A group of contracted YouTube workers based in Austin, Texas, voted to ratify a bargaining unit Wednesday afternoon, in an election historic for creating a union to bargain with a tech company and its contractor together as joint employers. 

The unionization vote passed 41-0. The National Labor Relations Board representative counting the ballots said 49 workers were eligible to vote.

The employees work for the subcontractor Cognizant on content operations for Google’s YouTube Music, resolving bugs and completing other tasks to ensure the streaming service runs smoothly. Google continues to argue that Cognizant is the workers’ sole employer and says the Mountain View-based tech giant should not be forced to negotiate with the workers.

Held via mail-in ballot, the election creates a bargaining unit with the Alphabet Workers Union — an organization affiliated with the Communications Workers of America that, until now, has represented only one office of unionized Google workers, a contracted Fiber retail shop in Missouri. Those workers opted to drop Google from their petition.

A spokesperson for Google said the company has no objection to Wednesday’s union vote but reiterated its stance that Cognizant is the sole employer. A Cognizant spokesperson said the company is “committed to continuing our mission as a team and delivering for our client” in the wake of the election.

“My coworkers and I have spoken, time and time again — we want, and have won, a protected voice on the job to bring both Alphabet and Cognizant to the negotiating table so that we can win the fair working conditions we deserve,” Maxwell Longfield, a YouTube Music contractor through Cognizant, said in an AWU statement.

Google and Cognizant have until May 3 to file an objection to the election. 

As the unionization process moves forward in Texas, the NLRB is investigating an unfair labor practice complaint by AWU, which contends that Cognizant and Google illegally interfered with the union’s formation — a practice known as union busting. After workers filed a petition for unionization, Cognizant changed its return-to-office policy and moved work to other offices, the complaint says. 

Cognizant allegedly told workers that failure to move to and work from the Austin office would be treated as “job abandonment” and a “voluntary termination.” The return-to-office change prompted 40 workers to protest with an “unfair labor practice strike” — such strikes prevent employers from laying off workers. AWU said in a statement that the costs of in-person work, from sudden relocation to child care, aren’t affordable for YouTube Music workers, who make as little as $19 an hour.

Eighteen workers are still on strike, a spokesperson told SFGATE. AWU’s GoFundMe for the strike has amassed over $50,000 in donations. 

Meanwhile, Google wants nothing to do with the new bargaining unit. Over several days of hearings in November and December, Google and Cognizant tried to convince Timothy Watson, a regional NLRB director, that Google is not a joint employer of the employees working on YouTube Music for Cognizant.

But Watson, in a win for AWU, rejected Google’s motion and concluded that both the tech giant and its contractor would have to bargain with the petitioned-for unit if the union were to win the election. His arguments focused on Google’s control over the workers’ benefits, work hours, supervision and tasks.

Google filed a request that the NLRB review and overturn Watson’s ruling, which an NLRB panel is still considering. The firm wrote that Watson was “deviating from the governing standard, ignoring precedent, and applying a faulty analysis” in naming Google as a joint employer. The company asserts that it “does not exercise any direct or immediate control over the essential terms and conditions of employment for Cognizant employees.”

The union filed a rebuttal to the NLRB to deny Google’s request, writing, “The volume of record evidence clearly demonstrates that Google and Cognizant co-determine material aspects of employment.”

“The Regional Director did not err in concluding that Google is a joint employer of the MCO employees—both as a matter of law and in deducing the facts from this record,” the union added, emphasizing Watson’s argument that Google has “direct and immediate control” over key parts of contractors’ work conditions.

If the board agrees with its regional director’s stance and the election is certified May 3, Google — alongside Cognizant — will be forced to the bargaining table for the first time in the tech behemoth’s history.

Hear of anything happening at Alphabet or another tech company? Contact tech reporter Stephen Council securely at stephen.council@sfgate.com or on Signal at 628-204-5452.

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