How the pandemic is fueling the tech industry’s union push

The last votes for one of the most closely watched unionization drives in modern history came in on Monday, March 29, and results could be announced shortly.

The vote among almost 6,000 workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, on whether to join the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, drew reaction from every corner,  from the National Football Players Players Association to President Joe Biden to a group of deepfake “ambassadors.” Amazon, meanwhile, has used a series of increasingly aggressive tactics,  both against the union and in its public messaging. 

Why Bessemer? And why now? The facility in Alabama is fairly new. It opened around this time last year, as part of a pandemic hiring spree that ultimately saw the e-commerce giant—which is already the country’s second-largest private employer, after Walmart—add 400,000 new hires globally in 2020 alone. 

But the workers behind the unionization drive say such growth has come at a cost of worker dignity. “Working at an Amazon warehouse is no easy thing. The shifts are long. The pace is super-fast. You are constantly being watched and monitored. They seem to think you are just another machine,” said Jennifer Bates, one of the unionization organizers, in congressional testimony last month. And these issues are not limited to the Bessemer facility. 

Over the years, Amazon has become known for its dehumanizing working conditions, including constant surveillance, grueling workplaces that have made some employees (though not at Bessemer) resort to peeing in bottles. (Amazon denied those allegations in a in a snarky tweet, which was quickly refuted, and later apologized for its comments.) 

Workers, who are often directed by algorithmic decision-making, face the possibility of being fired at any time—sometimes by computers. And during the pandemic, warehouse workers have raised additional concerns about the lack of covid-19 protections afforded by a company that made a record profit in 2020. People of color are overrepresented in the ranks of warehouse workers and disproportionately affected by covid-19. Union organizers have estimated that about 85% of employees at the Bessemer location are Black. 

In response to accusations of unfair working conditions, Amazon tends to focus on its wages, which can be higher than those offered by local employers. In a statement sent to MIT Technology Review after the publication of this article, a spokesperson wrote: “Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote, and their voices will be heard in the days ahead.”

Alabama’s minimum wage is $7.25. However, the median salary for the greater Birmingham area, where Bessemer is located, is $3 higher than Amazon’s average, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Collective Action in Tech is a site that documents unionization and labor actions in the technology sector. We asked three of its organizers what they thought the Bessemer vote means—and how it fits into the broader story of labor movements in the tech industry. 

Ben Tarnoff is a self-described tech worker and the cofounder of Logic magazine. Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya is a UC Berkeley doctoral student in sociology and a fellow at the Jain Family Institute who focuses on tech, labor, and digital ethics, and Clarissa Redwine is an organizer who helped unionize Kickstarter and is currently a fellow at NYU. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Who is a “tech worker”? What does that mean? And why does it matter?

TARNOFF: “Tech workers” is an expansive term. Any individual who contributes their labor power to a tech company in any capacity, whether directly employed or subcontractors, whether in a so-called technical or white-collar role or in a service or warehousing role, should be considered a tech worker. 

When organizations like Tech Workers Coalition were promoting the term, the idea that the relatively privileged layers of tech workers—folks who might work in so-called “technical roles”—were workers, and not just creatives, entrepreneurs, members of the corporate family, or some other self-identification, was a radical idea.

Q: What does modern tech organizing look like? 

NEDZHVETSKAYA: From 2017 to 2019, the number of actions in our archive has tripled year over year; 2020 was a record-setting year once again, and if you look at the size of those numbers there is an argument that this is happening organically, that workers are becoming more active in tech workplaces.

REDWINE: This uptick in organizing is a response to a couple of things. One is the political climate in the US, and then also somewhat of a response to the maturing of tech as an industry. 



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