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Tensions high at Amazon warehouse as milestone union vote gets underway

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By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
Updated 12:52 PM ET, Tue February 9, 2021

(CNN Business) — On their way to and from the sprawling warehouse facility in Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon workers see union representatives holding signs encouraging them to vote “yes” for a union. But inside the facility, workers have frequently been pulled into meetings informing them of Amazon’s stance that a union is an unnecessary expense. Even when they sit on the toilet, they see anti-union signage on the bathroom stall.

For weeks, tension has been building at this warehouse in a small town in central Alabama ahead of a milestone vote, beginning this week, on whether to form what would be the first US union in Amazon’s nearly 27-year history.
In addition to waging online and offline pushes to combat the union effort, Amazon (AMZN) attempted to delay the vote by pressing for it to be held in-person, despite the pandemic, but the National Labor Relations Board rejected its arguments. The ballots started to be mailed to the homes of nearly 6,000 eligible warehouse workers Monday. They will have nearly two months to cast their votes.
Even before a single vote was cast, the union push had garnered national attention and support from figures ranging from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to a group of 50 Congresspeople who sent a letter Friday urging Amazon’s outgoing CEO, Jeff Bezos, to “treat your employees as the critical asset they are, not as a threat to be neutralized or a cost to be minimized.” Warehouse workers at multiple Amazon facilities told CNN Business they are also paying close attention to see how the effort shakes out. As Jeffrey Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina, put it: “A whole lot of people are watching.”

    An improbable union push partly fueled by the pandemic

    The fact that the push to unionize has made it this far is improbable by several counts. Not only are the workers taking on the second-largest employer in the United Sates, whose business has soared in the face of the global pandemic, but these workers are based in the South, where union representation is lower than in other parts of the country. This effort was galvanized not just by a group of employees of the Amazon Bessemer facility but also with unionized workers from other local plants and facilities, including poultry workers, who are already represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which advocated for their safety as poultry plants were hit hard by the virus.
    Jennifer Bates, an employee-organizer at the Bessemer facility who has worked at Amazon since shortly after the warehouse opened last spring, said that making it to this point is a huge feat in and of itself. “We didn’t know how we’d reach so many people,” Bates, a learning ambassador who helps train other workers at the facility, told CNN Business. “Amazon is so huge. We have four floors and thousands of people in there. But we realized there were enough voices and enough issues. You can have complaints at any job but these were cries.”
    Bates, who said she was represented by a union in a previous job, ticked off a list of issues that workers hope to improve with the help of union representation, including adequate break time, better procedures for filing and receiving responses to grievances, higher wages, as well as protection against Amazon wrongfully applying policies like social distancing to discipline workers.
    In a statement to CNN Business in January regarding the union effort, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said, “we opened this site in March and since that time have created more than 5,000 full-time jobs in Bessemer, with average pay of $15.30 per hour, including full healthcare, vision and dental insurance, 50% 401(K) match from the first day on the job; in safe, innovative, inclusive environments, with training, continuing education, and long-term career growth.”
    “We work hard to support our teams and more than 90% of associates at our Bessemer site say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work to their friends,” added Knox. Over the past year, Amazon has repeatedly said safety is a priority as well as that it has a “zero tolerance for retaliation against employees who raise concerns.”
    While the pandemic has been a boon for Amazon’s business, it has also been a factor behind a more general employee uprising. Workers at other facilities have expressed concerns about juggling the company’s obsession with productivity while maintaining social distancing and other pandemic-related precautions. Meanwhile, Amazon has been slowly peeling back some of its pandemic safety policies. The company discontinued its unlimited unpaid time off in May, as well as its $2 hourly wage bump and double overtime pay in June; it reinstated its “time off task” metric to track productivity of workers this fall. It is also reinstating daily stand-up meetings, which had been paused since the start of the pandemic, but will soon resume as “socially distanced small group stand-up meetings.”
    Amazon has said it has made over 150 process updates to ensure the health and safety of its employees. The company, which continues to provide up to two weeks of paid time off for employees diagnosed with the coronavirus, has also given out two special bonuses to frontline workers since eliminating its pandemic-related wage bumps.
    “The pandemic opened a lot of peoples’ eyes that workers really need a voice in their workplace in order to protect themselves,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “People are worried about their lives.”
    At the same time, workers at Bessemer have been motivated by the ongoing racial justice movement, according to Appelbaum, who said roughly 85% of the workforce is Black. “People were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to stand up for their own rights and dignity,” Appelbaum said. “This campaign has been as much of a civil rights campaign as it has been a labor campaign. We’re talking about basic dignity for working women and men.”
    It is unclear whether the union push will ultimately succeed. The Washington Post previously reported more than 3,000 Amazon workers had signed cards indicating support for the union, although given the company’s high turnover rate and the fact that some employees are seasonal, not all are still with the company.

