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Amazon faces a reckoning with Alabama union vote

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Ballots have been cast in the tense campaign for warehouse workers in Bessemer to unionise, which could arouse more unions efforts in the US.

Votes are being tallied in Alabama for a union vote among Amazon workers, the results of which could have a profound effect on the tech giant’s employment practices.

Workers at a fulfilment centre in Bessemer are voting on whether to join up with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, in what would be the first unionisation of Amazon warehouse workers in the US.

The campaign has attracted many high-profile supporters including Bernie Sanders and Danny Glover, hoping to establish a precedent for workers in Amazon’s warehouses, while Amazon has stood in opposition.

Up to 5,800 employees are casting their ballots on the union vote, with the results expected next week. But it hasn’t been an affable affair.

Amazon has been stern in its rebuttals against unions and promotes its $15 an hour minimum wage, which more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

However, the stories of workers in Bessemer and other warehouses brought up discontent with reports around docking an hour’s pay for being a few minutes late, insufficient break times and curbs on taking toilet breaks.

These are all claims that Amazon has refuted and firmly pushed back against. Recode reported that Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos was angry over the criticisms being repeatedly lobbed at the company and urged executives to push back more aggressively.

This may partially explain a bizarre scenario where one of Amazon’s Twitter accounts began publicly firing back missives at critics, namely Elizabeth Warren. The Amazon News Twitter account also took issue with allegations that Amazon delivery drivers urinate in bottles while on their shifts because they can’t take toilet breaks.

Meanwhile, a slew of allegedly fake Twitter accounts that supported the company were unearthed.

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It was amid this tense backdrop that Bessemer workers cast their ballots. The National Labor Relations Board is currently counting up the votes which, with ongoing health restrictions, were cast by mail. Amazon had requested that cameras be installed to monitor the boxes being opened and counted but this was denied.

Ripple effects

Whatever the outcome of the vote in Alabama, the campaign has caused a stir once again for the tech giant. Other unions and workers will be watching keenly. If the campaign is successful, some workers in other states will surely follow suit. If it is unsuccessful, it may provide a playbook of sorts on what did and didn’t work.

The vote in Alabama may be the first of its kind in the US but Amazon is facing increasing union efforts in Europe, which have intensified over the last year.

The issue became particularly tense in France last May when workers protested Covid-19 safety protocols in warehouses, where people are typically working in close proximity to each other.

Last September, a collection of trade unions in Europe that represent 12m workers wrote to the European Commission demanding an investigation into Amazon’s practices.

And in the last two weeks, warehouse workers in Germany and Italy led strikes over conditions. In Germany, employees across six sites have gone on strike.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is seeking to represent the Alabama employees, expressed solidarity with the German strikes.

“It’s not just workers in Alabama, it’s workers everywhere who are saying to Jeff Bezos that enough is enough,” he said. “No matter what language they speak, Amazon workers around the globe will not stand for the working conditions they’ve been forced to endure for too long.”

For Jeff Bezos, it’s one last headache for one of the world’s richest men as he prepares to step down from his role as chief executive after 27 years at the helm, steering Amazon into the behemoth it is now.

For his successor Andy Jassy, the headaches may be just beginning.



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Edwards Lifesciences is hiring at its ‘key’ Shannon and Limerick facilities

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The medtech company is hiring for a variety of roles at both its Limerick and Shannon sites, the latter of which is being transformed into a specialised manufacturing facility.

Medical devices giant Edwards Lifesciences began renovations to convert its existing Shannon facility into a specialised manufacturing centre at the end of July.

The expansion will allow the company to produce components that are an integral part of its transcatheter heart valves. The conversion is part of Edwards Lifesciences’ expansion plan that will see it hire for hundreds of new roles in the coming years.

“The expanded capability at our Shannon facility demonstrates that our operations in Ireland are a key enabler for Edwards to continue helping patients across the globe,” said Andrew Walls, general manager for the company’s manufacturing facilities in Ireland.

According to Walls, hiring is currently underway at the company’s Shannon and Limerick facilities for a variety of functions such as assembly and inspection roles, manufacturing and quality engineering, supply chain, warehouse operations and project management.

Why Ireland?

Headquartered in Irvine, California, Edwards Lifesciences established its operations in Shannon in 2018 and announced 600 new jobs for the mid-west region. This number was then doubled a year later when it revealed increased investment in Limerick.

When the Limerick plant was officially opened in October 2021, the medtech company added another 250 roles onto the previously announced 600, promising 850 new jobs by 2025.

“As the company grows and serves even more patients around the world, Edwards conducted a thorough review of its global valve manufacturing network to ensure we have the right facilities and talent to address our future needs,” Walls told SiliconRepublic.com

“We consider multiple factors when determining where we decide to manufacture – for example, a location that will allow us to produce close to where products are utilised, a location that offers advantages for our supply chain, excellent local talent pool for an engaged workforce, an interest in education and good academic infrastructure, and other characteristics that will be good for business and, ultimately, good for patients.

“Both our Shannon and Limerick sites are key enablers for Edwards Lifesciences to continue helping patients across the globe.”

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Meta’s new AI chatbot can’t stop bashing Facebook | Meta

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If you’re worried that artificial intelligence is getting too smart, talking to Meta’s AI chatbot might make you feel better.

