Google Bard AI contractors unionize amid anger over 'retaliatory' layoffs
Not actually our problem, says Chocolate Factory, but watchdog decides otherwise - again
Google contractors upset that some of their teammates were allegedly unlawfully terminated in retaliation for trying to unionize at the web giant have now joined the Alphabet Workers Union – after a 26-2 vote overseen by the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The vote was held yesterday by the remaining members of the Google Content Creation Operations (CCO) team in the US, which produces and updates writing, graphics, and other content for Google's internal and external help pages.
According to the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), which bargains as part of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the contractors signaled in June their intent to unionize and establish better pay and benefits and legal protections against layoffs.
The team also wanted to avoid a repeat of the uncomfortable situation it reportedly found itself in January this year, when it was told to help improve Google's Bard by fact checking the search engine bot's responses.
Sometimes they had to deal with extreme and graphic prompts, which led to complaints to HR. Their AI work was then transferred to folks in the Philippines, sparking fears among the US team that they could be replaced easily at any moment and fueling their desire to unionize.
Shortly after making their intent to organize known to bosses, more than 80 of the 119 content team members were axed, according to the AWU. That led to this week's vote, in which the remaining workers decided to unionize with the AWU.
We organized so that we could have a say in our working conditions. In response, Google has tried to skirt its responsibility to us as our employer
"When workers stand together, even Google cannot stand in our way," said Jen Hill, Google Help Designer and a member of the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA.
"We organized so that we could have a say in our working conditions. In response, Google has tried to skirt its responsibility to us as our employer, while also laying off dozens of our team members.
"We’re proud to win our union election today and will continue to organize until we receive our fair share. Google, we look forward to seeing you at the bargaining table soon."
Referring to the Bard drama, Hill added: "It is unjust that our jobs are being shipped off to workers who will be paid even less than us, and will have access to even fewer labor protections."
The contractors do work for Google via subcontractor Accenture. Crucially, the NLRB ruled in September that Google and Accenture are effectively joint employers of the Google Content Creation Operations team in the US.
According to an AWU-CWA representative, Google justified the content team layoffs by saying it was standard practice to incubate work in the United States before offshoring it, though the union doesn't see it that way - they filed a complaint with the NLRB alleging Google and Accenture were retaliating against them for trying to unionize.
Since the layoffs, additional CCO team members have been hired, but all overseas, an AWU-CWA representative told The Register.
Documents in the retaliatory layoff case aren't publicly available, and the NLRB requires a freedom-of-information request for their release. The case is still open, and no action has been taken since early August.
Who does the content crew work for?
In order to bargain directly with Google, the CCO team first had to get the NLRB to recognize Accenture and Google as joint employers, which is why that September decision [PDF] was so vital.
According to the NLRB, Google said that it shouldn't be party to the unionization petition because it planned to shrink the unit "by more than 75 percent by the end of November 2023." The NLRB found that Google's plans to reduce the size of the CCO team didn't warrant rejection of the union petition, and concluded that "Accenture and Google are joint employers of the petitioned-for employees."
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Google has appealed that NLRB decision, but that didn't stop the vote from going forward. Nonetheless, the Chocolate Factory still asserts it's not the CCO team's employer.
"We have no objection to these Accenture workers electing to form a union. We've long had many contracts with unionized suppliers," Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini told The Register in an emailed statement.
"However, as we made clear in our active appeal [PDF] to the NLRB, we are not a joint employer as we simply do not control their employment terms or working conditions – this matter is between the workers and their employer, Accenture."
Google maintains that the NLRB decision deviated from governing standards and disregarded evidence in its verdict. But the Accenture-side of the decision isn't the first time the NLRB has determined that Google is a joint employer with a contracting firm.
Google contractors hired through Cognizant filed with the NLRB to hold a vote to join the AWU-CWA in October 2022, were recognized as jointly employed by Google and Cognizant in March, and voted successfully to join the AWU-CWA in April.
As it argued in the Accenture case, Google said that the NLRB arrived at its decision to recognize Google as a joint employer with Cognizant "by deviating from the governing standard, ignoring precedent, and applying a faulty analysis." Google's appeal didn't stick, and the NLRB said [PDF] that its objections "raised no substantial issues warranting review."
"Google exercises substantial direct and immediate control over the supervision of the petitioned-for employees," the NLRB said in its decision in the Cognizant case, which is "indicative of a joint-employer relationship."
Despite the similar findings, we note the Cognizant and Accenture cases occurred in different NLRB regions and involved different NLRB officials.
However, the fact that this is "the second unit of AWU-CWA members that the NLRB has recognized as jointly employed by Google and a subcontractor," the AWU-CWA said, "point[s] to a pattern of misclassification by Google." ®