YouTube allegedly uses return-to-office rule to derail union organising effort

Treatment of contract workers has become a flashpoint for Alphabet, the owner of Google and its YouTube unit. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO – Google’s parent company Alphabet is illegally using return-to-office policies as a tool to try to derail YouTube contract workers from organising in Texas, a union alleged in a National Labour Relations Board complaint.

In the filing on Tuesday, the Alphabet Workers Union accused the tech giant and a staffing firm of responding to a YouTube unionisation campaign by announcing new stricter rules. Under the restrictions, set for February, refusing to return to the local office in Austin will be considered “job abandonment” and “voluntary termination”, the union said.

The policy change will punish workers who have grown accustomed to doing their jobs remotely and falls especially hard on employees who live outside the area, many of whom are pro-union, the group said. The complaint also alleges that a supervisor made implied anti-union threats and that management has been transferring work to offices in other places – including India – in an attempt “to chill the union organising effort” by the Texas staff.

Treatment of contract workers has become a flashpoint for Alphabet – the owner of Google and its YouTube unit – which relies heavily on staffing firms to meet its labour needs. Contract employees became the majority of the company’s global workforce in 2018, and Alphabet Workers Union has been trying to organise both direct and subcontracted staff.

Tuesday’s complaint was filed against both the staffing vendor managing the workers, Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp, and Alphabet itself, which the union contends is a “joint employer” – a company that exercises enough control over workers to be legally responsible for their treatment and is obligated to negotiate if they do vote to unionise.

Cognizant said on Tuesday that its return-to-office policy has been “communicated repeatedly and consistently to all of its associates since December 2021” long before workers petitioned to unionise.

“The small number of associates who voluntarily left the Austin area and are unable or unwilling to return have the opportunity to be considered for assignments on other client projects at Cognizant,” spokesman Jeff DeMarrais said in a statement. “There is simply no merit to these claims.”

Alphabet didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alphabet has denied being a joint employer of the YouTube contract workers. “These have not been and are not our employees,” company attorney Aaron Agenbroad said at a November NLRB hearing about the unionisation petition, according to a transcript obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The AWU, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, petitioned in October to represent the group of about 60 YouTube staff, saying the vast majority of them had signed up to join.

The workers’ jobs include ensuring videos are correctly labelled and looking into requests from users of YouTube Music. The team has been working remotely since early 2020, longer than most employees have worked there, and the announcement of the return-to-office push was abrupt, according to the union.

“Suddenly when we say, ‘Hey, we’re going to unionise,’ it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s get back to office,’” said YouTube worker Neil Gossell, an activist with the union campaign. “So the timing on that seems really suspect.”

In its statement, Cognizant said the employees “were fully aware of the intention to return to the office prior to the filing of a petition.”

“All associates working on this project were hired with the understanding that the jobs were based in an Austin office location,” Cognizant’s DeMarrais said.

If AWU successfully persuades the NLRB that Alphabet is a joint employer of the YouTube workers – and then prevails in a unionisation vote – the internet company itself would be required to formally negotiate with the union for the first time. 

Telework policies have been a contentious pandemic-era issue at all sorts of businesses, and the CWA has filed NLRB complaints against other employers for allegedly failing to fairly negotiate over it. Last spring, a group of Cognizant employees working on Google Maps in Washington state, who haven’t formally unionised but are organising with AWU, threatened to go on strike over a return-to-office deadline they said was unsafe. According to the union, Cognizant then extended the deadline by 90 days. BLOOMBERG

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