Google hires anti-union firm amid brewing labor tensions: report

The relationship with the consulting firm was discovered by employees, who leaked the information to reporters

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published November 21, 2019 4:31PM (EST)

Google employees walk off the job to protest (Mason Trinca/Getty Images)
Google employees walk off the job to protest (Mason Trinca/Getty Images)

Silicon Valley loves its contractors, but not as people. The contract workforce is to Silicon Valley as water is to a fish: Many tech companies have ascended (see: Uber, Lyft) not because of their superior technology, but due to their ability to exploit contract laborers in a maximally efficient manner — thus offloading employee expenses onto contractors and keeping said workers as expendable as possible.

Google is exemplary in this regard. 54 percent of the tech giant's workforce is comprised of temps, according to employees. Particularly within Google's white-collar campuses, many contractors work side-by-side with full-time workers, doing the same work for far less pay. That physical proximity has helped many Google employees feel common cause with their exploited peers, and together, Google contractors have been organizing for a union for the past few years. The nascent labor movement has had some success: In September, a group of 73 Pittsburgh-based contract tech workers for Google voted to join the United Steelworkers.

Now, according to a new report in The New York Times, Google has hired a notorious anti-union consulting firm, IRI Consultants. Google employees, according to the report, discovered the contract accidentally by stumbling upon calendar entries that hinted that the company hired the firm. Screenshots were shared with the New York Times.

Employees noticed that Google had installed a tool on employees’ web browsers that would flag internal calendar events that required more than 100 participants or 10 meeting rooms. As reported by Bloomberg, many employees believed the tool was actually a way to monitor organizing among workers. In an effort to learn more about the tool and calendar policy change, employees searched the calendar of a Google human resources official who had requested the policy change.

The report explains:

While searching that official’s calendar, which was open to other Google employees at the time, these employees discovered that she had been part of a group of Google human resources, legal and communications officials who for months had been invited to meetings with officials from IRI, according to the two employees.

They noticed that the group had a meeting scheduled only a few hours before the human resources official requested the change in calendar policy. The Times obtained screenshots of portions of the official’s calendar and two posts on an internal ticketing system discussing the change.

According to the firm’s website, its services can help identify “key vulnerabilities and risks that could become the target of an organizing campaign."

On their website, the consulting firm brags that they stopped organizing at a healthcare company. IRI boasts:

Despite dedicating millions of dollars to their organizing campaigns, the unions did not gain enough support to hold an NLRB-conducted election and were not able to organize any of the employees. We were also successful in creating in-house capabilities to support their long-term employee relations goals.

Last month, Google management in Zurich tried to intercept a meeting organized by Google employees about unionization.

Chloe Cooper, a Google spokeswoman, told The Times the company engaged “dozens of outside firms to provide us with their advice on a wide range of topics.”

Workers within the tech giant Google have become an activist force within the company in the past few years, protesting the company's many egregious misdeeds and rankling management.  Last year, when a report broke that a Google executive investigated by the company for sexual assault was awarded a $90 million exit package upon his resignation, employees responded with a global walkout. It was successful in terms of media coverage and awareness, but when some of the organizers returned to their desks they were welcomed with demotions.

The tech industry is certainly no stranger to unions; many blue collar workers at companies like Verizon and AT&T, such as custodial, technician and food service staff, are unionized. Yet the effort to organize the most white collar workers in tech, such as software engineers and data analysts, signals a big shift in Silicon Valley. It seems like Google is not taking recent efforts lightly.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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