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Tech’s new labor movement is harnessing lessons learned a century ago

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Tech’s new labor movement is harnessing lessons learned a century ago


The rise of the tech worker

Even in the early 1990s, when Lerner went to war with Apple as an organizer of the Justice for Janitors campaign and won union rights for subcontracted cleaning workers across the tech sector, the question of “Who is a tech worker?” loomed large. Through those successful campaigns, Lerner helped extend the definition of a tech worker to virtually anyone who makes a tech company run. Cori Crider, an attorney with Foxglove, a firm that aims to challenge the power of Big Tech, has been working with subcontracted content moderators—real humans who sift through posts with violence and racism and graphic sex every day, trying to determine what violates a constantly shifting set of rules. 

Those workers are often bound by nondisclosure agreements that keep them from speaking publicly about their working conditions. That allows companies like Facebook to deny they exist—an assertion the company stuck with last year even after reports emerged that moderators working for the outsourcing firm Accenture were being pushed back into the office during the pandemic. 

Tech workers outside the normal definition of “employees” are still finding ways to organize and protect themselves. Coworker.org, a campaign platform for labor organizing, is using donations from well-off tech workers to build a “solidarity fund” distributed to workers on the other side of the tech supply chain. Gig workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform are using the site Turkopticon to come together and fight for better terms. 

A wave of rebellions within the unions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation was making their jobs easier. 

At the other end of the tech-worker spectrum are those building electric cars at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California. Before Elon Musk’s company bought the Fremont facility, it was known as New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI, a collaboration between General Motors and Toyota where Japanese “lean production” was brought to America. NUMMI didn’t survive GM’s bankruptcy in 2008, and Tesla snatched it up. 

Cooperating with the United Auto Workers was one of NUMMI’s big innovations, but Tesla’s gone another way. Recently, an administrative judge at the NLRB ruled that several of the company’s actions in response to worker organizing were illegal—including a couple of Musk’s tweets as well as harassment of workers passing out union pamphlets, banning of pro-union T-shirts and buttons, and the interrogation of organizers and firing of one. The NLRB’s penalties amount to little more than a finger-wag—Musk must read a statement telling workers that they have the right to unionize, and rehire the fired worker. He’s appealed the decision anyway.

The workers at the plant, even the union supporters, are enthusiastic about producing electric vehicles, but they note that the technical sophistication of the plant does not prevent a lot of backbreaking manual labor—or injuries. Jose Moran, one of the leaders of the union drive and a former NUMMI worker, wrote a blog post about the things he wanted to improve, including the grueling pace of the work and some badly designed machinery. 

Autoworkers have struggled with machinery since the days of Henry Ford. But Tesla workers’ stories echo the complaints of autoworkers in the 1960s who battled “speed-up”—the way management would use new technology to ratchet up the pace of work—in places like Lordstown, Ohio, and Detroit. A wave of rebellions within the unions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation was making their jobs easier. 

As machines sped up the manufacturing process, workers had to hustle faster to keep up. The autoworkers at Tesla, far from representing a labor aristocracy among autoworkers, say they make less than unionized workers at GM and Ford. As Moran wrote, “I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.” 

The long game

In the Amazon warehouses, too, everything old is new again. “The auto industry tried to do lots of automation back in the ’80s, ’70s, whatever, and they basically plateaued out where they couldn’t do it anymore. And Tesla basically tried to do the same thing,” says Tyler Hamilton, an Amazon warehouse worker from Minneapolis. “It’s the same thing with Amazon. There’s only so much you can do with automation.” 

Mohamed Mire, a coworker of Hamilton’s, explains that most of Amazon’s vaunted technology goes to tracking the workers rather than making the work efficient. Scanners that the workers use to scan packages also keep track of their so-called “time off task,” and they get written up if their productivity rate falls. Robots that Hamilton likens to “giant Roombas” carry merchandise around the warehouse but malfunction often—lately his job has included setting the robots right when they stop working. Data from Amazon shows that injury rates are higher at facilities with robots than without them. 

