Inside YouTube Music's meltdown: Former workers say they trained their replacements while staffing firm denies a mass layoff and Google backs away

Shortly after he learned he no longer had a job with YouTube Music, Jack Benedict went back to his office to be met by a cardboard box of some of his stuff that co-workers had thrown together while being ushered out. Most of the team of around 40 employees had already left the building, having learned their contracts had ended and that they’d been given 30 minutes to leave, Benedict tells Fortune. Coming from the city hall, Benedict, 25, was unable to enter his workplace to collect the rest of his things, and says he has yet to be able to re-enter.

Last week, Benedict was one of several dozen unionized workers on the YouTube Music Content Operations Team who found out that they were losing their jobs while testifying to Austin City Council. They were speaking, ironically, about their work—the refusal of Google and Cognizant, whom the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had determined to be their joint employers, to negotiate with their union, which the workers claimed was illegal union-busting. While Benedict was testifying, his co-worker Katie Marschener relayed the sudden news: “They just laid us all off. Our jobs are ended today, effective immediately,” Marschener said. The video of Benedict, obviously surprised, went viral. (Reached for comment, Cognizant spokesperson Jeff DeMarrais said if Benedict “needs help retrieving his things [left behind], that can be arranged very quickly.”) 

Since the workers first joined the union, Google has appealed the NLRB’s decision that they are joint employers, which obligates the company to bargain with them, with the board siding with the employees so far.

After a long push to get to the bargaining table, Benedict told Fortune that not only were his and his former co-workers’ roles suddenly eliminated, but they’ve now been outsourced to workers in India whom Benedict and his colleagues were instructed to train. Those workers were hired after the Austin worker’s first strike last year over returning to the office, says Benedict. Essentially, in his telling, YouTube Music employees were forced to dig their own grave. 

According to Benedict, the employees were told that the overseas team would cover whenever there was an American holiday or a union strike. But “it appears that they were having us train our own replacements for the job,” he says, adding that it’s “incredibly frustrating” and it suggests that “Google and Cognizant really don’t care about their products.” 

Cognizant denied that it fired workers in retaliation, while making its opinions regarding the union drive clear. “While we respect the right of our associates to unionize, our philosophy is that we work best together with direct open dialogue and collaboration,” Cognizant spokesperson Jeff DeMarrais said, adding that he’d “like to first challenge you to stop using charged terms like ‘workers’ and other standard rhetoric in your reporting.” DeMarrais then claimed that Fortune has historically used different terms to refer to union and non-union labor.

Both companies challenge certain key parts of the account of the YouTube Music workers. When it comes to who is responsible for negotiating with the union and who terminated them, Google shirks responsibility. Cognizant, on the other hand, challenges the notion that workers were laid off entirely.

A representative from Google told Fortune that members of the YouTube Music team weren’t Google employees and that “Cognizant is responsible for these workers’ employment terms, including staffing.” The spokesperson added that Google had no objections to the unionization, but said the company plans to appeal NLRB’s joint-employer ruling.

Google added that removal of benefits and outsourcing training process is Cognizant’s sole domain and choice. “We’ve long had many contracts with unionized suppliers and we expect everyone who we contract with to treat their employees fairly, whether they are unionized or not,” a spokesperson from Google said. “We do not select or alter contracts based on whether our suppliers have unionized workforces and we do not treat anyone differently if they choose to join a union or not.”

There are currently 11 open unfair labor practice charges filed against Cognizant and Google, a spokesperson from the NLRB tells Fortune. When asked for a response to these charges, DeMarrais said that “all matters pertaining to the NLRB will be discussed in court, which is the appropriate forum for that conversation.” Google did not answer this question. 

In response to last week’s incident, the Alphabet Workers Union-Communications Workers of America (AWU-CWA) is filing another Unfair Labor Practice charge with the NLRB against Google and Cognizant, it said in a statement to Fortune. Pressing charges on behalf of the laid off team at YouTube Music, the union alleges that “workers were unlawfully terminated by Google and Cognizant in retaliation for their union organizing.”

The outsourcing allegation

DeMarrais did not address the claim that Austin-based workers were replaced by employees in India, which has also made the rounds on TikTok, but said that the workers weren’t laid off. Instead “they have become part of Cognizant’s deployable talent pool where they are given seven weeks of dedicated, paid time to explore other roles within the organization and build new skills through our training ecosystem.”

YouTube Music workers have been petitioning to negotiate for about a year now. Looking for better pay, benefits, and more flexible work, the workers struggled to get their employers to the bargaining table. For Benedict, the abrupt end to his job is just the latest development in a yearslong process. “They’re not done with us yet,” he tells Fortune. “We are absolutely going to keep fighting. We want justice. I think our employers, or former employers, would love it if we just moved on and forgot about it,” he adds. He says that what justice looks like isn’t clear right now, but vows that the union will push back.

“I think everyone’s pretty sick of not being paid for the hard work that they do, losing their jobs while the corporations make record profits,” Benedict asserts. “Something’s not right. And it really needs to change. I’m hoping that our campaign can help change that.” (Google parent Alphabet reported record net income in the fourth quarter of last year, at $20.7 billion, although its peak on an annual basis was $76 billion in 2021.)

