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Amazon Union Vote: Labor Loss May Bring Shift in Strategy

“Everywhere they tried, they were defeated,’’ Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said of the unions. “Walmart would send teams to swamp the stores to work against a union. They are good at it.”

As with Walmart, labor leaders believed it was critical to establish a foothold at Amazon, which influences pay and working conditions for millions of workers thanks to the competitive pressure it puts on rivals in industries like groceries and fashion.

But the labor movement’s failure to make inroads at Walmart despite investing millions of dollars has loomed over its thinking on Amazon. “They felt so burned by trying to organize Walmart and getting basically nowhere,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

It was only a relatively small, scrappy union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, that felt the election in Alabama was worth the large investment. As the votes were being tallied, Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, attributed the one-sided result to a “broken” election system that favors employers.

Amazon saw things differently. “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a statement. “Our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them.”

Yet even as elections have often proven futile, labor has enjoyed some success over the years with an alternative model — what Dr. Milkman called the “air war plus ground war.”

The idea is to combine workplace actions like walkouts (the ground war) with pressure on company executives through public relations campaigns that highlight labor conditions and enlist the support of public figures (the air war). The Service Employees International Union used the strategy to organize janitors beginning in the 1980s, and to win gains for fast-food workers in the past few years, including wage increases across the industry.

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Amazon Workers Defeat Union Effort in Alabama

The vote could lead to a rethinking of strategy inside the labor movement.

For years, union organizers have tried to leverage growing concerns about low-wage workers to break into Amazon. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had organized around critical themes of supporting Black essential workers in the pandemic. The union had estimated that 85 percent of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse were Black.

The inability to organize the warehouse also follows decades of unsuccessful and costly attempts to form unions at Walmart, the only American company that employs more people than Amazon. The repeated failures at two huge companies may push labor organizers to focus more on backing national policies, such as a higher federal minimum wage, than unionizing individual workplaces.

Democrats in Washington, who put their full weight behind the union effort, said the loss showed that they needed to push for changes to labor and antitrust laws. The House of Representatives passed an expansion of worker protections this year, but it is unlikely to be approved in the Senate.

“Workers cannot organize to scale in America absent labor law reform, full stop,” Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, who had visited Bessemer, said in an interview.

The Amazon warehouse, on the outskirts of Birmingham, opened a year ago, just as the pandemic took hold. It was part of a major expansion at the company that accelerated during the pandemic. Last year, Amazon grew by more than 400,000 employees in the United States, where it now has almost a million workers. Warehouse workers typically assemble and box up orders of items for customers.

The unionization effort came together quickly, especially for one aimed at such a large target. A small group of workers at the building in Bessemer approached the local branch of the retail workers’ union last summer. They were frustrated with how Amazon constantly monitored every second of their workday through technology and felt that their managers were not willing to listen to their complaints.

Organizers appeared to have strong support early on, getting at least 2,000 workers to sign cards saying they wanted an election, enough for the National Labor Relations Board, which conducts union elections, to approve a vote.

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Follow Live Amazon Union Vote Results

Amazon beat back the unionization drive at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., the counting of ballots in the closely watched effort showed on Friday.

A total of 738 workers voted “Yes” to unionize and 1,798 voted “No.” There were 76 ballots marked as void and 505 votes were challenged, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The union leading the drive to organize, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said most of the challenges were from Amazon.

About 50 percent of the 5,805 eligible voters at the warehouse cast ballots in the election. Either side needed to receive more than 50 percent of all cast ballots to prevail.

The ballots were counted in random order in the National Labor Relations Board’s office in Birmingham, Ala., and the process was broadcast via Zoom to more than 200 journalists, lawyers and other observers.

The voting was conducted by mail from early February until the end of last month. A handful of workers from the labor board called out the results of each vote — “Yes” for a union or “No” — for nearly four hours on Thursday.

Sophia June and Miles McKinley contributed to this report.

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Jamie Dimon Sees a Boom Coming

The annual letter to shareholders by JPMorgan Chase’s chief Jamie Dimon was just published. The widely read letter is not just an overview of the bank’s business but also covers Mr. Dimon’s thoughts on everything from leadership lessons to public policy prescriptions.

