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The Amazon Union Election Is Unusual. Amazon’s Robust Anti-Union Campaign Isn’t.



BESSEMER, Ala. ― The union election taking place at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is exceptional in many ways. With nearly 6,000 workers, a victory for the union at this facility would mark the biggest win for organized labor in more than a decade, while creating the first unionized workforce among all of Amazon’s sprawling U.S. operations.

The election is more ordinary in one important respect: Amazon’s aggressive anti-union campaign.

After the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed an election petition last November, Amazon hired what are known as “union-avoidance consultants” ― members of a specialized industry whom employers tap to help discourage unionization. The company has held what are known as “captive audience” meetings, where workers are forced to listen to lectures about the bad things that could come from organizing a union. Supervisors continue to stop by workstations to urge staff to vote “no.” And workers are on the receiving end of anti-union literature in the mail, on the internet and even in the warehouse bathrooms.

Amazon’s campaign has drawn nationwide criticism from Democratic politicians. It even prompted an unprecedented rebuke from President Joe Biden, who delivered a speech last week condemning “anti-union propaganda” ― a clear reference to Amazon.

Those who follow the labor movement know that Amazon is merely using a scaled-up version of corporate America’s blueprint for fending off union drives: Bring in pricy lawyers and consultants, often paid thousands of dollars a day, to push the boundaries of what’s legal under America’s anemic labor laws.

The tactics are “so typical that it’s truly sad,” said Celine McNicholas, general counsel at the Economic Policy Institute and a former special counsel at the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees private-sector union elections.

“It isn’t just Amazon ― this is the standard playbook,” McNicholas explained. Employers collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars on outside firms “because unions do improve workers’ lives,” she said. “These firms feed off that.”

A man holds a sign in support of Amazon workers unionizing in Bessemer, Alabama, during a Tax Amazon Car Caravan and Bike Brigade event in Seattle, Feb. 20, 2021.

High-Priced Consultants

Union-avoidance specialists, and the employers that hire them, must disclose their arrangements to the Labor Department. The full picture of Amazon’s spending isn’t expected to come to light until well after the election has ended, but two union-avoidance consultants have already filed forms describing some of the work their firms are doing for Amazon.

One of them, Russell Brown of Florida, has filed a report noting that Amazon is paying his firm $3,200 a day for each consultant under the contract. The form names two consultants in addition to Brown, suggesting Amazon may be paying Brown’s firm more than $9,000 a day for the work.

Another consultant, David Burke of California, noted in a separate disclosure form that his firm was holding meetings “to discuss the realities of signing authorization cards and voting in the upcoming election.” Burke’s forms did not specify a fee, saying only that the hours would be billed monthly with no cap: “There is no written agreement as to a maximum billing amount.”

Amazon has also used the well-known and high-priced law firm Morgan Lewis, which specializes in dealing with unions. The firm engineered Amazon’s attempt to force in-person balloting during a pandemic. NLRB officials ultimately rejected the company’s arguments, but even failed litigation has its benefits, since it buys a company like Amazon more time to develop and ramp up its counter-campaign.

John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University who has studied the union-avoidance industry for years, recently wrote that Amazon is “almost certainly” running up a tab on lawyers and consultants in the millions of dollars, based on his research of campaigns in the past.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment when asked how much the company has spent so far on the effort.

‘Everyone Needs A Job’

The strategy is so common that union organizers have a term for the preparation that must be done: “inoculation.” It involves explaining in detail to workers what they can expect to see from employers once their campaign goes public, then trying to dispel the spin as it happens in real time.

Joshua Brewer, the union’s lead organizer on the ground in Bessemer, said they’ve encountered the same tactics Amazon is using while organizing poultry workers at other workplaces. What’s different here is the scope of the campaign and the amount of money Amazon has at its disposal. He called the company’s ground game “sophisticated.”

“We all operate in a world where money matters. They don’t,” Brewer said. “For them, it’s power and the ability to manipulate. The money part of this, there is no end to that.”

There are legal limits to what an employer can do. It is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act for employers to discipline workers for their support of a union, to threaten their jobs if they want to unionize, to make promises if they agree not to unionize, or to surveil them. But anti-union lawyers and consultants advise companies on how to walk right up to these lines. They also know the penalties for breaking the law are notoriously weak, and recourse for workers can take years.

These campaigns tend to portray union dues as burdensome and emphasize scary situations involving strikes, suggesting workers could find themselves out of work. (Alabama is a right-to-work state, so workers would not have to pay any union fees if they didn’t want to, while strikes require authorization from the workers themselves through a vote.) Supervisors and consultants cannot explicitly threaten to take away pay or benefits, but they will often suggest that voting for a union will cause workers to lose what they already have.

Darryl Richardson, a pro-union worker who has helped lead the Amazon organizing drive, said he sat through several meetings with consultants at the warehouse that had these themes: “The union don’t want nothing but dues, you’re gonna lose your pay rate, you’re gonna lose your benefits.”

Those meetings carry a lot of weight if the worker hasn’t heard about the benefits a union could bring, according to Richardson. “They get to some of them,” he said. “Some of them don’t understand what the union can do … They’re scared because everybody needs a job.”

Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon facility, Feb. 9.

Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon facility, Feb. 9.

