Amazon union battle is only the beginning of a bigger conflict
Karlin Lillington: Dehumanising surveillance in tech sector is leading to group action
A worker collects an Amazon Prime customer order package: Unions are one obvious and historically powerful way to unite and tackle large-scale worker grievances. Photograph: Thorsten Wagner/Bloomberg
The recent, failed union vote at an Amazon fulfilment centre in Bessemer, Alabama, will have been deeply disappointing to union activists. But it should be recognised as the end of a ferociously challenged beginning, rather than the end of union and worker campaigns across the global tech sector.
Why did this particular campaign fail? Union organiser strategies have been criticised, and a significant part was played by weak US laws around the rights union organisers have in a workplace, as opposed to laws supporting companies to block unions (including giving companies the ability to say and do pretty much whatever they want in workplace counter-campaigns). And then, obviously, there’s Amazon’s might and financial clout when engaging in a union-busting campaign.
In many ways, the real surprise would have been if this fledging attempt by workers to go up against the tech giant had succeeded on a first try.
But in order to have far-reaching impact, the Bessemer vote didn’t need to succeed at creating a union. The widely covered and closely watched campaign is without doubt a marker on the way to a harder and broader push to improve worker rights and bargaining power across the tech sector’s disparate levels.
That those levels are so incredibly disparate should draw the sharpened attention of international regulators, who might wonder whether a company in such varied but sector-dominating segments of what’s broadly defined as “technology” should even be one single company, rather than split into separate entities via anti-trust powers.
Urinating into containers
As we’ve all been reminded by the Alabama union drive, at the moment, in a single company, you have on the one hand highly paid technology workers within one segment, Amazon Web Services. And on the other, there are the $15 (€12.53) per hour warehouse workers and delivery drivers, who initially were denied adequate personal protection equipment during a pandemic, who, as we all know now, have to urinate and defecate into containers so as not to be penalised for work breaks, and who are surveilled in various ways while at work.
The latest in Amazon driver surveillance is an in-cab camera system with a camera monitor trained on the driver at all times that the vehicle ignition is on. This has drivers fearful that simply yawning may result in penalties, or that cameras will catch them using the previously mentioned requisite containers, or changing the adult nappiessome say they wear as an alternative.
Unions are one obvious and historically powerful way to unite and tackle large-scale worker grievances
The cameras focus on facial expressions and hand movements, among other things. Amazon has said the system is designed to improve safety and offers a list of statistics from a pilot last year: a halving of accidents, a reduction in stop sign violations, an increase in the use of seat belts and a lowering of “distracted driving”.
But when the trade-off is constant camera and computer surveillance of everything you do in the driver seat? “We have zero privacy and no margin for error,” one driver told Business Insider.
Imagine if the well-paid AWS developers were subjected to a similar, always-on surveillance system for, say, their hands and keystrokes, their facial expressions (hmmm, does that programmer look sufficiently engaged?), and had their salary docked if they got up to get a snack or use the toilet too many times a day?
Well, surprise. Worker-watching systems can do much of this already, and many IT workers are, whether they realise it or not, already being surveilled. According to analyst Gartner, at least half of large companies (of over $750 million in annual revenue, so read this as lots of tech firms) use such “workforce analytics”, which include the capability to monitor email, computer use and movements around the office or determine when a home worker has wandered off to do something other than face the PC.
Yet the problem, whether in the warehouse, in the driver seat or at the keyboard, is generally the impossible workload, not the worker, and the shifting of expectations from ability to complete a reasonable job on a feasible deadline, to micromanaging workers, even in the context of basic privacies. As if they are pieces of machinery to be monitored constantly for faults.
Add this expansion of dehumanising surveillance to the litany of tech industry issues around race and gender workplace and pay disparities; the secretive contracts and deals with military bodies and governments; the refusal to take steps to manage platforms and technologies that cause demonstrated real-world harm; the firing of those who speak out, and there’s quite a solid basis for a union drive.
Unions are one obvious and historically powerful way to unite and tackle large-scale worker grievances. Workers right across the tech industry have already begun to speak out and organise, giving unions a rallying point.
Yes, Amazon might claim victory in this round. But history may well end up recording Bessemer as an opening skirmish in a longer pro-union tactical campaign.