Thursday, April 28, 2022

Why did the ALU's campaign for worker rights resonate with Amazon workers?


Amazon workers took a page in history to write their own story by voting to join the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York. This fulfillment center (JFK8) will be the first unionized Amazon work site in the country. Out of the nearly 6,000 workers there, 2,654 voted for joining the ALU while 2,131 voted against.  ALUs victory is extraordinary considering that up until now, Amazon successfully defeated every single attempted union drive in a US facility. 

But the ALU is not your typical labor union. They’re different.  For one, this is a racially and ethnically diverse group of workers drawn from many of the city’s working-class communities of Blacks, Latinos, African-Americans, Africans, Dominicans, Puerto-Ricans, to name a few.  

Second, the ALU is an independent union, meaning they did this without being affiliated with any of the major labor unions.  But more importantly, as an independent union, the Amazon Labor Union is led by workers - conceived, built and made up of Amazon workers. The leaders, organizers and staff who make up the ALU are the very same workers who put in work to ensure our packages are delivered.  To meet productivity targets and metrics at this mammoth 855,000 square-foot facility, these workers push through physically demanding ten-hour shifts with 30 minutes for lunch and another 30 minutes for breaks, just to make ends meet. 

When the corona pandemic struck, workers were already fighting with Amazon management over these issues as well as their concerns around worker injuries and safety.  Covid made matters more difficult for workers who were not only confronted with Amazon’s lack of response to their health but now their tough working conditions, just got worse.  JFK8 workers, led by Chris Smalls, began to self-organize and confront Amazon with protest demonstrations highlighting Amazon’s failure to protect their workers.   The New York Times published their investigation of the JFK8 worksite a year later outlining the worker issues there such as high rates of worker turnover, and unfair worker terminations.   
 
But by this time, Smalls, Derrick Palmer, and many Amazon workers had already seen enough of Amazon’s actions and inactions. As the newly formed Amazon Labor Union, they were now looking at ways to transform and democratize their Amazon workplace. They recognized that as a certified union, they can force Amazon to address their workplace and safety issues with the protections afforded them via collective bargaining.  

But they had to convince more than enough of their fellow Amazon workers to fight Amazon’s heavily financed anti-union campaign .  The ALU’s principled commitment to workers was palpable, enabling allies to provide them with office space, legal and logistical support.  They reached thousands online with a GoFundMe page along with a popular social media campaign that uses several platforms to spread their union message online.   

Smalls and ALU organizers set up shop at the bus stop where nearly 10,000 workers travel to and
from work at the massive complex containing two Amazon facilities. Here at the bus stop, Smalls and ALU organizers met with workers coming and going, showing sensitivity to their immediate needs.  Workers were provided with tee-shirts, homemade food for breakfast and lunch, and with a propane tank at the bus stop to fight the low, frigid temperatures.  ALU organizers took advantage of the opportunity with workers to have conversations, but more importantly, to build relationships.   They took time to educate workers about the benefits of being a union member and how their interests would be prioritized in a union. It was at these gatherings where the Amazon workers gained an understanding by learning about how their common interests can be addressed through the power of collective bargaining.  

Through these organizing opportunities, ALU organizers were building relationships and the trust of their fellow workers.  Bear in mind, the ALU is staffed with current and former Amazon workers who were familiar with the tough working conditions and, also share their common concerns.  In their individual roles as workers they have that institutional knowledge about Amazon considering their roles and experience as managers, supervisors, etc. 

Their standing and influence with fellow workers, helped to enable relationship building through empathy and trust. Their constant visibility on the work floor allowed buy- in and consensus amongst the workers.  As a result, the ALU organizers built a campaign from the ground up that resonated and galvanized workers around; working conditions, wages and job security, health and safety as well as Amazon’s anti-union policies. 

ALU’s win is described as a historic moment primarily due to the enormous odds in defeating a powerful corporate entity such as Amazon. However, this moment is best described as one that was built by the JFK8 Amazon workers.  A moment guided by a vision that was forged together as an independent union, then led by workers to create a new reality for themselves, and their families. A moment where workers found their voice, recognizing their collective power to not only practice their right of self-determination but organized to fully engage in a democratic process – a participatory democratic process to transform their workplace.