At the Bessemer warehouse, the NLRB’s election rules forced the company to end its captive-audience meetings earlier than it probably would have liked. These meetings must stop within 24 hours of the start of voting, under what’s known as the 24-hour rule. Because the Bessemer plant’s election is happening by mail, that deadline arrived when ballots went out in early February. But it is still legal for supervisors to talk about the union with employees one-on-one. Workers involved in the Amazon drive say those meetings have continued.

Democrats in Congress have been pushing for comprehensive labor law reform that, among other things, would ban captive-audience meetings and increase disclosure requirements on employers and consultants. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, passed the Democratic-controlled House on Tuesday, but is almost certain to face a Republican filibuster in the Senate, making it unlikely the reforms would become law any time soon.

The union-avoidance industry caters to employers in both blue-collar and white-collar industries. As labor writer C.M. Lewis recently wrote, the University of Pittsburgh has spent more than $2 million fighting unionization attempts by graduate students and faculty led by the United Steelworkers. One doctoral student told Lewis they received 50 emails about unionization in the month leading up to an election, and it wasn’t always clear who was sending them.

In-person meetings are a fixture of the union-avoidance industry, and even the pandemic may not have slowed the business much. A Maine hospital recently brought in consultants from out of state and vaccinated them in violation of state guidelines, just so they could hold meetings to discourage nurses from unionizing.

An Uneven Playing Field

Union organizers do not enjoy the same unfettered access to workers that the employer does.

The RWDSU, the union undertaking the Bessemer effort, has the phone numbers of workers in the potential bargaining unit, and has launched a robust phone campaign to reach out to everyone individually, with roughly 100 organizers making calls. But the union cannot require workers to join seminars or even listen to their pitch at all.

While the union has been passing out fliers at the entrance of the warehouse every day for months, some workers worry about being seen talking to an organizer.

One worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her job, said many colleagues have ignored calls from the union because they were coming from unfamiliar numbers and appeared to be spam. Although she is sympathetic to the union, she didn’t initially answer the calls herself, either.

“I know a lot of people who are misinformed,” she said. “Amazon has grilled them every week.”

Adam Obernauer, an RWDSU organizer spearheading the union’s phone campaign, said the information war is difficult for unions to win. He said the union has succeeded in getting many workers on the phone, but the union can’t pull workers off the floor for a discussion the way Amazon can.

“One thing we hear on the phone is, ‘Why didn’t you guys do classes? Where’s the union? You have to pick your game up,’” Obernauer said. “We would love to be in the room. We would love to be talking to you all. But at the end of day, Amazon has access to you.”

The extent of Amazon’s union avoidance campaign won’t be clear until more disclosures are filed with the government. And while the union has accused Amazon of playing dirty, it has not filed any specific charges with the NLRB alleging Amazon has broken the law. If a union does have viable charges to file against a company, it often waits until after the election to file them in the event it loses the vote.

For now, the union is focused on trying to win the election with less than three weeks to go.

Richardson has been talking one-on-one with his colleagues, trying to rebut what they’re hearing from supervisors who walk the floors and talk to workers about the union. He said the supervisors tend to focus on workers they think can still be swayed.

“They’re coming around the workstations,” he said. “But they skip over me.”


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Amazon’s Profit More Than Triples As Pandemic Boom Continues



NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon’s pandemic boom isn’t showing signs of slowing down.

The company said Thursday that its first-quarter profit more than tripled from a year ago, fueled by the growth of online shopping. It also posted revenue of more than $100 billion, the second quarter in a row that the company has passed that milestone.

Amazon is one of the few retailers that has benefited during the pandemic. As physical stores temporarily closed, people stuck at home turned to Amazon to buy groceries, cleaning supplies and more. That doesn’t seem to be dying down.

In the first three months of this year, the company reported profit of $8.1 billion, compared to $2.5 billion the year before. Earnings per share came to $15.79, about $6 more per share than what Wall Street analysts expected, according to FactSet.

Revenue jumped 44% to $108.5 billion. Seattle-based Amazon is one of four American companies that have reported quarterly revenue above $100 billion. The others are iPhone maker Apple, oil and gas company Exxon Mobil and retailer Walmart.

Amazon said revenue will remain at that level in the second quarter, expecting between $110 billion and $116 billion. Part of the reason why: It plans to hold Prime Day, its popular sales event, during the quarter. Amazon didn’t specify a date for Prime Day, but said it would happen before the end of June.

Besides online shopping, Amazon’s other businesses grew, too. Sales at its cloud-computing business, which helps power the online operations of Netflix, McDonald’s and other companies, grew 32% in the quarter. And at its unit that includes its advertising business, where brands pay to get their products to show up first when shoppers search on the site, sales rose 77%.

Amazon’s growth comes as it faces activism from within its workforce. Workers at a warehouse in Alabama tried to unionize, saying they wanted better pay and more break time. But a majority of voters batted down that effort.

This week, Amazon announced it was giving more than 500,000 workers a raise of between 50 cents and $3 an hour starting next month to attract new workers. The company already pays at least $15 an hour.

The online shopping giant has been on a hiring spree to keep up with a surge in orders. It had 1.27 million employees at the end of March, adding more than 430,000 people in the last year.

Shares of Inc., which are up 40% in the last year, rose 2.6% in after-hours trading Thursday.


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Watch Consumer Reports Trick A Tesla Into Driving Without A Driver



Consumer Reports has released a video revealing how a vehicle operator tricked a Tesla into driving in autopilot mode without a person in the driver’s seat to take over in case of trouble.

