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Amazon VP Resigns, Calling Out Company Firings and Working Conditions

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  • Tim Bray, Vice President and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, resigned after the company allegedly fired employees for acting as whistleblowers who had been critical of Amazon.
  • He said their firings represent a “vein of toxicity running through the company culture,” and said warehouse employees are treated as “fungible units of pick-and-pack potential.”
  • His resignation was met with applause online as Amazon workers have repeatedly launched strikes demanding protective gear, as well as cleaner and safer working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s Been Going on at Amazon?

An Amazon Vice President resigned from his position after the company fired whistleblowers who criticized its COVID-19 response efforts, saying the actions represented a “vein of toxicity” in company culture.

Tim Bray, former VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, announced his resignation in a Monday blog post. For several weeks, Amazon workers have been striking to demand cleaner and safer working conditions. They’ve also bee asking for personal protective equipment and other tools to protect their health, which they feel is in jeopardy while working. Amazon workers were among the many essential employees that led May Day strikes on Friday. 

The retail giant has faced criticism for how it has responded to these strikes. In March, they fired Chris Smalls, who led and attended a strike in New York, saying that by doing so he was in violation of a company-imposed quarantine. Leaked memos later showed a potential plan to smear Smalls by making remarks insulting his intelligence. Amazon also fired two tech workers, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, who had been critical of the company’s climate policies and had been trying to support warehouse workers amid their complaints.

Bray’s Resignation

While all of this was the tipping point for Bray, his frustrations with Amazon date back further. In his blog post, he said that he was among the many employees who signed a letter by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice demanding that the company pass a climate resolution. When the resolution did not pass, AECJ organized a walkout. But before they could stage it, Amazon announced a climate plan and threatened the leaders of the event with dismissal.

When jobs were not only threatened but also lost as a result of fighting against Amazon’s response to the coronavirus, he could no longer stand idly by. 

“It was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing,” Bray wrote, speaking about Costa and Cunningham. The two were also AECJ leaders.

Bray claimed that he made his concerns clear via the appropriate channels at the company, but knew this would not be enough for him. 

“That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned,” he wrote. “The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people.

“I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?” he continued. 

Issues With Company Culture

He later called Amazon’s choice to fire these workers “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.” 

“I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” he added.

Amazon workers are not the only ones concerned about warehouse conditions and company firings. Attorneys-General in several states have lodged complaints of their own. In France, several Amazon warehouses have had to shut down because of the pandemic. Courts have also ruled that the company has to limit its deliveries to essential products only. 

Bray thinks that legal action also needs to be taken in the United States to prevent the company from overreaching. He also believes that when you look at the big picture, the issues at Amazon all boil down to power imbalance.  

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response,” Bray wrote. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

Responses

His choice to resign from Amazon made waves online. Cunnigham thanked him for taking a stand in a tweet. 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) also applauded Bray online. 

Author and activist Naomi Klein said this his kind of courage is needed “in every workplace and walk of life.”

Amazon has yet to issue a public comment about Bray’s resignation or blog post. 

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (Washington Post) (Business Insider)

Business

Facebook Is Reviewing More Than 2,200 Hours of Footage for Next-Gen AI 

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The project, which could prove to be revolutionary, is already raising some big privacy concerns. 


Facebook’s Next-Gen AI

Facebook announced Thursday that it has captured more than 2,200 hours of first-person video that it will use to train next-gen AI models.

The company said it aims to make the AI, called Ego4D, capable of understanding and identifying both real and virtual objects through a first-person perspective using smart glasses or VR headsets. In effect, that could potentially help users do everything from remembering where they placed forgotten items to recording others in secret. 

Facebook listed five key scenarios the project aims to tackle and gave real-world examples of how each may look for people who will eventually use the AI.

  • “What happened when?” With that scenario, Facebook gave the example, “Where did I leave my keys?”
  • “What am I likely to do next?” There, Facebook gave the example, “Wait, you’ve already added salt to this recipe.”
  • “What am I doing?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who said what when?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who is interacting with whom?” For example, “Help me better hear the person talking to me at this noisy restaurant.”

Facebook said the amount of footage it has collected is 20 times greater than any other data set used by the company.

Privacy Concerns

In the wake of recent controversy surrounding Facebook, it’s important to note that the footage wasn’t reaped from users. Instead, the company said it, and 13 university partners, compiled the footage from more than 700 participants around the world.

Still, that hasn’t alleviated all privacy concerns. 

In an article titled, “Facebook is researching AI systems that see, hear, and remember everything you do,” The Verge writer James Vincent said that although the project’s guidelines seem practical, “the company’s interest in this area will worry many.”

In addition to the recent testimony and data leaks from whistleblower Frances Haugen, Facebook has also faced other privacy issues, as well as billions in fines

Vincent pointe out that the AI announcement doesn’t mention anything in the way of privacy or removing data for people who may not want to be recorded.