The Amazon Labor Union arrived at this moment through the hard work of organizing as well as educating their fellow workers.  Their legacy to workers will be measured by how they wage battle against the powerful forces of cooptation from elected politicians and major labor unions on one side, with Amazon standing on the other side. 
 
Meanwhile, history can repeat itself for a second time as another union vote took place on April 25th at a nearby Amazon warehouse (LDJ5) located in the same sprawling complex with JFK8.

Photo credits: Pamela Drew

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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter could make its misinformation problems worse

Elon Musk’s moment of triumph is a moment of uncertainty for the future of one of the world’s leading social media platforms. 
Anjana Susarla, Michigan State University

Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, acquired Twitter in a US$44 billion deal on April 25, 2022, 11 days after announcing his bid for the company. Twitter announced that the public company will become privately held after the acquisition is complete.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission for his initial bid for the company, Musk stated, “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”

As a researcher of social media platforms, I find that Musk’s ownership of Twitter and his stated reasons for buying the company raise important issues. Those issues stem from the nature of the social media platform and what sets it apart from others.

What makes Twitter unique

Twitter occupies a unique niche. Its short chunks of text and threading foster real-time conversations among thousands of people, which makes it popular with celebrities, media personalities and politicians alike.

Social media analysts talk about the half-life of content on a platform, meaning the time it takes for a piece of content to reach 50% of its total lifetime engagement, usually measured in number of views or popularity based metrics. The average half life of a tweet is about 20 minutes, compared to five hours for Facebook posts, 20 hours for Instagram posts, 24 hours for LinkedIn posts and 20 days for YouTube videos. The much shorter half life illustrates the central role Twitter has come to occupy in driving real-time conversations as events unfold.

Twitter’s ability to shape real-time discourse, as well as the ease with which data, including geo-tagged data, can be gathered from Twitter has made it a gold mine for researchers to analyze a variety of societal phenomena, ranging from public health to politics. Twitter data has been used to predict asthma-related emergency department visits, measure public epidemic awareness, and model wildfire smoke dispersion.

Tweets that are part of a conversation are shown in chronological order, and, even though much of a tweet’s engagement is frontloaded, the Twitter archive provides instant and complete access to every public Tweet. This positions Twitter as a historical chronicler of record and a de facto fact checker.

Changes on Musk’s mind

A crucial issue is how Musk’s ownership of Twitter, and private control of social media platforms generally, affect the broader public well-being. In a series of deleted tweets, Musk made several suggestions about how to change Twitter, including adding an edit button for tweets and granting automatic verification marks to premium users.

There is no experimental evidence about how an edit button would change information transmission on Twitter. However, it’s possible to extrapolate from previous research that analyzed deleted tweets.

There are numerous ways to retrieve deleted tweets, which allows researchers to study them. While some studies show significant personality differences between users who delete their tweets and those who don’t, these findings suggest that deleting tweets is a way for people to manage their online identities.

Analyzing deleting behavior can also yield valuable clues about online credibility and disinformation. Similarly, if Twitter adds an edit button, analyzing the patterns of editing behavior could provide insights into Twitter users’ motivations and how they present themselves.

Studies of bot-generated activity on Twitter have concluded that nearly half of accounts tweeting about COVID-19 are likely bots. Given partisanship and political polarization in online spaces, allowing users – whether they are automated bots or actual people – the option to edit their tweets could become another weapon in the disinformation arsenal used by bots and propagandists. Editing tweets could allow users to selectively distort what they said, or deny making inflammatory remarks, which could complicate efforts to trace misinformation.

Musk has also indicated his intention to combat twitter bots, or automated accounts that post rapidly and repeatedly in the guise of people. He has called for authenticating users as real human beings.

Given challenges such as doxxing and other malicious personal harms online, it’s important for user authentication methods to preserve privacy. This is particularly important for activists, dissidents and whistleblowers who face threats for their online activities. Mechanisms such as decentralized protocols can enable authentication without sacrificing anonymity.

Twitter’s content moderation and revenue model

To understand Musk’s motivations and what lies next for social media platforms such as Twitter, it’s important to consider the gargantuan – and opaque – online advertising ecosystem involving multiple technologies wielded by ad networks, social media companies and publishers. Advertising is the primary revenue source for Twitter.

