A federal agency issued a complaint this week against a contractor hired by Google and accused it of violating its employees’ labor rights, marking the latest flash point in a long-running struggle between workers and technology companies.
In the complaint, the National Labor Relations Board asserts that HCL America, a subsidiary of an Indian contracting giant, illegally discouraged workers from belonging to a union, and of failing to bargain with the union in good faith.
HCL and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The case does not accuse Google of wrongdoing.
A group of about 90 HCL employees in Pittsburgh who do work such as data analysis under a contract the company has with Google voted to unionize last fall. They affiliated with the United Steelworkers union.
According to the complaint, managers at the company interrogated workers about the organizing activities of their colleagues, told them that promotions and wages were being delayed because of the union campaign and threatened to enforce work rules more strictly if the union was created, in violation of federal labor law.
After the employees voted to unionize, the labor board asserts, the company began shifting some of the work that they performed to Poland. HCL also limited their ability to participate in training sessions and required employees to take periodic “quick check” quizzes, according to the complaint.
“Sending work out of the country during a pandemic was especially kind of an unconscionable action,” said Joshua Borden, an HCL worker active in the union. “They were trying to take jobs away from us in retaliation for organizing to have a fair workplace.”
HCL also unilaterally altered policies relating to breaks, vacation, family leave, and 401(k) contributions, according to the complaint, even though it is supposed to bargain over them with the union. And it “unreasonably delayed” in providing information about pay and job titles that the union requested to help it bargain, the complaint says.
Last year’s successful union campaign at HCL was widely seen as a significant development in the tech industry, which has aggressively resisted labor organizing. Blue-collar workers in the industry, such as security guards whose employers have contracts with giants like Google and Facebook, have formed unions. But the HCL union was believed to be the first group of white-collar tech employees to organize while doing work for a major company.
The HCL workers, echoing a refrain common among Google’s tens of thousands of temporaries and contractors, complained that while they often sat alongside direct Google employees and worked on projects together, they typically received lower pay, fewer benefits and less job security.
The organizing effort came at a time when employees across the industry, including at Microsoft, Amazon and Google, were protesting over a variety of issues, including trying to discourage their employers from working with certain federal agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security.
Several months after the HCL workers unionized, employees at the crowdfunding site Kickstarter also formed a union, appearing to become the first group of direct employees of a prominent tech company to do so.
Google in particular has been in the spotlight over labor unrest. Its workers have protested the company’s efforts to help the Defense Department identify targets in video footage and have walked out to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct.
Last year it abruptly disbanded a team of contractors working on Google Assistant, its voice-activated tool. After employees protested, Google agreed to require firms it contracted with to pay full-time employees at least $15 per hour and provide health insurance.
The company has also brought in a consulting firm known for helping employers fight union campaigns, and last fall it fired several employees who were active in organizing colleagues. Google said it fired the workers because they violated company policies.
The labor board’s case against HCL is scheduled to go before an administrative law judge next February, unless the company settles with the government beforehand.
If the judge were to rule against HCL, he or she would likely order the company to undo all the changes it made unilaterally and bargain over them with the union, said Wilma Liebman, a former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board. It could also require HCL to compensate workers for any losses they suffered as a result of those changes.
The labor board issued the complaint on Monday, but the steelworkers union announced it on Thursday, after it had a chance to review it, a union spokesman said.
Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed reporting.