Launched on Friday, BlenderBot is a prototype of Meta’s conversational AI, which, according to Facebook’s parent company, can converse on nearly any topic. On the demo website, members of the public are invited to chat with the tool and share feedback with developers. The results thus far, writers at Buzzfeed and Vice have pointed out, have been rather interesting.

Asked about Mark Zuckerberg, the bot told BuzzFeed’s Max Woolf that “he is a good businessman, but his business practices are not always ethical. It is funny that he has all this money and still wears the same clothes!”

The bot has also made clear that it’s not a Facebook user, telling Vice’s Janus Rose that it had deleted its account after learning about the company’s privacy scandals. “Since deleting Facebook my life has been much better,” it said.

The bot repeats material it finds on the internet, and it’s very transparent about this: you can click on its responses to learn where it picked up whatever claims it is making (though it is not always specific).

This means that along with uncomfortable truths about its parent company, BlenderBot has been spouting predictable falsehoods. In conversation with Jeff Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal, it insisted Donald Trump was still president and would continue to be “even after his second term ends in 2024”. (It added another dig at Meta, saying Facebook “has a lot of fake news on it these days”.) Users have also recorded it making antisemitic claims.

BlenderBot’s remarks were foreseeable based on the behavior of older chatbots such as Microsoft’s Tay, which Twitter users quickly taught to be a racist conspiracy theorist, forcing the company to apologize for its “wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images”. GPT-3, another AI system, has also delivered racist, misogynist and homophobic remarks. A South Korean startup’s chatbot, designed to resemble a 20-year-old college student, had to be suspended after it rattled off racial slurs and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks.

Given the cesspool that is the internet, Meta appears to have expected similar things from its own service. Before logging on, users must acknowledge that BlenderBot is “likely to make untrue or offensive statements”. As Vice notes, Meta researchers have described the AI tech behind the bot as having “a high propensity to generate toxic language and reinforce harmful stereotypes, even when provided with a relatively innocuous prompt”.

“Everyone who uses Blender Bot is required to acknowledge they understand it’s for research and entertainment purposes only, that it can make untrue or offensive statements, and that they agree to not intentionally trigger the bot to make offensive statements,” said a Meta spokesperson in a statement.

My own conversation with BlenderBot did not veer into that territory, but it did highlight another flaw in the service: its utter inanity.

The bot began by asking me what subject I liked in school. The bot is open about which “persona” it is using in the conversation; our discussion involved a persona it described as “I like to read. I went to college.” When I asked it tough questions, such as which colleges accepted AI bot students, it offered nonsensical replies (“in some ways, aren’t we all chatbots?” No) and offered further reading by saying, “Here’s the link”, without providing a link. It also kept steering the conversation back to chatbots.

It did, however, maintain its firm stance against its own creators. When I said I wasn’t a fan of Facebook’s ethics, it wholeheartedly agreed: “Me too! That is why I stopped using it and just stick with reading books instead.”



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Midwest universities unite to support US chip industry • The Register

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A dozen US midwestern research colleges and universities have signed up to a project intended to bolster the semiconductor and microelectronics industries with combined research and education to ensure work for their students in high-tech industries.

The “Midwest Regional Network to Address National Needs in Semiconductor and Microelectronics” consists of a dozen institutions, made up of eight from Ohio, two from Michigan, and two from Indiana. Their stated aim is to support the onshoring efforts of the US semiconductor industry by addressing the need for research and a skilled workforce.

According to Wright State University, the network was formed in response to Intel’s announcement that it planned to build two chip factories near Columbus, Ohio, and followed a two-day workshop in April hosted by the state.

Those plans, revealed in January, are to build at least two semiconductor manufacturing plants on a 1,000-acre site, with the potential to expand to 2,000 acres and eight fabs.

At the time, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said he expected it to become the largest silicon manufacturing location on the planet. Construction started on the site at the beginning of July.

However, the university network was also formed to help address the broader national effort to regain American leadership in semiconductors and microelectronics, or at least bring some of it back onshore and make the US less reliant on supplies of chips manufactured abroad.

Apart from Wright State University, the 12 institutions involved in the network are: Columbus State Community College, Lorain County Community College, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University, Sinclair Community College, University of Cincinnati, University of Dayton, University of Michigan, and the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

The president of each institution has signed a memorandum of understanding to form the network, and the expectation is that the group will expand to include more than these dozen initial members.

The intention is that the institutions taking part will be able to make use of each other’s existing research, learning programs, capabilities, and expertise in order to boost their collective ability to support the semiconductor and microelectronics industry ecosystems.

Challenges for the network include developing mechanisms to connect existing research, and training assets across the region, and developing a common information sharing platform to make it easier to identify opportunities for joint programming and research across the network.

University of Cincinnati chief innovation officer David J Adams called the announcement a game-changer. “This highly innovative approach illustrates that we’re all in this together when it comes to meeting industry workforce and research needs,” Adams wrote in a posting on the University of Cincinnati website.

The move follows the long-awaited passage of the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act at the end of last month, of which $52 billion of the total spend is expected to go towards subsidizing the building of semiconductor plants such as Intel’s, and boosting research and development of chip technology. ®

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