Big Brother Tech Bangin’ On Worker Unions: Confidential Amazon Memo Leaked Showing New Software To Track Unions

Written by Dana Sanchez
amazon unions
Tahsha Sydnor stows packages into special containers after Amazon robots deliver separated packages by zip code at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Ariz., March 16, 2020, (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Labor unions where workers unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work may be the biggest threat to Amazon’s business model.

The e-commerce giant is investing heavily in technology to track and counter the threat, according to an internal memo viewed by Recode.

After Walmart, Amazon is the second-largest private-sector employer in the U.S. with 1.4 million employees from March to Sept. 19. Scrutiny of its labor practices has increased as it expanded its warehousing network during the covid-19 pandemic, Recode reported.

The company is concerned that its warehouse operations would become less efficient if employees unionized, former executives previously told Recode. One said unionization was “likely the single biggest threat to the business model.”

A document, dated February 2020, describes Amazon’s plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to better analyze and visualize data on unions and other threats to the company. Out of about 40 data points listed in the memo, half were union-related or related to employee issues such as mandatory overtime and safety incidents.

The memo asked for staff and funds to buy software that would help consolidate and visually map data.

“The new technology system — called the geoSPatial Operating Console, or SPOC — would help the company analyze and visualize at least around 40 different data sets, the memo says. Among them are many related to unions, including ‘Whole Foods Market Activism/Unionization Efforts,’ ‘union grant money flow patterns’, and ‘Presence of Local Union Chapters and Alt Labor Groups,'” Recode reported. “Additionally, one of the potential use cases for the tool is described in the memo as ‘The Union Relationship Map.'”

The memo shows that Amazon is dedicating significant time and resources to reduce the likelihood of unionization among its front-line workforce.

Amazon has avoided unions for 25 years and labor leaders think that could soon change, according to Geekwire. Vice President Joe Biden is campaigning, in part, on bolstering unions that won support from the AFL-CIO.

Three major unions are working to organize Amazon employees: The Teamsters, United Food & Commercial Workers Union, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union have supported strikes and collective bargaining campaigns in recent years.

Two recent Amazon job listings said the company is looking to hire an “Intelligence Analyst” and a “Sr Intelligence Analyst” for its intelligence program. One of the ads focused particularly on “organized labor”, mentioning it three times. Other listed threats include protests, geopolitical crises and conflicts impacting operations.

In March, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, a 31-year-old management assistant, after he organized a walkout over the lack of protection against covid-19 at a facility in Staten Island, New York. Smalls and other workers demanded that Amazon temporarily close and clean the facility after a worker tested positive for the virus.

“They pretty much retaliated against me for speaking out,” Smalls said. “I don’t know how they sleep at night.”

“Workers, especially Black workers, have been telling us all for months that Amazon is targeting them for speaking out,” said Dania Rajendra, director of the Athena Coalition — an alliance of dozens of grassroots labor groups that organize Amazon workers.

Amazon is a company that uses data collection, surveillance and analytics in everything it does, from warehouse workflow and consumer preferences to product placement on its website. “So they’re extremely well-positioned to apply that expertise,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor professor at Rutgers University, in a Recode interview.

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“From an organizing perspective, the employees should assume everything they are talking about is being monitored,” she said, “and everything that they’re writing is feeding the algorithm.”

If Biden wins the presidency, Amazon unions could become a reality, according to labor advocate Marcus Courtney.

“No successful unionization happens without active government support of it,” Courtney said, according to Geekwire. “Amazon, looking forward to the future, … sees that if there is a change in administrations, that that administration is more likely to (support) the formation of unions in the nation’s critical industries.”