One Tech Subcontractor’s Road to Unionization

Just because you’re doing work for a massive company like Google doesn’t mean you’re technically working for them. And just because you’re a Google subcontractor doesn’t mean you can’t organize a union, as Ben Gwin and his coworkers did in Pittsburgh.

Workers protest outside Google London HQ over the “appalling treatment and union busting” of staff facing redundancies, on April 4, 2023. (Kirsty O'Connor / PA Images via Getty Images)

Memoirs by union organizers tend to let the author’s life outside of the workplace recede into the background. That makes sense: readers pick up these books to learn about the workplace part of their lives. But it also compartmentalizes the lives of labor activists in a way that loses something essential for understanding those few who choose to dedicate so much of their days to such struggle. Involving oneself in a collective project and taking on fights that have long odds are choices shaped by one’s entire life situation. To understand why someone would commit to such battles, it helps to know a bit more about them.

Ben Gwin’s Team Building: A Memoir About Family and the Fight for Workers’ Rights offers such a portrait. In September 2019, Gwin was one of the first tech workers in the United States to unionize. He was employed by HCL Technologies, one of many third-party contractors who work for Google. The HCL workers, based in Pittsburgh, voted forty-nine to twenty-four to join the United Steel Workers (USW). Team Building is the story of how they got there.

Gwin opens with a catheter and a bottle of Oxycodone. It is March of 2019, and a complication following hemorrhoid surgery has left him unable to urinate. Gwin has been sober for fourteen years, so taking the pain medication has left him on edge. So, too, the situation’s bearing on his ability to return to work. HCL requires its employees to take a full week of their scarce paid time off (PTO); while he eventually goes on short-term disability, it requires navigating a labyrinth of forms and phone calls.

Nine months before the surgery, Gwin started a job as a data analyst at HCL. He works out of Google’s offices in Bakery Square, a tech hub in Pittsburgh that sprang up almost overnight on the site of a former Nabisco factory. Gwin took the job because the office is near his home, saving him precious time to spend with Gracie, his young daughter. Plus, the recruiter promised room for advancement and significant raises to the starting $40,000 salary once Gwin had proven himself.

Google’s office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google)

But from the first day on the job, Gwin began to realize that he had made a mistake. HCL falls under Google’s Temp, Vendor, Contractor (TVC) umbrella; TVCs make up more than half of Google’s workforce, and the arrangement means that the tech giant is not legally responsible for either Gwin’s compensation or his working conditions.

Nancy, the operations manager and team lead of Catalogs, the team Gwin was joining, rattles off a list of rules. Don’t tell anyone you work for Google — you work for HCL. Don’t eat the dinner offered to workers too often, and if you do, don’t eat too much. Aside from four hours of annual online training, you can’t work from home under any circumstances. Don’t ask your Google program manager for anything. Don’t ever talk to your Google supervisors. Don’t talk to Google employees. Don’t walk too fast past Googlers. Don’t talk too loud near Googlers.

The building features a wide range of lavish extras — a doctor, a hair stylist, in-house dry cleaning. But those extras are for the Googlers, not the shadow HCL workforce. As Gwin is shown around the building, he passes one of Gracie’s friends’ dads; he nods hello, but the man ignores him. The setup keeps the workers divided: as Gwin learns later, the Google employees whom he works with had no idea HCL employees’ pay was drastically different than their own.

The book’s title comes from HCL’s term for the one hour per month the workers spend bonding. “They could have given us twelve more hours of PTO every year, but instead we got team building,” writes Gwin. His first session takes place across the street from the office, on the baseball field in Mellon Park. Gwin is a baseball player, and he thinks back on the summer when his league practiced there. Back then, it was abutted by an abandoned lot, a stark contrast to the now-ubiquitous condos in the area.

“During the day, the shadows cast by the new buildings make it harder to hit, and the glare off the steel and the glass windows behind home plate make it hard to field. Night games aren’t as bad, but the lights are too low, and it’s tough to track fly balls.” A lot of Team Building takes place on baseball fields, or on the way to and from them. Gracie plays the sport too, and Gwin frets about her and their relationship as they drive around Pittsburgh for games.

Much of the book’s resonance comes from this relationship, and the absence of someone from the picture: Jane, Gracie’s mother. Like Gwin, Jane had a drug problem, but unlike Gwin, she could never stay clean. On July 4 weekend in 2018, a month after Gwin starts at HCL, Jane fatally overdoses on fentanyl-laced heroin at her mother’s house while Gracie is visiting. It’s a horrific incident, one Gwin comes back to frequently as he begins organizing his coworkers with the help of the USW.

