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

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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. The average wage at the Bessemer facility, for example, is $15.50, in comparison to Alabama’s minimum wage of $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.  

“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,” an Amazon representative said in an emailed statement to MIT Technology Review.

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 who focuses on tech and labor, 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. 



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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


What was the ruling?

The decision states that the EPA’s actions in a 2015 rule, which included caps on emissions from power plants, overstepped the agency’s authority.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” the decision reads. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

Only Congress has the power to make “a decision of such magnitude and consequence,” it continues. 

This decision is likely to have “broad implications,” says Deborah Sivas, an environmental law professor at Stanford University. The court is not only constraining what the EPA can do on climate policy going forward, she adds; this opinion “seems to be a major blow for agency deference,” meaning that other agencies could face limitations in the future as well.

The ruling, which is the latest in a string of bombshell cases from the court, fell largely along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, and he was joined by his fellow conservatives: Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

What is the decision all about?

The main question in the case was how much power the EPA should have to regulate carbon emissions and what it should be allowed to do to accomplish that job. That question was occcasioned by a 2015 EPA rule called the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan targeted greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, requiring each state to make a plan to cut emissions and submit it to the federal government.

Several states and private groups immediately challenged the Clean Power Plan when it was released, calling it an overreach on the part of the agency, and the Supreme Court put it on hold in 2016. After a repeal of the plan during Donald Trump’s presidency and some legal back-and-forth, a Washington, DC, district court ruled in January 2021 that the Clean Power Plan did fall within the EPA’s authority.

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How to track your period safely post-Roe

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How to track your period safely post-Roe


3. After you delete your app, ask the app provider to delete your data. Just because you removed the app from your phone does not mean the company has gotten rid of your records. In fact, California is the only state where they are legally required to delete your data. Still, many companies are willing to delete it upon request. Here’s a helpful guide from the Washington Post that walks you through how you can do this.

Here’s how to safely track your period without an app.

1. Use a spreadsheet. It’s relatively easy to re-create the functions of a period tracker in a spreadsheet by listing out the dates of your past periods and figuring out the average length of time from the first day of one to the first day of the next. You can turn to one of the many templates already available online, like the period tracker created by Aufrichtig and the Menstrual Cycle Calendar and Period Tracker created by Laura Cutler. If you enjoy the science-y aspect of period apps, templates offer the ability to send yourself reminders about upcoming periods, record symptoms, and track blood flow.

2. Use a digital calendar. If spreadsheets make you dizzy and your entire life is on a digital calendar already, try making your period a recurring event, suggests Emory University student Alexa Mohsenzadeh, who made a TikTok video demonstrating the process

Mohsenzadeh says that she doesn’t miss apps. “I can tailor this to my needs and add notes about how I’m feeling and see if it’s correlated to my period,” she says. “You just have to input it once.” 

3. Go analog and use a notebook or paper planner. We’re a technology publication, but the fact is that the safest way to keep your menstrual data from being accessible to others is to take it offline. You can invest in a paper planner or just use a notebook to keep track of your period and how you’re feeling. 

If that sounds like too much work, and you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense template, try the free, printable Menstrual Cycle Diary available from the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research.

4. If your state is unlikely to ban abortion, you might still be able to safely use a period-tracking app. The crucial thing will be to choose one that has clear privacy settings and has publicly promised not to share user data with authorities. Quintin says Clue is a good option because it’s beholden to EU privacy laws and has gone on the record with its promise not to share information with authorities. 

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Composable enterprise spurs innovation

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Composable enterprise spurs innovation


Overall, 74% of companies accelerated plans to move to the cloud by more than a year, jettisoning legacy technologies and operating models to embrace data and applications, according to business analysis firm ZK Research.

A key part of that transformation relied on using applications, usually in the cloud, that integrated apps and data with low-code functionality to create more efficient workflows, more quickly than ever. Low-code is a software development approach for building processes and functionality with little or no code, which allows non-software developers to create applications.

Companies that structure daily workflows around these so-called “composable applications”—often called composable enterprises—have a much tighter relationship between technology and business units and can quickly assemble new applications and services at a fraction of the historical cost.

Composable applications provide a way to build on or add to applications in an easy way—think of building blocks: the work has already been done and additional functionality can be added to the foundational ability.

That flexibility is necessary for the variability of the current workplace and economy, says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research. “We’re moving to an era where in any given moment, you could have everyone in the office, no one in the office, or every reasonable combination in between,” Kerravala says. “You could have all your shoppers online, only a few, or—depending on your industry—no shoppers online and every possible combination between. The pandemic has created these dramatic shifts in the way we learn, the way we live, and the way we work, based on forces that are outside of anyone’s control.”

When it comes to cloud infrastructure, companies have often pursued half measures—adopting it in such a way as to reinforce old business models, creating private clouds that mimic their on-premises infrastructure. But composability gives enterprises the ability to adapt to changes in operations and in their markets by creating new applications to support needed workflows without hiring additional or outside software developers to implement the changes.

Composable cloud services further liberate companies from relying on running their own software instances solely to customize the code to their needs. Composable applications bring together cloud, customization, integration, and workflow management, allowing companies to be flexible and innovate quickly.

When businesses suffered pandemic disruptions to critical business functions—such as call centers, IT support, and medical administration—composable applications allowed firms to adapt and continue. In one case, a company needed to extend its call-center system, which was hosted in a controlled environment, to allow access to employees through web browsers running on an Amazon virtual machine, says David Lee, vice president of products at RingCentral, an enterprise communications platform that has focused on composability. “They had to make these changes work overnight at employees’ homes, and that was a great challenge for a lot of organizations,” Lee says. “Companies well-adapted to potential change actually made these transitions very easy by composing new applications and workflows.”

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