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Safer Surveillance: How Much Is Too Much?

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When we think of surveillance in a business, there is no doubt that it is a double edged sword. It can’t be denied that surveillance can be an important part of keeping workers safe and providing security for staff – not only against outsiders, but also from the potential actions of other members of the team, whether intentional or otherwise.

However, surveillance can also be used in an extremely negative way. Many workers see business surveillance as little more than an excuse to spy on staff. It has even been noticed that some organizations go beyond looking at employees’ work activities, to also view their personal accounts. 

“Despite it being around for a while, we have noticed an increased use of email, internet and telephone monitoring,” says HR specialist Vanessa Bell speaking with The HR Director “more employers are also taking it upon themselves to check in on employees’ social media platforms and regularly monitor the posts being uploaded”. 

The kind of creeping invasion of surveillance might all be fine in the hands of professionals with a desire to keep the business and its staff safe. But where do we draw the line between valuable security work to keep staff safe, and simply unnecessary snooping? Of course there has to be a balance, and the best way to understand where to find that balance is to understand the kind of things staff surveillance might be used to defend against. 

Insider attacks

It is unfortunately the case that insider attacks – those perpetrated by individuals working for an organization – are on the rise. In fact, recent statistics revealed that over 60% of data breaches come as a result of an insider attack. 

“As a business leader, the last thing you want is an attack from a user with existing access to your environment,” says M.K. Palmore speaking to Security Roundtable “it doesn’t really matter whether a breach is caused by malice, negligence or mistake. Insider threats are particularly pernicious because of the knowledge, access and information malicious insiders may possess, and because even individuals who are cybersecurity-aware can make inadvertent or careless errors.” 

It is naturally the case that one of the only ways to defend against these kinds of attacks are through closer monitoring of staff. However, this is not the only time that we see staff surveillance occurring. In some cases, the surveillance can occur in something of a test format. 

Penetration testing

The term ‘ethical hacking’ can be controversial – how can hacking ever be ‘ethical’? The truth is that ethical hacking can play an important role in keeping any business secure against cyberattacks. However, having it carried out can create a situation where staff feel that they are being spied upon.

Perhaps the most common form of ethical hacking is known as penetration testing. A penetration test is an assessment of a business’ current cybersecurity measures to check for potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses. These tests utilize “the tools, techniques and procedures used by genuine criminal hackers including phishing, SQL injection, brute force and deployment of custom malware.” 

Penetration testing can be extremely effective. But there has been some controversy around the use of elements such as fake phishing emails and ‘social engineering’ tactics. These are designed to replicate tactics used by criminals, but it functionally can involve the penetration testing conducting surveillance on staff without their knowledge. 

Invasion of privacy?

It is important to consider whether staff surveillance is necessary for the protection of the business and for members of staff themselves. To some, it seems less for their good and more like a simple invasion of privacy. It has been argued that with potential changes being made in the future for data privacy, this could have an impact on surveillance.

In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was brought into effect, and there has been talk of similar legislation likely to become law in the US. Should this occur it could offer some protection for staff against some types of surveillance. 

What to do if your business surveillance is too much

If you feel that workplace surveillance is becoming a major issue, it is a good idea to take these concerns to management. Remember that it is often the case that these changes to monitoring are made with the thought in mind to help keep businesses and their staff more secure. It could well be the case that overzealous changes have been implemented without anyone thinking through the negative consequences for staff. 

Staff surveillance has huge advantages for both businesses and members of the team, if it is carried out correctly. Staff should feel that they have the opportunity to discuss changes to their monitoring without fear.

This blog was printed with permission.

About the Author: Dakota Murphey is a freelance writer based in the UK, specializing in Digital Trends in Business, Marketing, PR, Branding, Cybersecurity, Entrepreneurial Skills, and Company Growth. Having successfully contributed to a number of authoritative online resources, she has secured a platform to share her voice with like-minded professionals

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The Campus Workers Withdrawing Their Consent

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A conversation with student and graduate employees about why workers are simultaneously on strike at two universities.