The demonstration was broadcast just days after two friends died in a fiery crash in Texas in a 2019 Tesla Model S that authorities said had no driver — which Tesla CEO Elon Musk has denied.

Rigging the car to run on its own appeared relatively easy (check out the video above). A small weight was attached to the steering wheel to mimic the touch of a driver’s hand, but the person in the car actually touched nothing and sat in the front passenger seat. The car traveled down the road and emitted no warning that no one was in charge.

Tesla’s Autopilot website warns that its cars are not “autonomous.” 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 time,” the website states.

The site, however, gives mixed messages. In a featured video on the Autopilot site, a car is shown traveling all over town while the driver does nothing and has his hands in his lap. A message at the start of the video notes that the “person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.

Musk has largely shrugged off concerns about the autopilot feature and has insisted it makes the cars safer by helping drivers. Drivers have been known to fall asleep at the wheel, read or text while driving, or simply stop paying attention to the road when using the feature.

The friends in Texas, ages 59 and 69, were killed last Saturday night when the Tesla missed a curve and crashed into a tree, causing a fiery explosion in a residential neighborhood in suburban Houston. Their wives had heard them discussing trying out the car’s autopilot function as they left, according to law enforcement authorities. There was no one in the driver’s seat when firefighters extinguished the car blaze, according to Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman. One man was in the front passenger seat; the other was in the back seat, according to Herman.

It took four hours and 32,000 gallons of water to put out the fire because the car’s lithium battery cells kept reigniting.

After Tesla stock dropped 3.4% Monday after the accident was widely reported, Musk denied the car was driverless. He insisted in a tweet that “data logs recovered so far” showed that the autopilot was “not enabled” in the crash.  He also said the owner had not purchased an “FSD” ― a Full Self-Driving package.

Herman told Reuters that Musk’s tweet Monday was the first officials had heard from Tesla. He said authorities would serve search warrants on the company to obtain any data it had recovered from the vehicle.

“If he is tweeting that out, if he has already pulled the data, he hasn’t told us that,” Herman said. “We will eagerly wait for that data.”

Tesla officials did apologize on Thursday — but not for the Texas crash. Tesla promised to cooperative fully in an investigation into a February multi-car crash in China. One of the drivers in that crash had climbed atop a Tesla at a car show in a protest blaming her Tesla’s brakes for the crash.

“We will work with regulators to conduct a deep-dive investigation with no reservations, and accept society’s supervision with sincerity and openness,” the company said on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, Vice reported.

Tesla offered a “deep apology” for failing to solve the problem, pledged to win back consumers’ support “with genuine sincerity” and promised to cover all the costs of a third-party examination of the protester’s vehicle.

The Communist Party’s powerful corruption watchdog had criticized Tesla as “spoiled and arrogant,” and warned it against “making Chinese people’s money while taking Chinese people’s lives,” Vice reported.


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Union Claims Amazon Tainted Election, Wants Vote Overturned



The union that lost an election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama this month has accused the company of breaking labor laws during the campaign and asked federal officials to throw out the results.

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed 23 charges at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Friday alleging Amazon created an atmosphere of fear and confusion surrounding the vote. The union said in a statement that its claims “constitute grounds to set the election aside” and order a new one.

Among other charges, the union alleges that Amazon threatened workers with layoffs or the closure of the warehouse if they unionized, as well as cuts to their pay and benefits. It is illegal for employers to make such threats.

An Amazon spokesperson said the company denies the allegations.

“Rather than accepting these employees’ choice, the union seems determined to continue misrepresenting the facts in order to drive its own agenda,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to the next steps in the legal process.”

Workers voted 1,798 to 738 against unionizing in a preliminary tally, although the labor board has not yet certified those results. It’s likely that NLRB officials will hold a hearing on the union’s allegations, offering the union a chance to present its evidence. 

The election results could ultimately be overturned, although such a case could last months or years due to appeals.

Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s president, told HuffPost after the election that he believed Amazon acted illegally and the results should not be certified.

“We think there needs to be a new election,” he said.

Even if the results are thrown out, the union would have to win a new election at a warehouse where it just lost. Regardless, the hearings could provide the union with a way to air its case against Amazon, which carried out an aggressive and so far successful anti-union campaign.

Amazon urged workers to cast their ballots as quickly as possible, even having a billboard put up on the interstate.

In their filing with the board, the union says Amazon broke the law by having a U.S. Postal Service box placed at the warehouse for the election. An NLRB official had told the company it could not have drop boxes onsite for the mail-in election, but the company asked the Postal Service to install a temporary mailbox.

The union accuses Amazon of surveilling the mailbox and pressuring workers to bring their ballots to work to drop them in the box. Amazon says that it did not surveil the mailbox and that only the Postal Service had access to it.

“It created the impression … that Amazon was conducting the election,” Appelbaum said.

In the filing, the union also accuses Amazon of carrying out “an extensive campaign” of polling and “interrogating” workers about their union support, and holding mandatory meetings in which the company told workers “that the union will go on strike and that employees will lose money.”

That appears to be a reference to the so-called “captive audience” meetings in which consultants delivered talking points against the union. These meetings are a standard feature of anti-union campaigns, and Amazon workers told HuffPost they took place every week in the run-up to the vote.


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CEO Hits Back At Fox News After They Derided Him For Offering $70,000 Minimum Salaries



The last six years have been a long strange trip for CEO Dan Price.

