Nationwide, a historic flood of bipartisan funding for fiber broadband internet is now being unleashed at all levels of government in a bid to close America’s “digital divide”—the gap between those with and without high-speed internet that evermore determines families’ access to income, education, and even healthcare. In this context, a new report shared exclusively with the Observer seeks to draw Texans’ attention to an often-overlooked component of broadband expansion: the workers whose sweat will connect the country, who excavate and bore and trench and install and repair this increasingly taxpayer-funded and essential infrastructure. Are they being paid fairly? Are they safe on the job? Are they properly trained to avoid damaging the neighborhoods they labor in?
Prepared by the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a year-old nonprofit allied with the Texas AFL-CIO that promotes tackling the climate crisis through good union jobs, the study (website here) focuses on Google Fiber, which has been active in Austin since 2013 and San Antonio since 2015. The report homes in especially on the company’s contracting chain—the web of subcontractors that execute Google’s work in Texas. The Climate Jobs Project identified 46 Google Fiber subcontractors in Austin and San Antonio, then dug through government databases to find various violations and problems associated with the companies—issues that labor advocates say often stem from using non-union subcontractors who cut corners on safety and training.
The report found that the subcontractors used by Google Fiber in Austin and San Antonio had been linked to 29 federal safety violations and 65 federal transgressions around unpaid wages since 2016, along with 54 state Railroad Commission offenses—including infractions for improper digging and causing gas leaks—since 2015. These violations did not necessarily occur on Google Fiber worksites but were committed by the same companies used by Google Fiber, the report states.
The study also found that Austin had recorded 1,406 complaints to 311 referencing Google Fiber since 2015, including many for “landscaping damage,” and that Austin and San Antonio’s energy utilities had sent around two dozen complaints to Google subcontractors for issues including damage to utility lines. The report did not attempt to compare the level of violations to other comparable companies or to an average Texas contractor.
“The Climate Jobs report sheds great light on a broad problem of subcontracting in general,” said Harrison Hiner, a staffer in Austin focused on broadband for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a union whose members lay fiber broadband in Texas primarily for AT&T but not Google. “Companies often use subcontractors to cut their labor costs, which means having low wages, less investment in training, cutting corners on safety standards.”
In a statement, a Google Fiber spokesperson said the company “takes construction disruption and safety issues very seriously. When a problem arises we work with the local authorities or the property owner to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.”
Of the report’s findings, the Google spokesperson said that “without more information and comparative data, it’s difficult to draw any meaningful conclusion,” adding that the company works with contractors who employ subcontractors “with specific expertise to complete the job” and that it reviews “the comprehensive safety history of each vendor using a third party validator.”
Bo Delp, the Climate Jobs Project’s executive director, explained to the Observer that his group is focusing on fiber broadband because it’s part of the transition to a green economy: Studies have shown fiber is a dramatically more energy-efficient way to transmit data than traditional copper wire; plus, high-speed internet enables telecommuting and telemedicine in areas where people face long-distance drives for both. In Texas, the state with the nation’s largest rural population, broadband connectivity is worst in rural areas and in cities in poorer parts of the state like the Rio Grande Valley and East Texas.
“High-speed, reliable broadband is a social justice issue; it’s a climate justice issue; and it’s an economic justice issue because of the workers it takes to do it,” Delp said. “We don’t have to choose between making our economy more energy-efficient, expanding broadband in low-income communities, and ensuring that the workers responsible for that work have a good, safe job.”
Thanks to recent legislation, a torrent of money for broadband is coming down the pike from the federal government: In particular, the COVID-relief bill the American Rescue Plan Act furnished $10 billion and the more recent bipartisan infrastructure legislation another $65 billion, much of which is being filtered down to state and local governments. “This is, by far, historic-level funding in broadband,” said Hiner.
Earlier this month, the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced requirements for much of the infrastructure bill’s broadband funding, which include provisions that receiving states must consult with unions and that subcontractors must disclose their labor law compliance records—a move celebrated by CWA. In December, Governor Greg Abbott advised Texas agencies to carefully review requirements in the infrastructure bill before applying for funding.
At the state level, the Texas Legislature last year dedicated $5 million and created a new state office dedicated to planning broadband expansion in the Lone Star State after Abbott made the issue an emergency item for the legislative session. Local governments around the state are also elaborating plans for seeking and deploying broadband funds from an array of sources.
Both Hiner and Delp stressed that union workers are typically better trained and have more recourse to address issues like wage theft, and that government at all levels should require minimum labor standards to give contractors who treat workers well a fair shot in the bidding process.
In addition to compiling data about Google Fiber subcontractors, the Climate Jobs Project also interviewed a number of CWA workers in Texas. In a video recording, Manuel Antu, a premises technician in San Antonio, said: “The quality of work that you get from someone that has bargained for their position, that has fought for safety, that has fought for the training and proper procedures to make sure everything is given to us that’s necessary to complete the job, heavily outweighs a company that is just trying to make it to their next fiscal year.”