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Amazon warehouse workers begin historic vote to unionize

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On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon’s attempt to delay a union vote set to begin on Monday, February 8. For many, the online giant’s bid was seen as a stalling tactic, including a motion to demand votes take place in-person — a clear health risk, as the COVID-19 virus still poses a major threat in the United States and globally.

“Once again Amazon workers have won another fight in their effort to win a union voice,” Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement regarding the NLRB’s decision. “Amazon’s blatant disregard for the health and safety of its own workforce was demonstrated yet again by its insistence for an in-person election in the middle of the pandemic. Today’s decision proves that it’s long past time that Amazon start respecting its own employees; and allow them to cast their votes without intimidation and interference.”

Amazon, however, said it was disappointed in the decision because it goes against the company’s goal of getting as many people as possible to vote in the election, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said in a statement to TechCrunch.

“Even the National Labor Relations Board recognizes that the employee participation rate for its own elections conducted with mail ballots is 20-30% lower than the participation rate for in-person voting,” Knox said. “Amazon proposed a safe on-site election process validated by COVID-19 experts that would have empowered our associates to vote on their way to, during and from their already-scheduled shifts. We will continue to insist on measures for a fair election that allow for a majority of our employee voices to be heard.”

Now, the mail-in voting process will continue as planned and ultimately determine whether Amazon’s Alabama warehouse — which employs around 6,000 — will join the RWDSU, an AFL-CIO affiliate in operation since 1937. The move would be a major watershed moment for Amazon’s blue-collar workforce — and could spur similar unionizing among the 110 or so fulfillment centers the company operates across the U.S.

The vote comes amid a sea change for both blue and white-collar workers in a tech sector that has traditionally rejected such movements. Notable recent examples include a group of Google contracts in Pittsburgh, followed by this year’s launch of an Alphabet Workers Union that includes more than 800 employees. Last February, Kickstarter voted to unionize its workforce, followed by developer platform Glitch the following month.

Tech workers unionize

Unions, which act as an intermediary between workers and their employers, advocate on behalf of employees for better wages, working conditions and other benefits through collective bargaining. While it does cost money to join a union, unionized workers tend to make higher salaries than their non-unionized counterparts. Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $1,144, compared to $958 for non-union members in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Often times these unions are the product of months or years of planning behind the scenes — likely not a surprise for anyone possessing a basic knowledge of the history of labor in the United States. The formation of an Amazon union would present a historic move for labor and tech in the U.S. — a potential outcome the company has been looking to stop dead in its tracks.

Besides seeking to delay the vote, Amazon has also gone all-in on trying to persuade its workers in Bessemer not to vote to unionize. Amazon’s Do It Without Dues website encourages workers to keep things the way they are, instead of having to pay union dues.

“If you’re paying dues…it will be restrictive meaning it won’t be easy to be as helpful and social with each other,” the site states. “So be a doer, stay friendly and get things done versus paying dues.”

Meanwhile, workers have complained that Amazon’s anti-union tactics are too much. One worker told The Washington Post they were bombarded with anti-union messaging in the bathroom stall.

Amazon opened the Bessemer warehouse in March 2020 and says it has created more than 5,000 full-time jobs starting with a pay of $15.30 per hour, including healthcare, vision and dental insurance, and 50% 401(K) match, Knox said. She described the work environment as “safe” and “innovative,” and added, “We work hard to support our teams and more than 90% of associates at our Bessemer site say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work to their friends.”

But Amazon’s labor history has been a spotty one. The company has often come under fire for its treatment of workers — particularly those in logistics and shipping, like the 6,000 currently employed in its Alabama fulfillment center. Many of those issues were amplified throughout 2020, as Amazon employees were deemed “essential workers” in the earliest days of the pandemic’s arrival in the States.

In November, former warehouse employee Christian Smalls filed a suit against the company, citing a failure to provide workers with proper PPE amid the pandemic.

“I was a loyal worker and gave my all to Amazon until I was unceremoniously terminated and tossed aside like yesterday’s trash because I insisted that Amazon protect its dedicated workers from COVID-19,” Smalls said at the time. “I just wanted Amazon to provide basic protective gear to the workers and sanitize the workplace.”

