Posts with «society & culture» label

US labor board says Amazon illegally fired union organizer in New York

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has determined that Amazon illegally fired former worker Daequan Smith for trying to unionize its warehouses in Staten Island, New York. Smith, who was one of the organizers for the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), was fired in October 2021. The group filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB after his dismissal, accusing the company of illegal retaliatory firing over Smith's outspoken support for unionization. Now, according to Bloomberg, the board has found merit in the group's allegations and plans to issue a formal complaint against the e-commerce giant if the case doesn't settle. 

The Amazon Labor Union is made of up of former and current company workers and is an independent group not connected with major national unions. While the group failed to unionize Amazon's fulfillment centers in Staten Island last year, it refiled an application with the NLRB in December — a hearing is scheduled for that request next month. 

Smith wasn't the only ALU organizer that Amazon had fired. ALU president Chris Smalls also lost his job after he held a walkout at Amazon's JFK8 facility over the e-commerce giant's handling of COVID-19 safety at the warehouse in 2020. Amazon explained back then that Smalls "received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines."

The company has been adamantly anti-union and had once told Engadget in a statement that it doesn't "think unions are the best answer for [its] employees." It added: "Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle." After reaching a deal with the NLRB in December, though, Amazon agreed to informs workers that they have the legal right to join, form or assist with a union through notices posted in workplaces, as well as on its mobile app and internal website.

As Bloomberg explains, NLRB brings complaints to agency judges if it finds merit in claims made by workers. The board's top prosecutor, Jennifer Abruzzo, one said she will "aggressively" seek court injunctions to get illegally fired employees back to work. ALU vice president Derrick Palmer, whom Amazon had disciplined for joining Smalls' COVID-19 protest, said Smith being reinstated would be a huge support for the group: "It would be monumental for him to go back to the same building that he was terminated from and speak his truth and let workers know that it’s OK to speak out."

A group of Activision Blizzard workers is unionizing

Call of Duty: Warzone quality assurance workers at Activision Blizzard studio Raven Software have announced plans to unionize with the Communication Workers of America (CWA). They have asked the company to voluntarily recognize their group, which is called the Game Workers Alliance. The 34-person unit had the support of 78 percent of eligible workers, according to Polygon.

Today workers at @RavenSoftware launched @WeAreGWA with CWA!

Solidarity with #GWAUnion!

— CWA (@CWAUnion) January 21, 2022

“We ask that Activision Blizzard management respect Raven QA workers by voluntarily recognizing CWA’s representation without hesitation,” CWA secretary-treasurer Sara Steffens said in a statement. “A collective bargaining agreement will give Raven QA employees a voice at work, improving the games they produce and making the company stronger. Voluntary recognition is the rational way forward.”

Workers have given Activision Blizzard until January 25th to respond to their request, according to The Washington Post. If the company fails to do so, the group will file for a union election through the National Labor Relations Board and, because the workers have a supermajority of votes, they'd be able to formalize the union without voluntary recognition from Activision Blizzard. Should the group approve the union in an election, the company would need to bargain with workers in good faith.

Sixty Raven workers went on strike in early December after Activision Blizzard laid off 12 QA contractors, despite a request from Raven leadership to keep them employed. The workers demanded the company convert all Raven QA contractors into full-time employees. So far, Activision Blizzard has reportedly been playing hardball and declining to meet with with the striking workers. Warzone players have been grousing about the game's bugs, which QA workers are tasked with finding and addressing.

"Activision Blizzard is carefully reviewing the request for voluntary recognition from the CWA, which seeks to organize around three dozen of the company’s nearly 10,000 employees," the company told Polygon. "While we believe that a direct relationship between the company and its team members delivers the strongest workforce opportunities, we deeply respect the rights of all employees under the law to make their own decisions about whether or not to join a union." It added that it has raised minimum pay for Raven employees by 41 percent over the last few years, extended paid time off and converted over 60 percent of the studio's contractors into employees.

The CWA claims Activision Blizzard has "used surveillance and intimidation tactics, including hiring notorious union busters, to silence workers.” Last July, the company hired WilmerHale, a law firm with a history of cracking down on unionization efforts, to review its HR policies.

The Game Workers Alliance said its principles include solidarity, equity, diversity, transparency and sustainability. "Shortened development timelines sacrifice project quality and damage the mental and physical health of our team," it wrote on Twitter. "'Crunch' is not healthy for any product, worker, or company."

