Will Google’s struggle with its ‘underclass’ lead to white-collar workers becoming the next labor activists?
“The moment you say you work for Google, people think you are rich. They don’t know that I don’t even have insurance.”
When a front page New York Times article this week described Google’s reliance on an “underclass of temp labor,” it opened a window into a growing hunger for protections among white-collar workers in industries not historically known for activism and organizing.
In a six-month campaign starting in November, 20,000 Google workers walked off the job, demanding, among other things, that their employer "end pay and opportunity inequity” for all Google workers, including temps, vendors, and contractors (TVCs).
Then, in April, after the company unexpectedly shortened the contract of a group of contractors, 900 Google employees signed a letter decrying the company’s treatment of TVCs. Google subsequently said it would instate benefits for these workers: eight paid sick days, health insurance, a $15 minimum wage. (As of March, the Times reported, Google was working with 121,000 TVCs, a class of workers whose tasks range from content moderation to software testing, compared with its 102,000 full-time employees.)
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The ongoing attention on Google’s temp workers is notable because it complicates a narrative of the gig economy that experts say can be short-sighted:
When it comes to on-demand gig work, many think of rideshare drivers and food delivery couriers, ignoring, for example, woman-dominated fields like nannies or house cleaners, said Julia Ticona and Alexandra Mateescu in a 2018 report on care work. In the same vein, temp work is often associated with low-wage work — and with good reason, as in Pennsylvania, 58 percent of temp workers are low-wage workers, according to a 2017 report from Temple Law’s Sheller Center for Social Justice. Still, as the Google fight highlights, low-wage workers aren’t the only groups susceptible to the insecurity of temp work.
But the campaign is also a window into unrest among American workers, even among those thought to have the cushiest perks and salaries: “The moment you say you work for Google, people think you are rich,” a contractor who was cut from Google in April told the Guardian. “They don’t know that I don’t even have insurance.”
While some argue that white-collar workers feel empowered to organize and speak up because they feel secure and confident their skills are in demand, others say it’s the opposite: “White-collar workers aren’t organizing because they feel secure, but because they have more in common with precarious blue-collar workers than ever,” wrote the Nation’s Alex Press last year.
Wired’s Nitasha Tiku made the same case when she dubbed 2018 “The Year Tech Workers Realized They Were Workers," looking at the parallels — and the differences — between Google’s walkout and the concurrent Marriott strike of service workers, which lasted almost two months.
“If tech’s moment of reckoning has taught us that Silicon Valley is the same old capitalism, then perhaps Googlers are not a new kind of worker, and maybe some traditional labor rules apply: like the need for collective action in order to make structural change,” Tiku wrote.
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Google’s employees aren’t the only tech workers who are agitating and with a similar spirit of “social justice unionism,” a trend in worker activism that focuses on raising standards for everyone — not just the group of workers who are speaking up: This spring alone, 3,500 Amazon workers signed a letter pressuring CEO Jeff Bezos to create a climate-change plan for the company, and Microsoft employees started sharing stories of sexual harassment in the workplace on an email chain that has forced the company to take note. Amazon’s white-collar workers, too, have expressed concern about working conditions for Amazon warehouse workers.