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Will Amazon’s first union have something to say about surveillance tech?

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Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls celebrates with colleagues, following the vote for the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York.

Union organizer Christian Smalls (L) celebrates with Amazon workers following the April 1, 2022, vote for the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York. - Amazon workers in New York voted Friday to establish the first US union at the e-commerce giant, a milestone for a company that has steadfastly opposed organized labor in its massive workforce. Employees at the Staten Island JFK8 warehouse voted 2,654 to 2,131 in support of the unionizing drive, according to a tally of ballots from the National Labor Relations Board. (Photo by Andrea RENAULT / AFP) (Photo by ANDREA RENAULT/AFP via Getty Images)

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It’s going to be a minute before the contours of an actual collective bargaining agreement come into focus for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, who voted to unionize Friday.

Amazon says it’s evaluating options to contest the election. But the union drive has put workplace conditions in the spotlight, including how the company uses technology to monitor its warehouse employees.

Lisa Kresge is a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center. She said there’s a long history of unions negotiating management’s use of technology in the workplace, and Amazon warehouses use plenty of it. The following is an edited transcript of Kresge’s conversation with “Marketplace Tech’s” Meghan McCarty Carino.

Lisa Kresge: They all operate a general warehouse management system that manages the inventory, orders and day-to-day operations. Workers will use radio frequency scanners that connect to that management system software. And the data collected from these scanners enables Amazon to track the amount of time it takes a worker to pick and scan an item, their scan errors and the lag time between scans.

Meghan McCarty Carino: And you’ve spoken to warehouse employees who’ve worked under these conditions?

Kresge: I have. One worker explained to me that managers can basically just pull up a computer and see exactly how many minutes have passed since their last scan and if they fall behind the scan, on their rate or have too many scan errors, which is exhausting to be under that level of scrutiny all day long.

McCarty Carino: So is tech like this being adopted at other companies?

Lisa Kresge (Courtesy Ana Fox-Hodess)

Kresge: I mean, this is a common system in other warehouses. Some are much more advanced than others. You know, some warehouses are still using paper and clipboards. But across multiple industries, employers are adopting electronic monitoring and managing technologies.

McCarty Carino: Are there any recent examples of workers sort of using union contracts to create guidelines or restrict this kind of tech and how it’s integrated into their jobs?

Kresge: Sure. Unions have a really long history of bargaining over technology and the specific types of issues that Amazon workers face. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, unions bargained over productivity gains derived from assembly line automation and manufacturing. They were bargaining over concerns about job displacement and layoffs. And they negotiated for notice, advance notice, and information about the technologies, job security, job training.

Starting in the 1980s and picking up in the 1990s with computer and internet technologies, unions started bargaining over electronic monitoring. So the Teamsters, for example, have negotiated multiple provisions related to electronic monitoring technologies that are embedded in their trucks or in their hand-held devices to prohibit that data being used to discipline workers or as the sole basis for evaluating workers. And in the last few years, national sports leagues have negotiated around the sensors and wearable technologies that they wear. A recent NFL agreement prohibits data collection from sensors being used for contract negotiations. And the NBA recently negotiated to have a provision that allows players unions to retain experts who can actually validate the devices and sets cybersecurity standards.

McCarty Carino: What’s been the upshot of these kinds of efforts? Because I can hear the management argument of, you know, this is going to slow down innovation. Has that been the case?

Kresge: There’s a lot of research out there about user design, right? User-focused design in the technology world. And when you don’t involve the people who actually use the systems in the design and development of them, they are not as effective. There are many examples where unions have actually negotiated for the introduction of new technology. So for example, Unite Here negotiated for panic buttons for hotel housekeepers. And this same technology can be used to track workers on a microlevel as they move throughout the hotel. But the union placed limits on how the technology can be used by managers. And so it’s really less about the technology itself and more about how it’s used by managers, and there are choices there.

Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

Kresge’s full working paper for the UC Berkeley Labor Center has more information about union contract strategies in response to technology, including that tidbit about professional sports and wearables.

The Atlantic dug into this issue back in 2017, when the current NBA contract was negotiated, and pointed out that biometric data can be superuseful in sports. It can help teams set the best training schedules and gives them more data on when and how much to rest a particular player.

But the obvious concern for players is that this personal health information could be used against them, especially when they negotiate their multimillion-dollar salaries.

The players union prohibits management from using the data in this way with a penalty of $250,000.

Of course, we don’t yet know the role surveillance technology will play in forthcoming negotiations between Amazon and the labor union, but the union has made its initial demands pretty clear. They include a permanent reversal of a policy that banned cellphones on warehouse floors.

That organizing effort got a presidential shoutout Wednesday as Joe Biden spoke at a labor conference. The president touted the steps his administration has taken to promote unions and said, “Amazon … here we come.”

Correction (April 7, 2022): Previous versions of this web and audio story misidentified the provisions of a recent NFL contract.

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