Google parent Alphabet should officially be considered the “joint employer” of a crew of scrappy YouTube Music contract workers, according to a new ruling from a National Labor Relation Board official. That means the Austin, Texas-based group of around 60 workers currently vying to organize with the Alphabet Worker Union (AWU) may soon be able to negotiate with Google’s parent company to receive the benefits and pay afforded to full-time employees.
If successful, these negotiations could serve as an inflection point for the scores of other low-wage contract workers responsible for keeping other large tech companies afloat. Google, which intends to appeal the ruling, claims Cognizant, its subcontractor, should be considered the worker’s sole employer.
In his 15-page ruling, Fort Worth-Based NLRB regional director Timothy Watson said that Google “exercises direct and immediate control over benefits, hours of work, supervision and direction of work” of the YouTube contractors. To a lesser extent, the director said Google also exercises control over the workers’ wages by “setting minimum standards.”
“We are proud to win a precedent-setting victory not just for ourselves, but also for workers across the country, where technology companies in particular have innovated new ways to deny responsibility for their workers’ livelihoods through subcontracting, gig work, and other poor employment practices,” YouTube Music contract worker Sam Regan said in a statement.
In addition to the joint employment ruling, NLRB regional director Timothy Watson determined YouTube Music workers constitute a potential bargaining unit and should be given the opportunity to vote to officially join the union. Those workers were reportedly already paying dues to the AWU but did not officially have bargaining rights. The union, one of the first of its kind for a large multinational tech company like Alphabet, claims it has over 1,300 members ranging from full-time Google engineers to temporary employees and vendors.
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AWU Executive Chair Parul Koul accused Alphabet of operating a “multi-tiered employment system,” that lets the company oversee the labor for an army of contractors without providing then adequate pay or benefits.
“Alphabet employs more subcontractors than direct employees,” Koul said in a statement sent to Gizmodo. “This employment model allows them to profit billions every quarter while denying responsibility for tens of thousands of workers who are integral to that income.
A Google spokesperson, meanwhile, told Gizmodo they “strongly disagree” with the ruling and plan to appeal.
“We are confident the facts and law clearly support our position,” the spokesperson said. “We simply don’t control these workers’ employment terms or working conditions.”
YouTube Music contractors fight back
The ruling comes roughly six months after a supermajority of the Austin-based YouTube contract workers signed union cards and filed with the board to win union recognition. More than 40 of the workers went on strike last month over the company’s return-to-office policy, which they claim “threatens the livelihoods of workers.” Cognizant, the YouTube subcontractor, required workers to come into the office on February 6 even though nearly a quarter of them were reportedly working remotely outside of the state, Vice notes
“Workers are paid around $19 an hour and thus, cannot afford the relocation, travel or childcare costs associated with in person work,” the YouTube music workers wrote in a press release at the time.
If the NLRB’s Alphabet employment ruling is upheld, it will mark the second significant victory for the tech behemoth’s army of contractor workers in less than a week. Last week, around 5,000 Google contract workers testing the quality of the company’s search and advertising tools received raises upping their pay to $15 per hour following rallies and a petition from the AWU calling on Google to ensure its wage and benefits standard extend to the entirety of its workforce. All told, those wage increases reportedly led to, “millions in collective salary increases for workers.”
Correction 3/6/23, 2:46 P.M. EST: A previous version of this story said the AWU has more than 13,000 members when it actually has more than 1,300 members.