Right now, a majority of residential advisers at Kenyon College, organized with the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee, are on an indefinite strike over unfair labor practices. At the same time, over 1,750 graduate student workers at Indiana University with the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition are on strike, demanding that the university administration formally recognize their union, pay graduate workers a livable wage, and eliminate costly student fees. In this extended mini-cast, we talk about these important struggles with three worker-organizers across the two campuses: Molly Orr, a sophomore at Kenyon College who works at the Kenyon Farm and the Writing Center; Nora Weber, a fourth-year PhD candidate in Sociology at Indiana University; and Anne Kavalerchik, a third-year PhD candidate in Sociology and Informatics at Indiana University.

This blog was originally posted at In These Times on April 21, 2022.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe?se?Times?.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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Speed Grocery Delivery Workers Are in a Dangerous Race

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A new industry of venture-capital-backed startups claim their workers are fast. Are they faster than regulations?

NEW YORK?—?Anthony Hom offers tips to delivery workers on his YouTube channel, Ride With Anthony. In one 15-minute, day-in-the-life video titled ?“Delivering Groceries Almost Kills Worker NYC,” Hom records himself on an electric bicycle delivering groceries through the streets of Manhattan, through a 20 mph wind he says is ?“pushing him sideways,” past a street barrier that blows into his path and avoiding a car that swerves without signaling.

That day, Hom was delivering for startup 1520, which launched in Manhattan in January 2021. It promised delivery in 15 to 20 minutes ?“or it’s free,” hence the name.

Grocery speed-delivery services surged in New York in 2021, heavily backed by venture capital. Already, expansion is outpacing protections, experts and advocates say (though 1520 has now shuttered, having drained its initial funding of $7.8 million). Delivery workers for the startups commute using e?bikes, and sometimes e?scooters, often provided, and branded, by the company they work for.

The ads are hard to miss, complete with neon color palettes and obscure names (see JOKR and Gorillas) and websites claiming the pasta will be ?“delivered before the water boils.”

The 20-minute delivery window is possible because of strategically located, company-owned micro-warehouses that each stock a limited supply of curated products, with an operating radius of about 2 miles (New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer has alleged the ?“dark stores” are illegally located in commercial and residential zones.)

Hom started as a full-time delivery courier for 1520 in September 2021, motivated by the prospect of being an employee with hourly pay and the requisite benefits and protections, which he would not receive as an independent contractor, where pay scales can be radically different each day. On paper, the difference seems like a big move for the delivery and gig-economy industry; the majority of delivery workers for third-party apps are classified as independent contractors, which leaves them ineligible for minimum wage protections, sick pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and other benefits.

Without robust, enforced regulations, however, some advocates say the move is more about public relations than social responsibility.

“Speed delivery is testing new business models to maximize their profit, create competitive advantage and grow in the app delivery market,” says Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project. ?“They need a reliable workforce that can be 24/7— and this means paying the minimum and giving minimum protections, so they can control the labor more rapidly.”

Speed-delivery workers in New York City are covered under Administrative Code 10?–?157, which sets standards for businesses using bicycles for commercial purposes, according to Vincent Barone, press secretary for the city Department of Transportation. But Hildalyn Colón Hernández, policy director for the Worker’s Justice Project, says speed-delivery companies often do not comply. She cites examples such as providing reflective uniforms for safety and company identification on the bikes, guidelines that restaurant delivery services are required to follow, while some speed-delivery services are lacking, she says.

Meanwhile, the delivery industry itself is rapidly changing. ?“We have an industry that is emerging extremely fast, with a slower government sector,” Colón Hernández says. In September 2021, for example, the New York City Council passed legislation granting workers for third-party delivery apps (like Uber Eats and DoorDash) new protections, including access to restaurant bathrooms and transparency about daily compensation?—?but that particular legislation does not cover speed-delivery from micro-warehouses.

Hom quit 1520 because of ?“a lot of close calls” and the inflexibility of his schedule, he says. The average shift for 1520 workers was 12 hours according to Hom, but he says no delivery worker should be out longer than 8 hours: ?“Your body gets fatigued, not just your muscle but your instincts. That’s when human error takes place.”

As an employee, he says he was on the clock regardless of weather conditions. ?“When it’s raining, snowing, really cold outside, the hazardous work conditions, you still gotta deliver these groceries,” Hom says, adding: ?“If you refuse to, you’re probably going to get written up.”

When remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through New York in September 2021, images of delivery workers fulfilling orders for those hunkered down at home circulated online. One video, which shows a rider carrying an order through waist-deep water, prompted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tweet, ?“If it’s too dangerous for you, it’s too dangerous for them.”

To Colón Hernández, the unacceptability of this risk should be obvious. ?“If there is a hurricane, no one should be out there,” she says. She adds that, even in wintry conditions, ?“They are out there doing the work that nobody wants to do. They need to be compensated fairly.”

Veena Dubal, a San Francisco-based law professor whose research centers on the gig economy, says, ?“In an industry where there is such a high rate
of injury, so much wear and tear on one’s body and health, there has to be a wage premium,” Dubal says. ?“These have to be good jobs, not make-it-by-the-seat-of-my-pants jobs.”

Josh Wood, a delivery worker for Uber Eats covered by the new delivery legislation, says his experience with Los Deliveristas Unidos (“Delivery Workers United”), an organizing collective created by the Worker’s Justice Project, has bolstered his beliefs in workers’ rights. 

“Every worker,” Wood says, ?“should have a union, have a group of advocates for them, and should be in an industry that’s regulated.”

This blog post was printed at In These Times on April 21, 2022.

About the Author: Maggie Duffy is a Brooklyn-based writer and an In These Times editorial intern. She is a graduate of Occidental College where she earned a degree in sociology. She most recently worked as a researcher for American Friends Service Committee. 

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Amazon moves its army of union-busters to the next warehouse over, this week in the war on workers

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Following the Amazon Labor Union’s huge win in Staten Island, they’re going for it again. Workers at another, smaller warehouse—called LDJ5—will begin voting on April 25, and Amazon is once again going hard with its union-busting campaign. 

“All those union-busters that were there to union-bust 8,000 workers at JFK8 have walked across the street and are in our little building of 1,600 people,” LDJ5 worker Madeline Wesley told reporters at a press conference last week. “They’re really fighting us, and they’re playing really dirty.”

The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over captive audience meetings being conducted by veteran union-buster Rebecca Smith. The workers at LDJ5 will face enormous intimidation in the coming 10 days, but they can also look at JFK8 and take their inspiration.

“I can’t believe the building across from us, JFK8, got a union,” 18-year-old Ursula Tomaszuk told Labor Notes. “I thought it wasn’t doable until now.”

This blog was originally posted at Daily Kos on April 16, 2022.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 

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A Hotline Garment Workers Can Call When They Face Harassment on the Job

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When women who sew clothes for famous brands are harassed, there is a new place for them to turn.

MASERU, LESOTHO?—?When Nthabiseng Moshoeshoe’s supervisor told her he loved her, they were alone in a room where they both worked at a blue jeans factory in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, she says.

It was early 2021. She was emptying the garbage. He said she was beautiful, that he wanted to be with her, says Moshoeshoe, who is going by a pseudonym to protect her safety and job security. ?“Let’s keep this professional,” she remembers telling him back. ?“I pushed him away gently.” 

But he didn’t receive the news kindly, she says. From then on, she reports that he made repeated complaints about her performance. She grew worried she would lose her job, and with it the paycheck of $150 a month she relied on as her family’s breadwinner. 

For the women who sew the Western world’s clothes in Lesotho?—?the tiny country buried inside South Africa?—?men like Moshoeshoe’s supervisor have long been largely untouchable. In the factory where she worked sewing jeans for brands like Levi’s, Wrangler and The Children’s Place, it was an open secret that male supervisors traded sex for promotions and permanent jobs. And that they made work life painful for those who refused to give it to them. 

But not long after Moshoeshoe’s confrontation with her boss last year, she says she saw a poster at the factory advertising an information line to report sexual harassment. 

Though she didn’t know it, when she dialed that number, she was part of a grand experiment?—?one that advocates say has the potential to help make factories safer for women around the world. It’s modeled after labor hotlines in Bangladesh’s garment factories and Florida’s tomato fields.

The line in Lesotho is trying that approach for sexual harassment complaints, giving workers a way to report problems to someone outside the factory. That’s particularly important in an industry that is both dominated globally by women, and where sexual harassment is a documented, endemic crisis.

