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A group of contractors who work for Google’s YouTube Music service are in their third week of picketing in Austin in what their union says is the first strike in the company’s history.
Their efforts have received attention and assistance from U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, as backers hope the strike will inspire more labor organizing in the tech sector.
Casar, a freshman lawmaker aligned with the progressive wing of his party, joined the protesters on the picket line Tuesday. He said he believes that “this group of 58 YouTube workers will inspire thousands more people long term.”
“There is a facade that tech workers are all making the big bucks,” Casar told The Texas Tribune. “And that’s simply not true. There’s enormous inequality in the tech sector, just like there is across the country. ”
The contractors on strike are employed by Cognizant Technology Solutions, which does work for Youtube Music, a subsidiary of Google, which is owned by parent company Alphabet Inc. They began striking on Feb. 3, three days before they were required to return to in-person work at their Austin headquarters.
The workers say the in-person mandate came in November, three weeks after the YouTube Music workers filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, drawing accusations of retaliation for their filing to unionize. But Cognizant says the order came down in December 2021.
Cognizant spokesperson Jeff DeMarrais said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that the company “respects the right of our associates to disagree with our policies, and to protest them lawfully” but said it was “disappointing” that workers have chosen to strike. He also said workers accepted their jobs knowing they were in-office positions and that Cognizant is “the sole employer of these employees, not Google or YouTube.”
In a statement to the Tribune, a Google spokesperson said they “respect” the individuals’ rights to be a part of a union but stated that “Cognizant is responsible for these workers’ employment terms.”
Still, the Alphabet employees union has rallied around their cause and urged Google workers to express their support.
Striking employees say the in-person work mandate is unfeasible for many, according to Neil Gossell, a music generalist for YouTube Music who said he has to stay home to care for his wife with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said many of his other co-workers live out of state or cannot afford to live in Austin on their $19-an-hour salary.
“We’re so upset about how we’ve been treated and how we don’t feel like we have any representation in our workplace,” Gossell said.
Gossell also believes their efforts have found new momentum after Casar and Sanders penned a letter to Alphabet’s and Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, expressing their “serious concern regarding alleged retaliation taken against YouTube Music workers who are exercising their legal right to organize.”
“That’s huge that our message is spreading,” Gossell said. “That’s part of what keeps us so driven and focused.”
Casar marched with striking workers through downtown Austin on Tuesday, helping carry a banner declaring that YouTube workers were on strike and joining in on chants. He said he was particularly concerned about the allegations of retaliation against union-organizing efforts.
“This has less to do with a return-to-office policy or not,” he said, “and more to do with not retaliating against workers who are just asking for a union and asking for some respect and decent wages after helping support Google’s large corporate network.”
Emily Whetstone, who is on the rights management team at YouTube Music and who has helped organize her co-workers, said that those who have joined in the strike remain determined.
“We are tired, but we’re optimistic,” Whetstone said. “It’s a good tired, because we know we’re fighting for something that we believe in. And we’ve made it so far.”
The workers submitted a letter in January to Cognizant CEO Ravi Kumar requesting that he stick to what they said were his previous statements of supporting flexible work options. His lack of response led to the workers filing an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB, which eventually led them to strike.
“We felt like we had no other choice,” Whetstone said. “From their behavior, it just seemed like the right next step to get our voices heard.”
The Alphabet Workers Union is working to use the strike to energize Google employees around the country. Workers also rallied in New York City this week in support of the Austin strike. Casar and multiple workers interviewed said that workers across the company have begun to call for better conditions. Earlier this month, workers stood outside of Google’s New York City office to rally against Alphabet firing 12,000 employees in January. Additionally, Google Raters, who are charged with training, testing and evaluating Google’s algorithms, handed in a petition asking for better working conditions since they are excluded from Alphabet minimum benefits.
Those on strike in Austin are awaiting a decision by the NLRB for a union election to take place. The group of workers put YouTube Music Content Operations and Alphabet Inc. down as joint employers on their filing for a union.
Those on strike, like Gossell, maintained that they will not stop until both Cognizant and Google come to the negotiating table to hear their demands or there is a ruling made by the NLRB.
“It’s scary, because [striking is] not something that I think me or very many people in my generation have been brought up to do,” Gossell said. “[But] we’re not going to stop, we’re not going to stop until we have some sort of resolution.”
Disclosure: Google has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.