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Austin Google workers learned of layoffs as City Council prepped public support

YouTube Music employees picket outside of the Google Austin offices.
Michael Minasi
YouTube Music employees picketed outside of Google's Austin office in Feb. 2023.

Some private sector workplace drama took place in real time during Thursday’s City Council meeting, with a group of local Google workers learning they’d lost their jobs while commenting on a proposed city resolution intended to support their cause.

On the agenda Thursday was an item from Council Member Zo Qadri that called on Google LLC, parent company of YouTube Music, and the contracting company Cognizant to enter into negotiations with a group of contract workers who formed a union but have been unsuccessful in getting the company to cooperate in labor talks. The matter has received much national attention in recent weeks, with the National Labor Relations Board calling the unwillingness to engage with the union an illegal act.

In addition to formalizing the city’s support for the workers, the resolution also directed the city manager to look into finding labor and advocacy groups that could possibly help the local employees in their push. The item was pulled from the agenda early in the meeting, in unspoken recognition of behind-the-scenes talks between some council members and company representatives.

The employees who worked for YouTube’s music content operations team and had signed up to speak on the resolution were still given their time, during which they began receiving text messages informing them the entire team was being laid off. The news caused some of those present to opt to leave City Hall and go to the company’s downtown office to attempt to retrieve their personal items.

Later in the meeting, Qadri asked that the item be put back on the agenda for a vote, which passed 9-1 with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voting against.

In an email response to a media request on the matter, Google communications manager Bailey Tomson wrote, “As we’ve shared before, these are not Google employees. Cognizant is responsible for these workers’ employment terms, including staffing. As is the case here, contracts with our suppliers across the company routinely end on their natural expiry date, which was agreed to with Cognizant.”

After the meeting, several council members were critical of the companies’ treatment of the Austin workers.

“Austin is a union city, and as the sponsor of this resolution, I will always stand with labor. What happened today was unconscionable,” Qadri wrote in a prepared statement. “The Austin-based YouTube Music Content Operations Team had voted unanimously in favor of unionization in an NLRB sanctioned union election, and those workers had been waiting for good faith negotiations with their employers ever since. In the meantime, those workers were paid below living wage in Austin, despite working for a multi-billion dollar Fortune 100 company. And now, without warning, they’ve lost their jobs. The Alphabet Workers Union-CWA has my full support.”

Kelly told Austin Monitor she’d been working to delay the resolution on the request of Katharine McAden, head of public policy and external affairs for Google’s southern U.S. region, so the company could schedule a meeting to discuss the city’s stance on the stalemate. Prior to the vote, she explained her decision to vote against the resolution.

“I’m unable to endorse this proposal before us today. Just after what occurred during our comments, I reached out to the head of external affairs at Austin’s Google office to gain a clear understanding of the current situation. And as of now, they have not clarified if the employees in question were dismissed. Although that’s not my primary concern, it is very sad that that happened if it did. In fact, entering today’s meeting, I had already resolved to vote against item 100. My consistent stance has been that the city should refrain from intervening in the affairs of private companies, which is a principle I uphold today.”

This story was originally published in The Austin Monitor, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization with a mission to strengthen our shared information space and democracy.

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