“The U.S. economy will likely boom.” A combination of excess savings, deficit spending, a potential infrastructure bill, vaccinations and “euphoria around the end of the pandemic,” Mr. Dimon wrote, may create a boom that “could easily run into 2023.” That could justify high equity valuations, but not the price of U.S. debt, given the “huge supply” soon to hit the market. There is a chance that a rise in inflation would be “more than temporary,” he wrote, forcing the Fed to raise interest rates aggressively. “Rapidly raising rates to offset an overheating economy is a typical cause of a recession,” he wrote, but he hopes for “the Goldilocks scenario” of fast growth, gently increasing inflation and a measured rise in interest rates.

“Banks are playing an increasingly smaller role in the financial system.” Mr. Dimon cited competition from an already large shadow banking system and fintech companies, as well as “Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and now Walmart.” He argued those nonbank competitors should be more strictly regulated; their growth has “partially been made possible” by avoiding banking rules, he wrote. And when it comes to tougher regulation of big banks, he wrote, “the cost to the economy of having fail-safe banks may not be worth it.”

“China’s leaders believe that America is in decline.” While the U.S. has faced tough times before, today “the Chinese see an America that is losing ground in technology, infrastructure and education — a nation torn and crippled by politics, as well as racial and income inequality — and a country unable to coordinate government policies (fiscal, monetary, industrial, regulatory) in any coherent way to accomplish national goals,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, recently, there is a lot of truth to this.”

a leveraged buyout offer from the private equity firm CVC Capital, sending its shares to a four-year high. Toshiba has had a series of scandals, and faces pressure from activist investors.

raising the corporate rate to help pay for President Biden’s infrastructure plans — though he didn’t mention the White House’s proposed rate, 28 percent. Other corporate chiefs are privately criticizing the potential tax rise.

The company behind the Johnson & Johnson vaccine mix-up has a history of errors. Emergent BioSolutions, which the U.S. relied on to produce doses by J.&J. and AstraZeneca, had a made manufacturing errors before. Experts worry this may leave some Americans more wary of getting vaccinated, even as Mr. Biden has moved up the eligibility deadline for U.S. inoculations.

An electric aircraft maker sues a rival for intellectual property theft. Wisk, which is backed by Boeing and the Google founder Larry Page, said that former employees downloaded confidential information before joining Archer, a competitor. Archer, which is going public by merging with a SPAC run by Moelis & Company and which counts United Airlines as an investor, denied wrongdoing and said it was cooperating with a government investigation.

A blistering start for venture capital in 2021. Start-ups set a fund-raising quarterly record in the first three months of the year, raising more than $62 billion, according to the MoneyTree report from PwC and CB Insights. That’s more than twice the total a year earlier and represents nearly half of what start-ups raised in all of 2020.

Voting in the union election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., ended on March 29, and counting began the next day, but the outcome is still unknown. What’s going on? It’s less about the number of ballots than how they’re counted.

The stakes are high, for both Amazon and the labor movement. Progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders have argued a victory for the union, the first at an Amazon facility in the U.S., could inspire workers elsewhere to unionize. And Amazon is facing increased scrutiny for its market power and labor practices.

a painstaking process:

  • Once Amazon and the union have gone back and forth over disputed voters, the N.L.R.B. counts the uncontested ballots anonymously and by hand, on a video conference open to reporters. This could start today.


— Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the I.M.F., on how the uneven rollout of vaccines poses a threat to the global economic recovery.


After the 2008 financial crisis, Credit Suisse emerged battered by high-risk bets and promised to do better. A series of recent scandals suggests it hasn’t, The Times’s Jack Ewing writes.

A recap of the Swiss bank’s troubles over the past year or so:

  • A spying scandal that led to the ouster of Tidjane Thiam as C.E.O.

  • Ties to Greensill Capital, the SoftBank-backed lender that has filed for insolvency and will lead to losses at the Swiss bank.

  • Its involvement with Archegos, whose hugely leveraged stock bets went south, saddling the bank with a big hit.

30-day comment period on to-be-drafted regulations that would make it harder to obscure who controls a company. Among the details to be worked out are what entities should report and when; how to collect, protect and update information for a database; and the criteria for sharing with law enforcement.

“We could not be more excited,” Kenneth Blanco, the director of the Treasury’s Financial Criminal Enforcement Network (FinCEN), told bankers recently. The U.S. has been under pressure to address its vulnerability to money laundering and financial crimes:

New rules could make forming small businesses, special purpose vehicles and other closely held entities “significantly” more burdensome, said Steve Ganis of Mintz, an expert in anti-money laundering regulation. “FinCEN’s new regime will make things much more complicated for start-ups, where control and ownership are highly fluid,” he said. Public companies and many larger businesses would be exempt because they already face stricter scrutiny.

