Battle in Staten Island

Amazon is trying to stop its workers unionising. Why?

Here’s what you need to know this week:

  • Affairs of state: Amazon is battling unionisation

State-by-state:

  • Apple also faced union pressure
  • Microsoft named and shamed a hacker
  • Meta will fleece creators, according to Apple
  • Google still shows Russian military assets
  • Tencent blocks foreign games

Affairs of state: Battle in Staten Island

Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, New York, was the first to vote in favour of unionisation. But the movement is still meeting with fierce resistance.

Earlier this month workers at the Amazon fulfilment centre in Staten Island – code named JFK8 – voted to unionise. It has been heralded as a breakthrough; as a stand-out moment in an otherwise woeful landscape of labour organisations in the US.

Next week, workers elsewhere in New York – at Amazon’s LDJ5 facility – will vote too. 

LDJ5’s decision will be impactful, but Amazon’s leadership is still fighting tooth and nail to stop unionisation becoming a trend elsewhere within its borders, and the unionisation movement has a long way to go overall.

What could unionisation mean for workers? Being part of a union means that workers can form committees to negotiate safety standards and protocols. This is particularly important at Amazon where there are reports of underpaying workers through questionable payroll software, as well as a deadly warehouse collapse in Illinois, and allegations that workers have had to urinate in bottles to stay on strict delivery schedules.

A study backed by a union coalition also found that serious injuries were 80 per cent more common at Amazon than comparable workplaces. When asked about the findings in an interview, Andy Jassy, Amazon’s CEO, argued “there’s a lot of ways you can spin this safety data, and some special interests will do it for their own interests. That data’s not really accurate.” 

Spin or not, Amazon’s notoriously poor reputation for failing to protect workers is something a union could address, by mediating or filing charges against Amazon if workers have a grievance, or if management doesn’t follow the rules. 

But have unions actually worked for workers? The truth is, we don’t know if unions will be effective for Amazon’s modern workers. There’s not much evidence to go on. 

Unions have been in decline in the US. The number of workers represented by a union is half what it was 40 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, the US consistently records some of the lowest union representation rates in the world. 

As the American economy moved away from manufacturing jobs – which were typically heavily unionised in the 70s and 80s – towards the corporate-centred system we know today, Amazon and other giants emerged as part of a sector with huge numbers of low-paid retail and warehouse workers, as well as very highly paid corporate staff. 

Amazon’s maximum base pay for corporate and tech employees is $350,000, whilst the median pay rate is $29,007; and the low-paid staff are often managed through subcontractors, and under tenuous short-term arrangements.

There’s a very modern dilemma underpinning this: Amazon satisfies consumer demand at a scale we’ve never seen before. The cost of the convenience of Amazon Prime and other lightning fast consumer services is that Amazon operates labour-intensive fulfilment centres staffed by low-skilled and poorly treated staff, with a layer of advanced technology on top.

Amazon doesn’t see unionisation as the solution for the 1.6 million workers in its system. It won’t even admit there’s a problem.

Will Amazon ever give up union busting? In the same interview last week, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said he thinks there are good reasons for Amazon employees not to join unions. 

Jassy thinks that there’s a type of empowerment for Amazon workers that can’t take place in the presence of unions, saying “Amazon empowers employees. If they see something they can do better, they can go meet, decide how to change it, and change it”. With a union, he says, you can’t do that, because “it’s much more bureaucratic… People are better off having direct connections with their managers,” he said.

Bob Funk, the secretary-treasurer at LaborLab – a non-profit watchdog that records instances of union-busting – told us that the “biggest phase of union-busting is in the negotiation process, the bit that follows a successful union vote”. “The purpose is to deflate and demoralise the workforce, and to frustrate the people that organised the union so much that they just leave. Then you’re two years down the road and there’s no contract, and the union’s weak and maybe it just goes away”. 

How will Amazon contest the decision? Amazon plans to contest the election at JFK8, and these methods of opposition are likely to become a trend in the conflict. So what are they? Amazon has filed a request to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) asking for more time to sort out its case against the election result at JFK8. It shows Amazon claim:

  •  petitioners threatened and coerced voters to opt for a union against their will;
  • poll organisers suppressed turnout;
  • immigrant voters were threatened with a loss of benefits if they didn’t vote to unionise.

What happens next? We spoke to Seth Goldstein, a pro-bono attorney at the Amazon Labor Union. Goldstein has filed unfair labour practice charges against Amazon for over a year, and is representing the union group in cases at both LDJ5 and JFK8. “Amazon continues to engage in unlawful union busting,” Seth said. He has filed four more charges against the tech state since the Staten Island vote took place. 