In an industry that has long been largely allowed to police itself, these hotlines are part of a greater movement toward accountability for brands and factories. But even their supporters are quick to point out that they are not a cure-all. Many of the conditions that make gender-based violence hard to stamp out in the world at large?—?like stigma and victim-blaming?—?exist in factories too. And in an industry beholden to the frenzied pace and dizzyingly low prices of fast fashion, working conditions remain difficult to regulate. 

Still, experts say, putting outside eyes on factories is a good place to start. ?“Left to their own devices, companies have largely failed to improve working conditions in their supply chains,” says Jason Judd, executive director of the New Conversations Project at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school. Since the 1990s, he notes, the dominant model in the industry has been a system of social audits, where brands pay independent assessors to inspect factories for poor working conditions. But the quality of those audits is extremely inconsistent, and consequences for poorly-scoring factories are uneven at best.

But Judd says that in recent years, brands have begun to feel increased outside pressure?—?from consumers and governments in the countries where they sell their clothes?—?to be more rigorous in policing their suppliers. This comes at a time when the pandemic has exposed massive vulnerabilities on the supply side of clothing manufacturing, with brands canceling billions of dollars of orders, leaving factories and workers in the lurch. That has created, in many parts of the world, tenuous alliances between unions and factories, both desperate to keep business from shutting down. 

Lesotho’s sexual harassment line is one such example of this. On a recent morning, 20 garment workers sat in a pre-fab conference room beside the blue factory shell where they worked in a scrubby industrial district of Maseru, listening to union organizer Matsi Moalosi explain how the sexual harassment call line work. 

“After you report, you can get counseling, and the situation will be investigated,” she explained, raising her voice over the chatter of hundreds of workers on their lunch hour outside. 

The information line had its genesis in 2019, when a report by the labor NGO Worker Rights Consortium uncovered widespread sexual harassment and abuse at the factory group where Moalosi was doing the training?—?a Taiwanese company called Nien Hsing operating in Lesotho.

The factory owners initially denied the report. But its meticulous documentation, which included dozens of women independently reporting similar offenses, and a raft of bad press quickly forced the factories and the companies they manufactured for to the negotiating table. 

The brands and factories struck a deal with local labor unions and women’s rights groups. If the factories wanted to keep getting orders from the likes of Levi’s, Wrangler, and other major brands, they would agree to do two things. First, they would consent to a third-party complaints line, staffed by the Lesotho Federation of Women Lawyers, a local NGO. A second NGO, the Workers Rights Watch, would then investigate the complaints and ?“direct and enforce remedies in accordance with the Lesotho law,” according to a press release from the Worker Rights Consortium at the time. The three major brands involved agreed that if Nien Hsing was found breaching the agreement, they would reduce or cut off orders until it returned to compliance. 

Second, the factories would let the three major local trade unions, along with women’s rights NGOs, run trainings for every worker, teaching them how to access the hotline when they needed it.

Lesotho’s garment sector is heavily unionized, and ?“it was important to us that we run the trainings because we understand the issues workers are facing, and they trust us,” says Solong Senohe, general secretary of United Textile Employees (UNITE). ?“If someone who didn’t know them came and tried to teach them [about reporting sexual harassment], they might not trust that they should do it.” 

“It was important that it was a shift to an independent reporting mechanism outside of the law, because in Lesotho, the law is not trusted,” says Mampiletso Kobo, an investigator at Workers Rights Watch. As in many parts of the world, rates of sexual violence are high in the country, and women frequently say they face ?“harsh and accusatory questioning” from police when they report it. 

There hasn’t yet been any outside study of how well the hotline is working, and the pandemic has slowed down its rollout, but in Lesotho, workers and their advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic?—?with some caveats. 

A hotline is a blunt instrument, and sexual harassment is a nuanced problem, they note. After Moshoeshoe reported her harassment, for instance, she says her former supervisor was given a warning and moved to a different department. But although the hotline is theoretically anonymous, everyone around her seemed to know she had reported him, and people began to take sides. ?“I don’t feel very good being at work now,” she says. At the same time, she says, ?“other women who have problems with their bosses, they come to me now to ask for help. I help make them brave.”

