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SC labor complaint is 1st for new Google worker union

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LEDE Google (copy) (copy)

In 2019, Gov. Henry McMaster helped Google mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the internet company's data center in Moncks Corner. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

South Carolina, the least-unionized state in the country, is back under the spotlight within the organized labor movement.

This time around, Boeing Co. isn’t the center of attention.

But another household name is.

Google and corporate parent Alphabet Inc. found themselves on the receiving end of a federal complaint earlier this month, after a technician at their Berkeley County data center was suspended from her contract job for violating workplace rules. Also named in the grievance is Adecco Group, a global staffing firm that employed her through its Modis E&T LLC technology services business.

The filing with the National Labor Relations Board is a milestone in at least one way: It's the first public legal salvo from a new labor-affiliated organization that about 230 Alphabet workers launched last month to push for bottom-up changes from within the internet giant. 

The group's title is simple and to the point: Alphabet Workers Union.

And while it's partnering with a well-established labor organization — the Communications Workers of America Local 1400 — it won’t seek to engage in collective bargaining with management over wages, benefits and other issues, namely because some members are third-party hired hands who, legally speaking, aren't company employees.

Instead, it plans to rely on protests and other actions to bring ethical issues to the negotiating table.

"Our company’s motto used to be 'Don’t be evil.' An organized work force will help us live up to it," the group said on its website.

Google plans for more expansion at Berkeley County site (copy) (copy)

Google has invested more than $2.3 billion in its 500-acre Berkeley County data center site since 2007. The company and a staffing agency are facing a federal labor complaint about a contract worker who was suspended. File/AP

As of last week, another 600 employees and contractors had joined the activist effort.

It's unclear how many of them punch the clock at the South Carolina data center operation, a high-tech and highly secured 500-acre campus off Highway 52 where the streets have playful names like Android Alley and Reboot Road. About three years ago, Google announced a $600 million expansion of the site, bringing its total Lowcountry investment to about $2.4 billion since 2007.

Piping up

For years, the rank-and-file at Silicon Valley companies, including far-flung Googlers in places like Berkeley County, rarely if ever raised a peep about how and where their bread gets buttered.

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Some are breaking ranks and breaking their silence.

At Alphabet, workers have openly blasted the top brass in recent years, whether it's for chasing military weapons contracts or protecting executives accused of misconduct. A recent controversy went viral in December, when a Google scientist said she was fired after refusing to retract or remove her name and affiliation from a research paper on artificial intelligence.

Yet another source of unrest has been the treatment of contract workers, who have outnumbered the in-house payroll for several years. They're known as "TVCs," short for temps, vendors and contractors. 

The first Alphabet Workers Union labor complaint centers on one of them. Shannon Wait's LinkedIn profile shows that she earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, both in history, both from the College of Charleston. Her job title at Modis, where she has worked for about two years, is "Data Technician I." 

"I perform hardware operations and machine infrastructure maintenance at a Google Data Center," Wait wrote on LinkedIn. "By swapping various computer components, I maintain Google servers. I make it my personal responsibility to adhere to all Google data security requirements, which protect customer and user privacy. These actions benefit users on all Google platforms, allowing for a smooth internet experience."

Labor intensive

A lawyer for the Communications Workers lodged the complaint against Alphabet, Adecco and Modis, alleging they violated federal labor statutes by barring workers from discussing wages and by retaliating against Wait. The filing and subsequent news reports said she was suspended the week of Jan. 25 after talking with a colleague about bonus payments, complaining about working conditions and expressing support for the new union on social media.

According to the AWU, she also said that daily repairs have doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic at the Moncks Corner data center, raising potential safety concerns.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, which was first to report on the complaint, Wait said she posted a message on Facebook to explain why she joined the fledgling labor activist movement — to shine a light on how contract workers are treated compared to employees who are paid by Google or its parent.

Damaged water bottles are a small example: They aren't replaced for the outsourced help, but they are for everyone else, according to Wait.

"These are the conditions that we face as TVCs — we're paid less, we're laid off when needed, and we often don't have access to safe, transparent working conditions," she said in a statement on the AWU website. "Alphabet and Google can do better to ensure that all workers, including their contractors, are treated fairly. Google became a trillion-dollar company last year. They can afford to treat us right."

Google software engineer Parul Koul, who is executive chair of the union, described the company's employment system as "segregated" and "two-tiered."

“I want other TVCs to see this and know they have recourse if they see something illegal or unethical in their workplace,” she said in prepared remarks.

When the new union affiliation was announced in early January, a high-ranking Google personnel executive said the online search and advertising giant supports the “protected labor rights” of all of its workers and that it will “continue engaging directly" with them, according to Reuters. The company did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott

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