An elderly housekeeper at a former hotel in Long Beach, California, that was being used to quarantine people with COVID-19, tested positive for the virus and died last January, at the height of the pandemic. The hotel workers’ union in Southern California filed a complaint with the state and the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the hotel failed to follow pandemic safety protocols. Workers at the hotel met on a regular basis to discuss their health, the safety situation, and how to address their complaints with the company, Holliday’s Helping Hands, which had been hired by Los Angeles County to run the facility.
“We noticed that managers of the company had busted into the meeting—they had crashed our Zoom call,” Lorena Lopez, a director of organizing with UNITE HERE Local 11, recalls during a Zoom call set up by union representatives and employees who had organized a worker organizing committee. “Workers started to get very nervous and shut down their cameras so they wouldn’t be recognized. I was running the meeting and asked everyone to ID themselves. But the company people refused.” During the meeting, a member of the cleaning crew volunteered to be the group’s spokesperson. According to Lopez, the following day, this employee was confronted by management and pressured to quit.
“They were spying on us—and it was simple to do through Zoom,” she claims. In a settlement agreement with the NLRB, the company agreed to post flyers informing employers of their right to unionize and promised not to question them about organizing efforts or monitor their Zoom meetings. The company’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Workplace surveillance, which was already common in the United States, has become even more common during the pandemic as employers attempt to enforce public health measures and monitor remote workers. According to Gartner research, 60 percent of large employers use workplace monitoring tools, which is twice as many as before the pandemic. Coworker.org, a labor research nonprofit, recently compiled a database of over 550 of these commercially available “little tech” products and published a study outlining potential harms and noting the industry’s general lack of regulation.
Technology-enabled surveillance, ranging from keycard tagging and email monitoring to social media tracking and worker profiling, can have a chilling effect on organizing and allow companies to skirt labor laws. It allows employers to profile employees and gain insights into their private lives and sentiments—who is likely to be the most outspoken? Why is that single Black mother now meeting with those two workers who have strong political opinions?— and enables them to create algorithms for predicting union vulnerabilities.
Amazon and Walmart are two well-known examples of employers using surveillance technology during labor disputes, sometimes in violation of the law. According to human resources news, leaked internal documents from Walmart included methods for monitoring employee activity and conversations about union activism, Amazon’s Whole Foods used predictive analytics-based heat maps to track store locations considered at high risk of union activity, and Google reportedly has a system to alert managers to any internal meetings scheduled with 100 or more employees, “partially to weed out employee organizing.”
HelloFresh, which has been embroiled in a bitter battle with UNITE HERE, which seeks to organize its workers, has been tracking social media posts about union activity using a marketing tool called Falcon since at least September. It has reportedly been discussed to monitor the employees behind such posts and even report such posts as spam in order to reduce their visibility. According to the company, “it is our duty to correct misinformation and mischaracterizations of our company.”
According to Ricardo Hidalgo, an international organizer with the Teamsters who has assisted in the unionization of machinists and sanitation workers, such tactics are frequently used to turn employees against one another. Anti-union managers will be snuck into group texts and WhatsApp groups by company managers and the consultants they hire in order to track discussions about organizing activity. “‘There’s a snitch among you,’ I’ll tell the worker(s). That’s how bad things get.”
Today’s technology drastically reduces the amount of work required to monitor employees, making comprehensive monitoring financially viable for the first time.