Data, Camera, Busted: How surveillance interferes with the right to organize at work

Man stands in front of Chicago Hotel Workers picket line
Image Description: Man stands in front of Chicago Hotel Workers picket line. Photo by Skyler Gerald on Unsplash

As more workers organize and seek to unionize, modern surveillance technology makes it easier for employers to disrupt their actions. The sooner an employer can discover a unionization drive, the sooner they can stop it. For this reason, surveillance of employee movement and conversation fundamentally interferes with workers’ ability to organize and exercise their labor rights. Workers often seek to organize for safer work conditions, better pay, and to prevent unannounced layoffs. They should have greater privacy protections to freely exercise their labor rights.

A leaked Walmart union-busting manual listed two ways to detect and disrupt unions: monitor employee movement and conversations. Employers use algorithmic managers, devices and apps that direct and monitor work, and electronic surveillance to facilitate this union-busting surveillance.

First, employers use algorithmic managers and GPS apps to track their workers movements. The technology provides real-time geolocation information to managers. Workers are expected to carry with them algorithmic managers to complete their work as Amazon fulfillment workers, rideshare drivers, truck drivers, and hotel housekeepers. In addition to tracking workers at work, one manager tracked his employee during her personal time. The woman deleted the app after her manager made comments about how she drove and was allegedly fired from the job.

Second, employers also surveil worker communication to detect pro-unionization movements. Walmart announced it would install recording devices in cash registers and advocates warned of mission creep. Work badges can be installed with microphones. Companies also monitor worker social media activity. A Walmart employee was fired after he leaked a new company policy on a Walmart employee Reddit channel. Afterwards, he warned the company may be accessing the channel. Shipt workers have reconsidered what they post after several workers were disciplined for negative comments about the company.

Union busting manuals offer several red flags of unionization. They advise employers to listen for workers asking for benefits, asking about pay, talking to coworkers, whispering, and/or advocating on each other’s behalf. If they know what they say is being tracked, workers may be less likely to speak up about their workplace conditions. But, when workplace conditions are unsafe, workers should be able to call for changes.

New technology in the workplace is making work unbearable. Workers should be able to organize together and call for better work conditions. Better anti-surveillance protections, like the Center on Privacy & Technology’s Worker Privacy Act, are necessary. Unions and efforts to rebuild worker power are also necessary to reestablish safeguards for the workforce in America.

Gabrielle Rejouis is an Associate with the Center. You can find her on Twitter at @gabriellexgem.



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