Smalls was fired last March after organizing a walkout at a Staten Island fulfillment center. A spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch that he was fired after “putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of employment.”

In April, employees Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were fired for “repeatedly violating internal policies,” according to the company. The pair were vocal critics of the company’s treatment of warehouse employees — criticism that came to a head during the pandemic.

Then, in September, reports surfaced that Amazon was looking to hire an intelligence analyst. Specifically, Amazon in a job posting said it was seeking someone who would inform higher-ups and attorneys “on sensitive topics that are highly confidential, including labor organizing threats against the company.”

Amazon swiftly took down that job post, saying it was “not an accurate description of the role – it was made in error and has since been corrected,” Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in a statement to TechCrunch at the time.

While Amazon did not give a specific revised description, the company said the role is meant to support its team of analysts that focus on external events, like weather, large community gatherings or other events that have the potential to disrupt traffic or affect the safety and security of its buildings and the people who work at those buildings.

However, that same day, Vice reported Amazon had been spying on workers for years to monitor for any potential strikes or protests. Amazon has since said it will stop using its social media monitoring tool.

“We have a variety of ways to gather driver feedback and we have teams who work every day to ensure we’re advocating to improve the driver experience, particularly through hearing from drivers directly,” Boschetti said in a statement. “Upon being notified, we discovered one group within our delivery team that was aggregating information from closed groups. While they were trying to support drivers, that approach doesn’t meet our standards, and they are no longer doing this as we have other ways for drivers to give us their feedback.”

By unionizing, Amazon workers hope to gain the right to collectively bargain over their working conditions, like safety standards, pay, breaks and other issues. Unionizing would also enable workers to potentially become “just cause” employees versus at-will, depending on how the negotiations go.

“Amazon presents a threat to the very fabric of society and the social contract we work to uphold for all working people,” the union organizers state on their site. “Corporations like Amazon have built decades of increasingly bold and aggressive attacks on workers’ rights that have dramatically eroded union density, harmed working conditions, and lowered the standard of living for many workers. And it’s not stopping. The RWDSU has always stood against anti-worker and anti-union companies. Our union will not back down until Amazon is held accountable for these and so many more dangerous labor practices.”

Mail-in voting ends March 29, with the NLRB set to begin counting ballots the following day on a virtual platform. Each party will be allowed to have four people attend the count.

TechCrunch has reached out to Amazon and will update this story if we hear back.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Create a handbook and integrate AI to onboard remote employees

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The pandemic has forced organizations across the globe to shutter the office environment, and take up a remote-first strategy. Through necessity, professionals have adapted to remote working. But the systems they use are still playing catch up.

One area less readily accommodating to the remote environment is the onboarding process. Given that it is the first sustained contact that a new starter has with a company,  a remote-first strategy is dependent on its success. When looking to onboard new employees, the luxuries of first-day meet and greets, in-person hardware setup, and a team lunch are no longer available. From interview to offer-letter and beyond, any new hire’s early journey is critical to their life at the company, their job satisfaction and ultimately their productivity. The remote induction must be a smooth process, and so needs a thorough rethink.

A cultural shift in the company may be necessary. Organizations need to embrace knowledge-sharing and collaboration, by turning to a “handbook first” approach. A few simple steps can lead them there. Companies also need to analyze their workflow. Are the right systems in place to ensure the seamless flow of both tacit and explicit knowledge?

Perhaps most importantly, artificial intelligence can help transform a clunky old onboarding process into a sophisticated, smooth journey. Naturally the best AI models to use will depend on the business, and department in question. However, with a few pointers business leaders can carve out a path to AI integration.

Let’s dive into the specifics that can transform the remote onboarding process, for the benefit of both the company and the new starter in question.

How to handbook

This is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to ensuring newcomers are able to access the right information at the right time; it’s also the most difficult to get right. It is for workers at all levels of an organization to think about how knowledge is shared between teams, and the processes which surround that interchange of ideas.

What is most important is that everyone in an organization prioritizes documentation; exactly how they do it is secondary. You can spin up plenty of free and paid softwares to start creating a handbook. Anything cloud based is suitable, with more sophisticated paid options recommended to keep things easily searchable with documentation sorted into well defined hierarchies, rather than losing those nuggets of information in a sea of folders.

