Unions Claim Retailers' Surveillance Tech is
Being Used to Bust Unions
Techniques Are Not Allowed
'They Were Spying On Us': Amazon, Walmart, Use Surveillance Technology to Bust
Technology-enabled surveillance—from keycard tagging and email monitoring to
social media tracking and worker profiling—often introduced in the name of
safety and productivity can have a chilling effect on organizing and allow
companies to sidestep labor law. It enables employers to profile workers and
gain insights into employees' private lives and their sentiments—who's likely
going to be the most outspoken.
Amazon and Walmart are two of the best-known examples of employers using
surveillance technology during union battles, sometimes skirting the law. Leaked
internal documents from Walmart included methods for monitoring employee
activity and conversations about union activism, Amazon's Whole Foods utilized
heat maps that were based on predictive analytics to track store locations
considered at high risk of union activity, and Google reportedly has a system to
alert managers to any internal meetings scheduled with 100 or more employees,
"partially to weed out employee organizing," according to the human resources
newsletter HR Brew.
Since at least September,
HelloFresh, which has
been locked in a bitter struggle with UNITE HERE, which seeks to organize its
workers, has been
tracking social media posts
about union activity using a marketing tool called Falcon.
It's reportedly discussed monitoring the employees behind such posts and even
reported such posts as spam to diminish their visibility. The company explained
to Vice that "it is our duty to correct misinformation and mischaracterizations
of our company."
There are few restrictions on
how these tools are used.
"Employers do have surprising freedom to monitor what their employees do on
their own systems," said V. John Ella, an employment and business lawyer based
in Minneapolis. These
practices became even more
invasive as the shift
to remote work dissolved boundaries between home and work for many.
Surveillance has been a component of anti-union campaigns since the Pinkerton
National Detective Agency began infiltrating unions in the 1870s. The passage in
1935 of the National Labor Relations Act, which established the right to form a
union, did not address spying directly, though the practice is at odds with the
act's aim to protect concerted activity.
Over the years, case law has accrued to delineate what kinds of surveillance
constitute an unfair labor practice. According to research by Charlotte Garden,
a professor at the Seattle University School of Law,
has found a range of practices to breach the law, including "watching
employees with binoculars, watching union activity on a daily basis and for
hours at a time, posting guards in previously unguarded areas, [and]
photographing or videotaping employees and monitoring their phone calls in
response to union activity."
In general, though, if an employer sees union activity
out in the open, it isn't
considered an unfair labor practice.
The NLRB judges whether the employer's methods are "out of the ordinary" in a
manner that chills collective action. As Garden notes, this
allows employers to "set the
encourages the adoption of the broadest possible surveillance.
Today's technology drastically reduces the amount of work you need to do to keep
tabs on workers, making comprehensive surveillance financially viable for the