More stories

  • in

    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

  • in

    Amazon Union Vote: Labor Loss May Bring Shift in Strategy

    After an election defeat in Alabama, many in labor are shifting strategies, wary of the challenges and expense of winning votes site by site.The lopsided vote against a union at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., was a major disappointment to organized labor, which regards the fight with Amazon as central to labor’s survival. Yet the defeat doesn’t mark the end of the campaign against Amazon so much as a shift in strategy.In interviews, labor leaders said they would step up their informal efforts to highlight and resist the company’s business and labor practices rather than seek elections at individual job sites, as in Bessemer. The approach includes everything from walkouts and protests to public relations campaigns that draw attention to Amazon’s leverage over its customers and competitors.“We’re focused on building a new type of labor movement where we don’t rely on the election process to raise standards,” said Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer of a Teamsters local in Iowa that is seeking to rally the state’s Amazon drivers and warehouse workers to pressure the company.The strategy reflects a paradox of the labor movement: While the Gallup Poll has found that roughly two-thirds of Americans approve of unions — up from half in 2009, a low point — it has rarely been more difficult to unionize a large company.One reason is that labor law gives employers sizable advantages. The law typically forces workers to win elections at individual work sites of a company like Amazon, which would mean hundreds of separate campaigns. It allows employers to campaign aggressively against unions and does little to punish employers that threaten or retaliate against workers who try to organize.Lawyers representing management say that union membership has declined — from about one-third of private-sector workers in the 1950s to just over 6 percent today — because employers have gotten better at addressing workers’ needs. “Employees have access to the company in order to express any concerns they might have,” said Michael J. Lotito of the firm Littler Mendelson.But labor leaders say wealthy, powerful companies have grown much bolder in pressing the advantages that labor law affords them.Before Amazon, few companies better epitomized this posture than Walmart, which union leaders targeted in the 1990s and 2000s, convinced that the retail giant was driving down wages and benefits across the retail industry.Walmart, in turn, took sometimes drastic steps to keep unions at bay. In 2000, after a small group of meat cutters at a Texas store decided to unionize, the company eliminated the position across other stores. Five years later, when workers at a Walmart in Quebec were seeking to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the company shut the store. Walmart said the store was not performing well financially.“Everywhere they tried, they were defeated,’’ Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said of the unions. “Walmart would send teams to swamp the stores to work against a union. They are good at it.”As with Walmart, labor leaders believed it was critical to establish a foothold at Amazon, which influences pay and working conditions for millions of workers thanks to the competitive pressure it puts on rivals in industries like groceries and fashion.But the labor movement’s failure to make inroads at Walmart despite investing millions of dollars has loomed over its thinking on Amazon. “They felt so burned by trying to organize Walmart and getting basically nowhere,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.It was only a relatively small, scrappy union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, that felt the election in Alabama was worth the large investment. As the votes were being tallied, Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, attributed the one-sided result to a “broken” election system that favors employers.Amazon saw things differently. “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a statement. “Our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them.”Yet even as elections have often proven futile, labor has enjoyed some success over the years with an alternative model — what Dr. Milkman called the “air war plus ground war.”The idea is to combine workplace actions like walkouts (the ground war) with pressure on company executives through public relations campaigns that highlight labor conditions and enlist the support of public figures (the air war). The Service Employees International Union used the strategy to organize janitors beginning in the 1980s, and to win gains for fast-food workers in the past few years, including wage increases across the industry.