4,000 Google cafeteria workers quietly unionized during the pandemic

The tech giant is known for its free lunches for employees. The people who make those lunches have joined unions en masse.



Google is famous for its cafeterias, which serve its legions of programmers and product managers everything from vegan poke to gourmet tacos — free. But the cooks and servers behind those meals are generally contractors who work for other companies, and do not get the generous perks and benefits reserved for Google employees. So over the past few years, thousands of them have unionized, securing higher wages, retirement benefits and free platinum health care coverage.


Unite Here, a 300,000-member union of hotel and food service workers, has been steadily working to unionize Silicon Valley cafeteria workers since 2018, experiencing the most success at Google. Employed by the contract companies Compass and Guckenheimer, those unionized now make up about 90 percent of total food services workers at Google, according to the union. Workers have unionized at 23 Google offices nationwide, including in Seattle and San Jose.


Now, the union is tackling new territory: the South. On Wednesday, Google workers in Atlanta employed by a different cafeteria company — Sodexo — presented their manager with a list of demands and said they plan to unionize.


Unionizing workers outside of major coastal cities and in the South may be a tougher sell, where union membership is the lowest in the United States and labor laws are generally weaker. Around 6 percent of workers in Georgia are unionized, compared with 18 percent in California and 24 percent in New York, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although inflation and housing prices have pushed up the cost of living nationwide, prices are still generally lower in the South than in large coastal cities.


On Friday, Sodexo and the union reached an agreement: Should a majority of workers choose to unionize, Sodexo would not try to block it.


“We are hopeful that we can quickly reach an agreement on a union contract that will bring these workers up to the same good standard enjoyed by union food workers at other Google cafeterias nationwide,” said D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here.


Sodexo has many unionized workplaces across the country, said Jane Dollinger, a spokeswoman for the company. “We believe there is a path forward through negotiations to address the differences in wages and benefits.”


“We have many contracts with both unionized and nonunion suppliers, and 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,” Google spokeswoman Courtenay Mencini said.


“Our company has a heritage of fairness, equality, and inclusion. We recognize protected labor rights and maintain a neutral position with respect to union participation,” said Guckenheimer spokesman Peter Mikol. “We honor and respect the decision that many employees made 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 nothing for health insurance and has access to a pension plan. At Sodexo-run Google cafeterias, workers make $15 an hour and pay premiums in the hundreds of dollars, Taylor said.


“It’s a cool place to work at. The downside of that is the wages we’re getting, the amount of work they are requesting,” said Aaron Henderson, a 40-year-old cafeteria worker at Google’s Atlanta office who performs a variety of tasks including cleaning the kitchen, making fresh pizza dough and prepping the salad bar. He supports a family of three, including a daughter who is about to head to college.


“I love the job,” he said. “We all get along. It’s too bad that we’re just underpaid and overworked.”


Housing prices in Atlanta have risen around 18 percent in the past year, according to the real estate platform Zillow, although prices in the city remain lower than in New York or the San Francisco Bay area.


Tens of thousands of the workers who make their living at Google are employed by contract companies. They’re known internally as “TVCs” — temporary, vendor or contractors, and their ranks encompass all sorts of jobs, including cafeteria workers, content moderators, designers, programmers and security guards. Similar dynamics play out at other tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter.


Tech companies have brought enormous wealth to the cities in which they’re based, especially the San Francisco Bay area. Housing prices have shot up over the past decade, pushing many people out and causing security guards, cafeteria workers and shuttle bus drivers to make long commutes to work in jobs that serve tech workers.


“We wanted to focus in on the tech companies because they clearly have been very beneficial to certain workers,” Taylor said. “We didn’t think that should be confined to white collar workers.”


Other groups also have worked on that goal. The Alphabet Workers Union, a group of full-time Google employees and TVCs, officially formed in 2021 to try to make wages and benefits more equal between the two groups. The AWU is not an official union that has gone through the government certification process.


Silicon Valley Rising, a group of union and worker advocacy organizations, also campaigns for better wages and cheaper housing in the San Francisco Bay area.


A tight labor market combined with soaring inflation and pandemic-related safety concerns among front line workers triggered a surge in filings this year to hold workplace union elections. Tens of thousands more workers voted to join unions in the first half of this year than in the first six months of 2021, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Law. Workers also have voted to unionize for the first time at Chipotle, Trader Joe’s and the recreation equipment maker REI — citing concerns related to safety and low wages.


More than 230 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since last year, triggering tough opposition from the company, which recently was accused by the National Labor Relations Board of illegally withholding raises and benefits from union workers. And this year, the first Amazon warehouse and Apple Store voted to unionize.


Richard Ramirez, 33, who works at a Google office in Seattle receiving food shipments and making sure they’re stored safely, says he was skeptical when union representatives began approaching his colleagues.


“We had it relatively good,” Ramirez said. The $20 he made at Google was better than the $11 he made in a previous job that left him without enough money even to afford rent. Still, he was commuting over three hours a day because of the high cost of living in Seattle. He decided to support the union.


Now, he is paid $27 an hour, and the free health-care 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 unionized, I have bought a home and that was basically only possible because we unionized,” he said.