While the rest of the on-demand economy struggles to come to terms with the fallout from start-ups' reliance on classifying employees as independent contractors, Google Express — which does not use independent contractors but instead subcontracts its workforce through a staffing agency — is facing labor troubles of its own. And the battle is heating up.
Workers employed by Adecco, which has about 140 people staffing the Palo Alto warehouse from which Google Express operates its South Bay on-demand delivery service, filed for a union election in late July, seeking representation from the Teamsters Local 853. At the time, Google and Adecco declined to comment on whether or not they would remain neutral in the election, which is scheduled to take place next week.
Now the union is alleging that Adecco is running an anti-union campaign and has retaliated against one worker who spoke to SF Weekly about his support for unionization by suspending him from work.
When Gabriel Cardenas, a 26-year-old warehouse worker who has been at Google Express for about eighteen months, agreed to an interview with SF Weekly, he invoked comments that Laszlo Bock, Google's Senior Vice President of People Operations, had given on KQED's Forum. Asked by a caller how Google would respond to "interference" in union organizing or retaliation by its own subcontractors (specifically referencing Google Bus drivers), Bock responded:
“Well, what I’ll say is that you know we have folks who are unionized, we have folks who are non-union, across the company. Folks have a legal right to organize without fear of retaliation. And that’s a critical and important thing and we respect that. I mean, there would not and will not be retaliation.”"If I get fired," Cardenas said at the time, "I want them to remember those words." Just a few weeks later, Cardenas was suspended for one and a half days. He says that he was told by managers that he was being disciplined for "bullying, intimidation, and disrespect" — charges he denies.
"They know it's a disadvantage for me to be there," Cardenas says, because he speaks positively to co-workers about unionization. Cardenas says that managers have threatened workers with the prospect of the warehouse shutting down if they unionize.
The Teamsters filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on August 10, alleging that Cardenas' suspension was "in retaliation for his protected, concerted and Union activity." The union also alleges that Adecco "directed and/or impliedly directed employees not to talk about the Union at work," in violation of rights protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
Adecco spokeswoman Vannessa Almeida declined to comment on the specifics of Cardenas' case or the NLRB complaint, but said: "It’s important to note that we respect the right of employees being able to freely debate, discuss and disagree over the pros and cons of union representation. All associates have a legal right to ask questions and consider all the facts before they vote in the election."
Google declined to comment on the allegations.
Whether or not Adecco is unlawfully denying workers the right to talk about unionizing, the company is making its own stance clear. According to Cardenas and a union official, Adecco is displaying anti-union posters around the work place. The rhetoric in the posters, embedded below, takes aim at the union's argument that major tech companies like Google should be held accountable for the working conditions of their subcontracted employees.
One poster addresses the idea that Google subcontractors are "Googlers," saying,
"If the union or its supporters tell you that by voting for the union you could become a Googler, they are either terribly misinformed or lying to you."Another raises the specter of job loss:
"There is nothing to stop Adecco's customers, like Google, from switching to another staffing agency or shutting down an operation if the cost of that operation makes it too expensive to keep. That is especially true in a start up and, remember — GSX is a start up."Almeida defended the posters, saying: "We’re confident our associates will do better through direct dealings with their employer rather than involving a third party like a union. That is ultimately for our associates to decide, but it’s important that they have our point of view on key issues in addition to what they are hearing from union advocates."
Google also declined to comment on its contractors anti-union stance and whether or not it would switch to another agency if the Adecco workers unionize.
Workers like Cardenas will have a clearer sense of their future soon. The election is scheduled for Wednesday and Friday next week.