Back in 2015, the tech entrepreneur shocked the business world by slashing his own $1.1 million pay package to help fund a minimum “living wage” of $70,000 for all workers at his credit card processing company Gravity Payments.

Price’s decision led to him being heavily criticized as a “socialist” on Fox News and Fox Business. In addition, some clients dropped Gravity for reasons that included fears the salary hike would cause their rates to rise.

But in the years since, Price has been hailed as a success by Harvard Business School and Inc. magazine, which noted the number of employees at Gravity has doubled while the value of payments that the company processes has gone from $3.8 billion a year to $10.2 billion.

On Tuesday, Price referenced this success in a viral Twitter thread and video that took aim at his conservative critics, particularly Fox.

It hasn’t all been a smooth ride, Price admitted.

He also explained what inspired his decision to cut his own salary to $70,000 a year and raise pay for workers, saying the discovery that an employee was secretly working a second job at McDonald’s made him realize he was an “awful CEO.”

Although he took a drastic pay cut, Price said he doesn’t miss the “millionaire lifestyle” one bit.


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Why Pause The J&J Vaccine? An Expert Explains The Decision



The decision by two key federal regulatory agencies to recommend a “pause” in using the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine got everybody’s attention on Tuesday, especially since the progress had been so encouraging lately.

The impetus for the recommendation was six reports of medical incidents among the more than 6 million people who have gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In a joint statement, the two agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said they were acting out of an “abundance of caution” in order to see whether these incidents were side effects of the vaccine and, if so, what that means for future use of the one-dose shot.  

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is one of three now available in the U.S. under emergency authorization orders. The other two are from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. 

All three vaccines induce human cells to produce the now-familiar COVID-19 protein spikes so that the body’s immune system learns to recognize the virus. But the Johnson & Johnson vaccine operates in a slightly different way than Moderna’s or Pfizer’s, neither of which have generated reports of such incidents.

Biden administration officials said Tuesday that the pause will not meaningfully affect vaccine distribution in the U.S. ― noting, among other things, that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine accounts for less than 5% of the shots that have gone into arms. 

The U.S. is already averaging more than 3 million vaccinations a day, and there are already small pockets of the country where supply is reaching or outstripping demand, with more likely to follow soon. 

Still, officials were hoping the J&J vaccine would boost the supply and provide a version that was easier to administer, because it requires just one dose rather than the two spaced-apart vaccinations that both Moderna and Pfizer require.

These reports are serious, but they are also very rare.
Joshua Sharfstein, Johns Hopkins professor and former FDA official

So what exactly did the FDA and CDC say today? Was that the right decision?What does it mean for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and the vaccination campaign more generally, going forward?

Joshua Sharfstein has thought a lot about these issues. He served as principal deputy FDA commissioner during the Obama administration. Before that term, he was health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. Afterward, he served as secretary of health for Maryland. Now he is a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University. (He’s also a friend I’ve known for many years.)

HuffPost asked for his take on these questions. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation, which took place over email.

Cohn: First thing: Can you translate for the public what the FDA and CDC actually have said and what it means? 

Sharfstein: FDA and CDC are reporting that six people developed an unusual type of blood clots within two weeks of vaccination with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. All six are women, between the ages of 18 and 48. One died, and a second is in intensive care. These reports are serious, but they are also very rare. More than 6 million people have been vaccinated with this vaccine so far. 

The concern, for FDA and CDC and, of course, the rest of us, is that the vaccine may be the cause of this disorder ― that it’s not just a coincidence. To investigate and respond to this potential risk, the agencies have asked for a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

We should hear more soon, including at an advisory committee meeting scheduled for tomorrow, about what this means for the vaccination program. Today’s announcement reflects that the national vaccine program is working to identify and assess even remote risks quickly.

Cohn: A “pause.” So how long are we likely taking here?

Sharfstein: I would anticipate we’ll know more in days to several weeks. 

Cohn: People want to know if these reports means the vaccine is unsafe. Can you put this into context for us, relative to other vaccines or drugs? 

Sharfstein: When thinking about the safety of a drug or vaccine, I consider three questions.

First, how do the risks compare with the benefits? In this case, the benefits are impressive. Studies have shown that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is quite effective at preventing illness from COVID-19. The vaccine appears to be even more effective at preventing serious illness and death. 

FDA and CDC scientists are working now, first, to assess the likelihood that this unusual clotting problem is actually related to vaccination. And then, if they find it is likely to be related, they will have to weigh the very considerable benefits of avoiding COVID-19 against the potential harms of this unusual clotting problem for different groups of people. With this complication so rare, my expectation is that for all groups, they will find that the benefits far exceed the risks. The chance of a problem appears to be less, for example, than the risk of a severe allergic reaction to any of the COVID vaccines.

Principal Deputy Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein (left) and Acting Associate FDA Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs Michael Chappell testify May 27, 2010, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a voluntary recall of over-the-counter medications.

Second, how do the risks compare with the risks of other medical products that serve the same purpose? Two alternative COVID vaccines ― from Pfizer and Moderna ― have not been associated with this unusual clotting problem. So one question is whether, for people at the highest risk of this complication, it might make sense to recommend alternative vaccines where they are readily available. The agencies and their advisory committees may consider this option. 

Third, how well can the safety challenges be managed? With every vaccine, even the ones that have been around for many years, there’s a risk of a major allergic reaction. It’s very rare, but we prepare for it by having epinephrine handy at all times. Leaders at the FDA and CDC have said that one of the reasons for the pause is to make sure clinicians know about this unusual clotting problem, so they can be prepared to recognize it and provide effective treatment.  

