- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
On Friday, February 3, forty YouTube Music workers went on strike against Google and its subcontractor Cognizant over unfair labor practices (ULPs). Just a week after YouTube Music employees filed for an election to affiliate with the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), management issued a return-to-office mandate for the workers who had up until then been working remotely. Workers say the order infringes upon their right to organize freely and have a fair election. The strike is still ongoing.
YouTube Music is the fastest-growing music streaming platform with over eighty million subscribers, despite having a relatively small workforce. Three YouTube Music employees sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss their work, the unfair labor practices they’re facing, and their experience organizing a union.
Can you give us a brief overview of the strike?
We are a unit of sixty-one workers, most of whom were hired remotely and have never seen the office. We organized for about ten months before filing for our union election in October, and we are still waiting for an election date. A week after filing for a union election, our employers, Google and Cognizant — the contracting company — issued a return-to-office mandate for February 6.
We have since filed an unfair labor practice about that because it violates the status quo. It’s an act of union busting and retaliation as it threatens to lay off about 20 percent of our workforce [who work remotely and can’t return to office], the overwhelming majority of which is pro-union.
Our primary issues in organizing so far have been protecting work from home and wages and benefits. But since organizing the union, our vision has expanded, and we see ourselves as building toward a democratic workplace, creating a culture of care and support, and improving working conditions and dignity on the job. The culture that we’ve built organizing the union, especially remotely, is quite remarkable.
The widening of our union vision is breaking down some of the barriers that exist in the contracting world between full-time employees and contractors. That is one of the reasons we filed for joint employership with Cognizant and Google. Google has a reputation of paying their employees well, and when we say we’re YouTube Music workers, I think the immediate reaction may be, “Why are you guys complaining? You’re rich tech workers,” when, in reality, we are working-class people. We make nineteen dollars an hour working for the fastest-growing music streaming service in the world.
Most of your organizing was done virtually due to the pandemic. How did that work?
I had been working for the company for a little over a year before I even was aware that there was a union that we could be involved with. I’m not sure if it was everyone, or how complete the list that the AWU had was, but a lot of us got an email that we thought might have been a phishing attempt. It was this weird thing that popped up.
Sam attended a meeting, and he told me it was really legit and asked if I would attend the next one. At first it was just he and I meeting casually with an organizer. They were getting a feel for what our issues were in the workplace and what we think could be better, what could be improved on. It started off sort of slow, at first just reaching out to people we knew and felt comfortable with, and being afraid of reaching out to people we didn’t know. It was like a covert, secret-ops mission — we can’t let the boss find out, but we also want to see how our coworkers feel about it.
I haven’t thought about that in a while, but I’m still surprised at how successful we were at keeping it so quiet.
The idea was to keep it underground as long as possible up until we filed. That minimizes the amount of time that the employer has to try to bust the union.
Why do you think you were so successful organizing a campaign that was covert for so long?
I think our inoculation strategies were sound. We genuinely wanted to know where our coworkers were at with this job and hear their concerns before we started pushing our ideas of what the job could be. The responses were overwhelming. It was like, “I don’t want to go back to the office, and the pay is terrible.” “I have a second job,” “I have three jobs.” I think that’s what made it so easy.
We have this silly internal group chat at work called the Chicken Chat, and that alone was already 30 percent of the team. There was this secret group of people we could openly talk to; they’re actually close friends that we like to hang out with regularly. It was built-in support from almost a third of our shop, and then it grew rapidly from there. I think that was only possible because the pay and the return-to-office mandate were widely and deeply felt issues.
What is it like working at YouTube Music?
Music content ops is essentially maintaining, analyzing, and improving the quality of the data present on YouTube Music to ensure that it is presented accurately across the entire platform. My personal job is to give the little check notes of verification to match official artist channels. So when an artist comes to us with their official YouTube page, we match it with their back-end discography, and we make sure that if they’ve had multiple distributors over their career, all of those releases are consolidated onto one complete page. We ensure the quality of the artists’ discography is accurate, and we’ll also research other alternate channels. But for the most part, it is a solitary job. There’s no need to do it in an office, which is a big issue for a lot of us.
It’s sort of formulaic, but at the same time, we have a strong shared cultural background. We’re not computer scientists, and we’re not traditional tech workers. They specifically hired musicians and music-industry workers for the project, so you’ve got a mix of singers, songwriters, bands, composers, tour managers, and people that have done music-licensing stuff.
The majority of us are in Austin and quite plugged into the local music scene, but it’s expanded to people outside of the state as well. This cultivates a fun work culture. Everyone is really funny and says weird shit and we’re able to learn about music from a bunch of different perspectives. And that brings people together like music is supposed to.
