Collective action in the age of Covid-19

6:33-min read

Hello from 20 Minutes into the Future. In this edition we’re looking at how essential workers are fighting back against tech giants and other stories from the battle lines in the war with big tech. Solidarity!

In the beforetimes Amazon captured half of all online sales. That number is soaring as the pandemic exacerbates the winner-take-all zero-sum game on which big tech profits are predicated. On Thursday Amazon announced Q1 revenues of $74.5 billion. That’s a year-over-year increase of 26%. The “everything store” now makes more than $33 million an hour or $11,000 every second.

Unsurprising given Amazon’s atrocious history on worker safety the company has been failing its workers throughout the pandemic:

  • Early on the company failed to provide staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves or even hand sanitiser

  • Social distancing is not enforced inside fulfilment centres

  • It avoids closing warehouses to do deep cleanings

  • It continues to under-report covid-19 cases in its workforce

  • The company recently terminated its temporary policy of unlimited, unpaid time off

What has Amazon been investing in instead? Thermal cameras from blacklisted Chinese companies and heat maps highlighting stores at risk of unionising. Oh, and planning a smear campaign against Christian Smalls, whom they illegally fired for staging a walkout.

Workers have had enough. On May 1, International Workers Day, Christian Smalls and other workers from workers rights groups representing employees at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Wal-Mart, InstaCart, and more staged an unprecedented strike. Never before have organisers brought together so many low-paid, non-unionised, temporary employees from such a large swatch of American companies.

And this is why in their own words:

“You either come to work or take an unpaid leave of absence,” said the worker, who has a serious underlying health condition. “If I miss one paycheck, it would mean I lose my vehicle, I lose my place to live. I lose everything.”

A Staten Island Amazon worker, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company, has been on unpaid leave for more than a month. As someone with a number of underlying health conditions, the worker said contracting the virus would be “a death sentence.” They are surviving off meager savings and had to move into a friend’s home because they could no longer pay rent.

“They need to close down the warehouse and do a thorough, deep cleaning for it to be safe,” the worker told The Intercept. “If someone dies, they have blood on their hands.”

I am striking because of Amazon's work environment is hard mentally, physically and emotionally. It's sad we had to wait for a pandemic to get to this point, but I'm hoping this changes the work environment and labor as a whole for the future. Two things I wish the public knew about work conditions are that we get cases of COVID-19 daily and that there are no extra steps they're taking besides the ones we have been doing since the pandemic started. We’re also being micromanaged all day everyday no matter what you do while we’re at work.

“We formed this alliance because we all have one common goal, and it’s to save our communities and save our families,” said Christian Smalls, the lead organizer of the strike and a former Amazon warehouse employee at its Staten Island, New York, facility.

It’s too early to tell what impact the strike will have. One thing though is clear. Essential workers have found their voice and new tools and methods to protest. Smalls and other leaders of the coalition planned the May Day action over encrypted messaging services like Telegram and Signal. They also gathered over Zoom with supporters like Jesse Jackson.

And while the pandemic itself meant strike attendance was limited, it by no means limited its reach. The action reverberated across social and traditional media. Sen. Kamala HarrisSen. Cory Booker, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted in support of workers. News organisations from the Washington Postthe Los Angles Times, Vice and CNN covered the event. All in a time when customers are more grateful and dependent than ever on these historically invisible workers.

During all of this Jeff Bezos has added $24 billion to his own bottom line. Bezos is now worth $139 billion. That much money in the hands of one person is not only literally unimaginable, it’s unconscionable.

Amazon’s workers pay too-high a cost for our convenience. We can all do more to avoid lining this bastard’s pockets. And it’s well-past time we start.


