How the pandemic is fueling the tech industry’s union push

The last votes for one of the most followed organizing drives in modern history took place on Monday, March 29, and the results could be announced shortly.

The vote of nearly 6,000 workers at an Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama, on whether to join the Retail and Department Store Warehouse Union, or RWDSU, drew reactions from all corners of the world, from the National Association of Football Players at President Joe Biden to a group of deepfake “ambassadors”. Amazon, meanwhile, employed a series of increasingly aggressive tactics, both against the union and in his public mailbox.

Why Bessemer? And why now? The installation in Alabama is quite recent. It opened around the same time last year, as part of a pandemic hiring frenzy which ultimately saw the e-commerce giant – which is already the country’s second-largest private employer, after Walmart – add 400,000 new hires around the world in 2020 alone.

But the workers behind the organizing campaign say such growth has come at the expense of workers’ dignity. “Working in an Amazon warehouse is not easy. The shifts are long. The pace is super-fast. You are constantly watched and watched. They seem to think that you are just another machine, ”Jennifer Bates, one of the organizing organizers, told testimony from Congress last month. And these issues are not limited to the installation of Bessemer.

Over the years, Amazon has come to prominence for its dehumanizing working conditions, including constant surveillance, grueling workplaces that made some employees (but not at Bessemer) pee in bottles. (Amazon has denied these allegations in a in a sneaky tweet, what was quick refuted, and apologized later for his comments.)

Workers, who are often led by algorithmic decision-making, face the ability to be fired at any time – sometimes by computers. And during the pandemic, warehouse workers raised additional concerns about the lack of covid-19 protections offered by a company that has made a record profit in 2020. People of color are overrepresented in the ranks of warehouse workers and disproportionately affected by covid-19. Union organizers felt that around 85% of the employees at the Bessemer site are black.

In response to accusations of unfair working conditions, Amazon tends to focus on its wages, which may be higher than those offered by local employers. In a statement sent to MIT Technology Review After the article was published, a spokesperson wrote, “Our employees know the truth – a starting salary of $ 15 or more, healthcare from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We have encouraged all of our employees to vote and their voices will be heard in the days to come. ”

Alabama’s minimum wage is $ 7.25. However, the median salary for the greater Birmingham area, where Bessemer is located, is $ 3 more than the Amazon average, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Collective action in technology is a site that documents organizing and union action in the tech sector. We asked three of its organizers what they think the Bessemer vote means – and how it fits into the larger history of labor movements in the tech industry.

I am Tarnoff is a self-proclaimed technician and co-founder of Logic magazine. Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya is a doctoral student in sociology at UC Berkeley who focuses on technology and work, and Clarissa redwine is an organizer who helped organize Kickstarter and is currently a fellow at NYU. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Who is a “technician”? What does that mean? And why is this important?

TARNOFF: “Tech workers” is an expansive term. Anyone who brings their work force to a technology company in any capacity whatsoever, whether directly employed or subcontracted, whether in a so-called technical or white-collar role or in a service role or storage, should be considered a technician.

When organizations like Coalition of Technical Workers promoted the term, the idea that the relatively privileged layers of tech workers – people who could work in so-called “technical roles” – were workers, and not just creatives, entrepreneurs, corporate family members or other self-identification, was a radical idea.

Q: What does the modern technological organization look like?

NEDZHVETSKAYA: From 2017 to 2019, the number of actions in our archives tripled from year to year; 2020 has been a banner year again, and if you look at the size of those numbers, there’s an argument that it’s happening organically, as workers are becoming more active in tech workplaces.

RED WINE: This increase in organization is a response to a couple of things. The first is the political climate in the United States, and then also a kind of response to the maturation of technology as an industry.

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