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    Amazon Workers Defeat Union Effort in Alabama

    The company’s decisive victory deals a crushing blow to organized labor, which had hoped the time was ripe to start making inroads.Amazon workers at a giant warehouse in Alabama voted decisively against forming a union on Friday, squashing the most significant organizing drive in the internet giant’s history and dealing a crushing blow to labor and Democrats when conditions appeared ripe for them to make advances.Workers cast 1,798 votes against a union, giving Amazon enough to emphatically defeat the effort. Ballots in favor of a union trailed at 738, fewer than 30 percent of the votes tallied, according to federal officials.The lopsided outcome at the 6,000-person warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., came even as the pandemic’s effect on the economy and the election of a pro-labor president had made the country more aware of the plight of essential workers.Amazon, which has repeatedly quashed labor activism, had appeared vulnerable as it faced increasing scrutiny in Washington and around the world for its market power and influence. President Biden signaled support for the union effort, as did Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent. The pandemic, which drove millions of people to shop online, also raised questions about Amazon’s ability to keep those employees safe.But in an aggressive campaign, the company argued that its workers had access to rewarding jobs without needing to involve a union. The victory leaves Amazon free to handle employees on its own terms as it has gone on a hiring spree and expanded its work force to more than 1.3 million people.Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who researches the history of technology companies, said Amazon’s message that it offered good jobs with good wages had prevailed over the criticisms by the union and its supporters. The outcome, she said, “reads as a vindication.”She added that while it was just one warehouse, the election had garnered so much attention that it had become a “bellwether.” Amazon’s victory was likely to cause organized labor to think, “Maybe this isn’t worth trying in other places,” Ms. O’Mara said.The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the drive, blamed its defeat on what it said were Amazon’s anti-union tactics before and during the voting, which was conducted from early February through the end of last month. The union said it would challenge the result and ask federal labor officials to investigate Amazon for creating an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals.”“Our system is broken,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president. “Amazon took full advantage of that.”Amazon said in a statement, “The union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.” It added, “Amazon didn’t win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”About half of the 5,876 eligible voters at the warehouse cast ballots in the election. A majority of votes, or 1,521, was needed to win. About 500 ballots were contested, largely by Amazon, the union said. Those ballots were not counted. If a union had been voted through, it would have been the first for Amazon workers in the United States. More

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

    Amazon was built on an underdog philosophy, but its workers are finding a voice. That presents a problem for the company that goes far beyond the union vote in Alabama.It has been Day 1 at Amazon ever since the company began more than a quarter-century ago. Day 1 is Amazon shorthand for staying hungry, making bold decisions and never forgetting about the customer. This start-up mentality — underdogs against the world — has been extremely good for Amazon’s shoppers and shareholders.Day 1 holds less appeal for some of Amazon’s employees, especially those doing the physical work in the warehouses. A growing number feel the company is pushing them past their limits and risking their health. They would like Amazon to usher in a more benign Day 2.The clash between the desire for Day 1 and Day 2 has been unfolding in Alabama, where Amazon warehouse workers in the community of Bessemer have voted on whether to form a union. Government labor regulators are getting ready to sort through the votes in the closely watched election. A result may come as soon as this week. If the union gains a foothold, it will be the first in the company’s history.Attention has been focused on Bessemer, but the struggle between Day 1 and Day 2 is increasingly playing out everywhere in Amazon’s world. At its heart, the conflict is about control. To maintain Day 1, the company needs to lower labor costs and increase productivity, which requires measuring and tweaking every moment of a worker’s existence.That kind of control is at the heart of the Amazon enterprise. The idea of surrendering it is the company’s greatest horror. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, wrote in his 2016 shareholder letter: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”For many years, Amazon has managed to maintain control and keep Day 1 going by dazzling with delivery and counted on the media, regulators and politicians to ignore everything unpleasant. The few stories about workers rarely got traction.But it is now the second-largest private employer in the country. There is widespread pro-worker sentiment in the United States and a pro-union president. In Bessemer, many of the pro-union workers are Black, which makes this a civil rights story as well.Amazon needs to measure and tweak every moment of a worker’s existence to maintain its edge, but it is facing more pushback against its control.Bob Miller for The New York TimesSo the costs associated with Day 1 are finally coming into view. And it is showing up not only in Alabama, but in the form of lawsuits, restive workers at other warehouses, Congressional oversight, scrutiny from labor regulators and, most noisily, on Twitter.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.”Amazon has presented a different opinion of what Day 1 means for workers. The first thing it mentions in its official statement on Bessemer is the starting pay of $15.30 per hour, double the federal minimum wage.Mr. Cox, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in Washington state, said the higher pay has paradoxically fueled the discontent. The pay “is better than working at a gas station, so people naturally want to keep these jobs,” he said. “That’s why they want them to be fair. I saw a lot of depression and anxiety when I worked for Amazon.”(Mr. Cox said he was fired by Amazon in 2018 for organizing. Amazon told him he had violated safety protocol).The confrontation between Day 1 and Day 2 has been sharpest over bladders.The topic erupted last month when Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, tweeted at the company, “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.”Amazon’s social media account fired back: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”This isn’t the way corporations usually talk to members of Congress, even on Twitter. On Friday, after days of being pummeled on the issue, Amazon apologized to Representative Pocan, saying: “The tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.” Amazon blamed Covid and “traffic,” not its punishing schedules.Representative Pocan responded on Saturday with a sigh. “This is not about me, this is about your workers — who you don’t treat with enough respect or dignity,” he wrote.The bathroom question is one on which the company has long been vulnerable. Enforcement files from regulators in Amazon’s home state of Washington indicate that questions about whether the company had an appropriate number of bathrooms in its Seattle headquarters have arisen over the past dozen years.The company has “insufficient lavatory facilities for male employees” according to a 2012 complaint received by the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. “Employees routinely traverse multiple buildings in search of available facilities.”A 2014 complaint filed by an Amazon employee to the same department said employees got 12 minutes a day for “bathroom, getting water, personal calls, etc.” outside of normally scheduled breaks. Those who needed further toilet time had to provide a doctor’s note “explaining why the need to void more than usual.”The complaints went beyond Amazon’s white-collar offices. A warehouse worker told Labor and Industries in 2009 that a manager and a human resources representative had told her that “there would be disciplinary action against me if I continue to use the bathroom on company time” — she meant unscheduled breaks. The employee added that the H.R. representative told her that “it was not fair to the company that I was getting paid when I’m not working because I’m in the bathroom.”Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. Some employees have filed bathroom-related complaints, including saying some of the offices have too few restrooms.Miles Fortune for The New York TimesAmazon did not respond to questions about the enforcement reports. A spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industries declined to comment, except to note that outside of Amazon, “We really don’t get a lot of bathroom-related complaints.”Other technology companies have prided themselves on overriding mere bodily needs. Marissa Mayer, an early Google employee, attributed the search company’s success to working 130 hours a week — entirely possible, she said in a 2016 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”When Google was a start-up, the notion was that you gave up everything — family, sleep, diversion — so you might become successful and rich. But former workers at Amazon warehouses said that under the Day 1 philosophy, they suffered merely to stay employed.“I believe many employees have indirectly lost their job for going to the bathroom. You’re like, can I hold it to break time?” said John Burgett, who blogged for several years about working in an Amazon warehouse in Indiana.His conclusion on his last entry, in 2016: Amazon was “testing the limits of human beings as a technical tool.” More

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    What is Going on with China, Cotton and All of These Clothing Brands?