Musk’s vision is to generate revenue for Twitter from subscriptions rather than advertising. Without having to worry about attracting and retaining advertisers, Twitter would have less pressure to focus on content moderation. This could make Twitter a sort of freewheeling opinion site for paying subscribers. In contrast, until now Twitter has been aggressive in using content moderation in its attempts to address disinformation.

Musk’s description of a platform free from content moderation issues is troubling in light of the algorithmic harms caused by social media platforms. Research has shown a host of these harms, such as algorithms that assign gender to users, potential inaccuracies and biases in algorithms used to glean information from these platforms, and the impact on those looking for health information online.

Testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and recent regulatory efforts such as the online safety bill unveiled in the U.K. show there is broad public concern about the role played by technology platforms in shaping popular discourse and public opinion. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter highlights a whole host of regulatory concerns.

Because of Musk’s other businesses, Twitter’s ability to influence public opinion in the sensitive industries of aviation and the automobile industry automatically creates a conflict of interest, not to mention affects the disclosure of material information necessary for shareholders. Musk has already been accused of delaying disclosure of his ownership stake in Twitter.

Twitter’s own algorithmic bias bounty challenge concluded that there needs to be a community-led approach to build better algorithms. A very creative exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks middle schoolers to re-imagine the YouTube platform with ethics in mind. Perhaps it’s time to ask Musk to do the same with Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 15, 2022.The Conversation

Anjana Susarla, Professor of Information Systems, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Monday, April 11, 2022

'A Poor People's Pandemic': Poorest US Counties Suffered Twice the Covid Deaths of Richest

Jake Johnson
April 4th, 2022

Photo credit: Paul Becker
"The neglect of poor and low-wealth people in this country during a pandemic is immoral, shocking, and unjust," said Rev. Dr. William Barber II in response to the new report.

A first-of-its-kind examination of the coronavirus pandemic's impact on low-income communities published Monday shows that  Covid-19 has been twice as deadly in poor counties as in wealthy ones, a finding seen as a damning indictment of the U.S. government's pandemic response.

"The neglect of poor and low-wealth people in this country during a pandemic is immoral, shocking, and unjust, especially in light of the trillions of dollars that profit-driven entities received," said Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the national Poor People's Campaign, which conducted the new analysis alongside a team of economists and other experts.

"The poor were America's essential workers, on the front lines, saving lives and also incurring disease and death."

Released on the 54th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder in Memphis, Tennessee—where he was fighting for the rights and dignity of low-wage sanitation workers—the new report aims to bring to the forefront the relationship between poverty, income, and occupation and Covid-19 mortality.

The extent to which class is a predictor of coronavirus vulnerability is understudied, according to Barber, who noted that "Covid-19 data collection does not include data on poverty, income, or occupation, alongside race and pandemic outcomes."

"The Poor People's Pandemic Digital Report and Intersectional Analysis addresses this knowledge gap," said Barber, "and exposes the unnecessary deaths by mapping community characteristics and connecting them with Covid-19 outcomes."

Assessing figures from more than 3,000 U.S. counties, the researchers estimated that the poorest counties have suffered twice as many coronavirus-related deaths as the wealthiest. In the most fatal waves of the coronavirus pandemic—the spike in the winter of 2020-2021 and the Omicron surge—the poorest counties suffered 4.5 times more deaths than the wealthiest.

"This cannot be explained by vaccination status," Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director for the Poor People's Campaign, said in a statement. "Over half of the population in [the poorest] counties have received their second vaccine shot, but uninsured rates are twice as high."

The analysis features an interactive map that ranks counties based on the intersection of poverty rates—specifically, the percentage of people living below 200% of the official poverty line—and coronavirus death rates.

The county highest on the list is Galax, Virginia, where nearly 50% of the population lives below 200% of the poverty line. The county has a coronavirus death rate of 1,134 per 100,000 people, far higher than the national rate of 299 per 100,000.

Next on the list is Hancock, Georgia, which has a Covid-19 death rate of 1,029 per 100,000 people. More than 52% of the county's population lives below 200% of the poverty line.

Overall, the counties with the highest coronavirus death rates had one-and-a-half times higher poverty rates than counties with lower death rates, according to the new study.

"Poverty in the U.S. is its own epidemic: in 2019 even the richest counties had at least 8% of people and up to 94% of the population living in poverty," the report states.

