Google terminated its entire unionized YouTube Music team as the workers were testifying to City Council about why they need higher pay

Rather than meeting employees at the bargaining table, Google decided to do what could be described as the equivalent of hucking the table into the sky. This week, YouTube Music workers who were recently locked in a tense union fight with Google were laid off while in the middle of testifying before Austin City Council.

In a video of the testimony, Jack Benedict spoke of their unionization efforts, explaining that a group of less than 50 was determined to fight two of the largest corporations in the world (Google and its subcontractor Cognizant). During the speech, another employee approaches and says “They just laid us all off. Our jobs are ended today, effective immediately.” Benedict, visibly shocked, responds “wow,” and they leave the podium as they’re told their time is up.

This all comes in light of a year-long fight, after a group of 58 employees on the YouTube Music Content Operations Team unanimously voted to unionize as part of the Alphabet Workers Union last spring, in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), per a press release by Austin City Council Members. Employes spoke of the need for better pay, benefits, and a more flexible return-to-office policy. 

The news of Google laying off the YouTube Music team broke before the results of an Austin City Council vote on a resolution calling for Google and Cognizant to negotiate with the YouTube Music Content Operations Team. The resolution passed 9-1. 

“While workers were at city hall testifying, they received word that their team had been laid off. Instead of getting the chance to stay and celebrate the passage of their resolution they instead needed to leave to go retrieve their personal belongings from their office,” according to an Austin City Council press release. “Many of the workers feel they could lose their homes due to the sudden and unexpected layoff, which some of them believe could be retaliation for standing up today.”

The dark side of tech

Employees unionized as part of the larger fight for better pay and benefits and petitioned Google to come to the table for negotiations, but the software company had refused. The company has claimed that because the employees are contractors, Google is not responsible for bargaining; instead, the contractor, Cognizant, is. But the NLRB has said otherwise, ruling Google and Cognizant as joint employers of YouTube Music workers.

The NLRB has ruled that Google’s refusal to bargain with YouTube Music workers is illegal. The board also introduced a new rule this December that would “make it even harder for companies like Google to argue they aren’t responsible for dealing with unionization efforts by third-party contractors,” according to the Verge. 

Indeed, in a statement to Fortune, a Google spokesperson says that the Austin-based unionized workers are “not Google employees. Cognizant is responsible for these workers’ employment terms, including staffing.” They add that they “have no objections to Cognizant employees electing to form a union. We simply believe it’s only appropriate for Cognizant, as their employer, to engage in collective bargaining,” and say that Google will be appealing the NLRB’s ruling that stated otherwise.

Google also denied that it fired the YouTube Music workers, saying this was a routine end of contract “which was agreed to with Cognizant.”

Still, as a former employee noted, the NLRB has twice ruled that Google and Cognizant are joint employers of these contractors and that Google has illegally changed working conditions without contacting the union. 

Alphabet Workers Union directed Fortune to its public statement on the issue, which mentioned how many employees were forced to work multiple gigs to make ends meet and were unable to meet the mandate to work in person as they were “not paid enough to afford the associated expenses with in-person work, like gas and childcare costs.” They also highlighted a quote from the regional director of the NLRB in Fort Worth, Texas, from last year’s ruling that found the contractors were employed by both Alphabet and Cognizant. “Google exercises direct and immediate control over benefits, hours of work, supervision and direction of work,” said the regional director.

An employee who had worked at YouTube Music for three years opened up about how the tech job was not as cushy as it’s often stereotyped to be. “Truth of the matter is, we get paid $19 an hour here with awful benefits that come out of our paycheck and [we had] a restrictive PTO policy,” they said in an Instagram post. “This is simply not enough to live with any kind of comfortability in this city which is, across the board, significantly increasing its average cost of living year by year.” Adding that the group unionized to change these conditions and pay, the employee notes that the gig was easier when working remotely as they could save money by skipping a commute and making food at home. 

“Google and Cognizant have profited immensely off of our labor and consequently -for lack of a better word- fucked us,” says the employee, adding that while leaving the headquarters after the abrupt firing, “members of HR physically assaulted our coworkers to remove them from the premises as they packed their personal items, leaving bruises and scratch marks.”

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