    “The most aggressive anti-union campaign I’ve seen”

    While some Amazon workers are unionized in Europe, the company has so far fended off unions in the United States. A much smaller union election was held in 2014 at a Delaware warehouse, but resulted in workers rejecting the effort.
    To counter the current effort at Bessemer, Amazon hired a former Republican member of the NLRB to help in its fight. It launched an anti-union website that warns against paying dues: “don’t buy that dinner, don’t buy those school supplies, don’t buy those gifts because you won’t have that almost $500 you paid in dues.” And it has conveyed its stance on unions by sending numerous text messages to workers, pulling them into one-on-one meetings on the warehouse floor and requiring them to attend group meetings every few shifts, workers and the union told CNN Business. (In a statement this week, Knox told CNN Business that Amazon has “provided education that helps employees understand the facts of joining a union.”)
    The group meetings, also known as “captive audience” meetings, are required to cease 24 hours before an election; a company spokesperson previously told the Post that it will comply. According to Hirsch, Amazon’s insistence on holding an in-person election may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that the company can’t hold these meetings for the longer duration of the mail-in election period, potentially making it harder for the company to counter the union’s efforts to rally workers during this time.
    Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in a statement to CNN Business last week that the company’s “goal” in pressing for an in-person election was to provide “the most fair and effective format to achieve maximum employee participation.”
    All together, Appelbaum called it “the most aggressive anti-union campaign I’ve seen.”
    Workers are now left to sort through the mixed messages. One Bessemer worker, who requested their name be withheld for fear of retribution, said they are puzzling over the financial impact of dues and the potential benefits of union representation.
    The worker, who has not decided which way to vote yet, was initially attracted to the job because of the set hours and schedule, but now has concerns about pandemic safety measures inside the facility. “If you don’t want the people to have a union, you need to do everything [to address the concerns], or at least piece by piece,” the worker said.
    Another Bessemer employee, Dawn Hoag, is adamant about how she’ll vote: “No.” She said she doesn’t feel like Amazon hid any of the conditions of the job when she was hired. “Not everybody is going to like having to work hard,” said Hoag, a seasonal process assistant who said she would request to transfer to a different facility if the union were to succeed. “I don’t see a purpose in me paying somebody else to fight my battles. I’ve always been told fight your own battles.”
      Workers at other Amazon warehouses in the United State are paying attention to the outcome. At a Baltimore facility, Amazon associate Andre Goodin said he and several of his colleagues talk about the Alabama union vote “quite often, believe it or not.” Goodin, who has also previously worked a union job, said he believes there’s a host of things that could be potentially improved with the support of a union.
      “We’re hearing from Amazon workers all over the country. I think that what has happened thus far is significant regardless of the outcome of the election,” said RWDSU’s Appelbaum. “It opens the door for more organizing in the future. It opens the door and shows you’re able to stand up to Amazon.”

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      Lyft focuses on seniors with new option to book rides by phone call

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      By Sara O’Brien, CNN Business
      Updated 12:50 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

      (CNN Business) — Lyft is adding an option to allow people to order a ride in a more retro way — by phone call — a year after Uber tried doing the same before shutting it down.

      The ride-hail company said Wednesday it launched a special service in dozens of Florida cities to allow people to call a number (631-201-LYFT) with a cell phone to book a car on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It’s geared towards seniors and those without access to its app. Once a ride is booked, Lyft (LYFT) said it will communicate updates via text message.
      The service, which Lyft said it piloted in late 2020 in Miami before expanding to more Florida cities, is similar to one Uber announced last February. Uber’s service was only available in select markets — Arizona, Florida and New York City — for rides or meal deliveries, but by the end of 2020, the company paused the program.
      An Uber (UBER) spokesperson told CNN Business Wednesday that there was declining use of the service, with only a few hundred people a month using it. Uber’s service also allowed users to order food delivery. (Those who call the Uber hotline now are told they can request rides from the mobile site or app.)
        Sam Bond, regional director for Lyft in the Southeast, said in a statement that the company looks forward to “helping seniors access transportation to essential services and resources that may be currently out of reach without a car.”
        The company didn’t directly address why it believes the program will succeed where Uber’s stalled, only reiterated that it is dedicated to serving vulnerable and underserved communities.
          On an earnings call earlier this month, Lyft president John Zimmer said the pandemic “has amplified transportation and security, especially for seniors and vulnerable communities. We are committed to ensuring that transportation access is not a barrier to beating this virus.”
          At the end of 2020, the company announced a vaccine access program with a goal to provide 60 million rides to and from vaccination sites alongside JPMorgan Chase, Anthem Inc. and United Way.

