Labor board ruling that Google is legally employer of YouTube contract workers has implications beyond tech industry


Alphabet Inc.’s Google is legally the boss of YouTube contract staff and must collectively bargain with the workers if they vote to unionize, a US labor board official ruled.

In a Friday decision, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board rejected the internet giant’s claims that it wasn’t the employer of a group of Texas-based YouTube workers, who are hired via the staffing agency Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. The director ruled that Google is in fact a “joint employer” — a company that has enough control over a group of workers to be liable for their treatment and obligated to negotiate with them if they unionize.

“Google exercises direct and immediate control over benefits, hours of work, supervision and direction of work,” the Fort Worth, Texas-based regional director wrote.

The ruling could set the stage for Alphabet to collectively bargain with US employees for the first time in its history, but Google plans to appeal.

“We are confident the facts and law clearly support our position,” Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini said in an emailed statement. “We simply don’t control these workers’ employment terms or working conditions.”

The conditions of contract workers have been a recurring flashpoint for Alphabet, which relies heavily on staffing firms to meet its labor needs. Contract staff became the majority of the company’s global workforce in 2018, and the AWU has been pushing to organize both those workers and Alphabet’s direct employees.

“We are proud to win a precedent-setting victory not just for ourselves, but also for workers across the country, where technology companies in particular have innovated new ways to deny responsibility for their workers’ livelihoods through subcontracting, gig work and other poor employment practices,” YouTube worker Sam Regan said in an emailed statement from the AWU.

The Alphabet Workers Union petitioned in October to represent the group of roughly 60 employees, whose jobs include ensuring videos are correctly labeled and looking into requests from users of YouTube Music. Alphabet — the owner of Google and its YouTube unit — has repeatedly pushed back on the idea that it employs such staffers. 

“These have not been and are not our employees,” Alphabet attorney Aaron Agenbroad said at a November NLRB hearing about the unionization petition, according to a transcript obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The government will hold a vote among the workers about whether to unionize, the regional director wrote. The timing has yet to be announced.  A Cognizant spokesperson said the company also disagrees with the decision.

The issue goes beyond Google or even the tech industry. Companies in health care, hospitality, construction and other fields are increasingly turning to franchised, freelance or subcontracted staff — spurring controversies about how those workers are treated.

The AWU, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, 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 the past month over the dispute. 

Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.