Putting Labor Back in Labor Day

Now more than ever, labor is tech and union drives at Amazon and grassroots movements like #appletoo are fighting for worker rights.

Photo: Some union workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama lost their union vote by more than a 2:1 ratio earlier this year. | Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

03 September 2021 | Anna Kramer | Protocol

When the International Brotherhood of Teamsters formed a union in 1903, its leaders wanted horse and buggy drivers to unite against the capricious ways that companies selected their freelance wagon drivers at shipyards. That union eventually represented almost every U.S.-based trucker and delivery driver for the next century — until the birth of Amazon fulfillment services.

No one has ever come close to a successful union drive at Amazon, but Randy Korgan, the leader of the Amazon collective organizing push at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, thinks his union could be the first to replicate the efforts that began in 1903.

Amazon’s system for delivery relies partially on drivers contracted as freelancers battling for pickups outside the warehouse, just like the shipyards of old — and to Korgan, the fight is the same as it was a century ago.

“It’s history repeating itself. We were here in the 1920s and 1930s. Drivers, when there were horses in front of us and reins in our hands, all of those people were waiting in line to pick up freight, we were independent contractors. Now, whether there’s a horse in front of them, or a keyboard in front of them, it’s the same exploitative practice,” he said. The Teamsters see Amazon as an existential threat to its unionized workers and believe the company is reshaping industry standards in a way that hurts the worker rights and protections the company has secured in past union contracts.

Apple employees are sharing stories of workplace issues with a new collective movement calling itself #AppleToo. | Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

Labor Day became a federal holiday about 100 years before anyone could conceive of a tech company. Yet to labor leaders today, the 2021 Labor Day story is inextricably a tech company story. Many of the country’s largest employers and wealthiest companies are tech companies (Amazon, Google, Apple, Tesla) or tech-adjacent (Walmart, FedEx, IBM, Target), and the biggest fights over worker rights are happening within their physical (and virtual) halls.

Almost every job is somehow a tech job today. The lives of grocery store cashiers, fast-food cooks and factory line workers are shaped by the technology designed to make their jobs faster. Warehouse storage and fulfillment, delivery and gig driving, data center maintenance, AI data training and cleaning, content moderation, electric-car construction, retail sales, technology repair — these jobs power the financial machine of American tech companies, and the people who work them are the ones that Labor Day was first designed to celebrate.

And while most of the tech industry is not unionized, Labor Day is inextricably tied to the American unions that led the effort for its formation and the union leaders who still see the holiday as a day to celebrate collective action and worker power. Peter Maguire, a union leader for American carpenters who is widely considered one of the founders of Labor Day, called it a day to celebrate workers “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

Companies like Amazon and Uber say that they have created abundant, high-paying jobs that allow worker flexibility, and that union efforts would take away both the freedom and high salaries they’ve provided. Software engineers at Google, Apple, Facebook and other major companies often say they have no interest in forming a union, or see unions as a tool for workers in mines and factories, not those who sit behind a desk every day.

A woman pickets lettuce shipments in 1936.Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

But whether tech leaders like it or not, questions of worker rights and labor laws are now mostly a battle between tech companies and unions. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has formed a department just focused on Amazon organizing; the Communications Workers of America and the Office and Professional Employees International Union both have branches dedicated just to organizing tech workers; Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig companies are battling gig-worker advocates in California, Massachusetts and federally over whether their gig workers can be defined as employees.

“We are seeing the beginning of an explosion of activity in our industry. At CWA alone, we have over 2,000 tech workers organized, the majority of whom are bargaining right now. Even in the coming weeks, there will be something really exciting that we get to announce,” Emma Kinema, an organizer for CODE-CWA (CWA’s tech unionizing effort), told Protocol. “Whenever people are surveyed, it’s very clear that an overwhelming majority want to have a union.” (Protocol’s July 2021 survey found that about half of all tech workers are interested in joining a union in their workplace).

Early union efforts have had mixed successes and failures. The Alphabet Workers Union, while not legally recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, has achieved some changes on behalf of specific workers. Earlier this year, workers at Glitch reached the first-ever collective bargaining agreement for software engineers, and workers contracted with HCL America agreed to the first-ever collective contract for Google workers. Even at notoriously secretive Apple, workers have begun speaking out about their experiences of discrimination and their anger at company policies, and some have begun a more formal collective organizing effort over the last few weeks.

But at Amazon, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost its much-touted union vote at a Bessemer, Alabama facility by more than a 2:1 ratio in April, and software engineers who organized a union with CWA at Mapbox lost their vote in August.

Union organizers blame weak labor law protections for lost votes. The NLRB ruled in August that Amazon violated labor laws during the Bessemer vote, meaning that workers there will likely get a second vote (Amazon is appealing the decision).

“One of the main reasons [for lack of unionization], with the rise of these companies as employers, they have entered into an environment where the law does not protect workers when they are trying to organize. Like antitrust law, it was powerful in the 1930s, but it has not been updated to deal with the fact that employers can both spend enormous sums of money to oppose unionization and also have both the legal freedom and the cultural freedom to intimidate and frighten workers from making a free choice,” said Michael Zucker, the executive director of the Strategic Organizing Center, a collective of union leaders pushing for change at tech companies through research, advocacy and the investment power of their workers’ pension funds.

Tech companies deny these allegations. “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” an Amazon spokesperson wrote in a statement after the Bessemer election. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”

When asked what she would say to a roomful of tech leaders on Labor Day, Kinema scoffed. “I don’t know if tech leaders would find Labor Day important, and I don’t know if I care that they do. Labor Day just is important. Every industry, including the technology industry, is built on labor,” she said. “A lot of people today have lost the meaning of the holiday — it’s to celebrate those that work every single day. Every worker in America has at some point benefited from collective action, from collective movements.”


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