The data that we work with is mostly cleaned up by an algorithmic process — it’s machine-learning driven — and then we provide human oversight for analyzing this data by picking up on things that computers can’t. It’s sort of hidden labor. The platforms for streaming services often have this clean, minimalist aesthetic, and so when using this technology, you might think it all just runs by itself. Before I started working at Google, I imagined that all of Google was a council of ten wizard software engineers that create everything, and then it all runs on itself. But Google’s total workforce is about two hundred thousand people. And with YouTube Music or even just Google Search, there are hidden workers ensuring it runs.
The actual work itself is very isolated. We have a rate per hour, so there’s these metrics where maybe there’s a queue of a thousand bugs on the platform that we need to fix. But you as an individual need to do seventeen of those an hour. So it’s very noncollaborative.
If it can be done remotely, why are they trying to force you guys back to the office?
We believe that the return-to-office mandate is an act of union busting — retaliation against our organizing efforts, and an attempt to chill our union drive. The return-to-office date was announced one week after we filed, and our employer has sent out messages acknowledging that one of our central aims with the union is to fight a return to office.
I don’t think we will ever know exactly why Google and Cognizant want teams such as ours in the office; we can speculate about control, real estate considerations, a mistaken belief that it would enhance morale . . . but what is most important is that Cognizant and Google are breaking the law by violating “status quo” during this election period and ignoring the preferences and needs of nearly everyone on the team.
People might think of rail or shipyard workers — traditional blue-collar jobs — when we talk about unions. But you all are organizing a union in the music-tech space. How does that impact your organizing experience or how you think of it?
Our job requires that you have music-industry experience. It ends up being a lot of musicians; there’s all kinds of people in bands. I’m a tour manager. A lot of people associate Austin with music — it’s been called the live music capital of the world. But most artists have to be a barista or work a tech job by day. Even though it’s such a cultural hub — we have South by Southwest and Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Since our city is described as this entertainment hub, you would think that the entertainers can make a decent living. We have over two hundred music venues in our city, but musicians really struggle. The pay is not very high for a gig unless you’re a nationally touring artist or something where you can leverage your statistics to earn better pay. So we are a group of people who already feel exploited, where the city makes millions of dollars off of us, but we struggle to pay rent or afford childcare.
We are a group of people who are already exploited for their passion. So, to get a tech job, you think, “Cool, this could be a stable job.” That’s certainly how I felt. I was excited to have a stable paycheck and health benefits — but after insurance and taxes, I’m making like fifteen or sixteen dollars an hour, and I’m still broke. What the hell?
After talking to the union, we began to understand that maybe Google is willing to pay us x amount, but after whatever Cognizant takes off the top, it ends up being nineteen dollars an hour before taxes. We began to understand how working through a contract company for Google ends up further exploiting workers, and there are potentially benefits and pay that we’re not getting. That helped us realize what kind of changes we might be able to create with a union — changes that will not only benefit us, but any other person like us that comes into this job as well.
What has management’s response been to the strike so far?
One hour after we sent out an email to workers on a similar team to announce our strike, Cognizant modified this policy that they call the “deployable bench,” which is a severance thing. The policy used to be that you get five weeks of paid time where you can look for internal or external jobs before you leave the company. An hour after we sent that out, they modified the policy to allow people that were taking the bench to work two weeks remotely, which is what we’ve been asking for this whole time. It’s effectively an attempt from them to break the strike, to bribe people into taking the bench, which is a layoff, but also doing work during this two-week period in order to break the strike. We filed another ULP for that.
Cognizant sent out a lukewarm email saying, we respect your right to strike, but we’ll be disappointed if you do so. Today at the picket line, it was clear they were doing some surveillance. There was some man off in the distance on their property taking pictures of us, which we also documented. That also stretches the law, but otherwise it’s been pretty minimal. We haven’t gotten any word back from them on our demands.
Has there been any community support for this strike?
There’s been a lot of support from the community and others in the labor movement. We’ve had the Texas AFL-CIO come out, and its president, Rick Levy, spoke at one of our press conferences. It also brought us lunch today; there’s roughly forty of us out there, so it’s pretty incredible that it was willing to do that for us.
We also had a meeting with our US House representative, Greg Casar, and he made some pretty solid commitments to support us and put pressure on the company to end this — basically, “Let’s drop this return-to-office nonsense until these folks can have an election and you can bargain over it.” We’re having a pretty tremendous natural disaster in Austin at the moment. There’s hundreds of thousands of people without power, Representative Casar being one of them, myself being another, at the time of the meeting. It was pretty amazing that he still made time to meet with us in a parking lot, because the library that we were supposed to meet at was closed.
