See the moment 43 unionized YouTube contractors got laid off

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A YouTube contractor was addressing the Austin City Council on Thursday, calling on them to urge Google to negotiate with his union, when a colleague interrupted him with jaw-dropping news: His 43-person team of contractors had all been laid off.

“I was speechless, shocked. I didn’t know what to do,” Jack Benedict, a YouTube data analyst who was addressing the city council, told The Washington Post. “But angered, that was the main feeling.”

The council meeting was streaming live online and has since spread on social media. The contractors view the layoff as retaliation for unionizing, but Google and information technology subcontractor Cognizant said it was the normal end of a business contract. The ability for layoffs to spread over social media highlights how the painful experience of a job loss is frequently being made public, from employees sharing recordings of Zoom meetings to posting about their unemployment.

The increasing tension between YouTube’s contractors and Google comes as massive layoffs continue to hit the tech industry — leaving workers uneasy and companies emboldened. Google already has had rounds of cuts the past two years.

Big Tech not done with layoffs as Google, Amazon announce cuts in 2024

Google has been in a long-running battle with many of its contractors as they seek the perks and high pay that full-time Google workers are accustomed to. The company has tens of thousands of contractors doing everything from food service to sales to writing code.

The YouTube workers, who work for Google and Cognizant, unanimously voted to unionize under the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA in April 2023. Since then, the workers say that Google has refused to bargain with them. Thursday’s layoff signifies continued tensions between Google and its workers, some of whom in 2021 formed a union.

Google maintains that Cognizant is responsible for the contractors’ employment and working conditions, and therefore isn’t responsible for bargaining with them. Cognizant said it is offering the workers seven weeks of paid time to explore other roles at the company and use its training resources.

Last year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Cognizant and Google are joint employers of the contractors. In January, the NLRB sent a cease-and-desist letter to both employers for failing to bargain with the union. Since then the issue of joint employment, which would ultimately determine which company is responsible for bargaining, has landed in an appeals court and has yet to be ruled on. The Alphabet Workers Union said Google has never negotiated with any of its two bargaining units. Google said it is not responsible for bargaining with the union of Cognizant workers.

“We have no objection to these Cognizant employees electing to form a union,” said Courtenay Mencini, a Google spokeswoman. “We simply believe it’s only appropriate for Cognizant, as their employer, to engage in collective bargaining.”

Cognizant did not comment on the workers’ claim that it refused to bargain with the union, but offered the following statement: “While we respect the right of our associates to unionize, our philosophy is that we work best together with direct open dialogue and collaboration,” said Bill Abelson, spokesman for Cognizant.

The team, which was responsible for ensuring that music content is available and approved for YouTube Music’s 80 million subscribers, unionized to fight for better pay and benefits. Workers say they don’t have sick pay, receive minimal benefits and are paid as little as $19 an hour, forcing some to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

The workers have participated in two strikes: A month-long stoppage in February 2023 over Cognizant’s return-to-office policy, which led to the departure of about 20 percent of the team, and a one-day pause in September over Google and Cognizant’s refusal to bargain. Following the strikes, workers were asked to train agents in India on how to do their jobs so that they could fill in during holidays or if workers ever went on strike, Benedict said.

Benedict thought Thursday was going to be a victorious moment, as the council was expected to vote in favor of a resolution supporting the workers. Instead, 10 minutes before the meeting, the workers were told by the council that the vote would be postponed, but that they would still be allowed to speak. During the speech, the team working at the office was called into a meeting and told that they no longer had jobs. They texted the workers at the council meeting to inform them.

“I don’t think they could’ve delivered the news at a worse time,” Benedict said. “It looks really bad for them.”

Sam Regan, a data analyst contractor for YouTube Music, was at the office when the layoff hit. The mood was suspicious, he said, as security guards joined a short morning meeting where company leaders “coldly” informed workers that their project was being cut. Workers had about 20 minutes to gather their belongings and leave the premises before they were considered trespassing.

Regan said he was one of the last to exit. Upon leaving, he heard one of the security guards call the non-emergency police line to report trespassers.

“It was really nasty,” he said. “It was simply one of the most dehumanizing experiences of my life.”

Workers say they’re shocked but plan to keep fighting.

“That [city council video] clip is circulating all over the place, and we’re seeing a lot of traction,” he said. “We’re not just going to sit back and let them do this.”

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