Our Principles:

-Solidarity: The voices of workers should be heard by leadership. By uniting in solidarity, we can ensure our message is further reaching, and more effective. (1/8)

— Game Workers Alliance 💙#WeAreGWA (@WeAreGWA) January 21, 2022

Earlier this week, Microsoft announced an agreement to buy Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion, the biggest deal in video game history. If shareholders and regulators approve the acquisition, which could have enormous ramifications for the industry, the merger should close by June 2023.

In an interview with the Post on Thursday, Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer noted that he didn't have much experience with unions personally after working at Microsoft for over three decades. “So I’m not going to try to come across as an expert on this, but I’ll say we’ll be having conversations about what empowers them to do their best work, which as you can imagine in a creative industry, is the most important thing for us," he said.

On Wednesday, Activision Blizzard said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing regarding the planned merger that, "To the knowledge of the company, there are no pending activities or proceedings of any labor union, trade union, works council or any similar labor organization to organize any employees of the company or any of its subsidiaries with regard to their employment with the company or any of its subsidiaries." The week that Raven workers went on strike, Activision Blizzard sent its employees a letter imploring them “to consider the consequences” of signing union cards.

As Bloomberg's Jason Schreier noted, the Game Workers Alliance is the first union within a AAA gaming company in North America. Last month, workers at Vodeo Games formed the first video game union in the US. Management at the indie studio voluntarily recognized Vodeo Workers United. Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive signed a collective bargaining agreement with unions in 2020, while Japanese–Korean publisher Nexon recognized a workers' union in 2018.

YouTube deactivates two Oath Keepers channels after seditious conspiracy charges

Two YouTube channels linked to the far-right extremist group Oath Keepers have been deactivated by the website, the Google subsidiary told Axios. It wasn't exactly due to the content of their videos, however, but because some of the group's members were charged with seditious conspiracy over their role in the January 6th, 2021 US Capitol breach. One of the deactivated channels was named "Oath Keepers" and had fewer than 45,000 subscribers, while the other belonged to group leader Stewart Rhodes and had fewer than 20 subscribers. Rhodes (pictured above) was arrested for his role in the attack and was one of the members who were charged.

YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi told Axios that the channels broke the platform's creator responsibility guidelines. According to those guidelines, YouTube may terminate a channel if there's "significant evidence presented in a court of law against a creator for a very egregious crime" and that channel's "YouTube comment is closely related to the crime." YouTube said that the termination "follows evidence presented in federal indictments against the Oath Keepers and the charges against them and their role in the Jan. 6 attacks."

According to the Justice Department, the Oath Keepers discussed their plans to seize the Capitol building using encrypted messaging apps and social networks. The group has long used online platforms to disseminate information, including COVID-19 conspiracy theories with QAnon hashtags and threats of violence. Twitter banned the group back in 2020 for violating its policies on violent extremist groups. In addition to removing two channels, YouTube will no longer allow the Oath Keepers to create, use or own any other channel. Further, it will remove re-uploads of its old videos and will even delete new channels that try to reuse content from the deleted accounts. 

Amazon sued by family of employee killed in Illinois tornado warehouse collapse

Amazon is being sued by the family of delivery driver Austin McEwan who died in the Edwardsville, Illinois warehouse struck by a tornado last month, CNET has reported. The lawsuit alleges that Amazon was negligent, citing the fact that it told people to keep working through extreme weather warnings. It also makes claims of negligence against contractors who helped build the warehouse. 

McEwan was one of six people killed when the warehouse roof was hit by a tornado and collapsed. The family of victim Deandre Morrow has also retained a lawyer. "Sadly, it appears that Amazon placed profits first during this holiday season instead of the safety of our son and the other five," said McEwan's mother, Alice McKewan in a press conference

"Severe weather watches are common in this part of the country and, while precautions are taken, are not cause for most businesses to close down," Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNET in a statement. "We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued." The company said that the warehouse was built four years ago in accordance with building code requirements. 

Edwardsville is in a region known as Wind Zone IV, a part of the US most at risk from tornadoes. The National Weather Service warned of a tornado threat 36 hours before they struck, and the morning before the storms, it cautioned of the "likely threat" of "damaging winds in excess of 60 mph."

During the same incident, an Amazon dispatcher pressured a driver to deliver packages amid tornado alarms, threatening her with termination. Amazon said that the dispatcher "didn't follow the standard safety practice" and should have directed the driver to seek shelter. Meanwhile, Democrats have pressed Amazon for details on the warehouse deaths, saying in a letter that the incident "fit a larger pattern" of Amazon putting safety at risk "in everyday situations and emergencies alike." 

