4,000 Google cafeteria workers have quietly unionized during the pandemic


Google is famous for its cafeterias, which serve everything from vegan poke to gourmet tacos to its legions of programmers and product managers—for free.

But the cooks and waiters behind these meals are generally contractors working for other companies and don’t receive the lavish perks and perks reserved for Google employees. In recent years, thousands have unionized and secured higher wages, pension benefits and free platinum health care.

Unite Here, a 300,000-member hospitality union, has been working steadily to unionize cafeteria workers in Silicon Valley since 2018, with the greatest success at Google. According to the union, the unionized employees of the contracting companies Compass and Guckenheimer now make up about 90 percent of all employees in the hospitality industry at Google. Workers have unionized at 23 Google offices nationwide, including in Seattle and San Jose.

Now the union is breaking new ground: the South. On Wednesday, Google workers in Atlanta who work at another cafeteria company — Sodexo — handed their manager a list of demands and said they intend to unionize.

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Unionization of workers can be more difficult to sell outside of the major coastal cities and in the South, where union membership is lowest in the United States and labor laws are generally weaker. About 6 percent of Georgia workers are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 18 percent in California and 24 percent in New York. Although inflation and house prices have pushed up the cost of living across the country, prices in the south are still generally lower than in large coastal cities.

Sodexo and the union reached an agreement on Friday: If a majority of workers decide to join a union, Sodexo would not try to prevent it.

“We hope we can quickly reach an agreement on a union contract that brings these workers up to the same good standard enjoyed by unionized food workers at other Google cafeterias across the country,” said D. Taylor, President of Unite Here .

Sodexo has many unionized workplaces across the country, said Jane Dollinger, a company spokeswoman. “We believe there is a way forward through negotiation to address pay and benefit disparities.”

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“We have many contracts with both unionized and non-union suppliers and we respect their employees’ right to choose whether or not to join a union. The decision of these contractors to join Unite Here is a matter between the workers and their employers,” said Google spokeswoman Courtenay Mencini.

“Our company has a tradition of fairness, equality and inclusion. We recognize protected employee rights and are neutral towards union codetermination,” said Guckenheimer spokesman Peter Mikol. “We honor and respect the decision of many employees to be represented by the union and look forward to continuing to work productively together,” said Lisa Claybon, a spokeswoman for Compass.

The average unionized worker at a Google cafeteria makes $24 an hour, pays little to no health insurance, and has access to a retirement plan. At Google cafeterias operated by Sodexo, workers make $15 an hour and pay hundreds of dollars in bonuses, Taylor said.

“It’s a cool place to work. The downside of that is the wages we get, the amount of work they ask for,” said Aaron Henderson, a 40-year-old cafeteria worker at Google’s Atlanta office who performs a variety of tasks including cleaning the Kitchen and preparing fresh food pizza dough and preparing the salad bar. He supports a family of three, including a daughter who is about to go to college.

“I love the job,” he said. “We all understand each other. It’s a shame we’re just underpaid and overworked.”

According to real estate platform Zillow, Atlanta home prices have risen about 18 percent over the past year, despite prices in the city being lower than in New York or the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tens of thousands of the workers who earn their livings at Google are employed by contractors. Known internally as “TVCs”—temp workers, vendors, or contractors, their ranks span all manner of jobs, including cafeteria workers, content moderators, designers, programmers, and security guards. Similar dynamics are playing out at other tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter.

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Tech companies have brought tremendous wealth to the cities in which they are based, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Real estate prices have skyrocketed over the past decade, displacing large numbers of people and requiring security guards, cafeteria workers, and shuttle bus drivers to travel long distances to work in jobs serving tech workers.

“We wanted to focus on the technology companies because they were clearly very beneficial to certain workers,” Taylor said. “We didn’t think that should be limited to employees.”

Other groups have also been working towards this goal. The Alphabet Workers Union, a group of Google full-time employees and TVCs, was formally formed in 2021 to try to equalize wages and benefits between the two groups. The AWU is not an official union that has gone through the state certification process.

Silicon Valley Rising, a group of union and employee representative organizations, is also campaigning for better wages and cheaper housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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A tight labor market combined with rising inflation and pandemic-related safety concerns among frontline workers prompted a surge in filings to hold shop floor elections this year. According to an analysis by Bloomberg Law, tens of thousands more workers voted to join unions in the first half of this year than in the first six months of 2021. Workers at Chipotle, Trader Joe’s and recreational equipment maker REI also voted for union organizing for the first time voted – citing concerns about safety and low wages.

More than 230 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since last year, prompting fierce opposition from the company, which was recently accused by the National Labor Relations Board of illegally withholding pay increases and benefits from union workers. And this year, the first Amazon store and the first Apple store voted to unionize.

Richard Ramirez, 33, who accepts grocery shipments at a Google Seattle office and makes sure they’re stored safely, says he was skeptical when union officials first reached out to his colleagues.

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“We had it relatively well,” said Ramirez. The $20 he made at Google was better than the $11 he made at a previous job where he didn’t even have enough money to pay the rent. Despite this, he commuted more than three hours a day due to the high cost of living in Seattle. He decided to support the union.

Now he’s paying $27 an hour, and the free health plan means he doesn’t think twice about getting the best care for his family, Ramirez said. The money has made a real difference for him.

“Since we’ve been unionized, I’ve bought a house and that was basically only possible because we’re unionized,” he said.

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