    A user’s guide to the latest cross-border social media fashion crisis.Last week, calls for the cancellation of H&M and other Western brands went out across Chinese social media as human rights campaigns collided with cotton sourcing and political gamesmanship. Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on and how it may affect everything from your T-shirts to your trench coats.What’s all this I’m hearing about fashion brands and China? Did someone make another dumb racist ad?No, it’s much more complicated than an offensive and obvious cultural faux pas. The issue centers on the Xinjiang region of China and allegations of forced labor in the cotton industry — allegations denied by the Chinese government. Last summer, many Western brands issued statements expressing concerns about human rights in their supply chain. Some even cut ties with the region all together.Now, months later, the chickens are coming home to roost: Chinese netizens are reacting with fury, charging the allegations are an offense to the state. Leading Chinese e-commerce platforms have kicked major international labels off their sites, and a slew of celebrities have denounced their former foreign employers.Why is this such a big deal?The issue has growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to roil global retail, consumers have become more attuned to who makes their clothes and how they are treated, putting pressure on brands to put their values where their products are. One the other, China has become an evermore important sales hub to the fashion industry, given its scale and the fact that there is less disruption there than in other key markets, like Europe. Then, too, international politicians are getting in on the act, imposing bans and sanctions. Fashion has become a diplomatic football.This is a perfect case study of what happens when market imperatives come up against global morality.Tell me more about Xinjiang and why it is so important.Xinjiang is a region in northwest China that happens to produce about a fifth of the world’s cotton. It is home to many ethnic groups, especially the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. Though it is officially the largest of China’s five autonomous regions, which in theory means it has more legislative self-control, the central government has been increasingly involved in the area, saying it must exert its authority because of local conflicts with the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) who have been moving into the region. This has resulted in draconian restrictions, surveillance, criminal prosecutions and forced-labor camps.OK, and what about the Uyghurs?A predominantly Muslim Turkic group, the Uyghur population within Xinjiang numbers just over 12 million, according to official figures released by Chinese authorities. As many as one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been retrained to become model workers, obedient to the Chinese Communist Party via coercive labor programs.Burberry created signature check “skins” for characters in the Honor of Kings video game, which its owner, the Chinese technology company Tencent, removed over the company’s stand on cotton produced in the Xinjiang region.via Honor of KingsSo this has been going on for awhile?At least since 2016. But after The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others published reports that connected Uyghurs in forced detention to the supply chains of many of the world’s best-known fashion retailers, including Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Ralph Lauren and the PVH Corporation, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, many of those brands reassessed their relationships with Xinjiang-based cotton suppliers.In January, the Trump administration banned all imports of cotton from the region, as well as products made from the material and declared what was happening “genocide.” At the time, the Workers Rights Consortium estimated that material from Xinjiang was involved in more than 1.5 billion garments imported annually by American brands and retailers.That’s a lot! How do I know if I am wearing a garment made from Xinjiang cotton?You don’t. The supply chain is so convoluted and subcontracting so common that often it’s hard for brands themselves to know exactly where and how every component of their garments is made.So if this has been an issue for over a year, why is everyone in China freaking out now?It isn’t immediately clear. One theory is that it is because of the ramp-up in political brinkmanship between China and the West. On March 22, Britain, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced sanctions on Chinese officials in an escalating row over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.Not long after, screenshots from a statement posted in September 2020 by H&M citing “deep concerns” about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, and confirming that the retailer had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region, began circulating on Chinese social media. The fallout was fast and furious. There were calls for a boycott, and H&M products were soon missing from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Alibaba Group’s Tmall and JD.com. The furor was stoked by comments on the microblogging site Sina Weibo from groups like the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.Within hours, other big Western brands like Nike and Burberry began trending for the same reason.And it’s not just consumers who are up in arms: Influencers and celebrities have also been severing ties with the brands. Even video games are bouncing virtual “looks” created by Burberry from their platforms.Backtrack: What do influencers have to do with all this?Influencers in China wield even more power over consumer behavior than they do in the West, meaning they play a crucial role in legitimizing brands and driving sales. When Tao Liang, otherwise known as Mr. Bags, did a collaboration with Givenchy, for example, the bags sold out in 12 minutes; a necklace-bracelet set he made with Qeelin reportedly sold out in one second (there were 100 made). That’s why H&M worked with Victoria Song, Nike with Wang Yibo and Burberry with Zhou Dongyu.But Chinese influencers and celebrities are also sensitive to pleasing the central government and publicly affirming their national values, often performatively choosing their country over contracts.In 2019, for example, Yang Mi, the Chinese actress and a Versace ambassador, publicly repudiated the brand when it made the mistake of creating a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries, seeming to dismiss the “One China” policy and the central government’s sovereignty. Not long afterward, Coach was targeted after making a similar mistake, creating a tee that named Hong Kong and Taiwan separately; Liu Wen, the Chinese supermodel, immediately distanced herself from the brand.The actress Zhou Dongyu, the actor Wang Yibo and the singer and actress Victoria Song, all Chinese influencers who had deals with Western brands that they then  repudiated when their products were said to disrespect the Chinese people and government.VCG/VCG, via Getty ImagesAnd what’s with the video games?Tencent removed two Burberry-designed “skins” — outfits worn by video game characters that the brand had introduced with great fanfare — from its popular title Honor of Kings as a response to news that the brand had stopped buying cotton produced in the Xinjiang region. The looks had been available for less than a week.So this is hitting both fast fashion and the high end. How much of the fashion world is involved?Potentially, most of it. So far Adidas, Nike, Converse and Burberry have all been swept up in the crisis. Even before the ban, additional companies like Patagonia, PVH, Marks & Spencer and the Gap had announced that they did not source material from Xinjiang and had officially taken a stance against human rights abuses.This week, however, several brands, including VF Corp., Inditex (which owns Zara) and PVH all quietly removed their policies against forced labor from their websites.That seems squirrelly. Is this likely to escalate?Brands seem to be concerned that the answer is yes, since, apparently fearful of offending the Chinese government, some companies have proactively announced that they will continue buying cotton from Xinjiang. Hugo Boss, the German company whose suiting is a de facto uniform for the financial world, posted a statement on Weibo saying, “We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton” (even though last fall the company had announced it was no longer sourcing from the region). Muji, the Japanese brand, is also proudly touting its use of Xinjiang cotton on its Chinese websites, as is Uniqlo.Wait … I get playing possum, but why would a company publicly pledge its allegiance to Xinjiang cotton?It’s about the Benjamins, buddy. According to a report from Bain & Company released last December, China is expected to be the world’s largest luxury market by 2025. Last year it was the only part of the world to report year on year growth, with the luxury market reaching 44 billion euros ($52.2 billion).Is anyone going to come out of this well?One set of winners could be the Chinese fashion industry, which has long played second fiddle to Western brands, to the frustration of many businesses there. Shares in Chinese apparel groups and textile companies with ties to Xinjiang rallied this week as the backlash gained pace. And more than 20 Chinese brands publicly made statements touting their support for Chinese cotton. More

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    Google Aims to Be the Anti-Amazon of E-Commerce. It Has a Long Way to Go.