"We must talk about this!" Barber said Monday. "We cannot say that this is because of individual choices or behaviors. Something deeper is at work—systems that prey on the poor, poor white people, and poor people of color."

"Remember, this unnecessary death happened while we gave corporations $2 trillion to keep them alive and the richest Americans saw their wealth soar," he added. "It's a gross example of what Naomi Klein has called the 'shock doctrine,' when the wealthy exploit tragedy to increase their own profits while poor people suffer.

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network and one of the experts behind the study, said the findings make clear that the pandemic is "not only a national tragedy, but also a failure of social justice."

"The burden of disease—in terms of deaths, illness, and economic costs—was borne disproportionately by the poor, women, and people of color," said Sachs. "The poor were America's essential workers, on the front lines, saving lives and also incurring disease and death."

"Living wages, shared economic prosperity, and inclusive welfare programs can address root causes."

The analysis was released as the U.S. moves closer to the grim milestone of 1 million coronavirus deaths, an estimated toll that's widely seen as an undercount.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, national co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, said in a statement Monday that "the Covid-19 disparities among counties across the U.S. are striking."

"This report shows clearly that Covid-19 became a 'poor people's pandemic,'" said Theoharis. "We can no longer ignore the reality of poverty and dismiss its root causes as the problems of individual people or communities. There has been a systemic failure to address poverty in this country and poor communities have borne the consequences not only in this pandemic, but for years and generations before."

"However, this does not need to continue," she added. "Our nation has the resources to fully address poverty and low wealth from the bottom up."

The report argues that while coronavirus vaccines "will prevent the worst impacts of Covid-19, they will not inoculate against poverty."

"However, living wages, shared economic prosperity, and inclusive welfare programs can address root causes that made the U.S. vulnerable to such massive losses of human life," the study continues. "Likewise, ensuring universal and affordable healthcare, housing, water, access to utilities, quality public education, and guaranteeing a robust democracy will establish a more equitable foundation upon which we can build back better from the pandemic."

This article originally appeared at CommonDreams.org. Originally published on April 4th, 2022. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. 


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Thursday, April 7, 2022

Meeks wants sacrifices for Ukraine: What about constituents in his district?

December 12th Movement International    Secretariat    

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CONTACT: Roger Wareham (718) 398-1766

Please see the following Op-Ed on Queens Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks which appeared in the March 31st New York Amsterdam News.


Meeks wants sacrifices for Ukraine: What about constituents in his district?

Dear Congressman Meeks,

We the constituents of the 5th Congressional District, heard with disbelief your call on us  to “Make sacrifices for democracy in lending support to Ukraine.” Our district’s poverty index states that 17% of district residents live below the federal poverty level, one in seven adults over 17 are unemployed, and over half of the residents spend more than 30% of their monthly gross income on rent. The infrastructure is so badly in need of repair that a catastrophic sewer back up took months to repair. And we suffer from foreclosures at a rate double that of the national average. Southeast Queens has been the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis with the communities of Jamaica, South Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans, Cambria Heights, Laurelton, the Rockaways and Broad Channel topping the hardest affected in the entire nation.

This could be the single greatest loss of Black wealth in NYC history. Congressman Meeks, you haven’t called on the 1% to make sacrifices to get rid of student debt, which weighs down your constituents so we can’t afford to buy a home and must even delay starting a family. Black Women are disproportionally burdened with this cost and owe 22 percent more than the average student debt of white women. You haven’t called on the 1% to contribute towards reducing homelessness in Southeast Queens, the neighborhood you represent. The homelessness statistics are that there are 3,177 individuals living in shelters in Jamaica/Hollis,  1,697 individuals in Queens Village, and 625 individuals in Rockaway/Broad Channel. 

You haven’t made real estate interests pledge to make sacrifice of space in their holdings to house the homeless, or reduce their profits to create lower density housing rather than massive developments which change the character of the neighborhood. Your call to us to sacrifice for a war in the Ukraine shows the same condescending attitude as when you supported Senator Hillary Clinton after voters in your district voted 98% for then Senator Barack Obama. You said then that you knew better and as a delegate would be backing Hillary Clinton anyway.

Congressman, have you made any personal sacrifice as we suffer from skyrocketing gas prices, food shortages and a housing crisis?