YouTube Music Workers Call Strike Against Local Contractor
Cognizant’s return-to-office order viewed as possible union-busting tactic
On a windy Monday in front of the headquarters of Cognizant, a contractor with YouTube Music's parent company Google (in turn a subsidiary of Alphabet), around 40 Alphabet Workers Union members were picketing. YouTube Music's Content Operations team, which provides day jobs for many Austin musicians, has been organizing for 10 months under the banner of the AWU (which has about 1,300 members nationwide) and filed for a union election in October. This is the first known strike in Google's history.
A week later, Cognizant issued a return-to-office mandate for Feb. 6, which Sam Regan, a Cognizant employee and AWU member, says is illegal: "When you file for a union election, [in] the period between filing [and the election] it's illegal for an employer to change working conditions in any significant way. This prevents them from bribing people with increased pay, etc."
The AWU filed an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board in response to the RTO demand, and has been "escalating actions" with petitions, an email campaign, and direct communication with Cognizant's human resources team, to no avail, resulting in "the ultimate action, which is to go on strike and withhold our labor. Our demand is to have them postpone return-to-office until after the election, so that we can collectively bargain with them in good faith."
Regan says RTO would translate into a significant pay cut for many employees, who already work extra jobs to make ends meet. "A ton of us live outside of Austin, and starting pay for my job as a music generalist is $19 an hour," says Regan. "Workers across the country are getting squeezed by cost-of-living increases and inflation, and it's especially bad in Austin."
Mariah Stevens-Ross, who's also in the local band Sailor Poon, continues, "I can't survive off of just the salary [at Cognizant], living in this city. But by going back to the office, I wouldn't be able to work my other jobs that I do to support myself. So it's just not an option." Similarly, Greg Mobley, who flew in from Florida to lend support, produces for Atlantic Records in addition to his work with YouTube Music; he says those kinds of opportunities to supplement his income would be missed if he had to return to office.
"We see this RTO order as a form of union busting, an attempt to disrupt our ability to organize, and effectively lay people off that are pro-union and potentially replace them with people that haven't been organized," says Regan. Indeed, Stevens-Ross told the Chronicle one of the options provided by management was to transfer to a different department within Cognizant, which would preclude them from voting in the union election. Sam Paulson, who came from Chicago to join the picket, says management told him his only option if he doesn't return to office is to be "voluntarily terminated."
In a statement, Cognizant told the Chronicle that "associates working on this project accepted their employment with the understanding that they were accepting in-office positions … at a physical location based in Austin" and that the policy had been "repeatedly" communicated to them since December 2021.
Regan says Google's "two-tiered" workforce, made up of full-time employees and "TVCs," or temps, vendors, and contractors, is a "trick for shareholders" – Google can save money by paying TVCs less and still report fewer employees, thus improving their revenue-to-employee ratio. "We clock in and out on Cognizant timesheets, and they're HR, but everything else is Google," says Regan.
Regan is optimistic about the team's election prospects: "We had about 85% of our department sign authorization cards. I think our showing here with the strike, growing camaraderie, very strong public support, has been pretty incredible. But this unfair labor practice that our employer is committing threatens our ability to organize. About 20% of our workforce lives out of state, but most of us here are from Austin. We all want to work from home too, but we're especially motivated to be out here to protect the livelihoods of our friends who absolutely cannot."