However, this systemic challenge is best addressed from top down. The process should include some checks and balances, with permissioning crucial for parts of the handbook which should remain static, like policies and SLPs. Other parts of the documentation should be kept flexible, like processes and team level knowledge. The majority of the handbook must be democratized as far as possible.

Gitlab, an all-remote company, first coined the term “handbook-first.” The DevOps software provider acts as a great example of a company that lives and breathes through documenting and codifying internal knowledge. Everyone within the organization buys into the mantra of documenting what they know, with subject matter experts assigned to manage knowledge base content. Keeping company documentation up to date is a collaborative task, considered paramount to the company’s livelihood. Softwares give a helping hand, nudging contributors to keep information up to date.

Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab, says that their documentation strategy, twinned with a cooperative approach, helps to build trust with new starters. “When everything a new hire needs to know is written down, there’s no ambiguity or wondering if something is missing. We couple documentation with an Onboarding Buddy – a partner who is responsible for directing key stakeholder conversations and ensuring that acclimation goes well.”

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Microsoft issues emergency patches for 4 exploited 0-days in Exchange

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The word ZERO-DAY is hidden amidst a screen filled with ones and zeroes.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Microsoft is urging customers to install emergency patches as soon as possible to protect against highly skilled hackers who are actively exploiting four zero-day vulnerabilities in Exchange Server.

The software maker said hackers working on behalf of the Chinese government have been using the previously unknown exploits to hack on-premises Exchange Server software that is fully patched. So far, Hafnium, as Microsoft is calling the hackers, is the only group it has seen exploiting the vulnerabilities, but the company said that could change.

“Even though we’ve worked quickly to deploy an update for the Hafnium exploits, we know that many nation-state actors and criminal groups will move quickly to take advantage of any unpatched systems,” Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Customer Security & Trust Tom Burt wrote in a post published Tuesday afternoon. “Promptly applying today’s patches is the best protection against this attack.”

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The explosive (and inclusive) potential of NFTs in the creative world

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Digital collectibles are having a very large moment. Just last month, a piece of digital art by Beeple sold for $6.6 million on online art marketplace Nifty Gateway. Meanwhile, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda recently sold clips of a song via online marketplace Zora. Over on Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot, more than 200,000 people recently waited hours for the chance to buy one of just 10,631 packs of digital NBA moments.

Those marketplaces, along with others, are where people go to buy digital assets, or, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that live on the blockchain. This whole world of NFTs is super new to me (I’ve only been using Top Shot for a couple of weeks now) so I caught up with a couple of NFT creators to break it down for me, as well as share some insights on where they think the space is going, and it’s overall potential.

“The way I like to explain NFTs, they are digital assets with true ownership and provenance,” Ronin the Collector told TechCrunch. “You can track their origin and they can only be owned by one person.”

Many people, myself included, at some point wonder why someone would pay for a short video clip of, for example, Stephen Curry making a three-pointer when you download it to your computer for free.

“Humans inherently, whether we will like to admit it or not, want to own things,” Ronin said. “And I think that that’s part of the human experience is owning things. When you own things, it’s a connection, and it’s like you have reason for being and there’s something unique about ownership. And I think that at the end of the day, yeah, you can you can watch it all you want. But can you sell it?”

With that clip as an NFT, you can. As an example, one user bought a LeBron James dunk for $208,000 a couple of weeks ago, according to CryptoSlam. Last month, Top Shot reached nearly $50 million in marketplace transactions. Then, over a 24-hour period last week, Top Shot saw more than $37 million in sales, according to Cryptoslam.

As to why they’re blowing up right now, Ronin attributes it to a couple of things: the pandemic that’s forced everyone behind a computer screen and an easy entry point. Top Shot, for example, makes it super easy for plebeians like me to sign up and you don’t need to have a crypto wallet. You can just use your credit card. The same goes for Nifty Gateway.

But Top Shot and Nifty are outliers, Ronin said. For the majority of NFT platforms, you need to have an Ethereum wallet. As Cooper Turley, crypto strategy lead at Audius, wrote on TC, “this means collectors need to purchase ETH from an exchange like Coinbase and send it to a non-custodial address that consists of a long string of numbers and letters to get started.”