    Google presents itself to independent sellers as cheaper and less restrictive. But it is not clear whether it can change people’s habits of going straight to Amazon.OAKLAND, Calif. — Google tried to copy Amazon’s playbook to become the shopping hub of the internet, with little success. Now it is trying something different: the anti-Amazon strategy.Google is trying to present itself as a cheaper and less restrictive option for independent sellers. And it is focused on driving traffic to sellers’ sites, not selling its own version of products, as Amazon does.In the last year, Google eliminated fees for merchants and allowed sellers to list their wares in its search results for free. It is also trying to make it easier for small, independent shops to upload their inventory of products to appear in search results and buy ads on Google by teaming up with Shopify, which powers online stores for 1.7 million merchants who sell directly to consumers.But like Google’s many attempts during its two-decade quest to compete with Amazon, this one shows little sign of working. Google has nothing as alluring as the $295 billion that passed through Amazon’s third-party marketplace in 2020. The amount of goods people buy on Google is “very small” by comparison — probably around $1 billion, said Juozas Kaziukenas, the founder of Marketplace Pulse, a research company.Amazon is a fixture in the lives of many Americans. It has usurped Google as the starting point for shoppers and has become equally essential for marketers. Amazon’s global advertising business grew 30 percent to $17.6 billion in 2020, trailing only Google and Facebook in the United States.But as the pandemic has forced many stores to go online, it has created a new opening for Google to woo sellers who feel uneasy about building their businesses on Amazon.Christina Stang, 33, opened Fritzy’s Roller Skate Shop near Pacific Beach in San Diego last March. Shelter-in-place orders forced her to set up an online storefront on Shopify.She got lucky. She was sitting on a huge supply of skates when demand surged as skating videos became popular on TikTok during the pandemic.Christina Stang, the owner of Fritzy’s, avoided selling on Amazon because of its fees, but now Google has suspended her account because of a discrepancy in shipping costs.John Francis Peters for The New York TimesShe linked her Shopify account to Google’s retail software and started buying so-called smart shopping ads. Working within an allotted budget, Google’s algorithms pick where to place ads and what products to feature. In 2020, she spent $1,800 on the ads, which were viewed 3.6 million times and led to $247,000 in sales, she said.She considered selling her products on Amazon’s marketplace, but she worried what Amazon’s fees would mean for her already-thin profit margins. She also liked that Google redirected people to her carefully curated website rather than keeping them inside its own store, as Amazon does.“I could sell on Amazon and not make any real money but have a bigger online presence,” Ms. Stang said. “It didn’t seem like a great idea.”Recently, however, she has experienced one of the drawbacks of being stuck in the middle of the partnership between Google and Shopify. Her shop has been unable to list any products since January because Google suspended her account. It said her shipping costs appeared more expensive on Google than on her Shopify-powered website, even though they were no different.Shopify told her that it was a Google issue. Google’s customer service representatives recommended that she hire a web designer. She continues to manage without Google, but it has tainted her largely positive experience.“This has completely cut me off at the knees,” she said. “I’m a small business, and I don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to resolve this.”Sellers often complain about Amazon’s fees, which can account for a quarter of every sale, not including the cost of advertising, and the pressure to spend more to succeed. Merchants on Amazon do not have a direct relationship with their customers, limiting their ability to communicate with them and to generate future business. And because everything is contained within the Amazon world, it is harder to create a unique look and feel that express a brand’s identity the way companies can on their own websites.But since 2002, when it started a price comparison site called Froogle, a confusing play on the word “frugal” that required a rebranding five years later, Google has struggled to chart a cohesive vision for its shopping experience.It tried to challenge Amazon directly by piloting its own same-day delivery service, but it shuttered the project as costs ballooned. It tried to forge partnerships with traditional retail giants, only to see the alliances wilt from a lack of sales. It built its own marketplace to make it easier for shoppers to buy the things they find on Google, but was not able to break consumers from their Amazon habit.Last year, Google brought in Bill Ready, a former chief operating officer at PayPal, to fill a new senior position and spearhead an overhaul of its shopping strategy.Around the time of his hiring, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, warned senior executives that the new approach could mean a short-term crimp in advertising revenue, according to two people familiar with the conversations, who requested anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss them publicly. He asked teams to support the e-commerce push because it was a company priority.When the pandemic spurred huge demand for online shopping, Google eliminated fees, allowing retailers to list products for free and walking back a 2012 decision to allow only advertisers to display goods on its shopping site.Three months after hiring Mr. Ready, Google said the free listings would show up on its main search results. Then Google said customers could buy products directly from merchants on Google with no commissions. It also said Google would open its platform to third parties like Shopify and PayPal so that sellers could continue to use their existing tools to manage inventory and orders and processing payments.Google brought in Bill Ready to spearhead an overhaul of its shopping strategy.Kendrick Brinson for The New York TimesThe partnership with Shopify was especially meaningful because hundreds of thousands of small businesses have flocked to the software platform during the pandemic. About 9 percent of U.S. online shopping sales took place on storefronts powered by Shopify as of October, according to research firm eMarketer. That was up from 6 percent the prior year and second only to Amazon’s share of 37 percent.Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s president, said Google and Shopify were developing new ways for merchants to sell through Google services, such as experiments to allow customers to buy items directly on YouTube and to display what products stores are carrying in Google Maps.Mr. Ready walked a fine line when it came to Amazon, which is a big buyer of ads on Google, but he made it clear he believed Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce posed a threat to other merchants.“Nobody wants to live in a world where there is only one place to buy something, and retailers don’t want to be dependent on gatekeepers,” he said in an interview.Google said it had increased the number of sellers appearing in its results by 80 percent in 2020, with the most significant growth coming from small and midsize businesses. And existing retailers are listing more products.Overstock.com, a seller of discount furniture and home bedding, said it had paid to list products on Google in the past. But now that listings are free, Overstock is adding low-margin products, too.“When all shopping starts and stops at Amazon, that’s bad for the industry,” said Jonathan E. Johnson, Overstock’s chief executive. “It’s nice to have another 800-pound tech gorilla in this space.”What remains unclear is whether increasing the number of merchants and listings on Google will ultimately change online shopping habits.BACtrack, a maker of breathalyzers, has more than doubled its advertising spending on Amazon in the last two years because that is where the customers are, it said, while it has spent 6 percent less advertising its products on Google.“It seems like more and more people are skipping Google and going straight to Amazon,” said Keith Nothacker, the chief executive of BACtrack. More

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    Organizing Gravediggers, Cereal Makers and, Maybe, Amazon Employees

