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

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

The last votes for one of the most closely watched unionization drives in modern history came in on Monday, March 29, and results could be announced shortly.

The vote among almost 6,000 workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, on whether to join the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, drew reaction from every corner,  from the National Football Players Players Association to President Joe Biden to a group of deepfake “ambassadors.” Amazon, meanwhile, has used a series of increasingly aggressive tactics,  both against the union and in its public messaging. 

Why Bessemer? And why now? The facility in Alabama is fairly new. It opened around this time last year, as part of a pandemic hiring spree that ultimately saw the e-commerce giant—which is already the country’s second-largest private employer, after Walmart—add 400,000 new hires globally in 2020 alone. 

But the workers behind the unionization drive say such growth has come at a cost of worker dignity. “Working at an Amazon warehouse is no easy thing. The shifts are long. The pace is super-fast. You are constantly being watched and monitored. They seem to think you are just another machine,” said Jennifer Bates, one of the unionization organizers, in congressional testimony last month. And these issues are not limited to the Bessemer facility. 

Over the years, Amazon has become known for its dehumanizing working conditions, including constant surveillance, grueling workplaces that have made some employees (though not at Bessemer) resort to peeing in bottles. (Amazon denied those allegations in a in a snarky tweet, which was quickly refuted, and later apologized for its comments.) 

Workers, who are often directed by algorithmic decision-making, face the possibility of being fired at any time—sometimes by computers. And during the pandemic, warehouse workers have raised additional concerns about the lack of covid-19 protections afforded by a company that 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 have estimated that about 85% of employees at the Bessemer location are Black. 

In response to accusations of unfair working conditions, Amazon tends to focus on its wages, which can be higher than those offered by local employers. In a statement sent to MIT Technology Review after the publication of this article, a spokesperson wrote: “Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote, and their voices will be heard in the days ahead.”

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

Collective Action in Tech is a site that documents unionization and labor actions in the technology sector. We asked three of its organizers what they thought the Bessemer vote means—and how it fits into the broader story of labor movements in the tech industry. 

Ben Tarnoff is a self-described tech worker and the cofounder of Logic magazine. Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya is a UC Berkeley doctoral student in sociology and a fellow at the Jain Family Institute who focuses on tech, labor, and digital ethics, and Clarissa Redwine is an organizer who helped unionize Kickstarter and is currently a fellow at NYU. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Who is a “tech worker”? What does that mean? And why does it matter?

TARNOFF: “Tech workers” is an expansive term. Any individual who contributes their labor power to a tech company in any capacity, whether directly employed or subcontractors, whether in a so-called technical or white-collar role or in a service or warehousing role, should be considered a tech worker. 

When organizations like Tech Workers Coalition were promoting the term, the idea that the relatively privileged layers of tech workers—folks who might work in so-called “technical roles”—were workers, and not just creatives, entrepreneurs, members of the corporate family, or some other self-identification, was a radical idea.

Q: What does modern tech organizing look like? 

NEDZHVETSKAYA: From 2017 to 2019, the number of actions in our archive has tripled year over year; 2020 was a record-setting year once again, and if you look at the size of those numbers there is an argument that this is happening organically, that workers are becoming more active in tech workplaces.

REDWINE: This uptick in organizing is a response to a couple of things. One is the political climate in the US, and then also somewhat of a response to the maturing of tech as an industry. 

As workers are put in workplaces and work structures that are a little bit more traditional and less startup-y, the power structures in those workplaces become a little bit more formalized and easier to understand. And I think quite a few tech workers are sort of recognizing the system a bit more.

TARNOFF: There have been a lot of precedents for this sort of thing throughout the history of the industry. Silicon Valley production workers, when Silicon Valley was an industrial zone manufacturing microchips, repeatedly organized to protest low wages and toxic working conditions. IBM workers in the ’70s and ’80s organized to protest their company’s involvement with apartheid South Africa. Bug testers at Microsoft organized to protest low wages and precarious working conditions.

Q: So how does Bessemer’s union drive fit into this bigger picture? 

