Mar 17, 2021

Axios Login

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Today's Login is 1,378 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Split at the heart of tech's new labor movement

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech's burgeoning new labor movement has its own class divide — between a conventional organizing push among blue collar employees and an effort among white collar employees that's based on a different set of concerns and goals.

Why it matters: The tech industry rose to power and wealth largely union-free. But a recent wave of labor organizing catches tech's biggest companies at a vulnerable moment, when they're being challenged by antitrust suits, hostile regulators and doubts among their workforce.

Driving the news:

  • A high-profile unionization campaign underway among Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, follows the classic model and will culminate in a vote count on March 30 — "the digital age's most important labor vote," per Axios Re:Cap's Dan Primack.
  • In Britain, Uber agreed Tuesday to reclassify 70,000 drivers as "workers," giving them access to government-mandated benefits, highlighting the challenge gig economy employers continue to present to labor-law worker classifications.
  • Meanwhile, a union effort among Google employees that began in January is taking an unconventional path — remaining a "minority union" for now, foregoing the possibility of collective bargaining but allowing the inclusion of contractors and even managers.

The divide in tech's labor movement is mapped in a new report from U.K.-based Access Partnership.

  • "Blue-collar workers often focus on higher wages, working conditions, hazard pay, and good welfare benefits," the report says.
  • Meanwhile, "White-collar workers seek to address a more expansive set of economic, social, and political issues such as social justice, climate change, workforce diversity, and how/by whom their technology is used."
  • Contractors and gig workers "challenge existing legal frameworks for structuring labor relations, motivating demands for new solutions and policy frameworks."

This divide shapes where and how tech's labor fights play out.

  • Amazon's battle is unfolding in and around its warehouses, as organizers try to win over workers while the company pushes back — including, organizers say, using illegal pressure tactics that the company denies.
  • The New York Times reported Tuesday on a previous failed unionization fight at an Amazon warehouse in Virginia. There, the National Labor Relations Board required Amazon to post notices with a long list of practices it vowed not to employ, like threatening to fire union supporters or surveilling union organizing efforts.
  • Organizing efforts at Google, by contrast, take place mostly digitally among office employees, including highly rewarded software developers, business and sales workers. They're less focused on salaries and benefits than on pressuring the company to live up to its ideals of improving the world.
  • A survey by Protocol released Monday shows 79% of tech employees feel the industry is too powerful.
  • Meanwhile, the conflict over the labor status of gig economy workers, like Uber and Lyft drivers, is being joined at the government level, as legislators, regulators and even voters (in California last year) try to reconcile old laws with new business models.

Our thought bubble: Unions are all about worker solidarity, and the two wings of tech labor will achieve a lot more if they work together. But doing so would require breaking down a lot of barriers — not only social divides, but also the industry's ingrained ideology of individualism.

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Re:Cap podcast interview with author Alec MacGillis about the Amazon union drive in Alabama.

2. Missing piece of Silicon Valley exodus puzzle: labor law

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Efforts to start and grow tech hubs outside of Silicon Valley will need to cope with wild variations in employment law from one locale to another, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Why it matters: Tech workers and entrepreneurs accustomed to abundant protections in California may balk at moving away.

The big picture: Labor laws regarding discrimination, parental leave, worker organizing, and non-compete agreements vary from state to state — and even from city to city.

  • California's long-standing policy of not enforcing non-competes is often credited with making possible the high job mobility of Silicon Valley's tech workers.
  • In states where these clauses are popular and legal, employers can make it harder for workers to take their talents to competitors or hatch new startups quickly.
  • Non-compete agreements can be especially challenging for workers without the resources to take a break between jobs.

According to Oxfam's most recent report on the best states for workers, with a focus on gender and family discrimination protections:

  • California ranks at the top as far as worker protections, but Florida is at No. 36 and Texas at No. 45.
  • Florida and Texas, which have recently garnered the most headlines about drawing tech businesses away from Silicon Valley, have no paid parental leave requirement, unlike California's eight weeks at 60–70% of pay.
  • States like New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, which have long had significant local tech hubs, rank within the top nine spots of the Oxfam report. However, states with younger tech industries like Colorado and Utah come in at No. 12 and No. 23, respectively.
3. Hate speech soars for young social media users
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Young people are encountering far more hate speech on social media than they did just two years ago, according to new survey data out Wednesday from Common Sense Media, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

Why it matters: Cooped-up teens and young adults are spending more time than ever on social media to cope with loneliness during the pandemic, the survey shows, but they are also met with a new wave of vitriol, including body shaming and racist, sexist and homophobic content.

The big picture: Virtually all (95%) young people report using social media, with 25% of 14–22 year olds saying they are on social media "almost constantly" — that's an increase of 8% since 2018.

What they found: 23% of 14–17-year-olds say they "often" came across racist comments on social media in 2020 — nearly double the number in 2018 (12%).

  • "Sadly, but not surprisingly, the teens and young adults who are most likely to be affected by such content are also most likely to encounter it — or recognize and remember it," says the study, which was done in partnership with Hopelab and the California Health Care Foundation.
  • Black young people are more likely than whites to see racist comments "often" (34% vs. 23%). LGBTQ+ youth are more than twice as likely than non-LGBTQ+ youth to encounter homophobic comments (44% vs. 18%). Female youth are more likely to encounter sexist and body-shaming posts than male youth.

The other side: Despite the toxic content many youth ran into on social media, they also report positive experiences. Generally, young people are far more likely to say using social media makes them feel better (43%) — up from 27% who said so two years ago.

4. Acronym watch: Out, damned SPAC!

Tech produces acronyms even faster than it generates startups. Herewith, an occasional guide.

  • SPAC, for "special purpose acquisition company": A firm that's created and listed on a public market solely to go out and, Pac-Man like, swallow a private company. Presto, your private company is now public, and its stock is tradable.
  • RPA, for "robotic process automation": Axios' Bryan Walsh wrote about this new term to describe an old phenomenon, the creation of software bots or "agents" that semi-independently perform tasks that people used to do.
  • NFTs, for "non-fungible tokens": Cryptographically unique chits designed to be bought and sold as a sign of "ownership" tied to digital images, objects and other artworks or collectibles, Axios' Felix Salmon explains.
  • EMG, for "electromyography": Making a record of electrical signals that pass through muscle tissue. Read Login tomorrow to learn why this is hot in tech research right now.

Acronym collision alert: In many worlds of overlapping online enthusiasm, MTG has long meant only one thing — "Magic: The Gathering," the phenomenally popular card game.

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