Contract tech workers unionize in hopes of job security in a precarious industry

As the Standard continues to monitor the future of work in Texas, the intersection of tech work and labor unions could impact what liability corporations have to their contractors.

By Patrick M. DavisApril 30, 2024 3:20 pm, , ,

Labor unions have been gaining momentum in the U.S. in recent years.

Workers at a Volkswagen factory in Tennessee recently chose to unionize in a landslide election. Union votes at the same factory failed in 2014 and 2019. Today, almost 70 percent of Americans support unions – that’s the highest number since the 1960s. 

But Texas is a right to work state, which means that even if a workplace is unionized, employees aren’t required to join. That can make unions hard to fund and maintain. 

While you might think of labor unions as a blue-collar thing, enlisting mostly trade and factory workers, a lot of tech workers are forming unions. But some of those workers are finding out their industry comes with some unique challenges.

As the jobs of Texans become more automated and reliant on artificial intelligence, new challenges are popping up for workers and labor movements. New technologies are often aimed at reducing or eliminating the need for human labor, but for some tech workers, the more immediate challenge is their employers’ ownership and management structures. The tech industry’s reliance on the use of subcontractors can contribute to less than ideal work environments. 

» A TEXAS STANDARD SPECIAL: The future of work in Texas

Until recently, Katie-Marie Marschner was a worker-organizer for the Alphabet Workers Union. She is part of a group of unionized YouTube Music workers who were laid off in late February.

At the time she was interviewed, Marschner’s time on what’s called “the bench” was coming to an end. She wasn’t directly employed by YouTube’s parent company, Google, but instead worked for a subcontractor called Cognizant. She said the bench is a way that Cognizant keeps workers in a sort of employment limbo.

“This is just a way for them to not give us a severance and let us go on our way,” Marschner said. “So for the last six weeks, we’ve had to clock in and out every day, check our email and be available because they claim they’ll place you in another role within the company.”

Marschner and her colleagues filed for a union election in 2022 and went on strike in February 2023 over a return-to-office mandate. The YouTube Music team went on strike again in September 2023 when Google and Cognizant refused to bargain with them. They believe Google and Cognizant laid them off as retaliation to their union activities. But Google claims it simply chose not to renew the team’s contract.

David Brendan Hall

Katie-Marie Marschner was part of a group of unionized YouTube Music employees who were laid off. The workers claim it was due to their organizing efforts.

There’s actually a viral video of the moment when Marschner and her colleagues found out Google laid them off. They were addressing the Austin City Council when they got the news. The council was poised to approve a resolution supporting the union, but some behind-the-scenes pressure from Google delayed their vote. The Alphabet Workers Union decided to carry on with their planned speeches at City Council.  

“There are less than 50 of us at YouTube Music and we’re taking on two of the largest corporations in the world. So, to be supported by the City of Austin and also our allies in the labor community gives us the motivation to keep this fight going,” said union-organizer Jack Benedict as he addressed the council.

Before Benedict could finish that sentence, Marschner approached the podium.

“They just laid us all off,” she said. “Our jobs are ended today, effective immediately.”

Marschner’s words were tinged with emotion and Benedict was visibly stunned. Just after Marschner delivered the news, a bell dinged, signaling the Alphabet Workers Union’s time in front of the council had run out. 

What happened to Marschner and her union allies seemed reminiscent of a mom telling their child to “go ask dad” – and then back again. Though they were officially employed by Cognizant, they knew they had to also name Google as an employer when they unionized. Marschner said Cognizant would blame contentious issues like pay or a return-to-office policy on Google.

Essentially, Cognizant used its contractor status as a way to deflect liability for its working conditions.

But, during the union’s pretrial hearing with the National Labor Relations Board, Cognizant changed its tune and took responsibility for the return-to-office policy.

“It proved us right – that they’ll undulate between who’s making what decisions when it best serves their interests,’ said Marschner. “And they can’t be trusted.”

This isn’t the first time New Jersey-based Cognizant has been accused of creating a poor working environment. It got out of the Facebook moderating business after being accused of exposing its employees to violent and offensive videos for hours on end with little mental health support. 

Google, for its part, has been accused of union busting before. In 2019, the company fired five employees, saying they violated data security policies. But the employees claimed they were fired because they were organizing a union. They sued and Google eventually settled. 

Tech giants are some of the biggest players in the U.S. economy right now – including here in Texas. And labor practices like using low paid contractors are only increasing their profits.

Samantha Shorey. Courtesy photo

Samantha Shorey is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin who researches AI, automation and robotics in the workplace. When asked for some context on how Google fits into the U.S. labor market, Shorey referenced a book called “The Age Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff.

In it, Zuboff compares Google in 2016 to General Motors at the height of that company’s market capitalization. Shorey explained that GM had ten times more employees than Google, meaning the wealth Google generates benefits significantly fewer people.

“And one of the ways that happens is when we talk about who is an employee or a contractor,’ Shorey said. “Because contractors have a totally different pay scale.” 

Take those Facebook content moderators Cognizant used to employ. They made about $29,000 a year – just 12 percent of what a full time Facebook employee made at the time. 

Marschner experienced a similar disparity. She said Cognizant paid her team $19 an hour, which wound up being less than $40,000 a year. That’s considerably less than Austin’s median income of around $54,00 a year.

Marschner claimed that Google employees who did the same work as Cognizant workers are paid $300,000 yearly.

“It’s meant to fragment workers; it’s meant to disenfranchise workers,” Marshcner said. 

But low wages and poor working conditions aren’t the only risks for contract tech workers. Hiring contractors also allows companies to avoid responsibility when they overhire or when a particular tech bubble bursts.

Shorey said that traditionally, corporations have had to shoulder the burden of market fluctuations and poor management decisions. As she sees it, the use of contractors shifts more of that burden onto workers.

“These short term contracts just allow that cutting of the cord with no responsibility towards the people who make our technology work,” said Shorey. 

Although Cognizant and Google cut the cord with Marschner and her team, she’ll still be following how the National Labor Relations Board handles their claims. If the board finds that the YouTube Music team was wrongfully terminated, the workers could be awarded back pay and have their jobs reinstated. 

Marschner says she came away from the whole experience wiser and wants to continue working with unions.

“I’m so grateful for the experience that I’ve had that’s given me the skills to get into this industry,” said Marschner. “Yeah, helping other workers find a voice and create democracy in their workplace.”

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