NEDZHVETSKAYA: We divide our data set into two kinds of workers: precarious workers, who include contractors, gig workers, and non-office (so blue collar) workers; and then workers who are less precarious, usually directly employed office workers.

In 2020, I think we saw 40 actions by Amazon employees—predominantly warehouse workers … The pandemic is really bringing a spotlight to the kinds of issues that warehouse workers face.

In most years, we’ve seen more actions by this precarious group. In 2020, a lot of that is obviously tied to the pandemic, to the fact that a lot of office workers have been able to continue working at home, whereas ride-share drivers, delivery workers, warehouse workers, have continued to show up physically to their jobs and put themselves at tremendous risk as a result. 

In 2020, I think we saw 40 actions by Amazon employees—predominantly warehouse workers. So it was a year of a lot of really impressive, sweeping organizing action across Amazon workers, reaching out to their colleagues at other warehouses and getting a sense of what kinds of issues they had in common. Bessemer seemed in some way to kind of be a culmination of a lot of organizing that we’ve seen for years, but the pandemic is really bringing a spotlight to the kinds of issues that warehouse workers face.

Q: Is that why there’s so much attention paid to Bessemer?

REDWINE: Amazon is one of the largest actors in tech and the most influential companies, and to have workers who are some of the most exploited workers in Amazon leading the charge for a unionization drive is sort of the ultimate underdog story, so I think people are just waiting to see this one domino fall, so that all the other dominoes can can sort of start to follow suit. 

TARNOFF: Everyone involved with organized labor in the US is watching with very great interest, because the labor movement has been in decline for decades, so I think the hope among people within the labor movement is that a victory in Bessemer could help signal that the tide is finally starting to turn.

NEDZHVETSKAYA: There have been organizing attempts at Amazon since 2000. So it’s been a decades-long struggle. Having the second-largest workplace—even just one location—successfully unionize would be a very big deal.

Q: Does it have a broader impact on the rest of the country? 

TARNOFF: I think the hope is that such a victory would inspire other workplaces to unionize, because if you can’t spread the victory around it will be hard to hold your ground. In other words, Bessemer has to be the beginning of something and not the end.

Q: That assumes the unionization efforts are successful. What does it mean if it fails?

TARNOFF: Well, it’s very hard to win these sorts of things, particularly against a company like Amazon. One of the reasons it’s so hard to win is because American labor laws, frankly, have been very hostile to worker organization really since the late ’40s, in a moment of right-wing backlash to the New Deal, and rising anticommunism.

There are proposals that have been put forward to strengthen labor law, like the Pro Act, which passed the House, and many organizations are pushing for it to pass the Senate.

Q: You’ve written about how blue-collar and white-collar tech workers have learned from each other in the past. What lessons are there for them from Bessemer? 

TARNOFF: Being a white-collar worker does not protect you from management retaliation. As members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice have discovered, the basic playbook for management cracking down on collective action is not substantially different whether they are white collar or blue collar, whether they’re directly employed or subcontractors. 

REDWINE: People are watching Amazon retaliate in these wild ways, and as tech workers are watching Amazon change the stoplight patterns in front of the warehouse and putting up shady ballot boxes, they are seeing what companies will do in order to keep workers from having collective power. I think it’s very instructive.

Q: Do you think it will drive sympathy toward technology workers from outside the industry? Will this build?

NEDZHVETSKAYA: One common backlash you get talking about tech unionizing is that “workers in tech are well paid relative to other industries.” Usually people say that with a Google software engineer in mind, not an Amazon warehouse worker. 

What the pandemic really brought home was that there are a lot of issues for workers to organize around. When there’s a global pandemic, what does your employer do to keep you safe under those conditions? 

So I think having the broader US population realize that having a union isn’t just about bargaining for higher wages, it’s about this whole slew of things that constitute having a workplace where you’re respected and your employer cares about your health and your well-being. A union can do a lot more than just bargain for higher wages for you.

REDWINE: I think by the time we hear about the results of the Bessemer union vote, we will have heard the announcements of more tech union drives and organizing actions and events. Regardless of how this goes, there’s already momentum.

This story has been updated with a statement from an Amazon spokesperson.

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