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          Facebook will restore news in Australia after talks with the government

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          By Michelle Toh and Chandler Thornton, CNN Business
          Updated 11:08 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

          Hong Kong (CNN Business) — Facebook will restore news pages in Australia after the government agreed on changes to a planned media code that the company said would allow it to retain greater control over what appears on its platform.

          The announcement caps months of bitter dispute between the American tech firm and Canberra, which had been working on legislation that would force tech platforms to pay publishers for news content.
          The initial version of the legislation would have allowed media outlets to bargain either individually or collectively with Facebook and Google (GOOGL) — and to enter binding arbitration if the parties couldn’t reach an agreement.
          On Tuesday, the Australian government said it would amend the code to include a provision that “must take into account whether a digital platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses.”
            Arbitration, meanwhile, will now only be used as a “last resort” following a period of “good faith” mediation.
            Facebook’s decision to restore news came as the Australian Senate discussed the latest iteration of the media law.
            “It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally, and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Brown said.
            Google, meanwhile, had already been trying to get ahead of the new legislation by announcing partnerships with some of the country’s largest media organizations, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (NWS) and Seven West Media. Facebook revealed its own deal with Seven on Tuesday.
              Asked about Google’s partnerships last week, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg alluded to the changes that were ultimately announced Tuesday. He said that “if commercial deals are in place, then it changes the equation.”
              — Kerry Flynn contributed to this report.

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              The worldwide web as we know it may be ending

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              By Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
              Updated 12:00 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

              (CNN Business) — Over the last year, the worldwide web has started to look less worldwide.

              Europe is floating regulation that could impose temporary bans on US tech companies that violate its laws. The United States was on the verge of banning TikTok and WeChat, though the new Biden administration is rethinking that move. India, which did ban those two apps as well of dozens of others, is now at loggerheads with Twitter.
              And this month, Facebook (FB) clashed with the Australian government over a proposed law that would require it to pay publishers. The company briefly decided to prevent users from sharing news links in the country in response to the law, with the potential to drastically change how its platform functions from one country to the next. Then on Tuesday, it reached a deal with the government and agreed to restore news pages. The deal partially relaxed arbitration requirements that Facebook took issue with.
              In its announcement of the deal, however, Facebook hinted at the possibility of similar clashes in the future. “We’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Campbell Brown, VP of global news partnerships at Facebook, said in a statement Tuesday.
                But if such territorial agreements become more common, the globally-connected internet we know will become more like what some have dubbed the “splinternet,” or a collection of different internets whose limits are determined by national or regional borders.
                The stakes will only get higher if more governments jump on the bandwagon.
                “It’s kind of a game of chicken,” said Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Business and author of “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy and Our Health.”
                Aral says companies such as Facebook and Google will encounter a slippery slope if they start to exit every market that asks them to pay for its news, which would “severely limit” the content they can serve their global user base.
                “They have a vested interest in trying to force any one market to not impose such regulations by threatening to pull out,” he said. “The other side is basically saying: ‘If you don’t pay for the content, you’re not going to have access to our market of consumers or the content in this market.'”

                As the internet fractures, global regulators coalesce

                A fight over news in Australia is a relatively small part of the clash between tech and governments, which has largely been focused on issues such as censorship, privacy and competition. But the response to Facebook’s move in Australia has shown that a more international effort to rein in Big Tech may be gathering momentum — and with it, the potential for additional fracturing of how internet services function from one country to the next.
                As his government faced off against Facebook last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a warning to the social media giant: what you do here may come back to hurt you in other countries.
                “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” he said in a Facebook post. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”
                On Tuesday, Morrison said Facebook’s decision to restore news was “welcome,” adding that the government remained committed to proceeding with its legislation to ensure “Australian journalists and news organisations are fairly compensated for the original content they produce.”
                Several other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada are now considering similar legislation against social media companies — and many of those countries are talking to each other about how best to do that.
                “It would be extremely useful if governments would come together in some kind of transnational process and come up with a treaty or some kind of standard about who gets to reach out and affect content and information outside their national territory,” Keller said, “because that’s what a lot of them are trying to do, but they haven’t, and so as a result you get this very fragmented patchwork.”
                  If that increased fragmentation is allowed to reach its natural conclusion, however, the consequences could be dire.
                  “If the eventual outcome of that is that we have social media platforms in every major country or market that are separate, then what we will have is an information ecosystem that is completely bifurcated or splintered across the globe,” Aral said. “What that portends is a citizenry that has completely different sets of information about local events, about world events, and perhaps a very splintered worldview of reality.”

