An Amazon warehouse worker
Photo: Amazon

Amazon workers unionized in New York. Now what?

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Good morning! Everyone was ready for the Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island to be unsuccessful in their unionization attempts. Last week they surprised everyone by winning. I’m Anna Kramer, and I am a die-hard Villanova fan.

Amazon’s first union

On Friday morning, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island secured a sweeping and unexpected victory against their employer: They voted to form a union, explicitly against Amazon’s wishes. This is the first successful union attempt at Amazon in its history in the United States, despite the fact that the company is the nation’s second-largest private sector employer and is growing so fast that it’s on track to surpass Walmart as the first.

More than 8,000 workers were eligible to vote to unionize the JFK8 Staten Island warehouse., making the union victory noteworthy, not just because it was the first at one of the country’s biggest companies, but because of the size of the group. Typically, union votes become increasingly difficult the more powerful the company and the larger the group of voters (a 12-person election is much easier to win than an 8,000-person one).

But what happens now that they won? Everyone was prepared for this to be yet another failed unionization attempt, and all the plans for what happens next were theoretical and hypothetical until now.

  • Though Amazon hasn’t answered specific questions about its plans, it sounds like we can expect some aggressive fighting of this result, not just against the workers but also the National Labor Relations Board itself (the NLRB is the federal government body responsible for holding the election and making sure that both sides abide by U.S. labor laws).
  • “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election,” Amazon said in a statement.

Both sides are always given the opportunity to file election objections after the fact. But for the objections to be targeted at the referee, not at the opposing team, is very unusual. The NLRB’s behavior and decision-making does tend to shift depending on the administration in the White House, which has administrative power over its rulings. President Joe Biden is the most pro-labor president in recent history, and experts like Clark have noticed that the NLRB seems to be ruling in favor of and advocating more for workers compared to its time under the Trump administration.

  • But Paul Clark, who directs the graduate program for Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University, and other experts generally see the NLRB as a fairly weak institution with limited power over employers, especially when compared to the labor regulators in European countries. “The labor laws in this country as they stand right now are very, very weak. They operate largely in favor of employers,” Clark told me.
  • So going after the NLRB for the outcome is basically like choosing to pick an open fight between Amazon and the Biden administration.
  • Objections to the election must be filed within a week of the result, so we can anticipate more news from Amazon on that front in the coming days.

If the NLRB does certify the election victory in the next few weeks, then Amazon is legally required to sit down and try to negotiate a contract with the union. Most employers that don’t want their workers to be unionized will slow-play this for a year or more and never actually reach an agreement with workers on anything substantive like wages, Clark told me. And that could easily happen with Amazon, too.

  • But if workers can successfully strike and hamstring Amazon’s business in Staten Island, they might get the chance to actually force changes to wages or working conditions, which would then likely cause ripples of similar activism across Amazon warehouses all over the country.

Regardless of how that contract plays out, this first victory will likely be a spark for Amazon organizers in other facilities and for worker organizing at private companies across the country.

  • “This is going to send a signal to workers in the private sector all across the country that if you’re dissatisfied with your workplace and your employer, there’s an option for you,” Clark said.
  • “These examples could be pretty powerful in terms of causing workers in workplaces around the country to understand that they do have a way to make things.”

The power of this example will be tested in just a few weeks, when a second warehouse in Staten Island is scheduled to follow suit with a union election with the same group of organizers. The voting there starts April 25.

— Anna Kramer (email | twitter)

On the calendar

How is tech setting and measuring climate goals?

Net zero. Carbon offsets. Scope 3 emissions. These are just some of the terms you’ll find in Big Tech’s climate plans. Understanding what they actually mean is vital to ensuring the industry is meeting its goals. Join us at 10 a.m. PT April 19, where Protocol's Brian Kahn will talk with some of the people responsible for setting those goals and experts who are monitoring them to find out what tech companies are really doing. RSVP here.

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People are talking

Jack Dorsey said he played a role in centralizing the internet and now regrets it:

  • “Centralizing discovery and identity into corporations really damaged the internet. I realize I'm partially to blame, and regret it.”

Karl Racine said state attorneys can give companies a quick path to right their wrongs:

  • “I think that’s why AGs are active. It’s because we have the ear of the public, and we have the enforcement tools necessary to call a company to account.”

Right now’s a good time to be a recruiter, according to talent leader Kelly Kinnard:

  • “The tables have really turned, in the sense that the recruiters are really in the position of power right now.”

Coming this week

Some Activision Blizzard employees will walk out today to protest the company’s decision to lift its vaccine mandate.

Microsoft will talk about Windows and the future of hybrid work tomorrow with Windows exec Panos Panay.

Giga Fest is Thursday. Tesla enthusiasts will gather to celebrate the opening of the company’s gigafactory in Texas.

A Netflix documentary on SpaceX drops Thursday. It’s called “Return to Space.”

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Tesla deliveries rose to about 310,000 cars this quarter, but the company said supply chain woes and factory shutdowns still stunted its production.

Netflix told workers to stop spending and hiring so much, The Information reported. It could be a sign that Netflix is struggling to hang onto subscribers.

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Did you catch the live Wordle competition last week? The event took place Friday at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the person with the lowest score across six rounds of the game won.

Existential internet thoughts

Maybe the internet started with the hope that it would fix a lot of society’s problems, but Justin E. H. Smith would liken it now to a “debate-themed video game” where everyone just plays with algorithms. Smith talked with Protocol about his new book, which deals with the hardships of the internet and leaves it to people (like you!) to address them. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

  • People aren’t really exchanging ideas online; they’re in a “pseudo-public space” that acts more like a video game than a free-flowing discussion.
  • Don’t say you're not on social media, because you are. “You’re living in a society that is at this point largely structured by algorithmic forces,” Smith said.
  • Smith thinks algorithms mess with dating, too, by enticing people to love someone they really “ought not to love.”
  • The U.S. is heading toward a “Chinese-style social credit system,” whether we like it or not.

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