Goldstein says that Amazon has become “a serial violator of labor law” in order to stop union efforts making progress. He told us Amazon is interfering with workers’ rights to display a banner publicising the vote. The company has disciplined workers for talking to other workers about the unions, and it has partnered with Global Strategy Group, to continue “promoting lies” to employees “saying that they had to join the union” and that if the unionisation effort was successful, and workers didn’t pay dues to the new union, they would be fired.

“I think, you know, what we face here is really another challenge to democracy, which is equal to January 6. Where Amazon is trying to steal the election like Trump tried to steal the election in the United States. So you know, all people that value democracy, whether they’re in the UK, Europe, United States and everywhere, should be concerned that a corporation wants to take away everybody’s vote.”

The Amazon Labor Union – the grassroots organisation started by Christian Smalls and his best friend – defeated an extremely determined and well-financed effort to discourage unionisation. But the result of the unionisation process, despite the landmark vote in favour, is still subject to fierce resistance from Amazon, the second largest employer in the US. 

The battle in Staten Island may have been won, but the war for workers’ rights throughout Amazon’s domain is just beginning. 

What about the other tech states? Google has seen an upsurge in labour organisation in recent years. The Alphabet Workers Union stopped short of becoming a traditional union group. It only represents about 600 employees at Google and other contractors, and doesn’t have the collective bargaining power over wages, grievances and benefits that a traditional union has. 

Though last month, the NLRB did recognise a unionisation vote amongst Google Fiber subcontract workers in Kansas, a modest beginning to a movement “committed to tackling Alphabet’s segregative, two-tiered employment system”. 

As for Apple…


Apple: Union station

Employees at the Apple Store in New York’s Grand Central are also making a bid to unionise. Before the staff can trigger an official vote – to be ratified by the National Labor Relations Board – they must collect signatures from at least 30 per cent of the workers at the store. The pro-union group, which is calling itself Fruit Stand Workers United, argue that wages at Apple have lagged behind the rising cost of living in America’s most expensive city. It is one of a growing number of Apple sites that are seeing a move towards organisation, as reported by the Washington Post earlier this year. In the past few weeks, workers at these locations reported receiving pay increases of less than a dollar per hour. This is not nearly enough to compensate for recent inflation throughout the country.


Microsoft: Countering ZLoader

Microsoft has busted a cybercrime gang called ZLoader, the latest in a long line of groups that the tech state has counteracted. The recent report on ZLoader is an interesting insight into the measures that Microsoft takes to defeat hacker groups and a reminder that it still needs official government sanctions to do so effectively. Microsoft obtained a court order from the United States District Court in order to seize control of domains being used by ZLoader – a group using a distributed network of compromised computers in businesses, hospitals, schools and households to propagate malware and steal money. It also blocked domains that the malware generated to use as fallback channels. In the report, Microsoft named Denis Malikov, a hacker from Simferopol, saying “we chose to name an individual in connection with this case to make clear that cybercriminals will not be allowed to hide behind the anonymity of the internet to commit crimes”.


Meta: Metaverse fees

Meta has outraged both creators and competitors with the plans to take a huge cut of virtual item sales. Meta’s Horizon Worlds is free-to-play. But the tech state is basically pushing a “freemium” model in which the base experience is free, but premium content, like costumes, special avatars and other community created content will come at a premium. Just how much of a premium is the real issue. Meta is proposing to take 47.5 per cent of the value of all transactions on digital assets within their new metaverse offering as commission – 30 per cent for the Meta Quest Store, and 17.5 per cent for Horizon Worlds itself. An Apple spokesperson told MarketWatch that “Meta has repeatedly taken aim at Apple for charging developers 30% commission” in the App Store, whilst this recent announcement “lays bare Meta’s hypocrisy”.


Google: Satellites over Russia

Google Maps shows a host of Russian military installations in its satellite images. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have claimed Google unblurred them so “everyone can see a variety of Russian launchers, intercontinental ballistic missile mines, command posts and secret landfills”. Russian aircraft carriers, weapons storage depots and Su-57 fighter planes are indeed clearly visible in searches, but Google says they’ve always been there. Unblurred. In a statement to the Verge a spokesperson said “we haven’t made any blurring changes to our satellite imagery in Russia” but that the “circulating images are likely legitimate”. 


Tencent: No foreign games

The rollercoaster of uncertainty around Tencent’s future in gaming is never ending. Chinese regulators have, most recently, said that they will block all access to unapproved foreign games for Chinese consumers. From May 2022 onwards, Tencent will have to prevent Chinese players from playing international titles, confining them to those approved by government officials. This move, although part of a compliance crackdown on Tencent and other Chinese internet companies, may not be so punitive. As Josh Broadwell writes for GameDaily, “blocking unfettered access to international games means Tencent gets the best of both worlds: a continued positive relationship with the Chinese government and a vast market of players with fewer ways to access games that Tencent itself doesn’t make or publish”.

Thanks for reading,

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Sebastian Hervas-Jones
@seb_ai