    A group of gravediggers in Columbus, Ohio, who just negotiated a 3 percent raise. The poultry plant that processes chicken nuggets for McDonald’s. The workers who make Cap’n Crunch in Iowa. The women’s shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is not the largest labor union in the United States, but it may be one of the most eclectic. Its membership, totaling about 100,000 workers, seems to reach into every conceivable corner of the American economy, stretching from the cradle (they make Gerber baby food) to the grave (those cemetery workers in Columbus).And now it is potentially on the cusp of breaking into Amazon, one of the world’s most dominant companies, which since its founding has beaten back every attempt to organize any part of its massive work force in the United States.This month, a group of 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are voting whether to join the R.W.D.S.U. It is the first large-scale union vote in Amazon’s history, and a decision by the workers to organize would have implications for the labor movement across the country, especially as retail giants like Amazon and Walmart have gained power — and added workers — during the pandemic.The Amazon campaign, said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, “is about the future of work and how working people are going to be treated in the new economy.”For some labor activists, the union and its early success at the Bessemer warehouse represent the vanguard of the modern organizing campaigns. It is outspoken on social issues and savvy on social media — posting a TikTok video of support from the rapper Killer Mike and tweeting an endorsement from the National Football League Players Association during the Super Bowl.“It’s a bit of an odd-duck union,” said Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College at the City University of New York. “They keep morphing over the years and have been very inventive in their tactics.”The union is also racially, geographically and politically diverse. Founded during a heyday of organized labor in New York City in 1937 — and perhaps best known for representing workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s — most of its members are now employed in right-to-work states, across the South and rural Midwest.Workers lowering a lid onto a vault at Union Cemetery in Columbus. Their organization is known as “a bit of an odd-duck union” for the variety of industries it covers.Brian Kaiser for The New York TimesLou Willis, operating a backhoe at the cemetery.Brian Kaiser for The New York TimesBrian Kaiser for The New York TimesWhile the union’s overall membership has stagnated over the past decade, the number of members in its Mid-South office, which includes Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana, has nearly doubled, to about 9,000 from 4,700 in 2011, driven by aggressive recruitment efforts in the poultry, warehouse and health care industries. More than half of its members across the country are workers of color.In the Mid-South office, which is leading the organizing at Amazon, local officials begin almost every meeting with a prayer, lean in favor of gun rights and say about half their members supported Donald J. Trump’s re-election bid. (Unlike the national union, which publicly backed President Biden, the southern office did not issue an endorsement of either candidate.)“We are known as the church union,” said Randy Hadley, president of the Mid-South Council. “We put God first, family second and then our jobs.”The retail and wholesale workers union is run nationally by Mr. Appelbaum, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Democratic Party operative from Hartford, Conn., who has written about his identity as a gay, Jewish labor leader.Since becoming union president in 1998, Mr. Appelbaum has created a niche by organizing workers from a wide variety of professions: airline caterers, employees in fast fashion stores and gardeners at a cannabis grow house. “When you buy a joint, look for the union label,” Mr. Appelbaum said jokingly.Stuart Appelbaum, the union president, in 2016. The Amazon effort, he said, “is about the future of work and how working people are going to be treated in the new economy.”Christian Hansen for The New York TimesThe strategy has helped the union to keep flourishing, even as its core work force in brick-and-mortar retail stores continues to shrink as shopping moves online.The union often ties its organizing campaigns to the broader struggle to advance the rights of vulnerable workers, such as the predominately gay, lesbian, trans and nonbinary employees in sex toy shops in New York and undocumented immigrants working in the city’s carwashes.After World War II, the union advocated for Black servicemen who were being shut out of jobs at Macy’s, which paid the highest commissions. “It has a history of being a militant, feisty, left-wing crowd,” Professor Freeman said.Even the Alabama office, which leans further to the right on some issues, has stood up for workers in ways that are locally unpopular.Mr. Hadley said one of his biggest accomplishments was negotiating a paid holiday on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, at a Tyson poultry plant in Tennessee, where a large number of Somali immigrants work.“We had Muslims in the facility, they said, ‘We look at that day like Christmas,’ and I thought, ‘Who am I to judge?’” recalled Mr. Hadley, a former meat cutter. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”The president of the union’s Mid-South Council, Randy Hadley, back row, center right, with other leaders and staff in Birmingham, Ala. The Mid-South office is leading the organizing at Amazon.Retail, Wholesale and Department Store UnionRatified in 2008, the Muslim holiday took the place of Labor Day as one of the paid holidays that workers were allowed at the facility, and was criticized by some as being un-American.Over the years, the union has faced some powerful enemies. In the 1960s, its Black organizers were threatened — one was even shot at — while trying to sign up food industry workers across the South.Johnny Whitaker, a former dairy worker who started as a union organizer in the 1970s, said he had grown up in a white family in Hanceville, Ala., without much money. Still, he was shocked by the working conditions and racism he witnessed when he started organizing in the poultry plants years ago.Black workers were classified differently from their white counterparts and paid much less. Women were expected to engage in sexual acts with managers in exchange for more hours, he said. Many workers could not read or write.Despite threats that they would lose their jobs if they organized, thousands of poultry workers have joined the R.W.D.S.U. over the past three decades, though the industry still is predominantly nonunion.Roberto Cuellar, a union member and flight coordinator at Flying Food Group, an airline caterer whose workers are represented by the R.W.D.S.U.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesMr. Cuellar checked meals at Kennedy International Airport before a flight.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesMeghan Marin for The New York TimesWhen a small group of Amazon workers contacted the union in late August about their interest in organizing the Bessemer warehouse, Mr. Whitaker acknowledged, “there was a lot of doubt” internally about the idea.The R.W.D.S.U. had tried to lay the groundwork for organizing Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island in 2019, but the effort failed when the company pulled the plug on its plans to build a second headquarters in New York, known as HQ2, partly because of political pressure to allow organizing at its facilities.“What we learned from HQ2 was that Amazon was going to do anything it possibly could to avoid having a union at any of its workplaces,” Mr. Appelbaum said.At the time, Amazon said it canceled its plans after “a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”But the more the workers in Alabama kept talking to the union about their working conditions, the more Mr. Appelbaum and others believed the warehouse was fertile ground for organizing.The employee cafeteria at Flying Food Group.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesThe workers described the control that Amazon exerts over their work lives, including tracking their time in the restroom or other time spent away from their primary task in the warehouse. Some workers have said they can be penalized for taking too much time away from their specific assignments.“We are talking about bathroom breaks,” said Mr. Whitaker, an executive vice president at the union. “It’s the year 2021 and workers are being penalized for taking a pee.”In an email, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company does not penalize workers for taking bathroom breaks. “Those are not our policies,” she said. “People can take bathroom breaks.”The campaign in Bessemer has created some strange political bedfellows. Mr. Biden expressed his support for the Alabama workers to vote freely in the mail-in election, which ends later this month. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida went even further, encouraging the Bessemer workers to unionize in order to protect themselves against the “woke culture” at Amazon.A greenhouse in the PharmaCann facility near Montgomery, N.Y. The company grows cannabis for medical use in several states; the R.W.D.S.U. has organized workers there.David Steinberg for The New York TimesMark Etri Jr. assembling cartridges.David Steinberg for The New York TimesLiz Ferran tending to plants.David Steinberg for The New York TimesIf the union wins the election in Bessemer, the effort to court workers will continue. In a right-to-work state, workers are not required to pay union dues even if they are represented by a union.At a Quaker Oats plant in Iowa, which is also a right-to-work state, the R.W.D.S.U. finds ways to motivate workers to join the union by posting the names of workers who have not yet joined on a bulletin board.“In a right-to-work state, you are always organizing,” Mr. Hadley said.Early in the afternoon of Oct. 20, Mr. Hadley met with about 20 organizers before they headed out to the Bessemer warehouse to begin their campaign to sign up workers. The plan was for the organizers to stand at the warehouse gates talking to workers early in the morning and in the evening when their shift changes. In a pep talk with the group, Mr. Hadley invoked the story of David and Goliath.“We are going to hit Goliath in the nose every day, twice a day,” he told the group, referring to Amazon. “He’s going to see our union every morning when he comes to work, and I want him thinking about us when he closes his eyes at night.” More