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Garment Workers Who Lost Jobs in Pandemic Still Wait for Severance Pay

Over a crackling phone line, Ashraf Ali, a 35-year-old father in Bangladesh, described feeling suicidal and desperate to feed his family. Sokunthea Yi, in Cambodia, said she spends sleepless nights worrying about how she will pay off loans she took out to build her house. And at only 23, Dina Arviah in Indonesia said she was hopeless about her future as there were no longer any jobs in her district.

All once held jobs as garment workers in factories producing clothes and shoes for companies like Nike, Walmart and Benetton. But in the last 12 months those jobs have disappeared, as major brands in the United States and Europe canceled or refused to pay for orders in the wake of the pandemic and suppliers resorted to mass layoffs or closures.

Most garment workers earn chronically low wages, and few have any savings. Which means the only thing standing between them and dire poverty are legally mandated severance benefits that most garment workers are owed upon termination, wherever they are in the world.

According to a new report from the Worker Rights Consortium, however, garment workers like Mr. Ali, Ms. Yi and Ms. Dina Arviah are being denied some or all of these wages.

The study identified 31 export garment factories in nine countries where, the authors concluded, a total of 37,637 fired workers were not paid the full severance pay they legally earned, a collective $39.8 million.

According to Scott Nova, the group’s executive director, the report covers only about 10 percent of global garment factory closures with mass layoffs in the last year. The group is investigating another 210 factories in 18 countries, leading the authors to estimate that the final data set will detail 213 factories with severance pay violations affecting more than 160,000 workers owed $171.5 million.

severance guarantee fund. The initiative, devised in conjunction with 220 unions and other labor rights organizations, would be financed by mandatory payments from signatory brands that could then be leveraged in cases of large-scale nonpayment of severance by a factory or supplier.

Amazon, for example, reported an increase in net profit of 84 percent in 2020, while Inditex made 11.4 billion euros, about $13.4 billion, in gross profit. Nike, Next and Walmart all also had healthy earnings.

Some industry experts believe the purchasing practices of the industry’s power players are a major contributor to the severance pay crisis. The overwhelming majority of fashion retailers do not own their own production facilities, instead contracting with factories in countries where labor is cheap. The brands dictate prices, often squeezing suppliers to offer more for less, and can shift sourcing locations at will. Factory owners in developing countries say they are forced to operate on minimal margins, with few able to afford better worker wages or investments in safety and severance.

“The onus falls on the supplier,” said Genevieve LeBaron, a professor at the University of Sheffield in England who focuses on international labor standards. “But there is a reason the spotlight keeps falling on larger actors further up the supply chain. Their behavior can impact the ability of factories to deliver on their responsibilities.”

“Historically, severance hasn’t received the same amount of attention as other types of compensation,” Ms. LeBaron added. “But it should. Often workers who lose their jobs are at their most vulnerable. When they aren’t paid what they are owed, many are forced into taking desperate or dangerous measures to survive.”

labor rights code of conduct. Most say they guarantee that suppliers will pay workers their legally mandated benefits. But in some cases, factory owners can go into hiding or refuse to pay fired employees. In others, owners claim that exploitative contracts brought them to bankruptcy or made it impossible for them to reserve funds for severance.

code of conduct included checks to ensure workers received what was owed to them after factory closures or layoffs. The company did not respond to any questions about missing severance payments by A-One.

When contacted by The New York Times about wage theft at factories, most brands downplayed their relationships, even though corporate codes of conduct do not specify that responsibilities to workers are proportionate to their order size.

Ms. Yi was one of 774 workers who were laid off in June from Hana I, a factory in Cambodia that supplied Walmart and Zara. The workers are owed more than $1 million in severance, the report estimates. Although she received an initial $500, Ms. Yi, 33, was still owed $1,290 in severance and was still unemployed as of this month.

Inditex, the parent company of Zara, said it had not worked with the factory for five years. Walmart said it believed the factory had paid all the severance it legally owed to workers in June. The factory owners did not respond to requests for comment via email.

“We are saddened by the unfortunate financial hardship that has occurred for many businesses due to the pandemic and are particularly concerned about the impact it has on their employees,” a Walmart spokeswoman said. She noted that the company made efforts to “review and hold suppliers accountable for compliance” with its standards and local laws.

Hulu Garment factory in Phnom Penh, a former supplier for Walmart, Amazon, Macy’s and Adidas, owes 1,000 former workers $3.63 million, according to the report.

Adidas said it had used the company only for small orders. The owners of Hulu did not respond to a request for comment.