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Ten stories this week

  1. “Big tech doesn’t build anything. It’s not likely to give us vaccines or diagnostic tests. We don’t even seem to know how to make a cotton swab.” https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/04/25/1000563/covid-19-has-killed-the-myth-of-silicon-valley-innovation/

  2. Ajit Pai is a prevaricating shit-gobbet. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2020/04/ajit-pai-uses-bad-data-to-claim-isps-are-deploying-broadband-to-everyone/

  3. All of these surveillance tech companies (Clearview, Palantir, etc) are headed up by racist assholes but Banjo’s CEO actually helped the KKK shoot up a synagogue. https://onezero.medium.com/ceo-of-surveillance-firm-banjo-once-helped-kkk-leader-shoot-up-synagogue-fdba4ad32829

  4. China is installing surveillance cameras in the home now. Big Brother at-home-edition. Only a matter of time until this is all turned into wearables https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/27/asia/cctv-cameras-china-hnk-intl/index.html

  5. “In Mexico, India, the Philippines, and Pakistan, rumors and lies have led to nurses and other health care workers getting assaulted, doused with bleach, and chased by mobs.” https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/coronavirus-nurse-conspiracy-theories

  6. Rudy Giuliani, right-wing media, and conspiracy theorists are weaponising years of research grants from the NIH to smear Anthony Fauci. Do not let them succeed. If you see people sharing these talking points then shut them down. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/janelytvynenko/fauci-wuhan-funding-conspiracy

  7. My pal Caroline Sinders interviews my other pal Amber Case on Calm Technology (and somehow I managed to sneak in some colour commentary):

    “During global and tech solutionism in 2020, the principles of Calm Technology have never been more important. It shouldn’t be jarring or invasive. Perhaps a good way to understand what it is is to think about what it is not. Surveillance cameras are not Calm Technology since users have no real agency or control over them.”

    https://glitch.com/glimmer/post/better-tech-calm-technology

  8. The NHS is making a poor decision here. They should be working with Apple & Google instead of trying their own thing. To get the scale they need to make this effective 60% of the population would need to adopt it. That’s almost as much as use WhatsApp. This is why we need direct OS level contact tracing — apps will never be enough. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/28/nhs-coronavirus-contact-tracing-app-ready-for-use-in-three-weeks-mps-told

  9. Don’t be distracted by their robotic enforcers or flattened curve, Singapore is using the pandemic as cover to further repress personal liberty:

    “The PAP is notorious for draconian censorship laws, harsh retaliation against dissenters, and the suppression of other political parties. In the past month, the appeal to repeal Section 377A, a law criminalizing sex between two men, was dismissed.”

    https://www.wired.com/story/what-singapore-can-tell-the-world-about-personal-liberty/

  10. AI cannot be recognised as an inventor, US rules https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52474250

From the archives

Dig deeper into collective action and Amazon’s despicable deeds with these stories from 20 Minutes into the Future:


Sick and tired of big tech behaving badly? 20 Minutes into the Future is about holding the bastards to account. One way we can do that is by spreading the word of their misdeeds.

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Bastard watch

Elon Musk has spent months downplaying Covid-19. This week he went even further by echoing Trump and his dangerous “liberation” calls-to-action. The very next day armed protestors seized the Michigan statehouse. I’m not saying those people and Musk’s lunatic army of fanbois are one and the same but he’s only fanning the flames of stochastic terrorism with his tweets. This lockdown isn’t about fascism and you’d think he’d know a thing or two about that given he’s besties with Peter Thiel and advised Trump.

Kindred spirits

Jason Peart is an amazing designer that puts his pixels where is heart is. Jason is currently Head of Design at Locum’s Nest, a UK health tech startup that helps the NHS save money and meet staffing needs. After years of Tory efforts to gut the NHS we need more people doing good work like Jason.

Bounce over to Blunt.FYI to find out more about Jason and his work.

One more thing…

It snuck past me but the last letter was a milestone. 50! And coincidentally it saw the new format debut. Let me know what you think of it. Cheers.


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Good night and good future,
Daniel


20 Minutes into the Future is a critical look at how technology is shaping our lives today. And what actions we can take for a better tomorrow. If you're not already a subscriber and found this newsletter worth your while then please sign up.


My name is Daniel Harvey and I write 20 Minutes into the Future. I’m a product designer and have written for Fast Company, Huffington Post, The Drum, & more. If you're pissed about the current state of tech and want to see us do better then you’ve found a kindred spirit.

You can email me at daniel.harvey@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter @dancharvey.