“There are almost never any elections,” Dr. Milkman said. “It’s all about putting pressure on decision makers at the top.”In some respects, labor’s effort to gain traction at Amazon had begun to follow this playbook before the campaign in Alabama. In early 2019, Mr. Appelbaum’s union, working with nonprofit organizations, local politicians and other labor groups, helped scuttle a deal that would have brought a second Amazon headquarters to New York by drawing attention to the company’s anti-union posture.That fall, several nonprofit groups formed a coalition, called Athena, to help persuade Americans that the company was a monopolist and that it exploited workers. And during the pandemic, Amazon workers around the country have joined groups and staged walkouts to amplify their concerns about safety and pay.Labor leaders and progressive activists and politicians said they intended to escalate both the ground war and the air war against Amazon after the failed union election, though some skeptics within the labor movement are likely to resist spending more revenue, which is in the billions of dollars a year but declining.More than 1,000 Amazon workers across the country have contacted the retail workers union in recent months and many appear to be girding for confrontation with the company.Mr. Appelbaum said in an interview that elections should remain an important part of labor’s Amazon strategy. “I think we opened the door,” he said. “If you want to build real power, you have to do it with a majority of workers.”But other leaders said elections should be de-emphasized. Mr. Case said the Teamsters were trying to organize Amazon workers in Iowa so they could take actions like labor stoppages and enlist members of the community — for example, by turning them out for rallies.During the pandemic, Amazon workers around the country have joined groups and staged walkouts to amplify their concerns about safety and pay.Elaine Cromie for The New York TimesLate last year, a nonprofit group called the Solidarity Fund invited tech industry workers to apply for stipends that would help fund their organizing efforts. According to Jess Kutch, the group’s executive director, Amazon employees claimed about half of the roughly $100,000 that the group has distributed, reflecting the growing activism of its employees.As for external pressure, progressive groups said they intended to draw attention to a broad range of concerns about Amazon, from its power over small businesses to the potentially questionable uses of its home security technology, Ring.“We will be raising questions around Ring and the breadth of agreements they have with local police departments,” as they relate to surveillance of people of color, said Lauren Jacobs, a longtime labor organizer who now runs the Partnership for Working Families, a network that seeks to reduce economic inequality and that is a co-founder of the Athena coalition.Many labor officials urged Congress to increase its scrutiny of Amazon’s labor practices, including its use of mandatory meetings, texts and signs to discourage workers in Alabama from unionizing. “There have to be consequences for people like Bezos,” said Richard Bensinger, a former A.F.L.-C.I.O. organizing director who is advising workers at other Amazon facilities, referring to Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder. “We need congressional hearings to publicize this stuff.”Some members of Congress indicated that they would heed this call. “How long will Jeff Bezos thumb his nose at the United States Senate?” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in an interview, citing Mr. Bezos’s refusal to appear at a recent Senate hearing on executive pay. “He has done it in the past, but the winds are blowing from a different direction today.”Other labor leaders said the loss in Alabama should prompt Congress to rewrite labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which the House passed last month, would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings and impose penalties on employers who violate labor law. (There are currently no financial penalties for doing so.)But after Bessemer, many labor leaders think Congress should go further, letting workers unionize companywide or industrywide, not just by work site as is typical. The loss “can be an opportunity to look beyond the PRO Act and why we need labor law with a focus on the sector,” Larry Cohen, chairman of the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution and a former president of the Communications Workers of America, said in a text message.Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, agreed that the key to taking on a company as powerful as Amazon was to make it easier for workers to unionize across a company or industry. “It’s not going to happen one warehouse at a time,” she said.But Ms. Henry said workers and politicians could pressure Amazon to come to the bargaining table long before the law formally requires it — in the same way that President Biden warned that there should be no intimidation or coercion during the Alabama union election.“It would be incredibly powerful if Biden and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh called on McDonald’s and Amazon and other major corporations to set a bargaining table with workers and government and they would help support it,” she said.Michael Corkery More

