Gwin combines the story of the challenges facing labor unions in the 21st century and workforce realities with a deeply personal exploration of his own relationship to work and his struggles as a single parent.
By Jody DiPerna
Ben Gwin writes. He writes beautifully, with specificity and insight. He is also a single dad. And, like most of us, he works a job separate from all of that so he can pay his mortgage and buy groceries and keep the lights and the wifi on. In the spring of 2018, Gwin took a job with a company which contracted with Google. That meant he would be working out of the Google facilities in East Liberty. It also meant a pay cut. Gwin was told he’d get raises to bring him up to his previous salary and it seemed like a more reliable gig–steadier, more permanent.
Almost immediately, he regretted it.
First, and most importantly, the pay wasn’t going to cut it and the raises weren’t coming. He had no bargaining power. He was living in financial precarity and wondering what the future looked like for him and his daughter.
So he did the only thing he could do: Gwin began the long, arduous process of organizing with other workers to form a union.
His book, “Team Building: A Memoir About Family and the Fight for Workers’ Rights,” released today by Belt Publishing, is about the struggles of single parenthood and what it takes to organize in an atmosphere hostile to workers’ rights. Written with clarity and drive, it provides a how-to guide to unionizing, as Gwin gets into the nitty-gritty of the hurdles and landmines obstructing the path to collective bargaining.
Gwin worked for HCL Technologies, a third-party vendor who had a contract with Google. So he worked at the Google offices, but not for Google.
“Google is one of the most prolific in-sourcers of third-party employees. About half the workforce is not technically Google employees,” Gwin said. “But it’s like that’s everywhere.”
HCL stressed the fact that they were not Google employees and strongly implied a caste system within the building during orientation. Gwin writes that he was told: “Don’t ask your Google program manager for anything. Don’t ever talk to your Google supervisor. Don’t talk to Google employees.” And “Don’t walk too fast past Googlers. Don’t talk too loud near Googlers.”
Gwin said the atmosphere was “brutal.”
Management’s response to most of Gwin’s requests for help and guidance amounted to little more than the shrug emoji. The policies guiding his day to day work life, salary and benefits felt, “convoluted, unnecessarily restrictive, and unevenly applied,” as he wrote.
“Our bosses were a bunch of bootlickers trying to kiss up to the Google middle managers,” he said. He also said that having worked all kinds of jobs through the years, from other office work to free-lance writing to working in restaurants, never did he feel as patronized as he did there.
The siloing off of actual Google employees from third-party contract employees was a tactic, as far as Gwin is concerned. He writes that his managers portrayed the full-time Googlers as holier than thou and that they complained about the contract workers. But more likely, those employees had no idea what HCL employees earned or what was asked of them during their work day and he says that once communication began opening up, there were supportive empathic and progressive folks working at Google.
He started taking copious notes and writing during this time period. He wasn’t planning on writing a book, but he needed to keep his sanity in the best way he knows how — by simply writing.
As a culture, we’re bad at talking about money. People don’t tell each other what they earn at work. On top of that, Gwin was told by his supervisors at HCL not to discuss salary, even with his co-workers. Also, that there was no overtime pay under any circumstance. The downright secrecy around money benefits only those at the top of the capitalist pecking order, according to Gwin.
“I think more people need to talk about it in general, so that people know what they’re getting and what they’re worth. Even if you can’t collectively bargain, at least you can negotiate, right?”
There is a matter of factness to Gwin’s writing in “Team Building.” He writes about a job that, in some ways, isn’t so bad. He likely won’t get killed on the job. This isn’t dangerous work in the way of more industrial, dirtier work, but in a lot of other ways, it just flat out stinks and the financial divide between the workers and bosses is a huge chasm.
“Obviously, I’m not gonna die at my desk job as you will in a steel mill. But it’s similar in that regard as far as — we can make the boss so much more money than we’re getting paid. So why don’t we get more of it? It’s not fair,” he said.
It’s important to point out that Gwin, and his colleagues were working at a company where there was little flexibility in terms of sick days or personal time off, all while living within the very tightest financial margins. (This was all pre-COVID, which is to say, before remote work became a more common practice.)
So, he and a co-worker reached out to the United SteelWorkers. Then they got to work talking to other co-workers to begin the process of forming a union. Like Daisy Pitkin’s 2022 book, “On the Line,” Gwin gives readers an insider’s view of the long hours of strategic planning, time spent explaining how a union works to other workers and meeting the other benchmarks required to establish a union.
His organizing work took time away from his daughter, whose mother had just passed away. He had a lot on his plate and he writes about feeling inadequate to all of the tasks. Still, he felt strongly that the success of the union was the only way to carve out some financial stability for his family.
“I can’t both be broke and have no time — I need one or the other,” Gwin said.
The HCL workers were eventually successful — they got enough people to sign on to force a vote and then they won the vote, forming a union of tech workers under the umbrella of the United SteelWorkers. They finally ratified a contract in July of 2021.
It took that long to form a union, from the spring of 2018 to summer of 2021. This is not work for the faint of heart and workers should know that the process is a marathon, not a sprint. This is what Gwin does so beautifully in “Team Building,” and what he hopes will be the takeaway for readers — he walks them through the process of workers organizing to fight for better pay and better conditions.
“The ultimate dream scenario is that people — that really just one person reads it and feels like, I should start a union at my job. And they do,” Gwin said. “Yeah. That would be amazing.”
Ben Gwin’s book launch is scheduled for Saturday, June 24th at 7:00 at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield. He will be joined by Daisy Pitkin, author of “On the Line: Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union.” Gwin will also read at White Whale on Friday, June 23rd as part of Belt Magazine’s 10th Anniversary celebration.
This article has been republished by the generosity of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Jody DiPerna lives, reports and writes from her home in Pittsburgh. She is an award winning
journalist and one of the founders of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Currently,
she is researching a book about the importance of reading, writing and literary life in Appalachia for West Virginia University Press. She conducted one of her finest interviews in a rural laundromat.