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Google Is Feeling the Heat From Its Own Employees

From a rally in New York to a strike in Texas, full-time employees and contractors are voicing their displeasure.

Google YouTube Music Strike
YouTube Music and Google workers contracted under Cognizant strike in Austin, Texas.
Joon Kang/AWU

On the heels of Google laying off 12,000 employees in January, a series of protests took place last week in New York, California and Texas that showed mounting worker unrest.

Google's raters, who evaluate the quality of search and ads, submitted a petition Wednesday at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, that demands better pay. The following day, a protest took place outside Google's offices in New York criticizing the search giant over mass layoffs. Capping off the work week on Friday, more than 40 YouTube Music workers with Cognizant, a company that contracts under YouTube owner and Google parent Alphabet, went on strike in Austin, Texas, over a new return-to-office policy.  

These mark the latest incidents in a series of contentious issues between the search giant and its workers over recent years. In 2018, more than 20,000 workers walked out of 50 offices to protest the company's handling of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. The next year, protests took place at the company's San Francisco office condemning management for retaliating against two activist workers. Google also fired employees who engaged in workplace activism or who questioned its AI systems, including prominent AI researchers Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Ariel Koren, a worker who denounced the company's dealings with Israel, was abruptly told to relocate to Brazil in March 2022. She ultimately decided to leave the company

Google didn't respond to a request for comment about the recent employee actions. The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents the YouTube Music employees in Austin and is part of the Communications Workers of America, referred to its press releases when asked for comment.  

Cognizant said the return-to-office policy has been a known factor for YouTube Music workers.

"It is disappointing that some of our associates have chosen to strike over a return to office policy that has been communicated to them repeatedly since December 2021," Jeff DeMarrais, Cognizant's chief communications officer, said in a statement.

DeMarrais said that employees were hired with the knowledge that they'd eventually have to work at the physical location in Austin. He also said that Cognizant respects the rights of employees to protest lawfully and that those wanting to pursue alternate remote jobs within Cognizant have the option to do so.

YouTube Music workers said that they've gone on strike over unfair labor practices and that the new return-to-office policy, which took effect Monday, would threaten their safety and livelihoods. The AWU argued that because workers are paid as little as $19 an hour, the relocation, travel and child care costs would present too high a burden. The AWU also said that a return-to-office requirement would hinder ongoing unionization efforts by Cognizant workers.

"No workers should be paid so little that they cannot afford to go back to work in the office, and no worker should be forced to return to the office when it is clear we can effectively accomplish our work from home," Neil Gossell, a YouTube Music contractor with Cognizant and an AWU member, said in a statement.

Unlike full-time Google employees, contractors generally don't get the same pay or benefits. In 2019, 54% of Google's workforce were contractors

In June, Google backed down from its return-to-office demands, but the company is now looking to bring workers back as the COVID pandemic wanes.

"Compared to Google's full-time employees, these critical workers receive worse pay, inferior benefits, bad management and arbitrary policies," according to the AWU's press release. "The forced RTO is the last straw."

Cognizant workers and the AWU are awaiting a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board to recognize Alphabet and Cognizant as joint employers, so that both companies can be forced to the negotiating table.

Union efforts among Google employees seem to be taking shape. Google Fiber workers unionized in March. Workers at Appen, which contracts with Google on the testing and evaluation of the company's search algorithm, saw a pay bump from $10 to $14.50 an hour in January after union intervention.

Meanwhile, 5,000 Google raters are demanding a minimum standard on wage and benefits delivered the petition to Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavanan at Google's headquarters. The AWU said raters make as little as $10 an hour. Raters have said that their hours have been cut, that more demands have been put on them and that they're exposed to violent and disturbing content.

"I could work at Wendy's and make more than what I make working for Google," Michelle Curtis, a Google rater and AWU member, said in a press release.

Google workers in New York rallied outside the company's offices across from Chelsea Market on Thursday, the same day that fourth-quarter earnings results were released. 

The Googlers Against Greed protest was in response to the layoffs in January. Google workers noted that Google laid off 12,000 employees despite having over $110 billion in cash on hand, spending billions on stock buybacks and reporting billions of dollars in profits.

"Our executives decided to lay off 12,000 of our co-workers, including many on medical or parental leave, as well as many with over a decade of loyal service," according to an AWU press release. "In a time of record profits per employee, Alphabet's executives traded the livelihoods of 12,000 of our co-workers for greater personal wealth and to appease the market."

Google will save an estimated $1 billion per quarter with the layoffs, according to the AWU press release.

Google itself has been pulling back on spending, slowing the rate of hiring and cutting back on employee travel. In July, CEO Sundar Pichai asked employees to help him on a "simplicity sprint" and to crowdsource ideas for streamlining processes. Earnings results throughout 2022 fell short of analyst expectations.

Fourth-quarter earnings results from Thursday revealed that the company is down in both search, website and YouTube ad revenue. Although Google posted $13.6 billion in net income, it was down 34% year over year.

"We are here to show that we will not take these layoffs lying down while the company continues to make so much in profit," said Kelly Keniston, a software engineer at Google, during the protest in New York

She went on to read testimonials from employees who were laid off: "Google employees have livelihood stakes in the company ... and that's literally how these millionaires control us. By giving us so much, it's virtually impossible to rebel, to wish bad on their companies. It's literally the definition of manipulation."

Correction, 1:55 p.m. PT: An AWU press release misstated Google's third-quarter profit. That figure has been removed.