For now, the program is limited to Nien Hsing’s factories, which together employ about 10,000 workers. That means the women working in most of Lesotho’s garment factories remain unprotected, and so far there’s been no move to scale the hotline up, or try a similar model in other countries. Indeed, advocates say that enforcing meaningful, widespread protections for garment workers anywhere in the world remains a constant challenge in the face of pressure from fast fashion brands to keep prices low and produce at extraordinarily brisk rates. 

“The companies are always threatening us that if we ask for too much, they will go to another country that’s cheaper,” says Rorisang Kamoli, a shop steward for UNITE at Nien Hsing. 

Meanwhile, the Lesotho Federation of Women Lawyers, which runs the hotline, says many who call it actually have complaints about workplace conditions that are unrelated to sexual violence, showing just how great the need is for outside reporting mechanisms for all kinds of workplace issues. 

Despite the problems it has brought her, Moshoeshoe says she is glad she reported what happened to her. ?“Before, men were never punished for this,” she says. ?“Now when we report, they hear us.” 

Majirata Latela contributed reporting. This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

This blog was originally printed at In These Times on April 18, 2022.

About the Author: Ryan Lenora Brown is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes frequently about fashion, sustainability, and the women who make our clothes.

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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Wisconsin AFL-CIO Supports Striking UAW Members at Vollrath Manufacturing

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

On April 4, more than 250 members of UAW Local 1472 went on strike at Vollrath Manufacturing in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The workers at Vollrath produce deep drawing, metal spinning, metal fabrication, annealing, polishing and finishing, and refrigeration systems. The workers are striking over wages and the equitable elimination of wage tiers for employees.

President Stephanie Bloomingdale (AFT) said the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO fully supports the UAW members: “The Wisconsin labor movement proudly stands in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of UAW Local 1472 on strike at Vollrath in Sheboygan for a fair and just contract. UAW Local 1472 members are holding the line to protect our American middle class and standing up for fair wages and benefits. We urge Vollrath to come back to the table and negotiate in good faith with meaningful proposals to reach a mutually agreeable contract. It’s never easy to go on strike. The brave members of UAW Local 1472 are coming together and taking courageous action to protect and advance good jobs in our local communities across Wisconsin.”

This blog post originally appeared at AFL-CIO on April 11, 2022.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at AFL-CIO.

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How to Create an Employee-First Hybrid Office

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The hybrid workplace is the workplace of today, tomorrow, and long into the future. It provides flexibility that employees love. Plus, it helps businesses simultaneously reduce their operating costs and boost productivity and efficiency. 

There’s a lot to like about the hybrid workplace. Yet how you build your hybrid office can have far-flung effects on your company’s success. 

An employee-first hybrid office is key. This office ensures the wellbeing of employees is put front and center. The office allows employees to feel and perform their best. It also empowers businesses to get the best results from their hybrid workers. 

Why You Need to Create an Employee-First Hybrid Office

The sooner you embrace an employee-first hybrid office, the better. Many companies are expected to adopt hybrid workplaces in the months and years to come. This is due in large part to the fact that the hybrid workplace of the future is safe, sustainable, and flexible

A hybrid workplace gives employees opportunities to complete work tasks in a traditional office setting and outside of it. If employees have ongoing concerns about the COVID-19, they can continue to work remotely. Or, workers who prefer to come into the office frequently can do so. 

Meanwhile, businesses can reduce their carbon footprint by offering hybrid work opportunities. They can provide tips and tricks to help hybrid employees limit their electricity use and fuel consumption when they work at home, too. 

A hybrid workplace can help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance as well. Hybrid employees can spend less time commuting to work and more time at home with family. They can do so without sacrificing their workplace performance.

Tips to Create an Employee-First Hybrid Office

There are many things you can do to establish an employee-first hybrid office that meets your workers’ expectations. These include:

1. Learn from Your Workers

Find out what your employees want from your hybrid office. You can conduct employee questionnaires and surveys to collect feedback from your workers. Next, you can use this feedback to create a hybrid office that suits your workers perfectly. 

Consider your employees’ workplace rights relative to your hybrid office. Your hybrid employees must receive the same level of support as your in-house workers. 

2. Establish an Onboarding Program for Hybrid Workers

Make it easy for hybrid workers to hit the ground running. Create an onboarding program to ensure workers receive the tools and technologies they need to thrive. 