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                  Former WeWork CEO in talks to get nearly $500 million in SoftBank settlement

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                  By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
                  Updated 2:29 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

                  (CNN Business) — Adam Neumann, the disgraced former CEO and cofounder of WeWork, may soon have a massive payday as part of a possible settlement with SoftBank, the company’s largest investor, but the amount under discussion is far less than the golden parachute originally offered.

                  Neumann, who stepped down in late 2019 after a disastrous attempt to take WeWork public, could be eligible to sell nearly $500 million worth of his shares to SoftBank as part of a $1.5 billion stock buyback program for early WeWork employees and investors, according to a source familiar with the matter. The deal is not yet finalized.
                  The deal is part of a settlement under discussion to resolve a long-simmering legal dispute between Neumann, WeWork and SoftBank after the Japanese conglomerate walked away from a $3 billion WeWork share purchase agreement.
                  The terms of a possible settlement were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. A second source familiar with the matter told CNN Business that the deal is close to being finalized but could still fall through.
                    WeWork, SoftBank, and a representative for Neumann declined to comment.
                    The settlement is half of what was previously on the table when SoftBank agreed to bail out the co-working company after a period of turmoil. As part of the deal in fall of 2019, Neumann departed and had the chance to sell back nearly $1 billion of his shares — an opportunity that infuriated some workers.
                    Under Neumann’s leadership, WeWork raised billions of dollars, scaled its coworking operations to hundreds of cities around the world, and was valued at an eye-popping $47 billion during one investment round. But the company also failed spectacularly in its attempt to go public in large part because IPO paperwork revealed his unchecked power and numerous potential conflicts of interest, as well as WeWork’s staggering losses.
                      In April 2020, SoftBank abandoned plans to buy $3 billion in WeWork stock from Neumann and others, citing certain conditions of the deal that hadn’t been met, including the existence of pending criminal and civil investigations into the company, global restrictions related to the coronavirus, and the failure to restructure a joint venture in China. In response, Neumann and a special committee of WeWork’s board brought lawsuits.
                      News of a possible deal comes as SoftBank and WeWork attempt to turn the page on the Neumann chapter of the company. As the Journal reported, WeWork is in talks about a potential deal to merge with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a public company at long last.

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                      The hot new thing in tech: speaking into your phone

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                      By Kaya Yurieff and Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
                      Updated 9:03 AM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

                      (CNN Business) — Before last year, 28-year-old Meredith Giuliani thought voice notes were “kind of weird,” and she mostly stuck to texting. But after the pandemic hit, audio messages became a daily routine for her and many of her friends.

                      “This is my way to debrief and tell everybody what’s going on,” she told CNN Business. “It’s not like it used to be where I would wait until I was going to see my friends over the course of the next week for drinks or for brunch.”
                      For years, Apple and others have offered the option to record short messages and send them via text and chat apps. But the format has gained new appeal for many in the United States during the pandemic as we approach a year of limited opportunities to socialize with friends, family and coworkers.
                      Romina Hyskaj, a 23-year-old recruiter who lives in New York City, uses them mainly to keep in touch with her parents who live six hours away, noting that “it can get your tone, attitude, or joke across.” Nick Hofstadter, a 38-year-old luxury travel adviser in Los Angeles, sends voice notes to a handful of close friends, mostly to tell funny stories with a more “dramatic effect” and to avoid sending long text messages. (He prefers using voice notes on iMessage over Instagram so he can listen to it before sending.)
                        And it’s not just voice messages. Voice is having a moment — and the tech industry is taking notice.
                        Hall said an added part of the appeal — beyond conveying more emotional nuance — is how easy voice notes are to record, store and replay.
                        “Back when we had answering machines, people used to save important messages, particularly from loved ones, sometimes for as long as the machine had space and power to store those messages,” he said. “People don’t use voicemail in the same manner, partly because the phone is not the easiest way to leave a message for another person — that would be a text.”
                          Prior to the pandemic, Giuliani said there were many friends she didn’t talk to daily. Voice notes have changed that.
                          “It’s kept some of my friends and I really close together,” she said. “We send over voice notes and we’re chatting every single day, way more than we ever did before the pandemic.” She added: “I can’t believe that we didn’t before.”

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