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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Amazon union win could usher in a new wave of scrutiny of its labor practices

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: Huawei elevates an embattled executive, and Europe eyes Microsoft's cloud business. First:

Amazon union win could usher in a new wave of scrutiny of its labor practices

As the United States’ second largest private employer, e-commerce giant Amazon has long faced scrutiny in Washington over its labor practices. Now that some of its workers have voted to unionize for the first time, that focus is likely to increase even further. 

Workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of joining a union on Friday, as my colleagues Rachel Lerman, Greg Jaffe, Jeff Stein and Anna Betts reported.

The move was widely celebrated online by top Democratic lawmakers, who have long criticized Amazon’s track record on labor issues. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio):

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The vote marked a massive win for the U.S. labor movement, which had unsuccessfully sought to organize workers at the tech giant for years. As my colleagues wrote, it “could start a cascading effect at other Amazon warehouses, labor experts say, encouraging others to consider unionizing.”

If more unions form at Amazon facilities, it would provide its workers with an unprecedented perch to speak out about allegations of mistreatment or unsafe working conditions, which lawmakers and regulators are known to closely monitor. 

Up until now, that’s not a tool that policymakers scrutinizing the tech giant’s labor practices have been able to rely on as readily. 

Beyond its years-long campaign to beat back unionization efforts, Amazon has a history of trying to prevent workers from publicly criticizing some of its practices. 

In April 2020, the company fired two employees who had spoken out about its climate policies and denounced its working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. A spokesperson said at the time that while Amazon supports “every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions,” the workers were fired for “repeatedly violating internal policies.”

That same year, hundreds of Amazon workers protested against the company’s external communications policy prohibiting employees from commenting publicly on its business without corporate justification and approval from executives. 

Democratic lawmakers voiced concern about Amazon’s actions having a chilling effect on internal dissent over the company’s conduct. 

Amazon Labor Union interim president Chris Smalls was another worker fired in 2020 by the company after organizing a strike at one of its warehouses. (Amazon claimed he was violating social distancing rules.) Now, after leading the first successful organizing campaign at the company in the United States, he’s become the face of public dissent at the tech giant.

Amazon’s labor practices are already under investigation in Washington. 

Lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee on Friday demanded answers from Amazon CEO Andy Jassy over reports they said suggested the tech giant “may be putting the health and safety of its workers at risk.” The letter cited concerns about the company’s treatment of workers during a deadly tornado which killed six people at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois

“As one of our country’s largest and most profitable corporations, it is imperative that Amazon protect workers’ safety and refrain from practices that could put them in danger,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote. 

Amazon did not return a request for comment on the letter.

Federal regulators at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) confirmed to The Washington Post in December that they were investigating the fatal incident as well. The agency said in a statement that it had six months to conduct the probe. 

If more unions form, it could surface fresh allegations and usher in other investigations.

Our top tabs

Huawei promotes CFO months after U.S. extradition deal

Chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou will serve as one of three rotating chairs who helm Huawei for six-month intervals, just a half year out from her U.S. extradition fight, my colleague Eva Dou reports.

The move elevates Meng, daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, and may set up a “family succession at one of China’s most important companies,” Eva wrote.

“Meng entered the international spotlight in December 2018, when she was detained in Canada at the request of U.S. authorities. Her detention sparked a global standoff after China jailed two Canadian nationals on vague charges, in what Western officials said was an example of ‘hostage diplomacy,’ ” according to the report.

Meng returned to China in September after cutting a deal with the U.S. Justice Department after admitting that she helped conceal the company's direct dealings with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. 

E.U. targets Microsoft's cloud business

Antitrust regulators in the European Union are pressing Microsoft's rivals and customers about its cloud business, a move that could signal a forthcoming investigation, Reuters' Dave Paresh reports

“The Commission has information that Microsoft may be using its potentially dominant position in certain software markets to foreclose competition regarding certain cloud computing services,” read an E.U. questionnaire obtained by Reuters. 

According to the report, “Regulators asked if the terms in Microsoft's licensing deals with cloud service providers allow rivals to compete effectively.”

In an emailed statement, Microsoft said, “We're continuously evaluating how we can best support partners and make Microsoft software available to customers across all environments, including those of other cloud providers.”

State Department launches cyber and digital policy bureau

The State Department says the bureau, which will eventually be led by a Senate-confirmed ambassador, will “address the national security challenges, economic opportunities and implications for U.S. values associated with cyberspace, digital technologies and digital policy,” Aaron Schaffer reports in The Cybersecurity 202. 

The bureau will have international information and communications policy, digital freedom and cybersecurity offices. In a speech about the bureau today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to mention Russian Internet restrictions, 5G technology and competing visions about the future of the Internet, as well as cyberthreats like ransomware.

“Democracies must answer together the question of whether universal rights and democratic values will be at the center of our digital lives — and whether digital technologies deliver real benefits in people’s lives,” he is expected to say according to prepared remarks. “To do that, we need America’s diplomats leading the way.”

Rant and rave

Twitter joked on April Fools that it is working on an edit button, a feature users have long asked for. 

The Internet was not so amused. Dictionary.com responded with a link to the definition of “unfunny.”

Australian Twitter had the last laugh, though.

Inside the industry

Trump's social media app misses another deadline as users report issues (Axios)

How Microsoft Became Washington’s Favorite Tech Giant (Wall Street Journal)

From Russia with money: Silicon Valley distances itself from oligarchs (Joseph Menn, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Douglas MacMillan and Cat Zakrzewski)

Tesla’s Sales Jumped in the First Quarter, Bucking Industry Trend Again (New York Times)

Workforce report

Meta no longer requiring COVID booster shots for staff in U.S. offices (Reuters)

Trending

Why users are pushing back against the world’s largest crypto exchange (Ben McKenzie and Jacob Silverman)

TikTok Brain Explained: Why Some Kids Seem Hooked on Social Video Feeds (New York Times)

Mentions

  • A group of civil society groups and tech companies including Demand Progress, Public Citizen, Yelp and DuckDuckGo are observing an  “Antitrust Day” on Monday to call on Congress to pass legislation to revamp U.S. competition rules and rein in the tech giants.
  • Alex Bornyakov, deputy minister of digital transformation of Ukraine, joins Cat Zakrzewski at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday at 9 a.m. to discuss his country’s efforts to pressure tech companies to come to Ukraine’s aid.

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