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    How Amazon Crushes Unions

    Amazon’s warehouse in Chester, Va., where a union effort tried to organize about 30 facilities technicians in 2014 and 2015.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesHow Amazon Crushes UnionsIn a secret settlement in Virginia, Amazon swore off threatening and intimidating workers. As the company confronts increased labor unrest, its tactics are under scrutiny.Amazon’s warehouse in Chester, Va., where a union effort tried to organize about 30 facilities technicians in 2014 and 2015.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesSupported byContinue reading the main storyMarch 16, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ETRICHMOND, Va. — Five years ago, Amazon was compelled to post a “notice to employees” on the break-room walls of a warehouse in east-central Virginia.The notice was printed simply, in just two colors, and crammed with words. But for any worker who bothered to look closely, it was a remarkable declaration. Amazon listed 22 forms of behavior it said it would disavow, each beginning in capital letters: “WE WILL NOT.”“We will not threaten you with the loss of your job” if you are a union supporter, Amazon wrote, according to a photo of the notice reviewed by The New York Times. “We will not interrogate you” about the union or “engage in surveillance of you” while you participate in union activities. “We will not threaten you with unspecified reprisals” because you are a union supporter. We will not threaten to “get” union supporters.Amazon posted the list after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers accused it of doing those very things during a two-year-long push to unionize 30 facilities technicians at the warehouse in Chester, just south of Richmond. While Amazon did not admit to violations of labor laws, the company promised in a settlement with federal regulators to tell workers that it would rigorously obey the rules in the future.The employee notice and failed union effort, which have not previously been reported, are suddenly relevant as Amazon confronts increasing labor unrest in the United States. Over two decades, as the internet retailer mushroomed from a virtual bookstore into a $1.5 trillion behemoth, it forcefully — and successfully — resisted employee efforts to organize. Some workers in recent years agitated for change in Staten Island, Chicago, Sacramento and Minnesota, but the impact was negligible.Bill Hough Jr., a machinist at the Chester warehouse who led the union drive. Amazon fired him in 2016.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesIn an employee notice, Amazon listed behavior it said it would disavow.The arrival of the coronavirus last year changed that. It turned Amazon into an essential resource for millions stuck at home and redefined the company’s relationship with its warehouse workers. Like many service industry employees, they were vulnerable to the virus. As society locked down, they were also less able to simply move on if they had issues with the job.Now Amazon faces a union vote at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. — the largest and most viable U.S. labor challenge in its history. Nearly 6,000 workers have until March 29 to decide whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. A labor victory could energize workers in other U.S. communities, where Amazon has more than 800 warehouses employing more than 500,000 people.“This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.”Even if the union does not prevail, “the history of unions is always about failing forward,” she said. “Workers trying, workers losing, workers trying again.”The effort in Chester, which The Times reconstructed with documents from regulators and the machinists’ union, as well as interviews with former facilities technicians at the warehouse and union officials, offers one of the fullest pictures of what encourages Amazon workers to open the door to a union — and what techniques the company uses to slam the door and nail it shut.The employee notice was a hollow victory for workers. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that negotiated the settlement with Amazon, has no power to impose monetary penalties. Its enforcement remedies are few and weak, which means its ability to restrain anti-union employers from breaking the law is limited. The settlement was not publicized, so there were not even any public relations benefits.Amazon was the real winner. There have been no further attempts at a union in Chester.The tactics that Amazon used in Chester are surfacing elsewhere. The retail workers union said Amazon was trying to surveil employees in Bessemer and even changed a traffic signal to prevent organizers from approaching warehouse workers as they left the site. Last month, the New York attorney general said in a lawsuit that Amazon had retaliated against employees who tried to protest its pandemic safety measures as inadequate.Amazon declined to say whether it had complied with labor laws during the union drive in Chester in 2014 and 2015. In a statement, it said it was “compliant with the National Labor Relations Act in 2016” when it issued the employee notice, and “we continue to be compliant today.” It added in a different statement that it didn’t believe the union push in Alabama “represents the majority of our employees’ views.”The labor board declined to comment.The Chester settlement notice mentions one worker by name: Bill Hough Jr., a machinist who led the union drive. The notice said Amazon had issued a warning to Mr. Hough that he was on the verge of being fired. Amazon said it would rescind the warning.Six months later, in August 2016, Amazon fired him anyway.Mr. Hough (pronounced Huff) was in a hospital having knee surgery when Amazon called and said he had used up his medical leave. Since he couldn’t do his job, he said he was told, this was the end of the line.“There was no mercy, even after what they had done to me,” Mr. Hough, now 56, said. “That’s Amazon. If you can’t give 110 percent, you’re done.”Amazon declined to comment on Mr. Hough.No ConstraintsA truck at the warehouse in Chester. Amazon has been fending off attempts to unionize since at least 1999. Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesAmazon was founded on notions of speed, efficiency and hard work — lots of hard work. Placing his first help wanted ad in 1994, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, said he wanted engineers who could do their job “in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible.”Amazon managers openly warned recruits that if they liked things comfortable, this would be a difficult, perhaps impossible, job. For customer service representatives, it was difficult to keep up, according to media accounts and labor organizers. Overtime was mandatory. Supervisors sent emails with subject headings like “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.”In 1999, the reps, who numbered about 400, were targeted by a grass-roots group affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. Amazon mounted an all-out defense.If workers became anything less than docile, managers were told, it was a sign there could be union activity. Tipoffs included “hushed conversations” and “small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the supervisor,” as well as increased complaints, growing aggressiveness and dawdling in the bathroom.Amazon was in sync with the larger culture. Unions were considered relics of the industrial past. Disruption was a virtue.“Twenty years ago, if you asked whether the government or workers should be able to put any constraints on companies, the answer always was ‘No constraints,’” said Marcus Courtney, a labor organizer on the 1999 Amazon campaign. “If companies wanted to push people 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, hats off to them.”When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Amazon lost some of its glow. For a time, its very existence was in question.This caused problems for the activists as well. The company reorganized and closed the customer service center, though Amazon said there was no connection with the union drive. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent group, made no inroads organizing Amazon’s 5,000 warehouse workers.A decade later, in 2011, came a low point in Amazon’s labor history. The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa., revealed that Amazon was hiring paramedics and ambulances during summer heat waves at a local warehouse. Workers who collapsed were removed with stretchers and wheelchairs and taken to hospitals.Amazon installed air conditioning but otherwise was undaunted. After the Great Recession in 2008, there was no lack of demand for its jobs — and no united protest about working conditions. In Europe, where unions are stronger, there were sporadic strikes. In the United States, isolated warehouse walkouts drew no more than a handful of workers.The MachinistMr. Hough said he had felt pressured to cut corners to keep conveyor belts running.Credit…Ruth Fremson for The New York TimesMr. Hough worked as an industrial machinist at a Reynolds aluminum mill in Richmond for 24 years. He once saw a worker lose four fingers when a steel roller fell unexpectedly. Incidents like that made a deep impression on him: Never approach equipment casually.Reynolds closed the plant in the Great Recession, when Mr. Hough was in his mid-40s. Being in the machinists guild cushioned the blow, but he needed another job. After a long spell of unemployment, he joined Amazon in 2013.The Chester warehouse, the size of several aircraft carriers, had opened a year earlier, part of Amazon’s multibillion-dollar push to put fulfillment centers everywhere. Mr. Hough worked on the conveyor belts bringing in the goods.At first, he received generally good marks. “He has a great attitude and does not participate in negative comments or situations,” Amazon said in a March 2014 performance review. “He gets along with all the other technicians.”But Mr. Hough said he had felt pressured to cut corners to keep the belts running. Amazon prided itself on getting purchases to customers quickly, and when conveyor belts were down that mission was in jeopardy. He once protested restarting a belt while he was still working on it.“Quit your bitching,” Mr. Hough said his manager, Bryon Frye, had told him, twice.“That sent me down the wrong road,” Mr. Hough said.Bryon Frye’s tweet about Amazon union campaigns.Credit…TwitterMr. Frye, who declined to comment, no longer works for Amazon. On Twitter last month, he responded to a news story that said Amazon was hiring former F.B.I. agents to deal with worker activism, counterfeiting and antitrust issues.“This doesn’t shock me,” he wrote. “They do some wild things.”The Union DriveMembers of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union distributed literature outside the Alabama warehouse where Amazon workers are voting on whether to join the union.Credit…Bob Miller for The New York TimesIn 2014, Mr. Hough and five other technicians approached the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. A unionization effort was already taking place with the technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown, Del. If either succeeded, it would be the first for Amazon.The elections for a union would be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The first step was to measure interest. At least 18 of the 30 technicians in Chester returned cards indicating their willingness to be represented by the union.“It was not too difficult to sign people up,” said Russell Wade, a union organizer there. “But once the word leaked out to Amazon, they put the afterburners on, as employers do. Then the workers started losing interest. Amazon spent oodles of money to scare the hell out of employees.”The board scheduled an election for March 4, 2015. A simple majority of votes cast would establish union representation.Amazon brought in an Employee Resource Center team — basically, its human resources department — to reverse any momentum. A former technician at the warehouse, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, said the reps on the team followed workers around, pretending to be friendly but only seeking to know their position on the union drive.If safety was the biggest issue for the technicians, there were also concerns over pay equity — machinists said they were paid different amounts for doing the same job — and about their lack of control over their fate. Part of Mr. Hough’s pitch was that a union would make management less arbitrary.“One guy, all I remember is his name was Bob,” he said. “They paged Bob to the control room, and the next thing I saw was Bob coming down the steps. He had taken off his work vest. I said, ‘Bob, where are you going?’ He said, ‘They terminated me.’ I didn’t ask why. That’s the way it was.”Several technicians said they recalled being told at a meeting, “You vote for a union, every one of you will be looking for a job tomorrow.” At another, the most outspoken union supporters were described as “a cancer and a disease to Amazon and the facility,” according to Mr. Hough and a union memo. (In a filing to the labor board, Amazon said it had investigated the incident and “concluded that it could not be substantiated.”)Mr. Hough, a cancer survivor, said the reference had offended him. He declined to attend another meeting run by that manager. He said he had known in any case what she was going to say: that the union was canceling the election because it thought it would lose. Amazon had triumphed.On March 30, 2015, Mr. Hough received a written warning from Mr. Frye, his manager.“Your behavior has been called out by peers/leaders as having a negative impact,” it said. Included under “insubordination” was a refusal to attend the Amazon victory announcement. Another incident, Amazon said, could result in termination.The machinists union filed a complaint with the labor board in July 2015 alleging unfair labor practices by Amazon, including surveilling, threatening and “informing employees that it would be futile to vote for union representation.” Mr. Hough spent eight hours that summer giving his testimony. While labor activists and unions generally consider the board to be heavily tilted in favor of employers, union officials said a formal protest would at least show Chester technicians that someone was fighting for them.In early 2016, Amazon settled with the board. The main thrust of the two-page settlement was that Amazon would post an employee notice promising good behavior while admitting nothing.Wilma Liebman, a member of the labor board from 1997 to 2011, examined the employee notice at the request of The Times. “What is unusual to my eye is how extensive Amazon’s pledges were, and how specific,” she said. “While the company did not have to admit guilt, this list offers a picture of what likely was going on.”Amazon was required to post the notice “in all places where notices to employees are customarily posted” in Chester for 60 days, the labor board said.From the machinists union’s point of view, it wasn’t much of a punishment.“This posting was basically a slap on the wrist for the violations that Amazon committed, which included lies, coercion, threats and intimidation,” said Vinny Addeo, the union’s director of organizing.Another reason for filing an unfair labor practices claim was that the union hoped to restart its efforts with a potentially chastened company. But most of the employees who supported the Chester drive quit.“They were intimidated,” Mr. Wade, the union organizer, said.Mr. Hough was beset by ill health during his years at Amazon. Radiation treatment for his cancer prompted several strokes. His wife, Susan, had health problems, too. Mr. Hough said he wondered how much the unionization struggle contributed to their problems. He added that he didn’t know whom to trust.After leaving Amazon, Mr. Hough began driving trucks, at first long haul and later a dump truck. It paid less, but he said he was at peace.Maximum Green TimesNearly 6,000 workers in Bessemer have until March 29 to decide whether to join the union.Credit…Wes Frazer for The New York TimesWhen Amazon vanquished the 2014 union drive in Delaware, the retailer said it was a victory for “open lines of direct communication between managers and associates.”One place Amazon developed that direct communication was in its warehouse bathrooms under what it called its “inSTALLments” program. The inSTALLments were informational sheets that offered, for instance, factoids about Mr. Bezos, the timing of meetings and random warnings, such as this one about unpaid time off: “If you go negative, your employment status will be reviewed for termination.”Amazon’s “inSTALLments” program used postings in warehouse bathrooms to communicate with workers.Credit…The New York TimesAs the union drive heated up in Bessemer, the direct communication naturally was about that. “Where will your dues go?” Amazon asked in one stall posting, which circulated on social media. Another proclaimed: “Unions can’t. We can.”Amazon also set up a website to tell workers that they would have to skip dinner and school supplies to pay their union dues.In December, a pro-union group discovered, Amazon asked county officials to increase “maximum green times” on the warehouse stoplight to clear the parking lot faster. This made it difficult for union canvassers to approach potential voters as they left work. Amazon declined to comment.Last month, President Biden weighed in.“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” he said in a video that never mentioned Amazon but referred to “workers in Alabama” deciding whether to organize a union. “You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.”Owning 25 HatsMr. Hough, in an interview before the pandemic, said part of him wanted to forget what had happened at Amazon. Why dwell on defeat? He threw away all the papers from the union drive. He never saw the employee notice because he was recovering from a stroke.But he has not forgiven the retailer.“You’re only going to step on me one time,” he said, sitting in his home in the outskirts of Richmond.Amazon’s customers just don’t know how miserable a job there can be, he suggested.“I guarantee you, if their child had to work there, they’d think twice before purchasing things,” he said.Ms. Hough, sitting next to him, had a bleaker view.