These personal details, which would not have been explored at length had the story of the HCL union drive been written by a reporter or academic rather than one of the workers themselves, are in fact central to the story. Jane’s death makes Gwin a single parent, and that makes HCL’s inflexible work policies untenable.

He cannot get a straight answer about changing his health insurance, and his income is $1,000 too high for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). He cannot take a second job without being able to work from home. He cannot leave and risk losing his health insurance without having another job lined up, but he cannot stay and keep his family afloat either. One thing he can do: talk to his coworkers about how they might collectively change things for the better.

In the fall of 2018, Google’s full-time employees organized a walkout over the company’s alleged faulty sexual harassment policies and the forced arbitration that helped enable them. Then came pushback to the company’s work on the Project Maven drone program and its involvement in Project Dragonfly. The organizing was primarily done by full-time Googlers, and it rarely addressed the company’s shadow TVC workforce. But a wave of activism was spreading across the sector, and Gwin paid attention.

He is no stranger to low-wage work. Before HCL, he worked a host of odd jobs. Public perception of tech workers is that they are almost all well off, but that is certainly not the case for TVCs. “This was my fourth office job,” writes Gwin. “I’d worked on a farm, in a warehouse, in a lumber yard, and in coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. I’d landscaped, painted houses, and delivered pizzas. I’d never been infantilized and condescended to the way I was at HCL.”

In February 2019, Gwin raises the idea of unionizing with his coworker George, the office’s organic leader, someone who other workers respect and look to for information; when George doesn’t react as if Gwin is crazy, he reaches out to a USW organizer. So ends the first of the book’s two parts. Part two takes us through the organizing process, starting with rules on how to form a union, from “Step 1: Talk to Coworkers and Form an Organizing Committee” to “Step 6: Vote.”

We see Gwin and his pro-union coworkers speak to others one on one, assuaging fears, talking through confusion, and hoping that a particularly boisterous pro-union comrade won’t be too off-putting to the undecideds. It turns out that workplace discontent is widespread at HCL — Gwin learns that the recruiters misrepresented the job to nearly everyone — and the group recruits 10 percent of the workforce to the organizing committee by April. Once the workers file with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election, HCL hires law firm Ogletree Deakins and star union buster Eric Vanetti of the Labor Relations Institute to fight the campaign.

A new apartment building stands next to a house in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on January 23, 2020. (Michael Rayne Swensen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“I’m just trying to make a living,” Vanetti tells a pro-union worker, to which the worker responds, “So are we.” Meetings erupt into arguments as a contingent of anti-union workers get organized, even filming personal videos on why they oppose the union. But we know how the story ends: Gwin and his coworkers vote to form the first tech-worker union under Google’s umbrella, and one of the first in the United States. (Just last week, another group of Google contractors, part of the company’s help center team, went public with their own union campaign.)

Gwin’s steps seven through eleven for forming a union and winning a contract, the ones which come after a union election is won, take place largely after his narrative wraps up: HCL’s Pittsburgh employees did not ratify their first contract until July 2021, and in the meantime, the company began outsourcing some of their work to nonunion employees in Poland. Gwin details the aftermath in the epilogue: COVID forces HCL to admit that they could work remotely, the workers negotiate a contract that is “good but not life-changing for most of us,” new organizing breaks out across the country, not only among tech workers but at Starbucks and Amazon. And in late 2021, Gwin quits HCL after taking a job as a technical writer and editor.

As union organizers know, a worker’s personal story can be a powerful tool to win others over and break down the fear and confusion sown by an employer. That is what Gwin is up to in this book, or at least part of it. He is no amateur writer — throughout the memoir, we see him struggle to find time to write between his duties as a worker and as a parent — and the pages of Team Building fly by, even as it records such upsetting personal events. Its texture, the scenes with Gracie and Jane, the drugs and anxiety and baseball games, mean we feel the stakes of the union campaign.

Gwin is also telling the story of Pittsburgh’s transformation. For someone like me who is familiar with every baseball field where he brings Gracie, every mind-bogglingly ugly collection of condos metastasizing across the city’s otherwise strikingly beautiful landscape, the buildings often comically wedged between industrial ruins from Pittsburgh’s past that no one has gotten around to demolishing yet, it all rings true. Who are these people, controlling our working conditions, ruining the visibility on our baseball fields, blotting the skylines of our cities, with near-zero input from us? Whether it’s Pittsburgh or anywhere else, it’ll take a lot of organizing to stop them. For those interested in what that looks like, Team Building is a good place to start.