Of all the companies approached by The Times, only Gap, which placed orders with factories cited in the report in Indonesia, Cambodia, India and Jordan, specifically said it had investigated allegations made in the report.

“In all cases we either confirmed that severance had been provided or remediated any that were outstanding,” a Gap spokeswoman said, adding that the company would investigate any further evidence of severance not being paid out.

As consumers put pressure on companies to make amends and clean up their supply chains, brands “are shrinking their supplier bases,” Ms. LeBaron said.

“That could well produce long-term benefits, but it will mean further disruption, closures and layoffs,” she said. “And that means the severance dilemma is going to become even more common.”

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Amazon’s Clashes With Labor: Days of Conflict and Control

In recent weeks, a heated discussion about whether Amazon’s workers must urinate in bottles because they have no time to go to the bathroom — a level of control that few modern corporations would dare exercise — has raged on Twitter.

“Amazon is reorganizing the very nature of retail work — something that traditionally is physically undemanding and has a large amount of downtime — into something more akin to a factory, which never lets up,” said Spencer Cox, a former Amazon worker who is writing his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota about how the company is transforming labor. “For Amazon, this isn’t about money. This is about control of workers’ bodies and every possible moment of their time.”

Amazon did not have a comment for this story.

Signs that Amazon is facing more pushback against its control have started to pile up. In February, Lovenia Scott, a former warehouse worker for the company in Vacaville, Calif., accused Amazon in a lawsuit of having such an “immense volume of work to be completed” that she and her colleagues did not get any breaks. Ms. Scott is seeking class-action status. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.

Last month, the California Labor Commissioner said 718 delivery drivers who worked for Green Messengers, a Southern California contractor for Amazon, were owed $5 million in wages that never made it to their wallets. The drivers were paid for 10-hour days, the labor commissioner said, but the volume of packages was so great that they often had to work 11 or more hours and through breaks.

Amazon said it no longer worked with Green Messengers and would appeal the decision. Green Messengers could not be reached for comment.

An Amazon warehouse in the Canadian province of Ontario showed rapid spread of Covid-19 in March. “Our investigation determined a closure was required to break the chain of transmission,” said Dr. Lawrence Loh, the regional medical officer. “We provided our recommendation to Amazon.” The company, he said, “did not answer.” The health officials ordered the workers to self-isolate, effectively shutting the facility for two weeks. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

And five U.S. senators wrote a letter to the company last month demanding more information about why it was equipping its delivery vans with surveillance cameras that constantly monitor the driver. The technology, the senators wrote, “raises important privacy and worker oversight questions Amazon must answer.”

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Amazon Illegally Fired Activist Workers, Labor Board Finds

SEATTLE — Amazon illegally retaliated against two of its most prominent internal critics when it fired them last year, the National Labor Relations Board has determined.

The employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, had publicly pushed the company to reduce its impact on climate change and address concerns about its warehouse workers.

The agency told Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Costa that it would accuse Amazon of unfair labor practices if the company did not settle the case, according to correspondence that Ms. Cunningham shared with The New York Times.

“It’s a moral victory and really shows that we are on the right side of history and the right side of the law,” Ms. Cunningham said.

the agency told NBC News. The agency typically handles investigations in its regional offices.

While Amazon’s starting wage of $15 an hour is twice the federal minimum, its labor practices face heightened scrutiny in Washington and elsewhere. The focus has escalated in the past year, as online orders surged during the pandemic and Amazon expanded its U.S. work force to almost one million people. Amazon’s warehouse employees are deemed essential workers and could not work from home.

This week, the national labor board is counting thousands of ballots that will determine whether almost 6,000 workers will form a union at an Amazon warehouse outside Birmingham, Ala., in the largest and most viable labor threat in the company’s history. The union has said the workers face excessive pressure to produce and are intensely monitored by the company to make sure quotas are met.

wanted the company to do more to address its climate impact. The group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, got more than 8,700 colleagues to support its efforts.

Over time, Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Costa broadened their protests. After Amazon told them that they had violated its external communications policy by speaking publicly about the business, their group organized 400 employees to also speak out, purposely violating the policy to make a point.

They also began raising concerns about safety in Amazon’s warehouses at the start of the pandemic. Amazon fired Ms. Costa and Ms. Cunningham last April, not long after their group had announced an internal event for warehouse workers to speak to tech employees about their workplace conditions.

After the women were fired, several Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, wrote Amazon expressing their concerns over potential retaliation. And Tim Bray, an internet pioneer and a former vice president at Amazon’s cloud computing group, resigned in protest.

