On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
A union avoidance consultant told Google Fiber workers that they could lose their contract with Google if workers vote to unionize, according to leaked audio from a captive audience meeting that took place on February 11.
The contractor “could say we’re not going to do Google Fiber anymore,” the consultant told retail workers in the meeting. The unionizing workers are contracted by BDS Connected Solutions to sell internet plans at Google Fiber stores in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Are you willing to put that in writing?” a Google Fiber worker said.
“Yeah, are you willing to say that if we unionize we’re going to close?” another worker chimed in.
“Not at all… I don’t know how you heard that,” the consultant says.
Twelve Google Fiber workers in Kansas City began voting last week on whether to join the Alphabet Workers Union, a branch of the Communications Workers of America, which represents all types of workers, including employees, contractors, temps, and vendors at Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
In the lead up to their election, BDS management held a series of group and smaller gatherings, also known as captive audience meetings, popular among employers looking to quell unionization efforts.
Do you have a tip to share about an organizing effort at Google or your tech company? Please get in touch with the reporter Lauren via email [email protected] or securely on Signal 201-897-2109.
Unlike the giant captive audience meetings held at companies like Amazon that usually don’t allow for employee input, these meetings were a smaller, last-ditch dialogue to convince BDS employees already sold on the union that paying workers more and treating them better could mean losing a Google contract. The meeting is more conversational in tone than others Motherboard has heard thus far.
“Can being with a union guarantee that you’ll have a job? The answer is no because we’re on a contract. Google has the right to determine whoever they want to get the contract,” Marco Morin, a senior manager, said in a private meeting with two workers on February 22, according to an audio recording obtained by Motherboard.
If the unionization effort succeeds in Kansas City, which workers expect it to, the Google Fiber subcontractors would be the first in the country to successfully unionize. Only 12 workers are eligible to vote, but a victory for the union would have important symbolic significance at Google, which led secret campaigns to derail worker organizing. It could also inspire other Google Fiber workers across the country to unionize.
Google Fiber offers high-speed internet in thousands of residences and businesses in 19 U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Denver, Nashville, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle. Kansas City was the service’s first outpost.
In 2019, a group of Google contractors in Pittsburgh became some of the first tech workers in the country to unionize in the United States, citing precarious working conditions. Since unionizing, NLRB has filed a complaint against their contractor HCL for refusing to bargain in good faith and moving their jobs to Poland.
“The speaker was neither a Google or Google Fiber representative and, as such, we can’t comment on what they may have said,” a Google spokesperson told Motherboard in response to a request for comment about audio from the meetings. “This is a matter between BDS and the Communication Workers of America union. The petition does not mention Google, Google Fiber or Alphabet. 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, just as we do for these employees of BDS Solutions Group. We expect all our suppliers to treat and pay their employees fairly, whether they are unionized or not.”
When Motherboard initially reached out for comment, BDS informed us that there were inaccuracies in our description of the event. Motherboard subsequently followed up with new details and three more opportunities for BDS to comment, but it did not respond. “BDS cannot comment on any specific statement made by those in attendance other than to say that we believe our leadership has consistently acted in a manner that would convey honest and accurate information to employees,” a spokesperson said in their initial statement. “And, the information BDS shared with our team members is in line with current law on these employee relations matters.”
Eris Derickson, a unionizing Google fiber employee who sells internet plans in Kansas City and makes $15.92 an hour, told Motherboard that she and others were seeking to unionize in order to increase pay amid rising inflation and to have a seat at the table with management in the decision-making process.
“I speak for all of us when I say one of the biggest concerns is pay, and not just that we’re being paid below market rate, or that they’ve slashed our bonus,” she said. “When I started, there was an expectation that we’d be eligible for a raise every year, but that hasn’t happened during COVID.”
In multiple audio recordings of anti-union meetings obtained by Motherboard, managers and hired union avoidance consultants resorted to classic rhetoric used by employers looking to derail unionization campaigns.
They framed the union as an outside third party— “a labor union is an organization you can be affiliating with. It’s not good or bad.” They repeatedly played up Google Fiber workers’ status as contractors to insinuate that unionizing could cost them their jobs. “In the world of what we’ll call third party vendors, Google decides how much they want to pay….your company can decide it’s no longer a value proposition for them to work in there.”
“We are in an annual contract so it’s perfectly within the right of the client to say we’re going to look for another vendor,” said Morin in the same February 11 meeting. “I’m just telling you the reality of the situation. We are a contracted vendor…We’re all working for Google Fiber as long as there is a Google Fiber program for BDS to work for.”
“You understand that BDS works with union and non union suppliers right?” a worker said.
“Absolutely. It is a possibility. I’m not saying it’s going to happen,” Morin said, referring to BDS potentially losing its contract with Google Fiber.
Bell, the consultant, implied that workers could also lose their jobs if they unionize by asking for more than whatever Google had agreed to pay BDS in their contract. “I’m not trying to infer anyone’s value or anyone’s worth. I’m just trying to do a business math problem,” he said.
“So are we,” the workers chimed in. “That’s why we’re here.”
“You’re being driven by a contract value that someone else has established for you. That’s all,” he replied. “It’s not good or bad. It’s just the business model for this particular business.”
“In the world of [temps, vendors, and contractors], Google decides how much they want to pay. That’s a fairly important point,” he continued. “Google pays you a certain amount to do the services for them. Let’s say that’s $10. We have 10 people so we can afford to pay $1 each. The only restriction I’m going to put on you as a supervisor is you have $10. That’s all Google is going to give you for this year. So now your staff comes to you and asks for a raise. Can you give it to them?”
“There’s a lot of other variables at play. Like the company giving another vendor $15,” a worker chimes in.
The $340 billion “union avoidance” industry (a euphemism for union-busting) specializes in training persuaders to convince workers against unionization using rhetoric that treads carefully around the law.
“I think that their message was really frustrating,” said Derickson of the February meeting. “We know that closing the Kansas City fiber space wouldn’t bode well for public image. Us making a public stink about it would be bad for them,” she said, noting that she thought the real reason for using this rhetoric was to convince workers against unionization.
Earlier this year, 100 percent of workers who would be part of the Google Fiber union in Kansas City signed cards authorizing the union for an election, a significant indication that the union will win the election.
Workers have repeatedly asked BDS Connected Solutions to recognize their union without success. In their original petition the Alphabet Workers Union asked the NLRB to consider Alphabet a “‘joint employer” of unionizing Google Fiber Staff. The company has declined to do so, and workers have instead pursued a union election. The election is ongoing and will close on March 24.
To wrap up the 40-minute February 11 meeting, the manager Morin told unionizing workers, “I sincerely didn’t want this to come across as adversarial or threatening in any way. That was not the intention. All we’re trying to do is start a dialogue.”