The unionization effort was already brewing when Benedict first joined YouTube Music in a fully remote role in September 2022, according to his LinkedIn. Last April, workers voted 41-1 to be represented by Communications Workers of America. Shortly after the team went public with their efforts, Google and Cognizant announced a new five-days-a-week return to office mandate, according to Benedict. The new policy was “essentially a layoff for the many people on our team who didn’t live in Austin, or even Texas,” he explains, adding that they went on strike in response. Cognizant spokesperson DeMarrais said the company “communicated its return to office policy to our Austin-based employees repeatedly since December 2021. Any other depiction of that timeline is mythical and rhetoric.”  

Cognizant and Google point fingers, YouTube Music workers ushered out

Both Google and Cognizant say that they didn’t terminate employees but that the contract ended naturally. DeMarrais, the Cognizant spokesperson, told Fortune that the contract’s end was pre-planned.

But Benedict says that it was “absolutely a layoff,” pointing to his shell-shocked demeanor in the City Hall video. “We had absolutely no idea that this was going to happen,” he tells Fortune. Even though it was a contract gig, according to Benedict, the union was led to believe the contract with Google would be renewed. Other Google layoffs typically involve giving months notice, but YouTube Music workers were given 30 minutes to leave the office, according to Benedict. 

The union backs Benedict’s account. “Google and Cognizant have claimed that what happened last Thursday to the YouTube Music Content Operations Team was the planned expiration of a contract in the course of ’business as usual. In reality, workers were informed midday that their jobs were gone, effective immediately, and put on a timer to gather their belongings,” Alphabet Workers Union-CWA shares in a statement to Fortune

But the former YouTube Music team is feeling the blow, even if both employers shunt blame to the other party. “It’s just a very, very obvious example that they are trying to bust our union. And I think it’s made even more obvious by the fact they had us train a team in India to do the same thing and that team did not lose their job” even when the Google contract ended, says Benedict. “Only the unionized people in Austin lost their job with Google and Cognizant.”

Cognizant maintains that the former YouTube Music team was not laid off, but “will become part of Cognizant’s deployable talent pool, better known as our ‘bench.’” DeMarrais said that “tens of thousands of Cognizant employees move between active projects via the bench,” and two members of his own team were hired from the bench.

But Benedict believes this bench is merely a holding pen before an eventual layoff. “We don’t know of anybody who’s ever been rehired from the bench,” he says. He adds that the bench itself is “besides the point,” noting that the union members were fighting for their specific jobs for which they were trained for and have expertise in.

And the entire contracting system appears to purposely cloud who is responsible for the worker’s rights, adds Benedict. “It seems to be their design … Google and Cognizant can point fingers at one another to avoid responsibility for negotiations.” He explains that it’s been hard to speak to any actual person from either company, and the union has in the past received one-word answers when requesting information. In response, Cognizant said “there were regular, in-person weekly standup meetings in the Austin office so it ‘being hard to speak to an actual person’ simply isn’t true.” He added that Benedict “chose not to be in the office on the day that our associates were notified of the contract expiry (during the regular, in-person weekly standup meetings).” Google told Fortune that communication was Cognizant’s responsibility. 

Contractors challenge corporations 

Even before a year of challenging layoffs, the tech world wasn’t exactly the dreamy world it was portrayed as, especially for contractors. “There’s the assumption that because we work for YouTube, or we work in tech that we made six figures, had amazing benefits, [and] work fully remote,” says Benedict. But the stereotype couldn’t be further from the situation at hand. 

Working in-office five days a week, Benedict was paid only a little more than $19 an hour. Navigating an expensive city and a “brutal” commute, workers were also dealing with a loss of benefits as their 40 hours of paid sick leave were taken away when the CDC declared the pandemic over, and many workers came in sick, according to Benedict. DeMarrais did not respond to a question about the sick leave policy. Google, once again, said this policy regarding benefits was not in their domain but Cognizant’s. 

“People were struggling to make ends meet,” says Benedict, adding that some employees were single parents and many worked multiple jobs to supplement their income. Even as inflation raged, wages had stayed at the same rate since 2019, when the project began, according to Benedict. 

Still, Benedict and his former co-workers are motivated to keep pushing. He tells other tech workers “the union fight is absolutely worth it,” and that the “more people that join the fight, the more likely we are to change the system that is working to underpay us.”

Having previously worked in a warehouse in a small town in Wisconsin that was also unionizing, Benedict believes that this is a movement from working class people across generations. A report from the think tank the Economic Policy Institute found that major strike activity skytocked by 280% last year. Taking note from past wins of the UAW as well as WGA and SAG-AFTRA, Benedict explains it’s exciting that YouTube Music workers’ efforts have “la[id] some of the groundwork for the rights of contractors and temps.”

The team at YouTube Music is fairly young and feeling the generational burns of navigating an especially volatile economy and a crumbling social contract between employers and employees. “The system has been not good for us,” says Benedict, speaking of a ballooning price in college, rent, and affording housing.

“We’re coming into a world that’s not set up for us to succeed,” Benedict says of his generation, “as well as just anyone who’s doing some sort of working class job, it’s not working for them either.” Adding that he wants to keep fighting and hopes to do some good in the world, Benedict says “people are just fed up, and I think we’re gonna see some positive change coming real soon.”

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