Cohn: So let me press you here. As you say, the side effect has been very rare ― six reported incidents out of more than 6 million doses already in people’s arms. Why pause at all, given the vaccine’s potential to prevent large numbers of death? Why not just say, hey, we’re watching this but don’t see any reason to hold back on the shot?

Sharfstein: I respect that FDA and CDC are asking for a little time to assess the risks and to develop clinical recommendations for managing this unusual condition.

In addition, in public health, as in life, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Here, the public health agencies are showing how seriously they take the safety of these vaccines. They’re going to investigate these cases and then make a responsible decision on how to proceed. 

Continuing to vaccinate could have led people to worry that safety is a secondary consideration, undermining their desire to be vaccinated. Trust and confidence are the most important elements of a successful vaccination program. A loss of credibility now could damage efforts to encourage the use of all COVID vaccines this year and set back the nation’s recovery.

Cohn: OK, let’s talk about people who are reluctant to be vaccinated. Could this pause undermine their confidence further?

Sharfstein: Confidence comes both from the perception of risk and from trust in the vaccination program overall. These rare and unusual cases of clotting were going to be a big news story, no matter how FDA and CDC responded.

The logic of a pause is, in part, that someone concerned about the remote possibility of a clotting problem will hear from the start that public health agencies are taking the concern seriously. They’ll then be more open to the evidence and conclusions. 

Cohn: It sounds like you’re saying the risk of too little caution is bigger than the risk of a little too much caution. For example, if the FDA comes off as in any way cavalier about safety ― or, worse, if it fails to act on something that become a bigger problem ― then the damage to its credibility and ultimately public faith in vaccines could be enormous and long-lasting, and that risk more than outweighs whatever we lose by going through this pause. Do I have that right? 

Sharfstein: Yes. This is the world of “making decisions in the setting of uncertainty.” We do not know at this moment everything that the virus and the vaccines have in store for us. What we do know is that a loss of credibility among those who are on the fence about vaccination could be an enormous setback. Taking a moment to assess the situation is a responsible step. It’s now important for the agencies to move expeditiously, share information transparently and explain their next set of decisions well.  

Cohn: Let’s shift focus and talk science. We’re not hearing about these side effects with Moderna or Pfizer. But European regulators reported similarly rare but serious side effects with AstraZeneca. Is that a clue about what’s actually happening, because both J&J and AstraZeneca use similar delivery methods?

Sharfstein: Both the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are derived from a common cold virus called the adenovirus. An important question is whether this unusual clotting problem might be linked to the adenovirus component of the vaccines. 

Cohn: So why wasn’t this picked up in clinical trials?

Sharfstein: Clinical trials for vaccines are unable to detect very rare adverse events. That’s because the trials involve tens of thousands of subjects, but rare side effects may happen at a rate of 1 in 100,000, or even 1 in 1 million people.

To catch these problems, FDA and CDC set up a number of programs to monitor safety as the products gain wide use. This very monitoring identified the clotting cases, and now the agencies are responding. In other words, this recent finding and pause reflect the vigilance of our oversight system. 

Cohn: One reason everybody has been excited about Johnson & Johnson is that it’s just one dose and doesn’t have unusual storage requirements. That makes it a lot easier to deliver in under-served areas here ― and, especially, around the world. What are the global implications for this?

Sharfstein: The global dimension of the issue should not be overlooked. Both the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are very important for global immunization efforts, so getting to the bottom of this unusual clotting problem is a high priority. FDA, CDC and other global regulators should be clear about the implications of different policy actions for the use of these vaccines around the world.

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus


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How Amazon Crushed The Union Threat In Alabama



In early March, the union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, appeared to be gaining steam.

A slew of high-profile politicians had recently come out in support of the effort, including Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. NFL football players and celebrities jumped onboard. President Joe Biden delivered a historic speech criticizing employers like Amazon for trying to break up union campaigns.

But as one warehouse worker told me near the end of the election, “Everything came too late.”

Like others in this story, she spoke on condition of anonymity, fearful of retaliation from Amazon. While she was happy to see the public backing, she didn’t think it would make much of a difference when workers were already deep into a seven-week mail-in election. Amazon had been holding anti-union meetings and urging workers to vote as quickly as possible. Many voters had already cast their ballots.

This particular worker didn’t have her first in-depth conversation with a union organizer until after she’d been forced to sit through several of the anti-union meetings Amazon’s consultants ran.

“You just can’t escape it anywhere,” she said. “Amazon just bulldozed.”

Workers ended up rejecting unionization by a count of 1,798 to 738, according to a preliminary tally that the National Labor Relations Board hasn’t yet certified. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) says it plans to contest the results, accusing Amazon of violating labor law during the campaign and tainting the election. A case before the NLRB could last months.

It’s much easier to point out a campaign’s fatal shortcomings in hindsight. I reported on the union drive as it unfolded. I thought the union was unlikely to win because of the basic structural advantages of any employer in an election of this size, let alone one with the power and resources of Amazon. But I was not anticipating such a blowout. I even thought a squeaker victory for the union might be possible.

So what happened? This account is based on interviews with 11 workers from the warehouse and seven organizers and union officials involved in the campaign. It’s meant to show the rationale behind the union’s fast-moving and high-risk campaign, the effectiveness of Amazon’s counterattack, and the challenges anyone faces trying to organize at the world’s largest online retailer. 