Your onboarding program can include steps for employees to follow when they begin working in hybrid roles. The program can explain what resources are available to help employees adjust to working remotely. It can highlight who hybrid workers can contact if they have concerns or questions, too. 

3. Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Communicate and host meetings with hybrid workers regularly. Verify hybrid workers understand their roles and receive ample support. If workers need help, they should have no trouble reaching out for assistance. 

Offer hybrid workers multiple communication platforms. You can communicate with hybrid workers via phone calls, emails, and other communications. In addition, you can use Slack and other real-time communication platforms. You can also leverage video conferences for face-to-face meetings.

4. Promote a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Educate hybrid workers about the value of a healthy work-life balance. Hybrid employees are expected to perform a wide range of duties. At the same time, they should take care of themselves. This ensures hybrid employees are well-equipped to perform at peak levels without putting their health in danger. 

Encourage hybrid workers to take regular breaks throughout the day. These breaks enable workers to step away from the hustle and bustle of work. When workers return, they can feel revitalized and ready to tackle any tasks. 

Provide flexible work hours and other perks to foster a healthy work-life balance among your hybrid workforce. That way, hybrid employees can use these perks to stay on track and be great at work. 

The Bottom Line on Creating an Employee-First Hybrid Office

An employee-first hybrid office can be a difference-maker for your business. The office can help your company attract and retain top talent and achieve its desired results. 

Start building an employee-first hybrid office today. You can establish a hybrid office where workers of all skill and experience levels can succeed. From here, your company can reap the benefits of your hybrid office for many years to come. 

This blog was printed with permission.

About the Author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside. When Dan isn’t working on new content, you can find him with a coffee cup in one hand and searching for new music in the other.

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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: UWUA Members Take Control of Workplace Safety

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

While COVID-19 has made safety and personal protective equipment topics of discussion worldwide, workplace hazards are nothing new for utility workers. And members of the Utility Workers (UWUA) union deal with dangers every day they are on the job. In the latest edition of UWUA’s quarterly magazine, The Utility Worker, the union features an article that explains how many of its locals are implementing a range of effective safety models at work.

“This important piece shows there’s no wrong way to strengthen workplace safety culture,” said UWUA President James Slevin. “From employing full-time safety representatives (models used by Local 1-2, Michigan State Utility Workers Council and California Water Utility Council, for example), to a peer-to-peer model (used at Locals 127, 648, 369 and 335), or a statewide consortium (like that used by Locals 428, 397, 427, 425, 434), these locals are setting the bar high. I’m confident there’s something we can take and apply in our work from all of these examples.”

This was originally appeared at AFL-CIO on 04/04/2022.

About the Authors: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at AFL-CIO.

Aaron Gallant is the Internal Communications Specialist at AFL-CIO

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The Amazon Union Campaign Won By Following the Lead of Workers

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Amazon Labor Union shows us an essential ingredient of successful union campaigns: democratic autonomy.

Amazon.com: Shaun Richman: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle

Jeff Bezos has been brought back down to Earth. No boss is invincible. The workers at Staten Island’s JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center proved it by beating the massively rich and powerful corporation 2,654 to 2,131 in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election on April 1. Meanwhile, a rerun election campaign by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala. facility remains too close to call when challenged ballots are considered. That the workers in Staten Island organized themselves into an independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is profoundly heartening and begs for some introspection from labor leaders and organizing directors. Maybe, just maybe, workers are ready to organize on a massive scale. What are existing unions doing to make the most of the moment?

One of the first lessons from JFK8 is that the workers did a pretty good job of organizing themselves. It was a worker-led movement with a leadership group that sought out the existing workplace leaders (co-workers who are respected, trusted and listened to). They read books, they had worker-to-worker conversations, and they engaged in job actions and demonstrations to cut through some of the fear. They were transparent about their aims, built trust and kept themselves accountable to each other. This is pretty basic stuff, but far too many unions cut corners to get a quick election before the boss can chip away too much support, instead of organizing for a long-haul struggle. We have decades worth of scientific research about effective organizing model tactics, yet too many union organizing directors still justify their campaigns as exceptions to the rules. This goes a long way to explain why the workers in Staten Island and in many other parts of the country have chosen to go it alone. 