  • in

    As U.S. Prospects Brighten, Fed’s Powell Sees Risk in Global Vaccination Pace

    Some countries are lagging behind in vaccinations, and policymakers warned that no economy is secure until the world is safe from coronavirus variants.Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, emphasized the economic need for worldwide vaccinations on Thursday.Pool photo by Stefani ReynoldsJerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, stressed on Thursday that even as economic prospects look brighter in the United States, getting the world vaccinated and controlling the coronavirus pandemic remain critical to the global outlook.“Viruses are no respecters of borders,” Mr. Powell said while speaking on an International Monetary Fund panel. “Until the world, really, is vaccinated, we’re all going to be at risk of new mutations and we won’t be able to really resume activity with confidence all around the world.”While some advanced economies, including the United States, are moving quickly toward widespread vaccination, many emerging market countries lag far behind: Some have administered as little as one dose per 1,000 residents.Mr. Powell joined a chorus of global policy officials in emphasizing how important it is that all nations — not just the richest ones — are able to widely protect against the coronavirus. Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said policymakers needed to remain focused on public health as the key policy priority.“This year, next year, vaccine policy is economic policy,” Ms. Georgieva said, speaking on the same panel as Mr. Powell. “It is even higher priority than the traditional tools of fiscal and monetary policy. Why? Without it we cannot turn the fate of the world economy around.”Still, she also warned against pulling back on monetary policy support prematurely, saying that clear communication from the United States is helpful and important. The Fed is arguably the world’s most critical central bank thanks to the widely used dollar, and unexpected policy changes in the United States can roil global markets and make it harder for less developed economies to recover.“Premature withdrawal of support can cut the recovery short,” she cautioned.The Fed has held interest rates near zero since March 2020 and has been buying about $120 billion in government-backed bonds per month, policies meant to stoke spending by keeping borrowing cheap. Officials have been clear that they will continue to support the economy until it is closer to their goals of maximum employment and stable inflation — and that while the situation is improving, it is not there yet.“There are a number of factors that are coming together to support a brighter outlook for the U.S. economy,” Mr. Powell said, noting that tens of millions of Americans are now fully vaccinated, so the economy should be able to fully reopen fairly soon. “The recovery though, here, remains uneven and incomplete.”Employers added more than 900,000 workers to payrolls last month, but the country is still missing millions of jobs compared with February 2020 and fresh data showed that state jobless claims climbed last week. Mr. Powell pointed out that the burden is falling heavily on those least able to bear it: Lower-income service workers, who are heavily minorities and women, have been hit hard by the job losses.When asked what keeps him awake at night, Mr. Powell said that “there’s a pretty substantial tent city” he drives past on his way home from work in Washington. “We just need to keep reminding ourselves that even though some parts of the economy are just doing great, there’s a very large group of people who are not.”Given the pandemic’s role in exacerbating inequality, both Mr. Powell and Ms. Georgieva said it was critical to support workers and make sure they can find their way into new and fitting jobs.The Fed chair said policy tended to focus too much on short-term, palliative measures and not enough on longer-term solutions that help to expand economic possibility.“I think we need to, really as a country — and I’m not talking about any particular bill — invest in things that will increase the inclusiveness of the economy and the longer-term potential of it,” Mr. Powell said. “Particularly invest in people, so that they can take part in, contribute to and benefit from the prosperity of our economy.”Those comments come as the Biden administration is pushing for an ambitious $2 trillion infrastructure package that would include provisions for labor market training, technological research and widespread broadband. The administration has proposed paying for the package by raising corporate taxes.“For quite some time, we have been in favor of more investment in infrastructure. It helps to boost productivity here in the United States,” Ms. Georgieva said, calling climate-focused and “social infrastructure” provisions positive. She said they had not had a chance to fully assess the plan, but “broadly speaking, yes, we do support it.”But the White House’s plan has already run into resistance from Republicans and some moderate Democrats, who are wary of raising taxes or engaging in another big spending package after several large stimulus bills.Some commentators have warned that besides expanding the nation’s debt load, the government’s virus spending — particularly the recent $1.9 trillion stimulus package — could cause the economy to overheat. Fed officials have been less worried. “There’s a difference between essentially a one-time increase in prices and persistent inflation,” Mr. Powell said on Thursday. “The nature of a bottleneck is that it will be resolved.”If price gains and inflation expectations moved up “materially,” he said, the Fed would react.“We don’t think that’s the most likely outcome,” he said. More

  • in

    New state unemployment claims rose again last week.

    The job market remains challenging, with the government reporting Thursday that initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose last week.A total of 741,000 workers filed first-time claims for state jobless benefits last week, an increase of 18,000, the Labor Department said. It was the second consecutive weekly increase after new claims hit a pandemic low.At the same time, 152,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 85,000.Neither figure is seasonally adjusted. Claims rose above one million early in the year but have come down since then, helped by the spread of vaccinations, the easing of restrictions on businesses in many states and the arrival of stimulus funds.Most individuals received payments of $1,400 in recent weeks as part of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion relief package, and the funds should bolster consumer spending in the coming months.On Friday, the government reported that employers added 916,000 jobs in March, twice February’s gain and the most since August. The unemployment rate dipped to 6 percent, the lowest since the pandemic began, with nearly 350,000 people rejoining the labor force.Still, there is plenty of ground to make up.Even after March’s job gains, the economy is 8.4 million jobs short of where it was in February 2020. Entire sectors, like travel and leisure, as well as restaurants and bars, are only beginning to recover from the millions of job losses that followed the pandemic’s arrival. More