‘We Had To Move Fast’

The Bessemer campaign moved unusually quickly for a large-scale organizing effort. The facility opened in April 2020, and by summer, a handful of workers approached the RWDSU about unionizing. 

They had predictable gripes likely made worse by the pandemic: Amazon’s time-off-task policy, which punishes workers for time spent away from their duties; the high production quotas enforced by management; and a baseline wage of $15 that didn’t seem to match the workload.

A small group of workers began talking discreetly with others in the predominantly Black workforce. This core included two especially gutsy workers: Darryl Richardson and Jennifer Bates. Richardson, 51, had helped lead a union drive at a Mercedes seat supplier in Tuscaloosa before getting laid off in 2019. Bates, 49, had spent a decade at an iron foundry before coming to Amazon.

In October, the union began stationing organizers at the warehouse’s entrances to talk to workers after their shifts ended. Some were eager to sign union cards on the spot or at a nearby tent. But the RWDSU also gathered cards that workers signed virtually online ― a less common practice put in use because of the pandemic.

A union needs signed cards from 30% of a bargaining unit before the NLRB will greenlight a secret-ballot election. Even though a union can win an election with a simple majority of votes cast, most organizers don’t like to walk into an election without cards from two-thirds or even three-quarters of the workers ― most employers will run a union-busting campaign and peel off a chunk of that support.

The union originally filed for an election for a bargaining unit of 1,500 workers. But Amazon was on a hiring spree throughout the year as the pandemic drove a surge in online shopping. Organizers posted at the gates could see the warehouse parking lot growing fuller each week.

Amazon urged workers to cast their ballots as quickly as possible, before the union reached more of them. The company even had a billboard on the interstate.

Amazon said the bargaining unit should be roughly 5,800 workers, including seasonal employees ― nearly four times what the union proposed. Employers generally like to petition the NLRB to expand the bargaining unit because it dilutes whatever support the union has already built up. Even if the appeal fails, it buys more time to get an anti-union campaign in motion.

This left the union in a bind: It could accede to Amazon’s bigger election and have much more organizing on their plate, or it could fight at the NLRB and potentially lose momentum. It chose the former and presented enough cards to trigger the larger election.

Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s president, said the union ultimately gathered more than 3,000 cards by mid-January ― a majority, though not the kind of supermajority a union would typically want. He said organizers were fearful of delay.

“We knew we had to move fast,” he said. “We didn’t have the luxury of time you might have in another environment.”

You’ll never deep-organize a workplace that has 100% turnover. You’ll just chase your tail.
Joshua Brewer, lead organizer, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

Plenty of unions would have bailed at this point to regroup for a longer effort. Some organizers on the outside believed the interest was too small for comfort given the massive counter-campaign Amazon was expected to unleash. Some also wondered about the cards signed online: If those were easier to gather and didn’t require the in-depth conversation that might happen before someone signs a card in person, could the union really count on those workers to be there in the end? 

Joshua Brewer, the union’s lead organizer, told me the majority of the cards they received were hard cards, not digital ones. Late in the election, I asked him about some of these doubts and whether the union ever considered slowing down. He said its most pressing consideration at that point was turnover. 

Amazon does not disclose how many workers pass through its warehouses in a year, but the union operated under the assumption that Bessemer had an annual turnover rate of at least 100%. That doesn’t mean literally every worker leaves within a year. It means the number of workers who quit or get fired in a year is greater than the average number of workers in the facility. (An Amazon spokesperson declined to share how many workers have passed through the Bessemer warehouse since it opened.)

High turnover can be costly for employers because they’re constantly training new workers. But turnover is invaluable when it comes to fighting organizing drives. The union must constantly generate new supporters to account for those it loses daily to churn. RWDSU’s Mid-South Council president, Randy Hadley, told me organizers assumed they were losing at least 60 signed union cards per week. 

Brewer doubted they would ever get an election if they backed off.

“You’ll never deep-organize a workplace that has 100% turnover,” he said. “You’ll just chase your tail.”

J.C. Thompson, a process assistant at the warehouse and vocal opponent of the union, predicted support was narrower and shallower than the union realized. He believed Amazon provided a decent job and that the union couldn’t improve on it. I spoke with him five weeks into the election, in an interview Amazon arranged with a spokesperson on the line. He thought younger workers, in particular, may have signed cards without being firm “yes” votes. 

“Some have already quit or already been fired,” he said. “The numbers that they think they have, they don’t really have.”

A Captive Audience

Following the standard corporate playbook, Amazon hired “union avoidance” consultants in the run-up to the election, which was slated to start in February. These people specialize in persuading workers to vote against the union and in coaching supervisors on how to throttle support.

Companies can’t legally retaliate against a worker for supporting a union or interrogate them about their leanings. But the remedies for breaking the law are notoriously weak. Oftentimes, a scofflaw company is merely ordered to hang a poster acknowledging the violations they’ve committed. There’s a strong incentive for employers to dance close to the legal limitations if it means keeping a union out. 

Amazon brought in at least two union avoidance consulting firms, according to disclosures filed with the Labor Department. One firm’s filing said consultants would be paid $3,200 apiece per day to conduct meetings, with three names listed. Another firm’s filing does not list a particular rate and simply says there is “no maximum billing amount.” Amazon also tapped the leading management-side law firm Morgan Lewis to handle its litigation before the labor board.