A Facebook spokesperson later assured Vincent that privacy safeguards will be introduced to the public in the future.

“For example, before AR glasses can enhance someone’s voice, there could be a protocol in place that they follow to ask someone else’s glasses for permission, or they could limit the range of the device so it can only pick up sounds from the people with whom I am already having a conversation or who are in my immediate vicinity,” the spokesperson said.

Among positive reception, some believe the tech could be revolutionary for helping people around the house, as well as for teaching robots to more rapidly learn about their surroundings.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (CNBC) (Axios)

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FDA Issues Its First E-Cigarette Authorization Ever

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The authorization only applies to tobacco-flavored products, as the FDA simultaneously rejected several sweet and fruit-flavored e-cigarette cartridges. 


FDA Approves E-Cigarette

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an e-cigarette pen sold under the brand name Vuse on Tuesday, as well as two tobacco-flavored cartridges that can be used with the pen.

This marks the first time the FDA has ever authorized the use of vaping products. In a news release, the agency said it made the decision because “the authorized products’ aerosols are significantly less toxic than combusted cigarettes based on available data.”

“The manufacturer’s data demonstrates its tobacco-flavored products could benefit addicted adult smokers who switch to these products — either completely or with a significant reduction in cigarette consumption — by reducing their exposure to harmful chemicals,” the agency added. 

The company that owns Vuse, R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company, also submitted several sweet and fruit-flavored pods for review; however, those were all rejected. While the FDA did not specify which flavors it rejected, it did note that it has yet to make a decision on whether to allow menthol-flavored e-cigarettes, including ones sold under Vuse.

FDA Is Reviewing All Vape Products Still on the Market

In January 2020, the FDA banned pre-filled pods with sweet and fruity flavors from being sold. While other e-cigarette related products, including some forms of flavored vapes, were allowed to stay on the market for the time being, they were only able to do so if they were submitted for FDA review.

The FDA’s primary issue with fruity cartridges stems from statistics showing that those pods more easily hook new smokers, particularly underage smokers.

In fact, in its approval of the Vuse products, the FDA said it only authorized them because it “determined that the potential benefit to smokers who switch completely or significantly reduce their cigarette use, would outweigh the risk to youth, provided the applicant follows post-marketing requirements aimed at reducing youth exposure and access to the products.”

While some have cheered the FDA’s decision, not everyone was enthusiastic. Many critics cited a joint FDA-CDC study in which nearly 11% of teens who said they vape also indicated regularly using Vuse products. 

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (Wall Street Journal) (The Washington Post)

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Kaiser Permanente Health Workers Vote To Authorize Strike Over Pay, Staffing, and Safety

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The vote could inspire unioned Kaiser workers in other states to eventually approve strikes of their own. 


Workers Approve Strike

Over 24,000 unioned nurses and other healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente hospitals voted Monday to authorize strikes against the company in California and Oregon.

The tens of thousands of workers who cast a ballot make up 86% of the Kaiser-based healthcare professionals represented by either the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) or the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. An overwhelming 96% voted to approve the strike.

According to both unions, the list of workers includes nurses, pharmacists, midwives, and physical therapists.

The vote itself does not automatically initiate a strike; rather, it gives the unions the power to call a strike amid stalled contract negotiations between Kaiser and the unions. If the unions ultimately tell their members to begin striking, they will need to give a 10-day warning. 

The California and Oregon contracts expired Sep. 30, but several more Kaiser-based union contracts are rapidly approaching their expiration dates as well. That includes contracts for more than 50,000 workers in Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia, Washington state, and D.C. Notably, the demands from those workers echo many of the demands made by California and Oregon’s union members. 

The Demands 

At the center of this potential strike are three issues: staffing problems, safety concerns, and proposed revisions to Kaiser’s payment system. For months, nurses have been publicly complaining about long shifts spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing shortages, and an over-reliance on contract nurses.

Because of that, they’re seeking to force Kaiser to commit to hiring more staff, as well as boost retention.

But the main catalyst for any looming strikes is pay. According to UNAC/UHCP, Kaiser wants to implement a two-tier payment system, which would decrease earnings by 26% to 39% for employees hired from 2023 onward. On top of that, those new employees would see fewer health protections.

The unions and their members worry such a system could lead to an increased feeling of resentment among workers since they would be paid different rates for performing the same job. They also worry it could exacerbate retention and hiring issues already faced by the hospital system. 

Additionally, the workers want to secure 4% raises for each of the next three years, but Kaiser’s currently only willing to give 1%, citing a need to reduce labor costs to remain competitive.

See what others are saying: (Los Angeles Times) (The Washington Post) (KTLA)

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