  • in

    Biden Plan Spurs Fight Over What ‘Infrastructure’ Really Means

    Republicans say the White House is tucking liberal social programs into legislation that should be focused on roads and bridges. Administration officials say their approach invests in the future.WASHINGTON — The early political and economic debate over President Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan is being dominated by a philosophical question: What does infrastructure really mean?Does it encompass the traditional idea of fixing roads, building bridges and financing other tangible projects? Or, in an evolving economy, does it expand to include initiatives like investing in broadband, electric car charging stations and care for older and disabled Americans?That is the debate shaping up as Republicans attack Mr. Biden’s plan with pie charts and scathing quotes, saying that it allocates only a small fraction of money on “real” infrastructure and that spending to address issues like home care, electric vehicles and even water pipes should not count.“Even if you stretch the definition of infrastructure some, it’s about 30 percent of the $2.25 trillion they’re talking about spending,” Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said on “Fox News Sunday.”“When people think about infrastructure, they’re thinking about roads, bridges, ports and airports,” he added on ABC’s “This Week.”Mr. Biden pushed back on Monday, saying that after years of calling for infrastructure spending that included power lines, internet cables and other programs beyond transportation, Republicans had narrowed their definition to exclude key components of his plan.“It’s kind of interesting that when the Republicans put forward an infrastructure plan, they thought everything from broadband to dealing with other things” qualified, the president told reporters on Monday. “Their definition of infrastructure has changed.”Mr. Biden defended his proposed $2 trillion package, saying it broadly qualified as infrastructure and included goals such as making sure schoolchildren are drinking clean water, building high-speed rail lines and making federal buildings more energy efficient.Behind the political fight is a deep, nuanced and evolving economic literature on the subject. It boils down to this: The economy has changed, and so has the definition of infrastructure.Economists largely agree that infrastructure now means more than just roads and bridges and extends to the building blocks of a modern, high-tech service economy — broadband, for example.But even some economists who have carefully studied that shift say the Biden plan stretches the limits of what counts.Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard University, is working on a project on infrastructure for the National Bureau of Economic Research that receives funding from the Transportation Department. He said that several provisions in Mr. Biden’s bill might or might not have merit but did not fall into a conventional definition of infrastructure, such as improving the nation’s affordable housing stock and expanding access to care for older and disabled Americans.“It does a bit of violence to the English language, doesn’t it?” Mr. Glaeser said.“Infrastructure is something the president has decided is a centrist American thing,” he said, so the administration took a range of priorities and grouped them under that “big tent.”Proponents of considering the bulk of Mr. Biden’s proposals — including roads, bridges, broadband access, support for home health aides and even efforts to bolster labor unions — argue that in the 21st century, anything that helps people work and lead productive or fulfilling lives counts as infrastructure. That includes investments in people, like the creation of high-paying union jobs or raising wages for a home health work force that is dominated by women of color.“I couldn’t be going to work if I had to take care of my parents,” said Cecilia Rouse, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “How is that not infrastructure?”But those who say that definition is too expansive tend to focus on the potential payback of a given project: Is the proposed spending actually headed toward a publicly available and productivity-enabling investment?A child care center in Queens, N.Y., last month. For those who support an expansive definition of infrastructure, anything that helps people work and lead productive lives counts.Kirsten Luce for The New York Times“Much of what it is in the American Jobs Act is really social spending, not productivity-enhancing infrastructure of any kind,” R. Glenn Hubbard, an economics professor at Columbia Business School and a longtime Republican adviser, said in an email.Specifically, he pointed to spending on home care workers and provisions that help unions as policies that were not focused on bolstering the economy’s potential.Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has called the Biden plan a “Trojan horse. It’s called infrastructure. But inside the Trojan horse is going to be more borrowed money and massive tax increases.”Republicans have slammed the provisions related to the care economy and electric vehicle charging options, and they have blasted policies that they have at times classified themselves as infrastructure.Take broadband, something that conservative lawmakers have in the past clearly counted as infrastructure. Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, has said that the White House’s broadband proposal could lead to duplication and overbuilding. While Mr. Blunt has allowed it to count as infrastructure in a case where you “stretch the definition,” top Republicans mostly leave it out when describing how much of Mr. Biden’s proposal would go to infrastructure investment, focusing instead on roads and bridges.Likewise, Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said the proposal “redefines infrastructure” to include things like work force development. But one of Mr. Portman’s own proposals said that skills training was essential to successful infrastructure investment.“Many people in the states would be surprised to hear that broadband for rural areas no longer counts,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden in the White House. “We think that the people in Jackson, Miss., might be surprised to hear that fixing that water system doesn’t count as infrastructure. We think the people of Texas might disagree with the idea that the electric grid isn’t infrastructure that needs to be built with resilience for the 21st century.”White House officials said that much of Mr. Biden’s plan reflected the reality that infrastructure had taken on a broader meaning as the nature of work changes, focusing less on factories and shipping goods and more on creating and selling services.Other economists back the idea that the definition has changed.Dan Sichel, an economics professor at Wellesley College and a former Federal Reserve research official, said it could be helpful to think of what comprises infrastructure as a series of concentric circles: a basic inner band made up of roads and bridges, a larger social ring of schools and hospitals, then a digital layer including things like cloud computing. There could also be an intangible layer, like open-source software or weather data.“It is definitely an amorphous concept,” he said, but basically “we mean key economic assets that support and enable economic activity.”The economy has evolved since the 1950s: Manufacturers used to employ about a third of the work force but now count for just 8.5 percent of jobs in the United States. Because the economy has changed, it is important that our definitions are updated, Mr. Sichel said.The debate over the meaning of infrastructure is not new. In the days of the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority, academics and policymakers sparred over whether universal access to electricity was necessary public infrastructure, said Shane M. Greenstein, an economist at Harvard Business School whose recent research focuses on broadband.“Washington has an attention span of several weeks, and this debate is a century old,” he said. These days, he added, it is about digital access instead of clean water and power.Some progressive economists are pressing the administration to widen the definition even further — and to spend more to rebuild it.“The conversation has moved a lot in recent years. We’re now talking about issues like a care infrastructure. That’s huge,” said Rakeen Mabud, the managing director of policy and research at the Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive advocacy group in Washington. But “there’s room to do more,” she said. “We should take that opportunity to really show the value of big investments.”Some economists who define infrastructure more narrowly said that just because policies were not considered infrastructure did not mean they were not worth pursuing. Still, Mr. Glaeser of Harvard cautioned that the bill’s many proposals should be evaluated on their merits.“It’s very hard to do this much infrastructure spending at this scale quickly and wisely,” he said. “If anything, I wish it were more closely tied to cost-benefit analysis.” More

