According to an internal memo that surfaced Tuesday, Amazon was preparing to develop tools to track and possibly neutralize the threat of its workers organizing a union at its facilities.
According to the memo, dated February 2020, the e-commerce and technology giant wanted to ramp up data tools to evaluate “threats” to the company, among which it counted unions as well as factors such as weather and crime.
Unions, in fact, look like a major priority, with roughly half of the points in the 11-page document related to the topic or to other employee-related matters, according to reports. The contents included a request for hundreds of thousands of dollars for geoSPatial Operating Console, or SPOC, a system designed to collate, analyze and visually map out a variety of data — including those from human resources and Amazon global intelligence.
The data sets at stake would cover Whole Foods as well as Amazon’s main business to shed light on how union money flows and where local chapters are, as well as something called a “Union Relationship Map.”
Amazon did not immediately respond to a WWD request for comment. But according to press reports, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company respects “employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment.” She added that “direct engagement” with employees is a big part of the company’s work culture. In the reports, she did not deny the existence of the memo.
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Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said of the reports: “Today’s leak sheds light on the horrendous data mining work we’ve known Amazon was capable of for far too long — it’s disturbing on every conceivable level.”
He sees the moves to track and analyze “workers’ micro-movements,” along with Amazon’s legislative policy campaigns as union-busting efforts.
“It’s one thing to track a shopper’s Internet activity to best market a pair of shoes to them, but it’s another when your intent is to control the minds of your workforce,” Applebaum continued, calling the project “an attempt to silence a workforce experiencing some of the most egregious workplace hazards we’ve ever seen.”
Amazon recently disclosed that nearly 20,000 employees contracted COVID-19 between March 1 and Sept. 19. During that time, the company employed 1.4 million people, a workforce bested only by Walmart in the U.S.
Although Amazon workers have successfully organized abroad, union momentum tended to stall in the U.S. But safety concerns amid the ongoing pandemic — which have already triggered protests at various Amazon warehouses — may have jumpstarted the effort.
This spring, the company terminated warehouse workers over what critics believed was retaliation for protests over lax safety measures. Amazon denied the accusations and rolled out temporary raises for workers, paid sick leave and $500 million in bonuses, with reported second-quarter investments of $4 billion on COVID-19-related initiatives.
They are but a fraction of Amazon’s booming business during the coronavirus pandemic, which pulled in revenue of $88.9 billion in the second quarter alone. And these policies haven’t stopped workers from filing safety-related lawsuits against the company. Now, with the revelations contained in the leak, Amazon could land in hot water with federal regulators.
The right of workers to collectively bargain is protected by law. According to federal agency The National Labor Relations Board, “The National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, or from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment, or refraining from any such activity. Similarly, labor organizations may not restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of these rights.”
Amazon is far from alone among retailers that take a dim view of unions, especially Walmart, which has earned an anti-union reputation through years of aggressive discouragement of employees. But Amazon’s greatest asset in e-commerce is its data mining and artificial intelligence expertise, which could also be used in its battle against its employees’ right to organize.
“Workers have rights in this country,” Applebaum said. “And it’s inexcusable for Amazon, or any company, to spy on workers to keep them from exercising these rights.”
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