We had some people from Restaurant Workers United and AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) show up. Members from the Austin Democratic Socialists of America chapter are on the picket line too, and they’re helping us coordinate community outreach.
Your employment is unique in that you are Google employees contracted through Cognizant. What implications does that have on your organizing?
This started off as a way that I could make more money — money that I feel I deserve — but through organizing, I started just learning more about this two-tiered employer system, and that’s become personal to me. I hope in the future I can look back on this and say that I’ve fought back against this system that exploits workers.
Google has this whole shadow workforce, and it places all the legal and other responsibilities of this workforce onto smaller companies. Not to say that Cognizant is a small company — it’s a Fortune 500 company, but still a significantly smaller company than Google. I think that system leads to further exploitation of workers, and it’s pretty corrupt. Our case could set a precedent around how workers file if they acknowledge Google is a joint employer of YouTube Music. Google has direct and indirect control over workplace conditions, and that is the criteria for a joint-employer shop. That’s an exciting part of what we’re doing, and it’s a big piece of what AWU more broadly is trying to chip away at as well.
The unionizing process would certainly have gone faster if we had filed with Cognizant as our sole employer. But for all the reasons Katie mentioned, we wanted to file for a joint employer. It also will give us more leverage at the bargaining table once we get there. Otherwise each company could just defer blame to the other — obscuring who is actually demanding, for example, that we return to the office, which is already a dynamic that’s happening.
Originally, we were hearing that Google was the one that was driving this return to office. But after we filed and, I think, persuasively argued that Google was determining our working conditions at a board hearing, the messaging totally changed. Now it’s Cognizant saying it, and that’s extended to other teams. After the hearing, another group of Cognizant employees under Google organizing with AWU started hearing that Cognizant was the one that was trying to get them to return to office, too.
You know how pizza parties are a union-busting tactic? The first day of our strike that group also got a pizza party, and they sent us a picture of a slice of pizza. They’re like, “Dear YouTube Music, thanks for the free pizza.” And the pizza looked like dogshit.
That team also threatened to strike around their return to office date. They sent in a strike petition and got an extension on their return-to-office date. So I think Cognizant was like, “Whoa, don’t get any bright ideas. Here’s some shitty Domino’s Pizza.”
You mentioned the progression from when you first tried to unionize all the way up to now going out on strike — that there was a widening of your vision and a deeper understanding of workplace democracy. Could you say more about that?
A lot of us, growing up at this point in American history, are disenchanted with politics in general, including voting. It feels pretty impotent. Participating in the union or being part of the organizing committee is special because it’s this tangible way of connecting and organizing with people and making a real difference.
I think when you first start learning about unions, you focus on the quantitative demands. For example, you might notice that unionized workplaces have 20 percent higher salaries or that they’re more likely to get stronger benefits. But it’s so much more important than that, especially with the contract-negotiating process taking a really long time, the total turnover in our department being pretty quick, and the fact that this job is a stepping stone for a lot of people — for the people that are doing the organizing right now, we’re not even necessarily working toward material benefits for ourselves. So it’s going to be more community based. Being the best person you can, having the best organizing conversations, listening to people . . . you end up buying into that more, and it makes you a better, more effective organizer.
We’re not a workplace with hundreds of employees, so it’s natural that we would be able to get down to the nitty-gritty, get people’s personal stories, and start to understand that it’s not just about pay and it’s not just about working from home — there’s some deeper things going on here that we need to consider.
After we had filed for an election and our employers became aware, their response helped develop our mission as well. Their response was basically, “We don’t see the need for this,” and they continuously third-partied the union. That flippant and disrespectful approach — refusing to recognize us as a group of intelligent and informed people who are trying to make things better for everyone — has moved a lot of people to realize that while this might have started over pay and working from home and better benefits, now for a lot of people it’s become a battle against corporations and being treated like a number on a spreadsheet.
We’ve sent personal testimonials about how returning to an office would affect our livelihoods. Some people couldn’t do their second job or would lose the ability to take care of their kid at home. And we got zero response. That’s really moved people as well, just seeing that these people don’t give a fuck about us.
That dehumanizing culture and these sloppy captive-audience meetings we have had with Cognizant have helped as well. People realize a union is the only thing that is going to make this a better place for everyone, not just ourselves, but people to come in the future. It’s become a no-brainer. We have to do this, or else billionaires are going to keep making decisions about what happens to our personal lives.