Adam Obernauer, one of the RWDSU’s organizers, called Amazon’s union-avoidance approach “the platinum package.” An Amazon spokesperson declined to say how much money the company spent and how many consultants it hired, though more information will trickle out in future filings. One management-side attorney estimated it was in the millions — possibly eight figures.

Organizers at the warehouse entrances were tracking the out-of-state plates they saw on cars coming and going, presuming they were consultants, corporate Amazon employees or managers from other warehouses brought in to address the organizing drive. Hadley said the union got tips from nearby hotels about new bookings that might be for anti-union purposes. 

Amazon had its messaging throughout the warehouse, including the bathrooms. But the most effective strategy was probably the so-called “captive audience” meetings where attendance was mandatory. Consultants sowed doubt about what a union could accomplish and painted the RWDSU in a poor light. 

“They were harping a lot on dues,” said one worker. “They were saying, ‘The union’s coming in, and the union is a business. The money they make is gonna be off of you. Your $9 a week, they’re gonna use that money to buy cars.’” 

Unions try to prepare workers ahead of time for this messaging, a process that’s known as “inoculation.” But the speed of the Bessemer campaign left little time to prep such a large and ever-changing workforce. Many workers likely walked into these meetings before speaking to a union rep. That could make some workers particularly receptive to the portrayal of the union as a third party looking out for itself.  

The meetings could be strange, workers said. Sometimes a handful of authoritative-looking people stood off to the side. Were they consultants? Managers from other warehouses? Some workers asked obsequious-sounding questions that made others wonder if they were plants.

And there were many of those meetings. “I want to say they were every week, and one week, they were every day,” said one worker. “They were very, very frequent.” 

Amazon had anti-union messaging throughout the warehouse and put workers through so-called "captive audience" meetings, where

Amazon had anti-union messaging throughout the warehouse and put workers through so-called “captive audience” meetings, where consultants delivered talking points against unionizing.

Union support inside the warehouse was “very much a quiet thing” due to fear, the worker said. “I don’t think people even talk about it,” another worker said. The union made a strategic decision early in the campaign not to push too many workers into public view, concerned about retaliation.

But some workers may have wondered how deep union support ran when few were outspoken about it. In a post-mortem on the election in The Nation, longtime organizer and writer Jane McAlevey pointed to this hush-hush support as a death knell for the campaign.

Some workers did push back in the captive-audience meetings. Three workers told me they were private about their union support but felt compelled to speak out against misinformation in the group meetings. One worker said he was asked to stay behind after the others left. He refused.

Studies have shown these anti-union campaigns are effective and can even tip election results. In a 2009 analysis of union elections, Cornell labor researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner found that unions only won elections 47% of the time when employers held captive-audience meetings, compared to 73% of the time when they didn’t. Anti-union literature, videos and emails also appeared to chip away at the union win rate as well.

Longtime organizer Gene Bruskin said the messaging ultimately works because of fear. Bruskin played a leading role in the United Food and Commercial Workers’ successful effort to unionize the 5,000-worker Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, one of the biggest U.S. labor victories of the past quarter-century. The Amazon election drew many comparisons to the Smithfield one because of its size, its location in the South and its broader significance for the labor movement. 

“When people hear there’s an election, they think, well, everybody gets to vote, there’s a secret ballot,” Bruskin explained. “What they don’t understand is the company has access to the workers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and has enormous influence over their lives. They can threaten, they can give raises, they can demote, they can not grant favors. Every worker knows that.”

They used to yell at people. As soon as it was clear we’re gonna vote on the union, it was all smiles.
Amazon worker

Bruskin called the discrepancy between the union’s influence and the company’s “overwhelming.” It took 16 years and three elections before the Smithfield workers won their fight, and only after the union secured a deal curbing the company’s anti-union campaign.  

The RWDSU received workers’ contact information once the election was scheduled, consistent with NLRB rules. But because of the pandemic, the union decided not to prioritize home visits, a standard feature of union campaigns. Instead, it began a phone-banking operation with 100 organizers making calls, including around 20 organizers on loan from the AFL-CIO labor federation and its affiliates. These calls would not have held the same power as mandatory meetings on the worksite. 

Meanwhile, Amazon paired its anti-union messaging with what workers described as a management facelift. Supervisors became more solicitous to employees’ concerns. One worker said he saw a dramatic change among the monitors who enforced social distancing rules in the break rooms. 

“They used to yell at people,” the worker said. “As soon as it was clear we’re gonna vote on the union, it was all smiles. ‘Hey, how are you? We’re here to help. Please stay six feet apart. Please and thank you.’” 

He said they even started putting out candy.

Workers who were vocal against the union tried to convey to their co-workers that Amazon’s pay wasn’t bad. Wages at the Bessemer warehouse start at $15.30 per hour. The union’s strongest supporters at the warehouse believe the pay needs to be higher for the work they do. Richardson had previously earned $23 an hour at a Mercedes seat supplier. Bates had made $20 an hour at the iron foundry. 

While Amazon’s pay does fall below many other blue-collar jobs in the Birmingham area, it might seem solid to someone coming from fast food, especially in a state where the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. 

“Amazon does pay better than other people,” one worker said. “If you weren’t working there, you might be working at Walmart for $11.”