That sounds like a whole thing that I, for one, am not ready to dive into. In general, barriers to access continue to be a problem in the NFTs space, Ronin said.

“Projects are just now starting to pay attention to the user experience,” he said. “And just barely in time. One of the best rooms I’ve been on Clubhouse was one that talked about how basically, with the whole world watching, how do we not mess this up. So I think when you have a product like Top Shot, which is easy to get into, easy to sign up for, and easy to purchase. You have to use a credit card, you don’t need crypto and throw in the mix that everyone’s online and then Beeple sells $3 million worth of digital art, and all of a sudden, people want to pay attention. So I think that was the catalyst.”


But an even more expansive and interesting arena for NFTs than Top Shot is the world of NFT art. Ameer Carter, an artist that is also known as Sirsu, got into NFTs last summer thanks to a friend, he told TechCrunch. Pretty much immediately, he said, he realized the transformative nature of the technology.

“We literally have creative immortality,” he told me he realized at the time.

But the art world has historically been inhospitable to Black folks and people of color, and especially in the world of NFTs, Carter said. The traditional art scene, Carter said, is elitist. And while Carter himself is a classically trained artist, he hasn’t been able to make his way into the traditional art world, he said.

“And it’s not because of lack of trying,” he said.

Carter said he’s had a number of conversations with art curators who all love his work, but they’ve told him it’s not “something that they could build a whole curriculum around and intellectualize,” he said. What NFTs do is enable artists like Carter to create and share their art in a way that hadn’t previously been afforded to them.

“And this is a much more open and accessible platform, and environment for them to do so,” Carter said. “And so my goal is to help really give them that type of visibility and empower them to be creatives. My mission is to remove the starving artists stigma. I don’t believe that creativity is cheap. I believe that it is rich. And it enriches and it gives us the reasons why we live in the first place.”

However, Carter said he’s begun to notice white folks taking credit for things Black artists have already done.

“There’s this push and pull between folks who are really about the provenance of the blockchain versus folks who are wanting to predispose themselves as first because they have more visibility,” Carter said.

He pointed to Black artists like Connie Digital, Harrison First and others who were some of the first people to institute social tokens for their fans on the blockchain.

“They were some of the first to deploy and sell albums as NFTs, EPs as NFTs, singular songs,” Carter said. “And now we have Blau that came out and people were saying he’s the first to sell an album. And it’s like, well, that’s not true, technically. But what works and has continued to work is because there’s a lot of hoopla and a lot of money around that sale, that becomes the formative thing as being first because it’s the one that’s made the most noise. And I find it interesting because of the fact that we can literally go back tangibly, and there’s verifiable hash proof that it wasn’t the case.”

These are the types of phenomena pushing Carter to become an NFT archivist of sorts, he said.

“I’m not necessarily a historian, but I think the more and more I get involved in this space, the more and more I feel that pressing role of being an archivist,” he said. “So that culturally, we aren’t erased, even in a space that’s supposed to be decentralized and supposed to be something that works for everyone.”

That’s partly why Carter is building The Well to archive the work of Black artists, like Blacksneakers, for example. The Well will also be a platform for Black artists to mint their NFTs in a place that feels safe, supportive and not exploitative, he said.

On current platforms, Carter said it feels like white artists generally get more promotions on the site, as well as on social media, than Black artists.

“They deserve to have that kind of artists’ growth and development,” Carter said. “Yet it is afforded to a lot of other artists that don’t look like them.”

Carter said he recognizes it’s not the responsibility of platforms like Nifty Gateway, SuperRare and others to provide opportunities to Black artists, but that they do have the ability to put Black artists in a better position to receive opportunities.

That’s partly what Carter hopes to achieve with The Well Protocol. The Well, which Carter plans to launch on Juneteenth, aims to create an inclusive platform and ecosystem for NFT artists, collectors and curators. Carter said he wants artists to not have to feel like they have to constantly leverage Twitter to showcase their work. Instead, they’ll have the full backing of an ecosystem pumping up their work.

