Tech’s Labor Activism

Gig workers in California are celebrating the passage of Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) making sure that gig economy workers are entitled to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits due to go into effect 1 January, 2020. Meanwhile, Google’s “shadow work force,” the masses of temporary workers and contractors (approximately 54 percent of Google’s work force), is challenging Google’s seemingly unmitigated power by unionizing. In fact, two weeks ago, the two-thirds of Google’s temp workers in Pittsburgh voted to unionize despite the firm outsourcing Google’s contractors, HCL America Inc., urging its temp workers to vote against unionizing.

What does this push by Google temporary and contract workers say about the future of tech workers who have been caught outside the elite contracts offered to the more educated and specialized workers that Google depends upon? In fact, given that these contractors hold white-collar positions yet live in a constant precarious economic state, it is more than high time that we examine the rights of workers today.

This past April, over 929 Google employees signed a petition in support of contractors who worked on Google Assistant and were let go. The contractors (TVCs) Google uses make up approximately 54% of Google’s workforce calling into question why some get contracts (meaning workers’ rights and benefits) while many more do not. It also calls into question contemporary hiring practices where in August 2018 over 3,000 security guards, contracted to work for tech giants like Google and Facebook, ratified their first union contract after raising similar problems. In fact, SEIU United Service Workers West in its press release noted that before the union contract agreement, many of the security officers were making between $12 and $14 an hour.  This is approximately between $25,000 to $30,000 a year, barely a hair above California’s state minimum wage. And when you take into account that much of the work to be undertaken by these guards is in Silicon Valley, one of the most expensive places on the planet to live, what these guards take home is poverty level income.

While labor laws differ often from state to state just as do certain conditions of minimum wage and other rights, there is the basic fact of employment law which, according to Hutchison & Stoy, allows workers to appeal policies they deem to discriminate against them. The bigger problem is who can afford the time, effort and risk of lost labor due to employer retaliation?  And even though Google’s shadow labor force works alongside full-time Google employees, these temporary workers are employed by third-party contractors who guarantee them none of the rights of other full-time Google workers: they earn less money and have no paid vacation time. And until this Spring when Google changed course in its policy, many in the tech sector doing contract work also have no healthcare coverage.

There are organizations battling these issues head-on such as the Tech Workers Coalition and others pushing to make existing unions fit tech workers into their agenda. And there are many pushing for the creation of a tech worker union specific to the problems unique to tech specialists that simply don’t fit into the steel worker union model, nor are these unions equipped to deal with the kinds of issues that tech workers face.

Sure, there are myriad issues of abuses of power that are common to all types of labor today as the recent Amazon victory in Sacramento demonstrates.  Yet there is an increase of consciousness among temporary and gig economy workers who are viewing their role in the workplace as compared to their contemporaries who have full-time contracts replete with perks. Certainly, they are not immune to the logical fallacies that permeate the job market today where certain individuals are allowed secure work contracts while others live in severe precarity.

While Wired declared 2018 to be the year that tech workers realized that they were workers, 2019 is the year that this nail is driven into the coffin. If anything, this is the year that people of all pay grades and levels of education are banding together to ask why one type of person should deserve access to housing, education and healthcare, while another does not.

It’s time that we all ask this question and close ranks with our brothers and sisters who are living in precarity for big tech and beyond.

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. Read other articles by Julian.