Apr 7, 2022 - Podcasts

Amazon workers’ union win sparks a new labor movement

Yesterday, President Biden praised a victory by Amazon workers in New York in their bid to unionize. About 55% of the workers at the Staten Island warehouse voted to form the first U.S. union at Amazon last week. Their victory is expected to spur union growth around the country.

  • Plus, fresh sanctions against Russia after a civilian massacre.
  • And, the role of tech in humanitarian work in Ukraine.

Guests: Axios' Emily Peck, Dave Lawler, and Ina Fried.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, April 7th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: fresh sanctions against Russia after a civilian massacre in Ukraine. Plus, the role of tech in humanitarian work at the warfront.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: Amazon workers’ union victory turbocharges a new labor movement.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: By the way, Amazon here we come. Watch.

NIALA: That's President Biden yesterday, praising a victory by Amazon workers in New York in their bid to unionize. About 55% of the workers at the Staten Island warehouse voted to form the first U.S. union at Amazon last week. And as Axios’ Markets correspondent Emily Peck says, this may wind up spurring union growth around the country. She's here with more. Hey, Emily.

EMILY PECK: Hi.

NIALA: Let's start with what led up to this moment.

EMILY: Just a remarkable number of factors all coming together led us to this place, this remarkable David and Goliath victory. So first, the pandemic of course. Chris Smalls, who is now the president of the newly minted Amazon Labor Union, first started protesting conditions at the warehouse and Staten Island in 2020. A lot of Amazon workers were upset at the time about the way the company was handling COVID safety measures, like so many workers around the country. It was a very pivotal time. The second thing is that man at the top of this podcast, President Biden, this win probably doesn't happen without Biden in The White House. And one of the first things he did on inauguration day was to fire the management-friendly general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board and replace him with this woman, Jennifer Abruzzo who's really taken to enforcing the labor laws with a real zeal.

NIALA: Does the way that this union organized, this Amazon union, is this different than what we think of as the traditional labor union? Like I think people always think of auto workers.

EMILY: Yeah, it's really different. So I mentioned that guy, Chris Smalls, he's just a guy. [chuckles]. Just a guy in a warehouse doing his job. There's another unionization effort that's been going on of Amazon workers in Alabama. And in that case, they have like an established labor union coming in and trying to organize them, like outside in kind of a thing. But what happened in Staten Island was grassroots. It was inside.

NIALA: And what have traditional labor unions said about it?

EMILY: They're all very positive. It's a pivotal time now because Chris Smalls and the Amazon labor union won this victory. But now more work has to take place and that they have to actually negotiate a contract with Amazon, with its limitless budget, you know? So the established unions are gonna to help them a lot. I think they're being supportive. It's not an antagonistic kind of relationship. It's more like, wow, this is inspiring to the established unions as much as it's inspiring to workers.

NIALA: How much does this change momentum for other people who are trying to do this at other companies?

EMILY: The one company everyone is talking about, in parallel with Amazon, is Starbucks. Which is seeing unionization efforts in stores around the country. I think it's like nearly 200 stores. A store in Buffalo, a Starbucks, won a union election at the end of the year. And the company just brought its CEO back, Howard Schultz. There was some video of him that was leaked this week, where he says the company is essentially being assaulted by unionization efforts. So they're anxious. And I think what happened with Amazon only kind of makes them more anxious.

NIALA: Emily Peck is one of the authors of the Axios’ Markets newsletter. Thanks, Emily.

EMILY: Thank you.

In a moment, the latest sanctions against Russia by the West.

Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

The massacre of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine has spurred new sanctions against Russia. The US, the EU and G7 allies are banning new investment in the country, and slapping another round of sanctions on Russia’s largest bank - plus Russian elites including Vladir Putin’s adult daughters.

I asked Axios World Editor Dave Lawler: what effect does the West expect this will have?