Mr. Bray said he was pleased to hear of the labor board’s findings and hoped Amazon settled the case. “The policy up to now has been ‘admit nothing, concede nothing,’” he said. “This is their chance to rethink that a little bit.”

Ms. Cunningham said that, despite the company’s denial, she believed that she and Ms. Costa were prime targets for Amazon because they were the most visible members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

The labor board also upheld a complaint involving Jonathan Bailey, a co-founder of Amazonians United, a labor advocacy group. The agency filed a complaint against Amazon based on Mr. Bailey’s accusation that the company broke the law when it interrogated him after a walkout last year at the Queens warehouse where he works.

“They recognized that Amazon violated our rights,” Mr. Bailey said. “I think the message that it communicates that workers should hear and understand is, yes, we’re all experiencing it. But also a lot of us are fighting.”

Amazon settled Mr. Bailey’s case, without admitting wrongdoing, and agreed to post notices informing employees of their rights in the break room. Ms. Anderson, the Amazon spokeswoman, said the company disagreed with allegations made in Mr. Bailey’s case. “We are proud to provide inclusive environments, where employees can excel without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment,” she said.

Kate Conger contributed reporting.

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Returning to the Office Sparks Anxiety and Dread for Some

Last fall, after some of the restrictions had eased in Germany, Trivago, a travel company based in Düsseldorf, let employees work remotely three weeks of the month and then spend one week in the office. The office weeks were designed for collaboration and were treated like celebrations, with balloons hanging from the ceilings and employees plied with coffee and muffins, said Anja Honnefelder, the chief people officer and general counsel of the company.

But the experiment failed, she said. “We saw that many of the people only came back for two or three days during the week because it felt unnatural, all of the social interactions,” said Ms. Honnefelder, who described her staff as young and made up largely of software engineers and data scientists. “They felt like they couldn’t get their work done and that it was disorienting.”

So, in January, Trivago announced that employees would come back to the office two days a week, but it has not been able to implement the plan because Germany has imposed new restrictions because of a rise in coronavirus cases.

“What we think will happen is that employees will use the two days to socialize, have extended lunches and work with their teams because they know, for the rest of the week, they will have time to focus and manage their own work and not be distracted,” Ms. Honnefelder said.

The ability to focus on work without distractions from other employees is the main reason Mr. Jaakola, the Minneapolis software engineer, does not want to return to the office. He admits he finds dealing with other people kind of “draining,” and hopes his company won’t force him to return to the office, even for a few days a week.

“My sense is that my company will try to go back to how things were before and I think they’ll quickly realize there are a lot of remote possibilities out there for us,” he said. “If they try to force us to come in without a legitimate reason, I can get another job if I don’t want to come in.”

Gillian Friedman and Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.

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The Amazon union vote: What happens next.

The counting of votes that will determine whether a union can form at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., begins Tuesday. But the results of the union election, one of the most consequential in recent memory, may not be known until later this week or early next week because the vote can often involve a painstaking process that will be closely scrutinized by representatives from the union and Amazon.

The ballots, which were mailed out to workers in early February, must be signed and had to be received by the National Labor Relations Board at its Birmingham office by the end of Monday.

First, a staff member at the labor board will read the names of the workers, without opening an inner envelope with the actual ballot. Representatives from the union and Amazon will be on a private video conference. As each name is read, they will check the workers’ names against a staff list, and if either side contests whether that worker was eligible to vote, that ballot will be set aside. A representative from each side is also expected to be there in person to observe the process.

After the two sides have had the opportunity to make their objections about eligibility, the N.L.R.B. will begin counting the uncontested ballots. After every 100 votes, the labor board will count those ballots again until all the votes are counted. This portion will be open to reporters on a video conference line.

Retail Warehouse and Department Store union, which has led the organizing drive, and Amazon over the eligibility of each contested ballot. Each side has about a week to make its case before N.L.R.B. certifies the vote.

Either side can contest whether the vote was conducted fairly. The union, for instance, could argue that the company took steps to improperly sway the vote, by potentially making workers fearful of reprisal if they supported organizing.

If the union prevails, workers fear that the company may shut down the warehouse. Amazon has backed away from locations that brought it headaches before.

But the company has committed more than $360 million in leases and equipment for the Bessemer warehouse, and shutting down the vote of a large Black work force could publicly backfire, said Marc Wulfraat, a logistics consultant who closely tracks the company.

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