Google Help workers claim layoffs are retaliation for unionising

Google Help workers file Unfair Labor Practice charge against Google and Accenture over alleged “retaliatory layoffs”, which they claim was a response to their recent unionisation efforts.

In early June 2023, a group of 130 workers – mostly composed of writers, graphic designers and other content creators who produce both internal and external material for the search giant, including its Google Help support pages – filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The Alphabet Workers Union-Communications Workers of America (AWU-CWA) said that, by June 8, 70% of the 118 union-eligible workers had signed authorisation cards indicating their desire to have a union collectively bargain on their behalf.

While Accenture acts as a subcontractor for Google, the union said that because both firms play a “direct role” in shaping work conditions, both have been listed as joint employers by the unionising workers.

“Because they answer to both Accenture and Google, workers lack job security and clarity around their current and future responsibilities,” said the AWU-CWA at the time. “To avoid similar discrepancies in the future, workers have listed both Google and Accenture as joint employers in their election filing with the National Labor Relations Board.”

However, just under a month later on 6 July – the same week workers were attending an NLRB hearing over their claim of being jointly employed by Google and Accenture – the companies announced they would be laying off around two-thirds of the recently unionsed workers, reducing the number of people from 130 to around 40.

“When my coworkers and I announced our union with overwhelming support, Google and Accenture management refused to acknowledge us. A few short weeks later they announced their response that they would be laying off dozens of employees,” said Anjail Muhammad, who works as a general writer at Accenture and Google.

“These jobs aren’t going away though, we’re just being asked to train our replacements abroad…We will continue to organise and exercise our legal right to a protected voice on the job.”

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Tahlia Kirk, a general writer at Accenture and Google and AWU-CWA member, added: “The timing is suspicious and shows a clear disregard for the organising rights of workers.”

The first batch of layoffs began on August 7, and will continue on a rolling basis until the end of the year.

“Google and Accenture’s decision to terminate over 70% of the bargaining unit was (1) in retaliation to the employees’ decision to organise a union; (2) in retaliation to the employee’s decision to file a petition for an election with the NLRB; (3) and in an attempt to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees’ exercise of their right to join or form a union,” said a copy of NLRB form seen by Computer Weekly, which was officially filed 7 August.

While a decision over whether workers are jointly employed by the two firms is pending from the NLRB, the AWU-CWA allege that, during the initial hearing in July, Google claimed the decision to layoff workers was made well in advance of the announced unionisation effort. However, they added it was unable to present documented evidence to support this point.

“It’s interesting that Google claims they’ve got no responsibility to us as workers, even though we spend everyday working on Google products, under conditions set by the company. Google has also claimed that the decision to layoff workers was made before we announced our union – yet, in our recent joint employer hearing, they couldn’t cite any documentation to prove this point,” said Kirk.

“Despite their efforts, our union remains strong and we’re confident that we’d win an election no matter what, but we’d prefer if all our coworkers had a chance to have their voices heard. We cannot force Google and Accenture to follow basic labor law, but we can and will continue to organise.”

Key demands of the workers attempting to unionise include increased paid time off, competitive pay to appropriately reflect the highly skilled nature of their work, and assurance that team members will not be randomly assigned to projects outside the scope of their workflows.

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If their unionisation is ultimately successful, the AWU-CWA said these workers will become the union’s third largest bargaining unit.

Google and Accenture respond

Google has said that the individuals are employed by Accenture and not Google, and that there has been an ongoing effort for at least a year to increase savings and improve efficiency across its supplier operations.

It added that the changes to Accenture’s Google Help contract were determined last year as part of this effort, and that any suggestion of retaliatory layoffs is completely false. However, it also said it expects all of its vendor workers to be treated fairly, and that Google regularly reviews vendors’ compliance their supplier code of conduct.

“As we’ve shared, Accenture is responsible for these workers’ employment terms, including staffing. We, of course, respect their right to join a union or not, but it’s a matter between the workers and their employer, Accenture,” said Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini.

In response to the NLRB filing, an Accenture spokesperson said: “We support the right of our people to form or join unions and we work cooperatively with unions and works councils in various countries around the globe.

“From time to time, we adjust our workforce on ongoing projects to meet the needs of our clients. As conveyed to our people recently, these workforce decisions were made prior to any notification to us of potential union activity.”

Computer Weekly also asked both Accenture and Google for comment on the AWU-CWA’s claim that neither was able to cite any documentation to prove that the decision to lay off employees was taken in advance of workers’ unionisation effort, but received no response on this point.

“We are participating in the NLRB election process, which includes the NLRB deciding various legal issues,” an Accenture spokesperson said.

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In March 2023, Accenture announced it would be cutting 19,000 jobs and significantly reducing its office spaces over the next 18 months. It also reported sales worth $15.8bn and a profit of $1.9bn in its second financial quarter.

“Our record bookings reflect the confidence and trust that our clients have in us to create value and help them transform at speed,” said Accenture CEO Julie Sweet in a statement at the time.

“We are also taking steps to lower our costs in fiscal year 2024 and beyond while continuing to invest in our business and our people to capture the significant growth opportunities ahead.”

The AWU-CWA previously accused Google of retaliatory practices in October 2022 when it claimed that US-based datacenter workers were finding themselves on the receiving end of retaliation and harassment for demanding “basic” workplace benefits. The NLRB case filed by the workers is still open.

In January 2023, thousands of Google contract workers responsible for training and testing the tech giant’s search algorithms secured their first-ever pay increase via a AWU-CWA campaign.

The RaterLabs workers – whose day-to-day consists of testing and evaluating Google’s search results by rating how accurately the algorithm responds to various prompts, as well as the relevance and quality of the ads served – began their campaign for increased pay in May 2022 when they demanded that the company respect and enforce its own wage standards by extending them to all temporary and contracted workers, not just those directly employed.

Google previously set out a wage and benefits standard for its US workforce in April 2019, which committed it to paying any member of its extended Google workforce with systems access a minimum of $15 an hour.

Following the campaign, RaterLabs’ parent company Appen and Google later announced new salary increases on 21 December, which came into effect on 1 January 2023.

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