Protocol | Workplace

Unionizing is the 'easy' part. Getting a contract can be harder.

The union representing Google contract workers in Pittsburgh still doesn't have a contract after nearly 21 months.

Two neon digital hands shaking

Union contract negotiations take, on average, about 16 months.

Photo: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash

In the nearly seven years Gabrielle Norton-Moore has worked as a contractor at Google, her annual take-home pay has increased by just $91.

"When I did the math on that, like — I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was that bad," Norton-Moore, a data analyst, told Protocol. "I was so angry because that's literally criminal."

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. But achieving better pay is one of the demands Norton-Moore and her unionized comrades have on their bargaining list. Norton-Moore is part of a group of roughly 65 employees for information technology firm HCL who are contracted to work at Google's Bakery Square office in Pittsburgh. Norton-Moore and her colleagues handle the data "that makes the machine learning happen and run smoothly," she said.

In September 2019, these workers unionized with the United Steelworkers union. But they have yet to solidify their contract with HCL.

Members of the HCL union are part of a growing number of tech workers who have unionized or are actively forming a union in recent years. But forming a union is just the first step on the long road of collective bargaining. Negotiating a contract with an employer can take years.

Time to contract

The contract negotiation process is generally a slow one. On average, it takes unions a little over 13 months to solidify their first contract, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis.

The Glitch union, which the management team voluntarily recognized in March 2020, became the first tech union to ratify a contract this past March. The contract, which codified grievance and arbitration procedures, just-cause provisions and terms for severance pay, came about one year after the creation of the union, but was negotiated over the span of five months.

Representatives from the Glitch union were unavailable for comment.

The HCL union, however, is in its 21st month of negotiations.

"It can really vary," USW spokesperson Jess Kamm Broomell told Protocol when asked how long it takes to get a contract. "But this one is moving very slowly. We're also very supportive of the PRO Act. One of the reasons that's important is because it does put limits on how long a company can drag out that initial process."

The unionized workers in Pittsburgh say HCL is not bargaining in good faith and that the company is intentionally dragging its feet.

"It's so obvious," Norton-Moore said, noting HCL has cancelled multiple scheduled bargaining sessions.

"Most contracts do take a long time," she added. "Especially the first one, but I mean, even this is pushing it."

In May, USW delivered a petition signed by 1,156 tech workers to HCL, demanding the company negotiate in good faith. The May petition came several months after the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against HCL, alleging the company failed to bargain in good faith. The complaint also claims HCL retaliated against its Pittsburgh workforce by moving some of the work to Poland. This week, the NLRB issued an amended complaint alleging HCL illegally froze wages in 2020. The hearing for the complaint is scheduled to take place in mid-July.

HCL, however, disagrees with that characterization. The company told Protocol it has negotiated in good faith.

"Successful contract negotiations require all parties to communicate in reasonable, actionable terms," a spokesperson for HCL told Protocol in a statement. "That has been and is our goal. To that end, HCL continues to negotiate in good faith with the USW in hopes of finalizing a mutually beneficial contract."

What's on the table

Kickstarter, following HCL, became the second major group of tech workers to unionize in February 2020. The union, Kickstarter United, reached an agreement with Kickstarter management pertaining to laid-off workers in May 2020, but still has yet to ratify a contract.

Kickstarter United, the company and the company's lawyers have met regularly throughout 2020 and 2021, Kickstarter senior software engineer Dannel Jurado, on behalf of Kickstarter United, told Protocol in a statement.

"As is usual with first contracts, things have been moving slow but we are making progress," Jurado said. "We are working towards a comprehensive contract that meets our bargaining unit's priorities of transparency, accountability, and equity. That takes time."

Kickstarter United organized around issues including equitable compensation, diversity and inclusion, and transparency around hiring, firing, promotions and disciplinary action. Jurado was unable to provide any additional context on the details of the negotiation process.

The HCL union conducted a survey of its bargaining unit to determine what issues are workers' highest priorities. They landed on better health care benefits, more vacation and higher, more equitable compensation.

"The biggest thing that we found out through all of this is the insane pay disparity," Norton-Moore said. "It's absolutely bonkers."

The lowest paid HCL worker at the Google office makes about $35,000 annually while the highest paid person makes $72,000 annually, Norton-Moore said. On average, HCL contractors at Google only receive about a 1% raise per year, which is lower than the rate of inflation over the last few years, she said. That's also much lower than the average 2.6% salary increase U.S. employees are projected to receive this year, according to a 2020 survey.

The union also wants to receive the same paid holidays their coworkers who are Google employees receive. While Google grants paid time off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Presidents Day, HCL does not. That means that when Google closes its building, HCL contractors are required to take vacation time.

Despite how long the process has taken, Norton-Moore is optimistic about its outcome.

"[The bargaining committee seems] to be down to the nitty-gritty and seem hopeful they'll be able to get us what we're requesting," she said. "It looks hopeful, but it's just literally getting them to the table is the biggest thing."

*This reporter's partner was on the bargaining committee at Glitch. She left the company in April 2021.

Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.

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Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.

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