Tesla driver in fatal California crash first to face felony charges involving Autopilot

A Tesla owner is facing the first felony charges filed against someone using a partially automated driving system in the US, according to AP. The defendant, Kevin George Aziz Riad, was driving a Model S when he ran a red light and crashed into a Honda Civic at a California intersection in 2019. It ended up killing the Civic's two passengers, while Riad and his companion sustained non-life threatening injuries. California prosecutors filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against Riad in October last year.

The court documents reportedly didn't mention anything about Autopilot. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has been investigating the incident over the past couple of years, recently confirmed that it was switched on at the time of the crash. The NHTSA formally opened a probe into Tesla's driver assistance system in August last year following a string of 11 crashes involving parked first responder vehicles that killed 17 people. It's also investigating other types of crashes with Tesla vehicles, including one complaint blaming the beta version of the company's Full Self Driving technology for a collision in California. 

As AP notes, Riad is the first to face charges involving a widely used driver assistance technology, but he's not the very first person using an automated driving system to be charged in the US. In 2020, an Uber backup driver was charged with negligent homicide after the company's autonomous test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. According to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Uber's technology detected the victim more than five seconds before the crash but wasn't able to identify her as a pedestrian. The driver could have avoided the crash if she had been paying attention. 

The NHTSA told AP in a statement that "every vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times" even if it has a partially automated system. On its Autopilot page, Tesla says that Autopilot is "intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment."

Israeli police reportedly used Pegasus spyware to conduct domestic surveillance

Israeli police have employed NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to extract data from phones belonging to Israeli citizens, according to an investigation by the country’s Calcalist business publication. Police reportedly used the controversial software to target a number of individuals, including politicians and members of an activist group that had called for the removal of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the report, Israeli police conducted their surveillance without court supervision, a claim both police and public officials deny.

“All police activity in this field is done in accordance with the law, on the basis of court orders and strict work procedures,” Israeli Police said. The Washington Post reports Omer Bar-Lev, the country’s country’s public security minister, said an initial investigation had found no evidence of a “secretive wiretapping” program but promised a judge would check everything “thoroughly and unequivocally.”

“We would like to clarify that the company does not operate the systems in its customers’ possession and is not involved in their operation,” NSO Group said in a statement the company shared with Israeli media. “The company sells its products under license and supervision for the use of security bodies and state law enforcement agencies, to prevent crime and terrorism legally, and according to court orders and local law in each country.”

Per The Guardian, Israeli law only allows Shin Bet, the country’s domestic intelligence agency, to hack a phone without a court order. What’s more, the only context in which the agency is allowed to carry out such an action is to prevent a terrorist attack involving Palestinians, Israeli-Arabs or Israeli-Jews. Approval from a senior Shin Bet official or the attorney general’s office is also required. No such exemption exists for the country’s police service. However, according to Calcalist, the software wasn’t directly covered by Israel’s existing laws.

The report comes a month after Reuters found the Pegasus spyware had been used to target at least nine US State Department officials. In that instance, an unknown assailant had used the software to target federal employees who were either stationed in Uganda or whose work involved the African country. NSO has claimed its software can’t target devices linked to American or Israeli phone numbers. 

Russia captures hacker likely responsible for Colonial Pipeline cyberattack

The hacker behind the ransomware attack that took down the Colonial Pipeline last year has been apprehended by Russian authorities, according to US officials.

Russia’s FSB intelligence agency said Friday that 14 people associated with the REvil ransomware group had been arrested, according toThe Wall Street Journal. The group has taken responsibility for numerous cyberattacks in the US. Officials in the US believe the hacker behind the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline last spring was among those arrested, according to an unnamed administration official who spoke to CNN.

Last year’s cyberattack, which was attributed to a ransomware gang, caused a significant disruption to the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies nearly half of the fuel for the entire east coast of the US. The temporary shutdown of the pipeline incited mass panic buying at gas stations in and around the east coast of the US, which resulted in shortages in at least 11 states.

As CNN notes, the arrest comes after a week of diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia regarding Russia’s buildup of troops near the border with Ukraine. The Biden official told the network that it believes the arrest was “not related” to the situation. But some analysts have suggested otherwise, noting that this is the first first US investigation Russia has cooperated on in eight years.

Oath Keepers leader charged with 'seditious conspiracy' for role in US Capitol breach

The far-right extremist group Oath Keepers may soon face particularly serious repercussions for its actions on top of a string of internet bans. A DC federal grand jury has unsealed seditious conspiracy charges against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 other individuals for their alleged roles in the US Capitol breach on January 6th, 2021. Rhodes and followers face accusations they planned to use force to oppose the electoral college vote certification, including the direct attempt to seize the Capitol building as well as through multiple "quick reaction force" teams that planned to deliver guns and other weapons to extremists inside the building.