  • in

    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

  • in

    Jobs Report March 2021: Gain of 916,000 as Recovery Sped Up

    The gain of 916,000 was the biggest since August, and unemployment fell to 6 percent. Barring a setback in fighting the virus, the outlook is bullish.The American job market roared back to life in March — and with vaccinations accelerating, businesses reopening and federal aid flowing, the rebound should only get stronger from here.U.S. employers added 916,000 jobs last month, twice as many as in February and the most since August, the Labor Department said Friday. The unemployment rate fell to 6 percent, its lowest level since the coronavirus pandemic began, and nearly 350,000 people rejoined the labor force.The data was collected early in the month, before most states broadened vaccine access and before most Americans began receiving $1,400 checks as part of the latest federal relief package. It was also before the recent rise in virus cases, which economists warned could slow the recovery if it worsened. But on balance, forecasters are optimistic that hiring will remain strong in coming months.“March’s jobs report is the most optimistic report since the pandemic began,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist for the career site Glassdoor. “It’s not the largest gain in payrolls since the pandemic began, but it’s the first where it seems like the finish line is in sight.”Job growth picked up last monthCumulative change in all jobs since before the pandemic More

  • in

    March 2021 Jobs Report: A Gain of 916,000

    The U.S. jobs rebound picked up steam last month, fueled by the accelerating pace of vaccinations and a new injection of federal aid.Employers added 916,000 jobs in March, up from 416,000 in February and the most since August, the Labor Department said Friday. The unemployment rate fell to 6 percent, down from 6.2 percent in February.The report came one year after the pandemic ripped a hole in the American labor market. The U.S. economy lost 1.7 million jobs in March 2020 and more than 20 million in April, when the unemployment rate peaked at nearly 15 percent.The job market bounced back quickly at first, but progress began to slow as virus cases surged and states reimposed restrictions on businesses. Over the winter, the recovery stalled out, with employers cutting more than 300,000 jobs in December.Economists said the latest data marked a turning point. Last month was the third straight month of accelerating hiring, and even bigger gains are likely in the months ahead. The March data was collected early in the month, before most states broadened vaccine access and before most Americans began receiving $1,400 checks from the federal government as part of the most recent relief package.“The tide is turning,” said Michelle Meyer, chief U.S. economist for Bank of America. The report, she said, “reaffirms this idea that the economy is accelerating meaningfully in the spring.”The United States still has millions fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic. Even if employers kept hiring at the pace they did in March, it would take months to fill the gap. And the virus remains a risk. Coronavirus cases are rising again in much of the country as states have begun easing restrictions. If that trend turns into a full-blown new wave of infections, it could force some states to backpedal, impeding the recovery.But few economists expect a repeat of the winter, when a spike in Covid-19 cases pushed the recovery into reverse. More than a quarter of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and more than two million people a day are being inoculated. That should allow economic activity to continue to rebound.“This time is different, and that’s because of vaccines,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job site ZipRecruiter. “It’s real this time.” More