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YouTube Staff Vote for Union, Paving Way for Collective Bargaining With Alphabet

(Bloomberg) -- A group of YouTube contract staff in Texas have unanimously voted to unionize in a labor victory that could force parent company Alphabet Inc. to collectively bargain with US workers for the first time in its history.

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The US National Labor Relations Board counted ballots on Wednesday, with 41 of the roughly 50 eligible employees voting for the union, nobody voting against and around eight people not voting.

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The workers, whose jobs include ensuring videos are correctly labeled and handling requests from users of YouTube Music, are hired via the staffing agency Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. But those who petitioned in October to unionize contend that they are also employees of Google, which runs YouTube. In a March ruling, a regional director of the NLRB agreed, deeming Google a “joint employer” – a company that has enough control of a group of workers to be liable for their treatment and obligated to negotiate with them if they unionize.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is appealing the March ruling and has repeatedly denied that it employs the sub-contracted staff. “These have not been and are not our employees,” company attorney Aaron Agenbroad said at a November labor board hearing, according to a transcript obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. Cognizant has said it also disagrees with the NLRB.

The NLRB could formally certify the union as soon as next week. Were that to happen, Alphabet would legally be required to collectively bargain with the Alphabet Workers Union, the Communications Workers of America affiliate the staffers voted to join. That watershed change would restrict the tech giant’s authority over how it sets conditions that affect those workers, and could embolden people in other parts of the company to seek similar status.

In an emailed statement, Google reiterated its stance that it is not the workers’ employer. “We have no objection to these Cognizant workers electing to form a union,” spokesperson Courtenay Mencini wrote. “We simply do not control their employment terms or working conditions – this matter is between the workers and their employer, Cognizant.”

It could be years before talks actually commence. Even if labor board members in Washington, where Democrats hold a majority, uphold the regional director’s decision, Alphabet could still refuse to negotiate, ultimately forcing the issue into federal appeals court. Starbucks Corp. is asking appellate judges to overturn the labor board’s ruling that it must negotiate with employees at a megacafe in Seattle, where it objects to the use of mail ballots. Amazon.com Inc. has signaled it expects to contest a New York City warehouse’s union victory in US court as well.

“Today’s victory sets us on our path to earn our fair share and we hope other tech workers join us by standing shoulder to shoulder with their coworkers and flexing their power on the job,” Maxwell Longfield, a YouTube worker and member of the union’s organizing committee, said in an emailed statement from AWU.

The treatment of contract workers has been a recurring flashpoint for Alphabet, which relies heavily on staffing firms. Contract staff became the majority of the company’s global workforce in 2018, and AWU has been pushing to organize both those workers and Alphabet’s direct employees. Several groups of Alphabet contract staff have unionized and won collective bargaining with their staffing agencies, but because Alphabet was not deemed a joint employer in those cases, the internet giant itself has not had to negotiate with them.

AWU has also filed a still-pending complaint with the NLRB accusing Alphabet and Cognizant of responding to the union campaign by making threats, transferring work abroad and using new return-to-office rules to try to derail organizing. Cognizant has said the allegations have “no merit.” Workers have been on strike for months over that dispute.

In its own emailed statement, Cognizant said it was committed to maintaining its mission. “Our philosophy remains that we are better together through open dialogue and collaboration,” the company said.

(Updates with details on vote in second paragraph, comment from Alphabet in sixth paragraph, from worker in eighth paragraph, and from Cognizant in last paragraph.)

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