“The customers don’t care about unions. They don’t care about the workers. They just want their packages,” she said.As if on cue, their son, Brody, came in. He was 20, an appliance technician. His mother told him there was a package for him on his bed. It was from Amazon, a fishing hat. It cost $25, Brody said, half the price on the manufacturer’s website.“I order from Amazon anything I can find that is cheaper,” Brody said. That adds up to a lot of hats, about 25. “I’ve never worked for Amazon. I can’t hate them,” he said.Ms. Hough looked at her husband. “If your own son doesn’t care,” she asked, not unkindly, “how are you going to get the American public to care?”The pandemic helped change that, bringing safety issues at Amazon to the forefront. In a Feb. 16 suit against Amazon, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, said the company continued last year to track and discipline employees based on their productivity rates. That meant workers had limited time to protect themselves from the virus. The suit said Amazon retaliated against those who complained, sending a “chilling message” to all its workers. Amazon has denied the allegations.Last week, regional Canadian authorities also ordered thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Toronto to quarantine themselves, effectively closing the facility. Some 240 workers recently tested positive for the virus there, a government spokeswoman said, even as the rate of infection in the area fell. Amazon said it was appealing the decision.Alabama is now the big test. Mr. Hough worries the union supporters will be crushed.“They will fall to threats or think, ‘I won’t have a job, Amazon will replace me,’” he said by phone this month. “When a company can do things to you in secret, it’s real hard to withstand.”Still, he added, “I’m hoping for the best. More power to them.”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    As Senate Weighs Biden’s Commerce Pick, Here’s What to Watch

    #masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }The New WashingtonliveLatest UpdatesMilitary Ban on Transgender People LiftedBiden’s CabinetPandemic ResponseAdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyAs Senate Weighs Biden’s Commerce Pick, Here’s What to WatchA Senate committee will question Gina M. Raimondo, President Biden’s pick for commerce secretary, at a hearing Tuesday morning.Governor Gina M. Raimondo is the Biden administration’s pick to lead the Commerce Department.Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York TimesJan. 26, 2021Updated 7:34 a.m. ETWASHINGTON — The Commerce Department has taken on new importance in recent years, with wide-ranging authority over issues as broad as technology exports and climate change. On Tuesday, President Biden’s nominee to run the sprawling agency, Gina M. Raimondo, will appear before the Senate Commerce Committee for a confirmation hearing. Ms. Raimondo, the current governor of Rhode Island, is a moderate Democrat and former venture capitalist.Here are five things to watch for as the hearing gets underway at 10 a.m.Countering China’s growing technological reachSenators of both parties are likely to question Ms. Raimondo on how she plans to use the Commerce Department’s powers to counter China’s growing mastery of cutting-edge and sensitive technologies, like advanced telecommunications and artificial intelligence.The Trump administration made heavy use of the department’s authorities to crack down on Chinese technology firms, turning often to the so-called entity list, which allows the United States to block companies from selling American products and technology to certain foreign firms without first obtaining a license. Dozens of companies have been added to the Commerce Department’s list, including telecom giants like Huawei and ZTE, which many American lawmakers see as threats to national security.“You can be reasonably confident that the members will demand a tough line” on China, said William Reinsch, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was a high-level commerce official during the Clinton administration.The Commerce Department was also given responsibility for outlining President Donald J. Trump’s U.S. ban on the Chinese-owned social media apps TikTok and WeChat — actions that were subsequently halted by a court order — and for studying bans against other Chinese apps. Mr. Biden has said he sees TikTok’s access to American data as a “matter of genuine concern,” but it’s unclear how the new administration will address these issues.But the Commerce Department has other capabilities that some tech experts say were underutilized in the Trump administration, like the role it plays in setting global technology standards that private firms must operated under. China has taken an increasingly active role in global standards-setting bodies in recent years, helping to ensure adoption of technologies that are made in China, Mr. Reinsch said, and senators may press Ms. Raimondo on the issue.Jump-starting the economic recoveryMr. Biden has emphasized Ms. Raimondo’s role in helping to promote small businesses while serving as the governor of Rhode Island — both before and during the pandemic.As commerce secretary, she would wield certain authorities that could help struggling businesses and advance the Biden administration’s goals of building up domestic industry and revitalizing American research and development.That includes economic development programs and manufacturing partnerships that the Commerce Department offers to small and midsize enterprises, as well as its core mission of promoting American exports.The department could also play a bigger role in expanding high-speed internet access for rural and low-income communities, a particularly critical issue as the pandemic has forced much commerce and schooling online. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department, leads the government’s efforts on broadband access.The New Washington More

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    Retailing’s Tumultuous Year Began Before the Pandemic

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyRetailing’s Tumultuous Year Began Before the PandemicThe industry employs millions of people, and the upheaval it experienced played out in the lives of many Americans.Houston Premium Outlets, a mall in Cypress, Texas, on Black Friday.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York TimesSapna Maheshwari and Dec. 29, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ETThe retail industry was in the midst of a transformation before 2020. But the onset of the pandemic accelerated that change, fundamentally reordering how and where people shop, and rippling across the broader economy.Many stores closed for good, as chains cut physical locations or filed for bankruptcy, displacing everyone from highly paid executives to hourly workers. Amazon grew even more powerful and unavoidable as millions of people bought goods online during lockdowns. The divide between essential businesses allowed to stay open and nonessential ones forced to close drove shoppers to big-box chains like Walmart, Target and Dick’s and worsened struggling department stores’ woes. The apparel industry and a slew of malls were battered as millions of Americans stayed home and a litany of dress-up events, from proms to weddings, were canceled or postponed.This year’s civil unrest and its thorny issues for American society also hit retailers. Businesses closed because of protests over George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer, and they reckoned with their own failings when it came to race. The challenges faced by working parents, including the cost and availability of basic child care during the pandemic, were keenly felt by women working at stores from CVS to Bloomingdale’s. And there were questions around the treatment of workers, as retailers and their backers treated employees shoddily during bankruptcies or failed to offer hazard pay or adequate notifications about workplace Covid-19 outbreaks.Many Americans felt the retail upheaval — the industry is the second-biggest private employment sector in the United States — and some shared their experiences this year with The New York Times.Joyce Bonaime of Cabazon, Calif., is collecting unemployment benefits for the first time after working in retailing since the 1970s.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times‘That’s what I did my whole life’Joyce Bonaime, a 63-year-old in Cabazon, Calif., has worked in retailing since the 1970s. In the past 14 months, she became one of many store employees whose lives were upended by bankruptcies — first at Barneys New York and more recently at Brooks Brothers.Ms. Bonaime had spent about 10 years as a full-time stock coordinator for a Barneys outlet at Desert Hills Premium Outlets near her home, overseeing the shipping and receiving of designer wares, when the retailer filed for bankruptcy and liquidated late last year.“Barneys treated people very badly at the end there,” Ms. Bonaime said. The retailer, she said, sent inconsistent messages about severance payments and the timing of store closures, which limited people from finding other jobs just before the holiday shopping season.After Barneys, Ms. Bonaime secured a full-time stockroom position at Brooks Brothers in the same outlet mall. But the pandemic forced the store to temporarily close in March, and she was furloughed. She anticipated returning once the store reopened this summer. But Ms. Bonaime’s job was terminated this month and lost her health benefits. She is now collecting unemployment checks for the first time in her life.When Ms. Bonaime started her career, working at shoe stores and completing a management training program at one chain, retailers had a different relationship with employees and communities, she said.