“Everywhere else, you look at other artists and they have write-ups, and they have news coverage and things of that nature,” Carter said. “And [Black artists] don’t have a lot of those avenues to compete. You know, I’m in the business of building true equity for us, so part and parcel to that is developing the tools and the ecosystem for us to thrive.”

No longer should art just be for the rich, Carter said.

“We have the ability to completely dismantle that,” he said. “So we have to be very, very, very careful about that and make a concerted effort to make that thing work, but we can’t do it when we have folks entering the space with money erasing folks who were already here. We can’t have that where platforms are not allowing the positioning of artists to grow. You know, we can’t have that when we have folks by and large, fear mongering and trying to get other artists to not be a part of this system.”

It’s also important, he said, for NFTs to not solely be seen as collectible, investable objects.

“Everyone’s getting into the game like it’s a money grab,” he said. “It’s not. It’s playing with artists lives and careers here.”


For those who aren’t yet in on NFTs, there’s still time, Ronin said. Even with the increased attention on NFTs, Ronin says it’s still early days.

“Honestly, I don’t even think we’ve got a full foot into early adoption yet,” he said. “I don’t think you come out of early adoption until we’ve got a solid experience across the board. I think we’re still in alpha.”

That’s partly because Ronin believes the things people will be able to do in five or ten years with this technology will pale in comparison to what’s happening today. For example, Ronin said he spoke with an artist who is experimenting with an NFT experience that will transcend VR, AR and XR.

“And I’m so excited that she chose to work with me and bring me in on this, and use me as kind of an advisor,” he said. “And she can change the world with this technology.”

That’s really what’s so exciting about NFTs for Ronin — the notion that the technology can change your life, and the world, he said.

“And it is a space in which you should feel free to come into and dream big and then figure out how to make those dreams happen,” he said. “You can use AR, VR, mobile, you know, the internet — you can use all these aspects and create an NFT experience that transcends space, transcends time, transcends our life. So it’s a super powerful technology. And I think that people should really pay attention.”

Down the road, Ronin also envisions having connected blockchains “where you can take an NFT from, you know, Bitcoin to Ethereum to WAX to Flow,” he said. “I really think that it’s why this this is that important.”

For Carter, he hopes his work at The Well will help to set a precedent for inclusivity and access in the NFT space. It’s worth mentioning that Carter is also working on the Mint Fund to help minimize the barriers to entry for artists looking to mint their first NFTs. Minting an NFT can be expensive to the tune of $50-$250 depending on how busy the Ethereum network is, and Mint Fund will pay those fees for new artists, making the on-ramp into the world smoother.

“If we don’t do this the right way with the right type of community-driven thinking, then we will lose,” he said. “And it’s not going to look good, it’s going to be ugly. And it’s going to again perpetuate the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer…We have to find the best ways to redistribute wealth at any given point in time within this economy, within this system. If we do not know how to do that, we are fucked. At least in my opinion.”

There are also conversations in the space around the ecological impact of minting NFTs, which requires a good amount of energy to do. Carter described the existence of two camps: the camp arguing minting NFTs are very ecologically damaging and the ones saying it’s not the fault of minters and you can’t blame them “for minting on a system that is already going to process these transactions, whether they mint or not.”

For Carter, he thinks the first camp could be right, but says there’s just a lot of yelling at this point.

“I think that collectively, us as minters should not feel so fucked up that we can’t do anything anymore,” he said.

Carter also pointed to the energy required to print and ship a bunch of his work.

“To sell one piece of art that I’ve minted versus the energy expenditure and the emissions it takes for me to sell, let’s say 1,000 prints at $20,” he said. “To now shop those to 1,000 different places and for those things to then be transported to 1,000 different homes. Like, maybe they’re comparable, maybe they’re not. I’m not too interested in doing the math at this point.”

Ultimately, Carter thinks there needs to be better access to renewable energy sources and more innovative hardware in the space.

“And the production of creating that innovative hardware also has to be coming from renewable energy sources, like the entire framework should be working to be carbon negative,” he said. “As carbon neutral to carbon negative as possible. And not just the minting side but the mining side. And, you know, the manufacturing side. It’s a cyclical issue.”

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