Everyone has their breaking point. And when that happens, it can be a small thing, an incident that usually doesn’t matter.
Shannon Wait’s moment was when her Google-issued water bottle broke. The data center she worked in was hot, so she requested another one. However, she says Google’s subcontractor refused to give her one.
That moment sparked a chain reaction that led to an announcement last week. Google signed a statement saying company employees have the right to discuss pay and terms with each other.
It may sound weird that it even has to be said.
But in reality, it was the culmination of Shannon’s battle with the company.
Its story is one of excessive management, a story that highlights managerial practices that have become synonymous with Big Tech.
Shannon completed her history degree in 2018 and started working at a Google data center in South Carolina the following February, earning $ 15 (£ 10.90) an hour.
“You fix the servers, which includes swapping hard drives, swapping motherboards, lifting heavy batteries, they’re each like 30 lbs (13.6 kg),” she says. “It’s really hard work.”
Google offices are renowned for being creative, alternative, and fun – with ping-pong tables, free snacks, and music rooms. However, what Shannon describes seems less idyllic.
“People don’t play games all day long like you see in the movies… the data center is completely different,” she says.
Shannon was an entrepreneur at Google. This means that although she worked in a Google data center, she was actually employed by a subcontractor called Modis, which was part of a group of companies owned by another company, Adecco.
This complex arrangement has become increasingly common at Google. About half of the people who work for the company are said to be employed as subcontractors.
It is also complex to determine who is really carrying the can for mismanagement. But we’ll get to that later.
Shannon says when the pandemic hit, the job just got harder. The minimum number of jobs per shift has increased. But there was a sweetener.
“Around May 2020, Google announced that it was going to handle the pandemic in an honorable manner. They said they were going to give bonuses to all employees, including contractors, who work in person, ”she said.
“The time came when we were supposed to get this bonus and it didn’t show up in any of our bank accounts. We started to worry like, you know, I could really use that extra money.”
That’s when she says employees started talking to each other about the bonus and how much they were entitled to receive.
“We started to wonder about compensation, but every time it came up to management, we were told not to talk about it.”
Shannon says she even got a message from a manager saying, “It’s never okay to discuss compensation with your peers.” She shared it with the BBC.
Shannon finally received her bonus, but said she had become disillusioned. She had hoped to get a full-time job at Google. However, she noticed a culture of “perma-temps”, temporary staff who she said would never be recruited no matter how hard they tried.
Frustrated with management, Shannon has reached what she says is her breaking point.
“It’s very hot in the data centers – around 85F (29.5C). So Google gave me a bottle of water, but the cap broke.”
She says the same thing happened to her colleague, a full-time Google employee. However, Shannon says that although her coworker received a new bottle, she was not. She went home and typed a message on Facebook.
Finally, she says she has “had enough”.
“The next day, I was at work, I was called into a conference room with all, for the most part, the managers present. And they told me that my post on Facebook was in violation of the nondisclosure agreement, and that I was a security risk and I had to hand over my badge and my laptop immediately, and be escorted Offsite. “
The Alphabet Workers Union was formed in January 2021 for Google employees. It is not recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, an independent government body, and is sometimes referred to as a “minority union”. The vast majority of Google employees are not members, but Shannon was and the union took her case into its own hands.
In February, they filed two cases on his behalf under unfair labor practices laws. The one she had been suspended illegally – for talking about supporting a union. The other one that his managers had asked him, illegally, not to discuss his salary.
Last month, Google, Modis and the Alphabet Workers Union reached an agreement.
Shannon’s suspension was canceled.
Google signed a document saying its employees “have the right to discuss wage rates, bonuses and working conditions.”
It was a victory for both Shannon and the newly formed union.
“The people who work in warehouses and data centers for these trillion dollar companies are tired of even their smallest rights being violated. And they realize that companies don’t listen to their workers. So we are going to do them. “
Amazon workers in Alabama last week voted on whether to unionize. Amazon is desperate to avoid unionization of workers.
The result is expected soon. This is the latest battle between Big Tech and some workers who feel, to say the least, unloved.
“I think one of the most important things people can learn is that not all Google employees make six figures… and even at the lowest level of Google, they have so much power – so much more power. than they think, ”Shannon said.
What about Google?
Well, he did not admit any wrongdoing under the settlement and did not admit to being a “joint employer” of the contract staff. The BBC forwarded Shannon’s story to Google, but said they had nothing more to add. Adecco did not respond to a request for comment from the BBC.
Shannon doesn’t want to go back to a Google data center and ultimately wants to do a PhD in history. But she’s already contributed to the history books, a rare employee victory over a tech giant.
James Clayton is the BBC North American reporter based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @ jamesclayton5.