Since the beginning of human history, we have mined resources from the world around us. The industrial revolution shifted the balance of power between workers and employers. As industries became more important to the United States’ prestige, wealth, and power, workers fought to have a stronger hand in labor negotiations.
Trade unions enable workers to bargain collectively, striking deals that benefit them as a group. Since the first labor unions appeared, businesses have tried to curtail their influence. In some cases, trade unionists have been subjected to violence and oppression. Unfortunately, there are still businesses that hold these attitudes towards labor unions today.
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Data is one of the most valuable resources in the world right now. But to be useful, data needs to be refined. Data mining is the process of analyzing data and drawing conclusions from it. Until we have mined data, we don’t know what it’s telling us.
But unlike a resource like coal, the way that we mine data is important and can affect the final outcome. We can see this in businesses like Amazon and Tesla, who are rabidly anti-union. These businesses use data mining to identify workers who are considering unionization, so they can (illegally) target them for harassment or punishment.
Tesla has been one of the most staunchly anti-union businesses in recent years. While Elon Musk enjoys roleplaying as Tony Stark and wants the internet to love and adore him, he behaves like any other billionaire. Behind his facade of a dead-eyed everyman, Musk has shown a consistent disregard for his workers’ safety. It culminated in Musk bravely defying the state of California by insisting to keep his Tesla plant working while businesses were supposed to have shut down due to coronavirus.
Musk’s anti-union sentiments have led him to declare that big car companies are directing the Tesla workforce’s efforts to unionize. Rather than revealing unsafe working conditions and poor leadership, Elon sees these efforts as indicative of how scared car companies are of Tesla.
But it isn’t big car companies that have taken to surveilling Tesla’s employees. Nor is it they who have been mining employee data to sniff out the most pro-union workers. Elon Musk insists he is neutral about unions. The California judicial system disagrees. Judge Amita Tracy cited 12 labor law violations and ordered Musk to read the following to his employees:
“Federal law gives you the right to form, join, or assist a union, choose representatives to bargain with us on your behalf, act together with other employees for your benefit and protection, choose not to engage in any of these protected activities.”
Amazon has come under fire repeatedly in recent years for the way that it treats its workers. Despite being one of the most valuable companies in the world, owned by the richest man in the world, Amazon’s treatment of its workers leaves a lot to be desired. The company has taken a strong anti-union stance. And it has gone much further than other businesses in the sector to prevent its workers from collective bargaining.
There has always been an appetite among Amazon’s workers for better representation. Three major trade unions have been courting Amazon’s workers in the United States. The Teamsters Union, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union have all contacted them to arrange proper representation. In July 219, localized strikes at an Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, were timed by organizers to coincide with Amazon’s Prime Day.
Amazon points to strikes like the Shakopee strikes as proof that the business doesn’t fear employees that express their views. It also goes to great lengths to stress that it is pressure from outside forces, namely trade unions, causing workers to take these actions. It doesn’t reflect their dissatisfaction with the business, claims Amazon.
However, Amazon’s unjust treatment of its warehouse workers is now an open secret. Over the last few years, Amazon has experimented with several methods for monitoring its workers. It monitors not only performance, measuring how productive workers are and how many breaks they take during their shift, but Amazon internal emails.
By using data mining to keep a constant watch over internal communications, Amazon can take action as soon as an employee even thinks about unionizing.
Amazon and Tesla are probably the most egregious examples of anti-union monoliths in the US. But they are far from the only ones.
It isn’t just big corporations with access to sophisticated tech that are constantly monitoring their employees. Lots of businesses now routinely gather large volumes of data about their workers, often unintentionally. This data can often be a valuable tool with the potential to improve the efficiency of operations and even working conditions.
Unfortunately, businesses can also use this same data to undermine their employees’ rights and freedoms. Pretending to gather data for operational purposes, corporations can monitor their workforce without their knowledge or consent. Unions can act as a bulwark against these invasions of worker privacy.
When the hotel chain Marriott introduced a new app for its workers a few years ago, it had a disastrous rollout. They had designed the app to tell workers which rooms to clean next. In doing so, they hoped to improve efficiency and save time. In reality, the cleaning staff felt that the app was making them less efficient and hampered productivity.
It was their union, Unite Here, who went to bat for the cleaners. Ultimately, Marriott relented and implemented changes that gave control back to the cleaners.
Labor unions are responsible for many of the working practices we all take for granted today. For example, the two-day weekend only exists because labor unions were willing to fight for it. We should all support the right of workers to unionize and bargain for better conditions. If you want to make a difference in this fight, make sure to support and vote for candidates who reject union-busting practices.