This presented a clear challenge for the union. At the union hall one day in early March, a warehouse worker had shown up to help the organizing drive. I watched as she made her first phone-banking call to a co-worker that afternoon. She spent 20 minutes making a confident case for what the union could do, then thanked the woman for her time and hung up.

“She plans to vote no,” she reported. “If you were making $8, and then you’re making $15, that’s a big deal.”


Seven weeks gave workers plenty of time to consider how to vote, but Amazon wisely urged them to cast their ballots as soon as possible. The company had already been inundating them with anti-union messaging; the union was still contacting some workers for the first time.

Amazon even had a billboard up on the interstate on the way from Birmingham: “VOTE NOW! Mail your ballot right away!”

NLRB rules required Amazon to stop captive-audience meetings just before the ballots went out in the mail, but the company was free to continue holding one-on-one conversations with workers it believed might lean union. One worker said a man pulled him aside on the warehouse floor and asked if he’d received his ballot yet. He didn’t know who the guy was but assumed he was an anti-union consultant.

“I lied and said I voted ‘no’ just to get them away from me,” the worker said.

Brewer acknowledged during the election that Amazon probably had an advantage in the early ballots. But in late February, the union felt the campaign swinging in its favor. There was the gush of support from influential people, and then Biden’s landmark Feb. 28 speech about unions, which some labor historians considered the most significant pro-union remarks from a sitting president.

It’s impossible to say what kind of effect it had — or could have had if it had come sooner. But one pro-union worker said Biden’s remarks did make some people reconsider the significance of the vote.

“Some that were on the borderline, they were like, ‘Man. Maybe there’s more to this than we thought,’” he said. “I said of course there is. You now have the president coming out in front of everybody saying Bezos needs to straighten up.”

The union has decided to challenge the election results, accusing Amazon of breaking labor laws during the campaign. It's pos

The union has decided to challenge the election results, accusing Amazon of breaking labor laws during the campaign. It’s possible the National Labor Relations Board orders a new election.

By early March, organizers said they were hearing from workers who had previously voted “no” but wanted to change their vote. I never personally encountered a voter who wanted to switch, but one employee who was phone-banking said he had spoken to four regretful “no” voters. An NLRB spokesperson declined to comment on how many voters, if any, asked for fresh ballots.

The union claims Amazon broke the law by having a mailbox on warehouse property when the election began in early February. The labor board had rejected Amazon’s request for ballot drop boxes onsite, but Amazon asked the U.S. Postal Service to place a mailbox on its campus, according to emails the union obtained and The Washington Post published. The union argues that it was an illegal attempt to exert control over the election, a claim Amazon denies.

The NLRB could order another election if it finds Amazon violated the law. But a do-over would leave the union having to win an election at a warehouse where it already lost badly. 

Appelbaum argued that the campaign will prove fruitful despite the results. Workers like Bates and Richardson sparked a broader fight with Amazon and brought unprecedented scrutiny to the company, he said. They compelled Biden to take a public stand against corporate anti-union behavior.

“The Biden video was a result of this campaign. It’s going to be useful in organizing all over the country,” he said in an interview after the election. “We forced Amazon into the first election they’ve ever had, when their strategy has always been to avoid any elections…. We shined a spotlight on the working conditions. The American public didn’t have a sense of that.”

The campaign certainly brought new attention to the work that goes into breaking union drives. Democrats are pushing for the most sweeping reform to labor law in more than half a century in the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The bill would outlaw the kinds of captive-audience meetings that Amazon ran, and the Bessemer campaign will likely be Exhibit A for progressive lawmakers.

But the results may well turn out to be a significant setback. The union gathered more than 1,000 signed cards from other Amazon facilities in recent months thanks to the Alabama campaign’s publicity. The election outcome could give many of those workers cold feet. It has already prompted more discussion about whether winning NLRB-run union elections is even possible at Amazon warehouses, given the playing field and the company’s deep pockets. 

The worker who supported the union but expected a loss said she now finds Amazon more intimidating than she did six months ago.  

“They’ve learned how to crush a real unionization effort,” she said.


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CEO Pay Surges In 2020 Despite Pandemic Suffering



As many Americans struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, median pay for CEOs at more than 300 of the nation’s largest public companies zoomed to $13.7 million, up from $12.8 million a year earlier, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

CEO compensation kept climbing, even in industries laid low by the pandemic and at companies where chief executives voluntarily gave up some of their salaries, according to the Journal, which analyzed data for S&P 500 companies via research firm MyLogIQ.

The median CEO pay increase was nearly 15%, the analysis found, using figures reported by companies in their regulatory filings. Pay dropped last year for some CEOs in the Journal’s analysis. But it rose for 206 of the 322 CEOs. Company performance wasn’t necessarily connected to pay hikes.

Even though Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings lost $4 billion last year, CEO Frank Del Rio’s pay doubled to $36.4 million, the Journal reported. And the CEO of institutional caterer Aramark, who gave up part of his salary during the pandemic, reaped $27.1 million in 2020 because the board bumped his bonus targets.

CEOs of 350 large publicly traded companies in 2019 earned an average 320 times more than the typical worker in the same company, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In 1989, the average ratio was 61-to-1.

It’s not just pay that’s out of whack. A worker at Missouri’s for-profit Research Medical Center in Kansas City was named employee of the month and given a $6 cafeteria coupon as a “bonus” last year after surviving COVID-19. The CEO of the hospital’s parent company was earning $30 million a year.

The coupon, worker Jamelle Brown told NBC last week, “stung me to the bone.


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