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Amazon’s unionization vote comes at the worst time for company PR

March 29, 2021, 2:19 PM UTC

The clock is ticking on the most important labor-relations battle in this era of Big Tech, as a couple of thousand workers at Amazon’s massive warehouse near Birmingham, Alabama, must send in their ballots by today in voting whether to form a union.

The looming unionization vote seems to be taking a toll on the company’s top management.

If the warehouse staff vote to unionize and join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, it would still represent only a tiny sliver of employees at Amazon, less than 1% of the e-commerce giant’s 800,000-strong workforce nationwide.

And even with a union, Amazon wouldn’t be required to change conditions in the warehouse overnight. Workers have complained about being closely monitored and held to excessive productivity standards, making it hard to take a break or even go to the bathroom. Amazon says its performance measures are like those at many other companies and that workers are assessed on long-term performance. A vote to unionize would be just the start of a likely lengthy bargaining process over pay and terms of work.

But the vote is wrapping up at the same time Amazon is attracting some of the worst publicity imaginable. Amid reporting that Amazon delivery drivers were under so much time pressure that they sometimes peed in bottles, the company issued a strong denunciation on Twitter last week. Reporters quickly started receiving pictures of the bottles and even turned up evidence that the company knew of the problem. Then came Amazon’s tweets attacking Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Longtime Amazon reporter Jason Del Rey at Recode says the new, surlier tone followed complaints from the very top: CEO and founder Jeff Bezos.

It seems like a poorly timed fusillade that will only antagonize Amazon’s foes and dispirit even some of its allies. But it will likely be a few more days until the National Labor Relations Board tallies the unionization votes and announces the results. Let’s wait ’til the votes are in.

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NEWSWORTHY

The vanishing. What's this? Elon Musk, the most opinionated tech CEO in the world, deleting his tweets? That's what happened Friday after the Tesla CEO tweeted that there was a greater-than-zero percent chance his company could become more valuable than Apple. After a 2018 settlement with securities regulators, Tesla is supposed to review Musk's tweets about the company to ensure they aren't on the wrong side of the law. And speaking of playing against type, Boston Dynamics is mostly known for its scary, fast-moving robots. But today it unveiled a blocky, boxy model called Stretch that does little more than move boxes around a warehouse. I guess the robot's giant suction cup could be a little scary.

The way, way back. With the pandemic seemingly waning, tech companies are planning office reopenings. Facebook said it will begin welcoming workers back to its Silicon Valley offices in May.

You shall not pass–without a QR code. Whether it's a good idea or not, digital vaccine passports are about to become a thing. On Friday, New York State debuted the "Excelsior Pass," a mobile app relying on IBM's blockchain to generate scannable codes for people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The codes are also supposed to be available printed on paper for people without phones, but that seems to defeat the purpose of the digital verification system.

Clothes line saga. On Wall Street, online used clothing startup ThredUp went public on Friday pricing its shares at $14. The stock closed at $20, up 43%, giving the company a market value of $1.8 billion. And investing giant Fidelity Investments filed to open an exchange-traded fund called the Wise Origin Bitcoin Trust that will track the price of bitcoin.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

A new kind of game is gaining popularity with kids who are bored with staring at screens all day, Tanya Basu reports for MIT Technology Review. These are audio-focused games that play out through spoken words and sounds.

Voice-led entertainment is uniquely capable of delivering that kind of understanding, according to Naomi Baron, professor emerita of linguistics at American University and author of How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio. “The concern with screen time has not just been the hours our eyes have been glued to the screen, but the shallowness of most of the interaction,” Baron says. “You aren’t putting in mental effort.”

With audio stories and games, however, the information isn’t presented to you on a platter. Imagination is required, and it takes more focus and attention than gazing at a screen. Baron says research has shown that with this type of learning, comprehension and recall are much higher for developing readers. She adds that older listeners can benefit too, particularly if English is not their first language, their learning style is less visual, or they are visually impaired.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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New lawsuit accuses Amazon of fixing book prices By Chris Morris

Bubble or no bubble? A well-known artist weighs in on the NFT craze By Martine Paris

Asian American business leaders speak out about AAPI hate and the Atlanta attack By Michal Lev-Ram and Emma Hinchliffe

The new online grocer championing the diversity of Asian American cuisines and cultures By Rachel King

How crypto can fix one of its biggest problems By Aaron Grunfeld and Brennan Spellacy

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BEFORE YOU GO

We could finish today's Data Sheet with an update on the Ever Given (spoiler alert: it's almost ever unstuck), but for something a little more diverting, shift your attention to France where the Louvre announced it had put its entire collection of almost half a million artifacts and works of art on display online.

Don't know where to begin? Ace blogger Jason Kottke noticed that the museum has created a bunch of theme-based greatest hits lists (the Louvre is calling them "albums") that make a great starting point. So kick off the week with artistic flair.