“We went through training on the bones in the foot and the muscles; we knew a lot about our industry,” she said. “We would reach out to local high schools and work with the cheerleading team and find a shoe they liked for outfits and give them a discount and make sure they had the right sizes.”Ms. Bonaime, who is getting by right now, feels stuck. She had planned to work a few more years before retiring, but her options are limited. Businesses at the outlet mall are struggling — and it was already hard to interview last year as a woman in her 60s, she said. Amazon is hiring, but she is concerned about the risk of accidents in a warehouse.“This pandemic just changes everything because I would have no problem getting a job otherwise,” she said. “I just don’t think there’s going to be anything in retail, and that’s what I did my whole life.”Jeffrey Kalinsky, the founder of Nordstrom’s Jeffrey boutiques, says he is not ready to retire from retailing.Credit…Maggie Steber for The New York Times‘I was collateral damage’Soon after the pandemic hit, Nordstrom said it would permanently close its three high-end Jeffrey boutiques, which were founded by Jeffrey Kalinsky and acquired by the retailer in 2005. Mr. Kalinsky, a Nordstrom executive who had focused on bringing designer apparel to the retailer, retired as part of the move.The Jeffrey stores, in New York, Atlanta and Palo Alto, Calif., had dressed the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and even been lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.” The first location, in Atlanta, would have celebrated its 30th anniversary in August.Mr. Kalinsky, 58, said in an interview that he was recovering from Covid-19 at the end of March when he became aware that the stores might remain shut after a temporary closure.“It felt like I had a gun pointed at me,” he said. “The folks I always dealt with at Nordstrom were always very transparent, and I can only surmise that they were looking at how to position themselves to get through this period — and I was collateral damage.”He had once told the Jeffrey staff that it was like the original cast in a Broadway musical, performing at an “amazing level” for customers every day. The hardest part of this year was telling employees about the closing, he said.“That day was probably the most difficult, emotional day of my entire life,” he said. “I felt just gutted. It was indescribable.” Employees have told him that they “miss the merchandise, they miss the edit, they miss the specialness.”His goal was for Jeffrey to carry the best merchandise but “sell it an environment that was very democratic,” he said. “I wanted to showcase it all and wanted it all to be next to each other. I wanted the friction of Gucci next to Dries next to Comme des Garçons. I wanted to feel the tension in a good way because that, in my opinion, is how the perfect closet is.”Business & EconomyLatest UpdatesUpdated Dec. 23, 2020, 8:59 a.m. ETExtension of federal jobless benefits may not prevent a brief lapse.Frustration rises at Britain’s ports over clearing a logjam of thousands of trucks.How the aid bill changes the food stamp program.Mr. Kalinsky hopes to find a job designing for an American brand, saying he is not prepared to retire from retailing. He wonders if Jeffrey could have survived the pandemic by working with vendors and landlords.“We had an impressive business, a wonderful clientele, and we would have been fine — but did we have a piggy bank for Covid? No,” he said.Trent Griffin-Braaf shifted his passenger van business in Albany, N.Y., to e-commerce deliveries.Credit…David Steinberg for The New York TimesA man with a vanTrent Griffin-Braaf started this year feeling more confident than ever. The transportation company he created to ferry guests from hotels in the Albany, N.Y., area to local attractions like the racetrack in Saratoga Springs was catching on.But when the coronavirus shut down tourism, weddings and conferences, Mr. Griffin-Braaf’s passenger vans were idled and his business was in jeopardy. “We were really in a rough place,” he said.In the late summer, his company became a carrier for Amazon and shifted to e-commerce deliveries. His team of 70 drivers and other staff include immigrants from Africa and India, workers laid off from restaurants, a struggling nail-salon owner and recent college grads “just trying to figure it out” during the pandemic.His drivers cover a 150-mile radius around Albany, including many rural areas where the number of Amazon shoppers is increasing, he said. “All you see around here is Amazon,” he said. “Come work for Amazon.”Many of his drivers were earning 10 hours of overtime a week during the peak holiday season. “I feel blessed to be busy, because so many people aren’t right now,” he said.Mr. Griffin-Braaf, 36, has not given up on passenger vans. He has started driving workers living in parts of Albany with limited public transportation to their jobs at distribution centers and other businesses far from bus lines.On the weekends, he volunteers the vans to drive families to visit loved ones in upstate prisons. Mr. Griffin-Braaf, who served time in prison years ago, said that long term, he hoped to have tractor-trailers to move e-commerce packages across the country, and to offer van service in other “transportation deserts” around the state so people could get to work.“I know how hard it is to get a job if you don’t have a car, and I have seen how hard it is when you don’t get visits in prison,” he said. “I have lived these things.”Lauren Jackson owns and runs the Hair Hive in Buffalo with her sisters.Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times‘We are glad you are here’Lauren Jackson and her two sisters inadvertently chose the wrong time to open the first Black-owned beauty supply store in their hometown, Buffalo: March 7, two weeks before the state ordered them to shut down.So the sisters reopened it as an “essential business,” stocking hand sanitizers, masks and other pandemic necessities. Their store, the Hair Hive, reopened in early April, which helped them build a customer base while competitors stayed closed.“Everything happens for a reason,” said Ms. Jackson, 28.She and her sisters, Danielle Jackson and Brianna Lannie, had talked about opening the store for several years. It is five minutes from their childhood home on the east side of Buffalo, a predominantly Black neighborhood where their parents still live.The sisters were initially intimidated about trying to break into the well-established industry.“We didn’t want to tell anyone so they wouldn’t say, ‘You can’t compete with them,’” Ms. Jackson said. “We didn’t even tell our parents.”The sisters got a loan from a family member and another from a Buffalo nonprofit. Lauren Jackson said she had watched other Black-owned businesses in her neighborhood come and go over the years, including salons, barbershops and restaurants that often closed because the younger generation didn’t want to take over after the founding family members retired. Ms. Jackson wants to break that trend.“A lot of people come into the store because we are Black-owned,” she said. “They feel comfortable knowing we can relate with what’s going on with their hair. They tell us, ‘We are glad you are here.’”Feisal Ahmed returned to his sales job at Macy’s in Manhattan after a four-month shutdown.Credit…Haruka Sakaguchi for The New York Times‘Scared of what might be coming’In June, as the first wave of the coronavirus was finally coming under control in New York, Feisal Ahmed got a call from his manager at Macy’s.Would he like to return to his job selling luxury watches when the store in Herald Square reopened? “I am already there,” he told his boss. “Put me first in line.”Mr. Ahmed was in his early 20s and a recent emigrant from Bangladesh when he started working at Macy’s in 1994. He met his wife in the store, was able to make a down payment on a house in Astoria, Queens, and saved up enough money to start his own laundry, which he eventually sold.“I owe a lot to this job,” he said.But after an initial feeling of relief and excitement to return to work after four months of lockdowns, reality set in for Mr. Ahmed. He has gone some days without selling a single watch, for which he would earn a commission.Last week, business picked up for a few days, driven by last-minute Christmas shopping, but it was nowhere near a normal holiday pace. “The pandemic, job security — people are scared to spend money,” he said.Still, Mr. Ahmed feels lucky. In New York City, retail jobs make up 9 percent of private-sector employment, and many have been slow to return. At stores selling clothing and clothing accessories, employment is down more than 40 percent from a year ago, according to a recent report by the state comptroller’s office.Mr. Ahmed said that as a member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, he had certain job protections. But he worries about what the winter will bring, as the pandemic continues to keep many shoppers away.“Employees are scared of what might be coming,” he said.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More