Tech

The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted federal climate policy


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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The US government is developing a solar geoengineering research plan

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The US government is developing a solar geoengineering research plan


The move, which has not been previously reported on, marks the first federally coordinated US effort of this kind. It could set the stage for more funding and research into the feasibility, benefits, and risks of such interventions. The effort may also contribute to the perception that geoengineering is an appropriate and important area of research as global temperatures rise.

Solar geoengineering encompasses a range of different approaches. The one that’s gained the most attention is using planes or balloons to disperse tiny particles in the stratosphere. These would then—in theory—reflect back enough sunlight to ease warming, mimicking the effect of massive volcanic eruptions in the past. Some research groups have also explored whether releasing certain particles could break up cirrus clouds, which trap heat against the Earth, or make low-lying marine clouds more reflective.

The 2022 federal appropriations act, signed by President Biden in March, directs his Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a cross-agency group to coordinate research on such climate interventions, in partnership with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Energy. 

The measure calls for the group to create a research framework to “provide guidance on transparency, engagement, and risk management for publicly funded work in solar geoengineering research.” Specifically, it directs NOAA to support the Office of Science and Technology Policy in developing a five-year plan that will, among other things, define research goals for the field, assess the potential hazards of such climate interventions, and evaluate the level of federal investments required to carry out that work. 

Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly in different parts of the globe. It’s not clear how the world will grapple with tricky questions regarding global governance, including who should make decisions about whether to deploy such powerful tools and what global average temperatures we should aim for. Some feel that geoengineering is too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could make the need to address the underlying causes of climate change feel less urgent.

But as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, more researchers, universities, and nations are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. A handful of prominent scientific groups, in turn, have called for stricter standards to guide that work, more money to do it, or both. That includes the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which last year recommended setting up a US solar geoengineering research program with an initial investment of $100 million to $200 million over five years. 

Proponents of geoengineering research, while stressing that cutting emissions must remain the highest priority, say we should explore these possibilities because they may meaningfully reduce the dangers of climate change. They note that as heat waves, droughts, famines, wildfires, and other extreme events become more common or severe, these sorts of climate interventions may be among the few means available to rapidly ease widespread human suffering or ecological calamities. 

Setting standards

In a statement, the Office of Science and Technology Policy confirmed that it has created an interagency working group, as called for under the federal funding bill. It includes representatives of 10 research and mission agencies, including NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Energy.  

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How to track your period safely post-Roe

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How to track your period safely post-Roe


Why use a period tracker?

Stress or dietary changes, among other factors, can make periods irregular and unpredictable. Tracking them can help expose underlying health issues, such as fibroids, which are noncancerous uterine growths. It can also help people spot patterns in mood and energy, which can often be affected by ovulation. People trying to get pregnant often use period trackers to figure out when they’re most fertile. 

So why are people panicking?

The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US triggered laws that made abortion illegal in 13 states, and more states are likely to ban abortion in the coming months. In states that have banned abortions, people could now be prosecuted if they are alleged to have had one. The worry is that their digital data footprint could be used to build such a case. Missing your period is not a crime, but evidence of it could be subpoenaed and used to bolster a case against someone suspected of an abortion. 

What do companies that make period-tracking apps have to say about this?

We reached out to some of the major period-tracking apps—Flo, Clue, and SpotOn (an app from Planned Parenthood)—for comment on what their privacy settings are and whether they would turn information over to authorities in states where abortion is illegal. Clue and SpotOn did not respond, though Clue stated on Twitter that because it is based in the European Union, it is not permitted to share data with authorities in the US: 

“We would have a primary legal duty under European law not to disclose any private health data. We repeat: we would not respond to any disclosure request or attempted subpoena of our users’ health data by US authorities. But we would let you and the world know if they tried.”

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