To afford living in Austin, Katie-Marie Marschner works two jobs in the music business: In addition to her gig as a tour manager, she earns $19 an hour working remotely 40 hours a week as a YouTube Music subject matter expert — poring over spreadsheets for errors in the company’s charts algorithm. To manage it all, she alternates between her YouTube Music “office computer” and her “fun computer.”
Marschner’s employment for YouTube Music is through Cognizant, an IT company that contracts with the Google-owned music streamer to supply staff. But after she and her coworkers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union election that would effectively unionize them, Cognizant is now mandating that all 58 employees report to work in Austin — even though Marschner and her colleagues say the company hired them with the understanding they’d work remotely, often outside the city. This kind of flexibility has allowed Marschner to travel on off-days as a tour manager and book hotels during her lunch breaks, and she says, “Returning to the office is completely unfeasible.”
Marschner and her colleagues see the new in-office mandate as a union-busting move: Rather than allow the workers to unionize, Cognizant is demanding they return to the office, and, presumably, will fire the workers who can’t. The remote employees – some of whom work far from Austin and even Texas – say they accepted their jobs years ago with the understanding they’d be able to work from home and accuse Cognizant of changing the terms after their union activity. In response, on Jan. 23, the workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the NLRB. Three weeks ago, the workers went on strike, marching last Tuesday to Google’s downtown Austin headquarters for a rally.
The division’s union movement caught the attention of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas). They wrote a Feb. 21 joint letter to the CEO of YouTube’s parent companies, Google and Alphabet, complaining the return-to-work announcement was an “anti-union posture” and requested the workers be “able to freely exercise their right to join a union as guaranteed by federal law.”
“These workers are inspiring people across the country,” Casar tells Billboard. “When the United Auto Workers started organizing at General Motors, their first strike was 50 workers. Soon enough, hundreds of thousands of autoworkers decided to join. That helped make auto-worker jobs stop being poverty-wage, dangerous jobs and made them into middle-class-family-sustaining jobs.”
A Google rep did not respond to inquiries, but a spokesperson has told reporters the striking workers are employees of Cognizant, not Google. Jeff Demarrais, a Cognizant spokesperson, sent a statement saying the company “respects the right of our associates to disagree with our policies, and to protest them lawfully,” adding that it is “disappointing” the workers decided to strike over a return-to-office policy the company has “communicated to them repeatedly” since December 2021. In an email, Demarrais accused the protesters of issuing “death threats” against other Cognizant employees and “blocked the office driveways with downed trees.”
Neil Gossell, who works for the striking YouTube Music division, calls the downed-tree claim a “flat-out lie,” saying a recent Austin ice storm was responsible for the blocked walkways. “I don’t know of any threats we made to anybody who chose to return to work,” says Gossell, a music generalist with YouTube Music who oversees “missing content” taken down due to copyright issues or missing artist names. “Sure, we’re frustrated with them, but we hope we can convince them into joining and help themselves have a better and fairer workplace.”
Gossell and Marschner are upset that Google, whom they see as their employer, has deferred to Cognizant. “I’ve gone through Google training. I go through their security training. I go through their ethics training…. [But] if we want to negotiate over pay, they say, ‘Pay is based on the contract we have with Google, so we can’t bargain over that.’” Marschner says.
The employees, affiliated with the Alphabet Workers Union, which has never held a strike, are awaiting National Labor Relations Board decisions on their election petition and the two Unfair Labor Practice complaints.
“It’s going to be a long labor movement, because we’re not stopping until we have a union,” Gossell says. Referring to recent union activity at Amazon, Disney and Tesla, he adds: “I’m not saying we’re the tip of the spear, but we’re part of something bigger that’s going on in America. All you have to do is pick up a history book to see how this ends.”
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