Whole Food Market

Amazon’s Whole Foods uses heat mapping to track unionisation efforts

Whole Foods is using mapping technology to predict where strikes or union activity will happen, but organisers can use similar tools for the inverse of bolstering their actions too

Amazon-owned Whole Foods is using an interactive heat map tool to track where employees could be unionising.

According to Business Insider, which has viewed documents related to the mapping tool and spoken to at least five people with knowledge on the matter, the heat map uses a scoring system to assign ratings to each of Whole Foods’ 510 physical stores.

These “risk scores” are calculated from over two dozen metrics – including employee “loyalty”, turnover, racial diversity, “tipline” calls to human resources and proximity to a union office – and shows the likelihood of employees in that location forming or joining a union.

The map also tracks local economic and demographic data, such as the unemployment rate and the percentage of families living below the poverty line in any given store location.

With the metrics divided into three main risk areas, “external risks”, “store risks”, and “team member sentiment”, the map is specifically used to monitor unionisation efforts among Whole Foods’ 95,000-plus employees, which the company calls “team members”, according to a statement on the map describing its purpose.

“The [Team Member] Relations Heatmap is designed to identify stores at risk of unionisation,” it said.

“This early identification enables resources to be funnelled to the highest need locations, with the goal of mitigating risk by addressing challenges before they become problematic.”

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It is unclear what kind of resources are funnelled to the “highest need locations”, although in a statement provided to Business Insider, Whole Foods claimed an “overwhelming majority” of its employees would prefer a “direct relationship” with the company and its leadership as opposed to union representation.

“Our open-door communication policy allows us to understand and quickly respond to the needs of our workforce, while recognising, rewarding, and supporting the goals of every member of our team,” it said.

“At Whole Foods Market, we’re committed to treating all of our Team Members fairly, creating a safe, inclusive, and empowering working environment, and providing our Team Members with career advancement opportunities, great benefits, and competitive compensation, including an industry-leading starting minimum wage of $15/hour.”

According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, US companies spent at least $100 million on consulting services for anti-union campaigns between 2014 and 2017, showing that tracking potential unionisation efforts is common place among large companies.

How mapping can be used to organise strike efforts

Actors across the political spectrum are using mapping tools for various reasons, including grassroots organisers who want their efforts signal boosted or supported by others.

The Black Socialists in America (BSA), for example, have created a “Dual Power Map”, a digital tool originally created to help organisers find and connect with other groups or initiatives building alternative, democratic and anti-capitalist structures or institutions.

Now, at the request of organisers throughout the US, BSA is also using the map to plot where strikes and Covid-related mutual aid efforts have happened, so that people can tap into a wider network of support and coordinate further actions together.

As a small organisation with limited resources and capacity, BSA has been using open, publicly available data collected and aggregated by a range of journalists and grassroots groups to feed into the backend of the Dual Power Map.

“In this particular situation, you’re talking about one thing that’s designed by Leftists for public use and covering efforts that are already out in the open, led by poor and working-class people who want their efforts signal boosted and supported, and another thing that was a secret, private surveillance tool designed by members of the ruling class to stop working-class efforts before they can even begin,” said Z, one of the founders of BSA and its current national coordinator, who has adopted the name to protect their identity.

“Any workers interested in taking action need to make sure that they’re not acting in isolation. We all need each other in order for striking efforts or any efforts that are about challenging the ruling class to be effective, and to ensure that folks aren’t hung out to dry.”

Z added organisers need digital tools for a digital age, and therefore must step up to build alternative platforms rooted in principles of cooperation and democracy, and that are conducive to autonomous dual power building, which Z describes as “building a new world in the shell of the old that can challenge the socioeconomic status quo and, ultimately, render it obsolete”.

Amazon’s anti-unionisation efforts during the pandemic

On 16 April, the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) campaign group hosted a virtual panel so that technology and logistics workers could share their concerns and experiences with one another regarding the lack of measures Amazon has put in place to protect staff during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

It was attended by over 400 technology and logistics workers, as well as prominent social and environmental activist Naomi Klein, and culminated in the AECJ organisers calling for a “sick out” on 24 April to show Amazon its employees do not agree with its actions.

However, according to the AECJ, Amazon attempted to shut the meeting down by deleting the invitation from thousands of employees’ calendars.

Computer Weekly contacted Amazon for a response to the story at the time, but it declined to comment on claims it had attempted to shut down the online meeting.

A week prior to the event, two of the AECJ’s leaders, user experience designers Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, were fired after publicly denouncing Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers, who have been striking across Europe and the US in protest of “unsafe working conditions” and “corporate inaction”.

Violating internal policies

An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to The Guardian that the two staff members had been dismissed for “repeatedly violating internal policies” which prohibit employees from commenting publicly on the company’s business without corporate justification and approval from executives.

Amazon also sacked Christian Smalls, the lead organiser of the first US-based strike at an Amazon facility, which occurred at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, where he claims to have been responsible for overseeing a team of 60-to-100 staff.

Vice News later uncovered a written memo from a meeting attended by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, which detailed Amazon’s strategy to discredit Smalls and the wider movement of workers to demand better conditions during the pandemic.

In response, New York attorney general Letitia James has called for an investigation into the firing of Smalls, whose right to organise is codified in state legislation.

“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues. At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from Covid-19,” she said in a statement at the time.

Following publication of this story, an Amazon spokesperson told Computer Weekly: "We did not terminate Mr. Smalls employment for organising a 15-person protest. We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment. Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines."

It added "He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of Covid-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite further putting the teams at risk."

BSA, which is active in the same organising networks as Whole Food workers seeking to unionise, is now calling for a general strike on the first of every month, as part of a long-term strategy geared towards helping poor and working class people organise themselves.

“We must stop the worst most deadly version of this pandemic from becoming a reality, and we have to ensure that we never return to the society that enabled this pandemic to emerge and have the impact it is having in the first place,” it said in a call to action. “We must do everything we can to create a new, just, equitable and ecologically regenerative economy.”

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