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Unions have a long way to go after victory over Amazon

April 4, 2022, 6:39 PM UTC

Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern.

Those wise words kept rolling around in my head over the weekend while pondering the meaning of Friday’s stunning victory by New York City’s Amazon Labor Union, which secured the first successful unionization drive at an Amazon facility in the U.S. 

The story is undeniably remarkable: A fired warehouse employee and his best friend take on one of the nation’s largest, most anti-union corporations, eschewing Big Labor’s help as they launch a grass-roots campaign on Staten Island for their long-shot unionization election. Aided by the company’s buffoonish union-busting tactics, they rally 55% support for their union. They celebrate by spilling Champagne on the streets of the Big Apple, basking in their conquest.

The win led to glowing news profiles, accolades from pro-union politicians, and predictions of organized labor’s triumphant rebirth. “The unionization vote reflects an era of rising worker power,” the New York Times wrote. “The organizing victory at Amazon on Staten Island is a signal that American workers will no longer accept exploitation,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted.

It’s all understandable given the gravity of the moment. Who doesn’t love a good David versus multinational corporation story?

But when the bubbly stops flowing and the spotlight on Staten Island fades, union advocates will be left with this cold reality: There’s still not much momentum on organized labor’s side. Especially in tech.

In theory, unions should thrive at this moment in history. The global pandemic amplified frictions between business and labor, as profit-driven corporations pushed to keep employees on the job despite legitimate public health concerns. People are leaving jobs at record rates, giving them newfound power in a labor market short on supply. Unions last year achieved their highest level of public support since the mid-1960s, according to Gallup polls.

And yet, union membership declined in 2021, falling from 6.3% to 6.1% of all private-sector employees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions made no progress in the computer and mathematical occupations, or in the wholesale and retail trade industry.

While news articles repeated anecdotes this weekend about recent unionization victories by hundreds of Starbucks baristas, Google contractors in Kansas City, REI staffers in New York, and Apple retail workers in several stores, those employees represent an infinitesimally tiny fraction of laborers across the country.

In many ways, Amazon offers a microcosm of this phenomenon.

Over the past several years, numerous media outlets have documented Amazon’s higher-than-average warehouse injury rates. The company’s strict tracking of workers’ on-the-job performance borders on Orwellian. The stupefying wealth of founder Jeff Bezos relative to the average Amazon worker is common knowledge.

Despite all this, Amazon employees have organized a grand total of two unionization elections, only one of which has proved successful (a union revote at an Alabama facility appeared to fail Friday, though labor organizers are contesting the results). For context, the company has more than 100 warehouses and hundreds of smaller facilities throughout the U.S.

The reasons for this dearth of organized labor are debatable. Amazon claims its employees are satisfied by the company’s pay and benefits packages. Labor advocates argue the e-commerce giant employs ugly union-busting tactics. Analysts point to high turnover rates among blue-collar workers, which stymie efforts to marshal union support.

Regardless of the rationale, the fact remains that unionization at Amazon and other tech companies remains very much the exception, rather than the rule. 

Organized labor can proclaim it’s a new day for workers, but without far greater momentum on their side, this Staten Island stunner still looks far more like chance than a pattern.

***

A quick programming note: Registration is now open for Fortune’s seventh annual Brainstorm Health conference, scheduled for May 10-11 in Los Angeles. The event is by invitation only, but Data Sheet readers will get special consideration if they register. Several speakers will address the intersection of tech and life sciences, among many other topics. On the agenda…

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For a full lineup of speakers and events, or to register now, click here

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Well this just got interesting. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is now the largest outside shareholder of Twitter stock after he unexpectedly purchased a 9.2% stake in the social media company. It’s not immediately clear whether Musk, who recently criticized Twitter’s free-speech policies, will use his position to influence the company’s operations. Musk’s purchase, estimated to cost nearly $3 billion, sent Twitter shares up 27% in midday trading Monday. The outspoken Tesla chief has 80.2 million followers on Twitter, where his commentary has drawn scrutiny from Securities and Exchange Commission regulators.

Making it work. Tesla’s vehicle delivery growth slowed in the first quarter of 2022, an expected development attributed to global supply-chain issues and COVID-induced lockdowns impacting its plant in Shanghai, Bloomberg reported. The electric vehicle manufacturer delivered 310,048 cars in the quarter, a fractional increase from its 308,600 deliveries in the fourth quarter of 2021. The total barely beat analysts’ expectations, helping to drive a 6% jump in Tesla stock as of midday trading Monday.

Jumping off the Trump train. Two top executives affiliated with Donald Trump’s scuffling social media company have resigned, Reuters reported Monday, citing several sources familiar with the matter. Josh Adams and Billy Boozer, the respective chiefs of technology and product development for Trump Media & Technology Group, stepped down amid a haphazard rollout of the former president’s long-promised social media app, Truth Social. While the circumstances of the resignations are unclear, the departures come as Truth Social downloads crater and Trump remains conspicuously absent from the platform.

A new day in Washington. The State Department formally launched a new cyberspace and digital policy bureau Monday, with the goal of shaping international rules and regulations related to the internet, The Hill reported. The department will employ nearly 100 staffers who report to a Senate-confirmed ambassador, according to the Washington Post. White House officials said the division, which has bipartisan support from lawmakers and a top congressional cyberspace commission, will support improved government collaboration on cybersecurity, digital, and diplomacy matters.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The enemy of my enemy is my friend? As Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Meta play defense against antitrust crusaders in Washington, Microsoft finds itself sitting relatively pretty with members of Congress. The Wall Street Journal took a deep dive this weekend into the software giant’s political charm offensive, examining how company president Brad Smith has deftly deflected scrutiny while pushing attention onto his tech rivals. Microsoft’s goodwill faces a stiff test in the coming months, as regulators examine the company’s planned $68.7 billion acquisition of video game developer Activision Blizzard.

From the article

Mr. Smith’s strategy has been to cooperate with regulators who often have Microsoft’s rivals in the crosshairs. 

He has criticized Apple’s operation of its App Store—as Microsoft tries to bring its “Netflix for gaming” service to the iPhone. He has supported measures to cut into Facebook and Google’s dominance of digital advertising—which could benefit Microsoft’s search and digital-ad businesses. His support of tech-sector regulations has cut against efforts by Amazon, Microsoft’s fierce rival in cloud computing, to fight constraints on its business practices.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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BEFORE YOU GO

Leslie Knope would not approve. Here’s one way to successfully sell people the metaverse: Tell them it’ll replace the DMV. An Insider report Monday explores how municipal and state governments might use the still-nebulous metaverse to replace those annoying trips to city hall and other unpleasant bureaucratic buildings. An early pilot out of Seoul might offer insight into the local government of the future, where mundane tasks can be accomplished virtually instead of in-person. The Seoul effort remains at least one year from launch, and few cities are getting on board just yet.

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