DAVE LAWLER: So the White House, when they laid out these sanctions, said that they think that the cumulative effect of the sanctions so far will cause a massive hit to the Russian economy this year. They said they expect 15 years of economic growth in Russia to be wiped out. And they used the phrase “Soviet-level living standards.” There are things that can be noticed now, if you're in Russia. You can't buy certain Western brands, stores like Ikea or McDonald's are closed. The government has had to go to great lengths to stabilize their currency - the ruble. Inflation is high. Things are getting more expensive. There are these near term effects, but when we're talking about, this sort of plunge toward “Soviet-level living standards,” this will play out over the course of months and years.

And one of the things that the U.S. is trying to emphasize is that it doesn't have to go in that direction. That these are reversible if Russia goes in a different course, Russia pulls out of Ukraine. Sanctions are a lot easier to put on than pull off, but there is this idea that we don't have to keep escalating on the sanction side if Russia doesn't keep escalating on the war side.

European countries are continuing to send billions of euros to Moscow to buy Russian gas. And so the question is whether European countries reach the point where they decide that they're willing to take what could actually be a recession in their countries, if they have to somehow source gas from elsewhere, are they willing to go to that length? And so far the answer has been no, but again, we're seeing more and more steps taken with every new allegation or atrocity on the Russian side.

NIALA: Dave Lawler is Axios’ world editor and host of this season’s How It Happened: Putin's Invasion. You can find that wherever you get your podcasts.

Technology is generally designed for use under optimal conditions, but as the war in Ukraine has reminded us, conflict presents new challenges – Axios’ chief technology correspondent Ina Fried spoke to chef Jose Andres, the chef behind world central kitchen. The nonprofit is providing 300,000 hot meals a day for people affected by the war in Ukraine. And he has some gripes about Apple…including saying that Apple maps has been leading him and his team into Russian areas! Is that right Ina?

INA FRIED: Not Russia itself, but Russian controlled areas of Ukraine. So what he'd really like to see from Apple, and this may not be possible, is the maps and routes that only go through territory held by Ukrainians. I totally get, if I'm in his shoes, I definitely don't want to be directed to enemy territory. But it's not like Apple can send one of its mapping cars driving down the streets of Ukraine and asking people which army they are for. So I totally understand his complaints, but I'm not sure that there are things that are easily addressable.

NIALA: He also had a suggestion for WhatsApp that he would love to see better translation technology incorporated. Is that possible?

INA: It is possible, but it comes with a trade-off that he may or may not be, uh, placing as much weight on, which is, if you want to translate, say just between English and Spanish you can actually download that as part of an app and all the work could be done on your device. But if you want to go from any language to any language, Ukrainian probably wouldn't be the first language that would be downloaded, then you'd have to go to a server. And WhatsApp values itself, they pride themselves on the fact that the communications are encrypted and that WhatsApp doesn't have access to your conversation. But if that got sent to a server for translation, that probably wouldn't be the case.

NIALA: And what are the technology companies telling you about how they're trying to handle this?

INA: You know, I think I'm hearing that, they want to be of as much service to people in Ukrainian as possible. At the same time a lot of them are trying to figure out how to shut off Russian users to comply with sanctions. Slack, for example, had to turn off all of its customers in Russia from its paid service because Salesforce, its parent company, has decided to stop doing business in Russia.

NIALA: How has this made you think about how technology is being used in humanitarian work right now in this war zone?

INA: Well, I think when you think about it, you know, war isn't the conditions, as you mentioned, that tech has developed for. But of course, in a war time, we're even more dependent on what we have at our disposal. So it is a reminder to these services that whether they're functional or not, or partly functional during war time, people are counting on them and the stakes are even higher. So I do think there are opportunities for tech to do as much as it can in these conditions, but I think it's, it's always not going to be the case that that's what they're developed for.

NIALA: Axios’ chief technology correspondent, Ina Fried. Thanks Ina.

INA: Thanks.

NIALA: Just to note for listeners, we did reach out to Apple for comment, but didn't immediately hear back.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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