
SM: A lot. We won so much, and we signed our contract at a point when it felt like it was never going to be over. We had been bargaining for 2 and a half years. We kept stalling on the same issues. We were up against these megaliths, Google and HCL. HCL is a 10 billion dollar company. It’s one of the largest tech firms globally and one of the biggest corporations in India. We were up against 2 huge corporations, and it was just feeling so hopeless.
But we won a lot. We ended forced arbitration. We got promised raises for the 3 year duration of our contract that in some cases are nearly 10 times the raises we got before. We used to have a $30,000 pay gap for the same title in our unit, and we’ve narrowed that down. We created a minimum salary limit without decreasing anybody else’s salary. So we closed that gap. What else did we get? We got a promise of equivalent benefits for the next 3 years, so they can’t pull our health insurance out from under us. We got more leave time, more sick days — we didn’t have any sick days before. Just so much. The same things that you can win anywhere, you can win in tech. There are lots of units winning in tech now. They’re winning all sorts of the exact same protections that any worker needs. It’s all possible.
Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.