Google Axes Unionized YouTube Music Workers

alphabet workers union on strike for cognizant youtube music contractors

Last Thursday, Feb. 29, a group of YouTube music workers testified to the city council in Austin, Texas. The council was considering a resolution calling on Google to bargain with the workers, who had gone on strike in 2023.

One YouTube Music worker, Jack Benedict, was in the middle of issuing a statement in gratitude for the council when a coworker interrupted.

“To be supported by the city of Austin and also our allies in the labor community gives us the motivation to keep this fight going,” Benedict was saying. A coworker, Katie Marner, walked up to the podium to stop him.

“Not to interrupt, but they just laid us all off. They just laid us all off,” Marner said in a live stream of the event. “Our jobs are ended today. Effective immediately.” 

Marner’s coworker texted her that Google had apparently decided to end the workers’ contract abruptly. A troubling ensemble of Pinkerton guards and HR goons showed up at the workers’ office. They handed out cardboard boxes and told people to pack up their things. Access to email and the internet immediately shut down in the office.

“Everyone gets their paper box and starts packing. They have about 20 minutes to pack up. While under threat of having the cops called on them for trespassing,” Marner described in a video

As her coworkers were finishing packing, Marner says she returned to the office to collect her own things. At that point, Marner says the security agents told her she was trespassing.

Company reps said they would have to mail her things to her. One HR representative even ripped a box from her hand, leaving her bruised.

Though Google said in a statement to Passionfruit that the decision was due to the workers’ contract “routinely” coming to an end, the timing feels a little suspicious. To say the least.

A striking history of YouTube Music workers

That day, the council passed a 9-1 resolution to call on Google to bargain with the workers in “good faith.” “Now, many of the workers feel that they could lose their homes due to the sudden and unexpected layoff,” a statement from the Austin City Council reads, “which some of them believe could be retaliation for standing up today.”

Back in January 2024, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced a decision that Google, YouTube’s owner, illegally refused to bargain with these YouTube Music content operation workers after they went on strike in February 2023.

These workers voted to unionize in April 2023 with the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). The AWU is a 1,400+ member organization for employees of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

The group of workers included music experts, writers, graphic designers, and content launch coordinators. According to a press release from the AWU, the workers were responsible for “ensuring music content is available and approved for YouTube Music’s 80 million subscribers worldwide.” Many were creators and musicians who contracted with the company for their day jobs, according to the Austin Chronicle.

The AWU filed a complaint on behalf of these workers with the NLRB. The NLRB is the the federal agency that protects employees’ rights to collectively bargain for better working conditions and wages.

The AWU argued that Google violated federal labor laws prohibiting employers from retaliating against their employees for organizing efforts. Specifically, after the workers unionized, Google implemented a suspicious return-to-office mandate that forced many employees to “voluntarily terminate” their jobs. 

Google’s response

Google hired the workers in conjunction with a subcontractor called Cognizant. Google has been trying to appeal the NLRB’s decision. It argues it is not the technical “employer” of these particular workers. And, therefore, it is not responsible for bargaining with them.

It echoed these sentiments in a statement for Passionfruit, saying, “As we’ve shared before, these are not Google employees. Cognizant is responsible for these workers’ employment terms, including staffing.”

However, the NLRB ruled Google is these workers’ “joint employer.” This is due to the level of control Google has over the employees’ working conditions. For example, the AWU accuses Google of influencing a recent decision to revoke the workers’ sick pay.

This situation with Cognizant wasn’t the first time a major tech platform got into hot water over issues with a subcontracting company. In November 2023, another group of 120 contractors, who were tech employees connected to YouTube through subcontractor Accenture, voted to unionize. They have been facing similar legal challenges by Google over whether or not the company is technically considered their “joint employer.”

I wrote more about this “joint employer” distinction here. But if you want my TLDR, simply know it’s a way for Google to distance itself from its responsibilities over these workers. 

A troubling trend

One of the reasons I think it’s important for creators (and everyone else) to pay attention to these stories is that the NLRB is currently under attack. SpaceX, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s are all trying to argue that the 88-year-old institution is “unconstitutional.”

These latest moves from these corporations go far beyond the typical union-busting tactics. They are an attempt to tear down the foundations of post-New Deal American labor law — like the Federal Trade Commission Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, and Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

In short, all the federal laws that protect workers from being taken advantage of.

If this sounds concerning, it is. So, while this latest fight for YouTube Music contractors may seem like an isolated incident far away from your personal concerns, I’d urge you to support their fight. Learn more about how these issues could impact you and the people you love.

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