The Austin Chronicle

YouTube Music Workers Laid Off in Possible Retaliation for Organizing

City Council lends support

By Lina Fisher, March 8, 2024, News

At last week’s City Council meeting, a group of local unionized Google contractors were preparing to speak on a resolution from Council Member Zo Qadri that would send a formal message from Council in support of their negotiation efforts. As they took the podium, Katie-Marie Marschner got a text from a colleague at the office: The entire team had been laid off, effective immediately. She informed her colleague on the podium (captured in a clip that has since gone viral), and when she got back to the office to pick up her things, she says she was met with hostility from HR, who told her she was trespassing before calling police.

*Cognizant, the subsidiary of Google that employs the team, disputes that the job losses of several dozen people on the YouTube Music team can be considered layoffs, because the workers’ contract ended at its planned expiration date. “A contract expired and the Austin-based employees are still Cognizant employees. Any other articulation of what happened is not accurate,” Cognizant spokesperson Jeff DeMarrais told the Chronicle. But workers told us that’s misleading. The contract had been renewed seamlessly behind the scenes three times since the project started, and there was no warning that this time, the contract would be allowed to expire, said Sam Regan, one of the laid-off employees. Now, unless former YouTube Music workers are hired for a new project within Cognizant, their pay and benefits will stop in seven weeks.

Since a group of 40 YouTube Music workers voted to join the Alphabet Workers Union early last year, the union has filed nine unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for Google’s refusal to bargain and other apparent retaliations. Google’s contention is that they aren’t really the employer, because YouTube Music workers are technically hired by Cognizant. The NLRB has ruled that Cognizant and Google are indeed joint employers, but the tech giant refuses to accept that and is appealing the decision in federal court.

The workers’ cause has been supported nationally by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Greg Casar, but it seems Google’s powerful influence still sways Council. Right before workers were set to speak on Qadri’s resolution, they were informed it had been pulled and postponed at Google’s request. After the public firing, Qadri placed the resolution back on the agenda. It passed 9-1-1, with Mackenzie Kelly voting no and Leslie Pool absent. Turns out, Kelly had worked to delay the vote at the request of Katharine McAden, head of public policy and external affairs for Google’s Southern U.S. region. An email obtained by the Chronicle shows McAden contacted Council Tuesday reminding them how Google has “invested heavily in the Austin-area, supporting local initiatives, and working to effectively grow workforce opportunities.” During the meeting, Kelly explained her refusal to support the resolution, saying “the city should refrain from intervening in the affairs of private companies.”

The rest of Council disagreed: Qadri wrote in a statement post-vote that “Austin is a union city, and as the sponsor of this resolution, I will always stand with labor. What happened today was unconscionable ... those workers were paid below living wage in Austin, despite working for a multi-billion dollar Fortune 100 company. And now, without warning, they’ve lost their jobs.”

Over the weekend, workers met with their organizer to discuss next steps. “We’re looking at the full range of legal options within the NLRB and elsewhere. We believe [this layoff] to be an illegal act of retaliation,” Regan said. In the meantime, the workers have been placed on “the bench,” a tech industry concept similar to severance. The team will continue to receive their existing pay and benefits for seven weeks and are encouraged to apply for other positions within Cognizant. *Cognizant says that thousands of people have been hired from the bench company-wide, but Regan and Marschner say they’ve heard from other laid off union members that they weren’t able to find good work through the bench, and they aren’t keen to continue working for this company anyway. For the last year, their team had been training another one in India, “mirroring ours in terms of size and division of labor. We watched it happen and knew something was awfully fishy about it. And once that team was built up enough, they fired us.”

Nationally, a new NLRB rule that took effect in December makes it easier for contract workers to unionize – a powerful tool against tech giants that rely on third-party employers. Under the rule, a company is considered an employer if they control working conditions like pay and scheduling. However, even under the much more conservative previous Trump-era rule, the NLRB still sided with the workers. As Google’s appeal is heard by the federal court, Regan says “it’ll be really interesting to see how this [new rule] plays out. I know a lot of people are watching.”

Editor' Note Thursday, March 7, 11:44am: *This story has been updated to include statements from Cognizant, and to correct the number of votes for the related resolution. It was 9-2,

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