I’ll be honest. I didn’t think ALU would win their NLRB election. The rigged rules of union certification campaigns, permitting bosses to spend hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars on 24/7 campaigns of psy-ops, lies, threats, targeted harassment and retaliation are too stacked against workers to typically win the high-stakes, winner-take-all elections. This is the main reason why while 68% of the public supports unions, and half of all workers say they would vote for a union tomorrow, private sector union density hovers at around 7%. (I’ve been encouraging Amazon workers who are organizing elsewhere to consider filing for minority union certifications to win themselves a form of meet-and-confer recognition and build from there.)

Partly, what makes boss campaigns successful is that they tap into fear of the unknown, and what comes the day after an NLRB election is a huge unknown for too many workers. Bosses will threaten that everything you like about the job could be bargained away, or that nothing will change unless the union ?“makes” you go on strike, and that if you go on strike you could lose your job. The fear they’re stoking is not only of their own dictatorial power, but also the fear of losing agency to the authority of a new boss?—?the ?“union boss.” The workers at JFK8, all on their own, could turn to each other and state the obvious: ?“How the hell am I going to make you strike? We can only go on strike if enough of us agree that it’s necessary and its time has come.” Mind you, this is true of any union and any organized workplace, but too many union campaigns don’t address this crucial piece of inoculation by centering the workers’ own agency in such a life-or-death decision. Similarly, too many unions don’t build bargaining and representation decisions into their new organizing campaigns, despite the research that shows that building for the first contract through surveys, meetings and other democratic practices—before the election?—?is one of the 10 union tactics most correlated with NLRB election wins.

Some people may look at the success of ALU, and at the continuing frustrations of RWDSU’s efforts in Bessemer, and draw the conclusion that organizing independently of the established unions is a key to success. That would be a mistake. Only a major international union can muster the resources to take on Amazon across the continent and win a coast-to-coast union contract covering workers at all fulfillment centers. I may be confirming my priors, but the victory on Staten Island does provide an argument that unions need to be way more open to chartering new locals for new union organizing campaigns.

I’ve argued that labor’s ambitious ?“organize or die” era (basically, from the election of John Sweeney in 1995 until Change to Win petered out about a decade ago) was frustrated by institutional tensions that went unaddressed. International unions have an existential need to organize new industries and employers. But in order to maximize financial resources, most unions tried to organize new members into their existing locals, where leaders have very different motivations: namely, to win good contracts for, and be re-elected by, the existing union members that they know. Those tensions led to a lot of good campaigns getting spiked because of internal disagreements and political sabotage. Workers pick up on these tensions, and it adds unhelpful noise to a campaign. Workers want to know where their contract priorities and workplace leaders will fit within a union whose bread and butter has been, say, UPS drivers or workers at Macy’s department store. No existing international union?—?not the RWDSU nor the Teamsters nor even the UAW if they decide the ?“A” stands for ?“Amazon”?—?will successfully organize the workers at Amazon or any other large anti-union company without guaranteeing the workers a significant degree of democratic autonomy and agenda-setting on the front-end.

I keep thumping on the organizing model, but the truth is that it badly needs reevaluating in a way that hasn’t been done since the 1990s. Then, the AFL-CIO under the new leadership of John Sweeney initiated a thorough look at the priorities and practices of union organizing. Academics and labor educators were engaged, research reports were commissioned, left-wing organizers who were shunned during the Lane Kirkland years were put on payroll and contributed to the so-called ?“theory of the win,” new organizing training were developed, and strategic corporate research departments were staffed up. Although the unions that take organizing seriously have learned, evolved and added to their best practices, some of the unspoken assumptions from that long-ago era that undergird the organizing model need to be reconsidered. In particular, we need to question the assumption that the boss can and will fire workers and launch a reign of terror (still true, but); that no one in power will stop them or care; that it will have a chilling effect on the workers striving to win a union for themselves; and that support for a union drive can only decline after going public?—?assumptions that default to a limited number of staff-driven campaigns organized in secret. It would be wonderful if the AFL-CIO again took leadership and convened an all-stakeholders review of what we’ve learned and what’s happening in worker attitudes to develop effective union organizing strategies two decades into this new century.

This blog was originally printed at In These Times on 04/04/2022.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College and author of Tell The Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century.

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