The Oath Keepers' digital savviness played an important role in the charges. The paramilitary group discussed plans with co-conspirators through encrypted messaging apps, social media, text messaging and websites, according to the Justice Department. Federal investigators revealed they'd used Signal messages as part of the case, although it wasn't clear how they'd obtained the discussions — CNBC speculated that a participant in group chats leaked the contents to federal agents.

Rhodes and Edward Vallejo, who reportedly helped coordinate the quick reaction teams, are the only ones facing charges for the first time. The rest, including prominent members like Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins, were already facing indictments. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The legal action could effectively bring down a group long accused of promoting harm both on- and offline. The Oath Keepers had threatened violence online, prompting a Twitter ban in September 2020, and spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories that sometimes included QAnon-linked hashtags. The group's Capitol incursion, meanwhile, was partly fuelled by online election misinformation promoting unsupported claims of widespread fraud during the 2020 presidential vote.

The Oath Keepers already lost much of their online presence in the months before and after the Capitol incident, but the new charges could make it that much harder for the group or its members to maintain that internet representation. This also underscores social media outlets' imperfect attempts to curb violent organizations and the misinformation that fuels them. While more aggressive crackdowns wouldn't have necessarily stopped the 2021 breach, outlets like Facebook have acknowledged they could have done more to curb groups that spread and acted on that misinformation.

Woman sentenced to prison for stealing 3,000 iPods intended for students

It’s one thing to steal from the government, but stealing from children is a whole lot worse. Sadly, that’s precisely what one New Mexico school district employee did. Kristy Stock was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for her role in a scheme to steal and resell more than 3,000 iPods intended for Native American students.

A release issued by the Department of Justice details the charges against Stock of tax fraud and transportation of stolen goods. According to her plea agreement and court documents, the scheme began back in 2013 when she was in charge of a program for the Central Consolidated School District of New Mexico designed to provide devices to Native American students living on tribal reservations.

While overseeing the program, Stock was supposed to use federal grant money to buy iPods to distribute to students. However, thanks to help from other conspirators including her friend James Bender and Saurabh Chawla, the group ended up shipping the stolen iPods to Maryland where they were listed on eBay before being sold at a “substantial” markup.

Due to his own account having previously been suspended due to security concerns, Chawla was forced to use Bender’s eBay account to list the stolen devices for auction, with Bender serving as an intermediary. Later, between 2015 and 2018, Stock communicated directly with Chawla, providing info on the make, model, color and quantity of devices before agreeing on a price and putting them up for auction.

All told, Stock admitted that she made more than $800,000 from selling stolen iPods between 2013 and 2018. To make matters worse, Stock also filed fraudulent tax returns on the income, resulting in tax loss of around $270,000. That said, while Stock faces an 18-month prison sentence, she actually got off lighter than her co-conspirator Chawla, who was sentenced to 66 months after failing to pay more than $700,000 in taxes. Meanwhile, Bender was sentenced to just 366 days in prison.

So while Stock and her crew eventually got caught, the real lesson is that here is that crime doesn’t pay–especially if you’re stealing from children and then lying on your taxes about your ill-gotten income.

Some Facebook moderators can work from home following protests

Meta's in-house staff won't have to return to the office for months, but some of its contracted workers are only now getting a similar reprieve. BuzzFeed News has learned subcontractor Accenture has scrapped a requirement that hundreds of Facebook moderators return to in-person work in Mountain View, California on January 24th. The original plan, provided to moderators in late December, would have forced roughly 400 people to work in close proximity while COVID-19's highly infectious Omicron variant is likely to still be rampant.

The announcement led to public and private protests over the decision, including "nearly a dozen" threats to resign, BuzzFeed said. The moderators said it was impossible to maintain Accenture's social distancing requirements given tightly packed offices, closed stairwells, and poor enforcement, and that the company didn't provide exemptions for immunocompromised workers or vulnerable family members.

An Accenture spokesperson confirmed that moderators working from home "should continue to do so" based on COVID-19 health data, and claimed the company worked "collaboratively" to accommodate individuals in compliance with the law. Meta, meanwhile, said it would "continue to prioritize" the health and safety of all workers. Meta's own employees can defer returns to the office to as late as June.

These concerns aren't strictly new. Moderators accused Meta (then Facebook) in 2020 of putting lives at risk by asking some contractors to work from the office even when family members were highly vulnerable. Meta disputed some of the claims at the time, but not all. This also comes after a $52 million settlement with moderators who said they developed PTSD and other mental health issues while screening harmful material. However, this latest incident suggests Meta still hasn't shaken concerns about the welfare of its moderation teams.