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Labor’s Hard Choice in Amazon Age: Play Along or Get Tough

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It’s one of the most vexing challenges facing the labor movement: how to wield influence in an era increasingly dominated by technology giants that are often resistant to unions.

Are workers best served when unions take an adversarial stance toward such companies? Or should labor groups seek cooperation with employers, even if the resulting deals do little to advance labor’s broader goals?

The debate has flared up around labor’s efforts to make inroads with the likes of Uber and Airbnb, businesses that allow drivers and homeowners to earn income as contractors. And it was on vivid display in the political battle over Amazon’s plan to create a new headquarters in New York with 25,000 jobs.

The plan fell apart in the face of a backlash over public subsidies, resentment of the covert process in which the city and the state negotiated the deal, and concern about its neighborhood impact. But labor issues were also a factor, giving rise to tensions even among unions.

In the more confrontational camp were labor groups led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which called on the city and the state to withhold nearly $3 billion in subsidies unless Amazon established a “fair process” for its warehouse workers in the city to unionize. The retail workers said they were open to negotiating what that meant.

“I think we stood on principle,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the retail workers’ president. “If you’re aggressively anti-union, we shouldn’t be giving you subsidies.”

A company executive told the City Council last month that Amazon would not remain neutral in an organizing campaign at its local facilities, though an Amazon spokesman said this week, “We respect the rights of our employees to choose to join or not join a union.”

In the engagement camp was the local council of building trade unions, whose members were likely to get work from the construction of Amazon’s headquarters in Queens. They were joined by a Service Employees International Union local, which had gained the right to represent janitors and other service workers at the Queens complex.

“Their presence in New York — a progressive community, a union town — was eventually going to lead to some potential change down the road,” said Héctor J. Figueroa, the president of the service employees local, known as 32BJ.

In some respects, these arguments go back decades. Thomas Kochan, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that the United Automobile Workers and General Motors negotiated a new arrangement when the company set up its Saturn division in the mid-1980s. In exchange for a role in managerial duties, the union agreed to forgo many of the work rules typical in other plants, such as those governing which worker could do what job. The arrangement stoked tensions within the union and the company for years.

But in recent years the growing reach of tech conglomerates has created urgency within labor to court their workers, Mr. Kochan said.

Despite their minimal presence in these companies, unions have a variety of levers to pull. They can exert influence through politicians when public subsidies are involved, as in the Amazon case. And they can pressure regulators to scrutinize businesses that upend traditional industries, like transportation and hospitality.

Whether to use these levers to force concessions, or to take a less adversarial approach that would give labor a foothold in big tech, has divided the labor movement.

In 2016, Uber reached a five-year agreement with a regional branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to create a drivers’ guild, which would advocate on behalf of drivers but not challenge their status as independent contractors. The Machinists would also have to refrain from turning the guild into a formal union during that time. In exchange, Uber agreed to provide the organization with funding and a way to communicate directly with drivers. The guild says a majority of its revenue comes from other sources.

A rival group representing professional drivers criticized the Machinists for creating a so-called company union — federal law prohibits unions that companies fund or control, though the law applies only to workers who are employees. Some union officials complained that the guild was anti-democratic, since drivers hadn’t elected Machinists officials to represent them.

But Sharon Block, a senior Labor Department official under President Barack Obama, argued that the deal was defensible. Ms. Block pointed out that the guild had taken something of a hybrid approach between cooperation and antagonism, lobbying for policies such as a minimum earnings standard for drivers and allowing passengers to tip, both of which have been enacted in New York.

“There are situations in which taking the half loaf can be worthwhile,” Ms. Block said.

Around the same time, the Service Employees International Union was completing a deal with Airbnb in which the company would connect hosts who needed their homes cleaned with unionized workers, an approach that the two sides were already testing in New York and Los Angeles.

The agreement collapsed after a prominent hospitality workers union, Unite Here, protested that the deal would merely provide political cover to Airbnb, which the union accuses of destroying good-paying hotel jobs and creating housing shortages.

The union’s president, D. Taylor, said that Unite Here was always open to working with employers, but that unions typically lacked the clout to cut good deals when they wandered into an industry where their presence was weak.

“You’re settling a contract that has lower standards than the dominant union in that industry could get because you don’t have leverage,” Mr. Taylor said.

The service workers’ union declined to comment.

Given the number of people Amazon employs — more than 250,000 in the United States, not including seasonal workers — and its influence over numerous industries, the proposed New York headquarters arguably represented the highest stakes yet for a test of these competing approaches.

Some experts said a deal allowing a union to represent building-service workers at the proposed Amazon complex could have been valuable.

“They have the opportunity to show the people who work there at all levels that unionization is good,” said Catherine Fisk, an expert on labor law at the University of California, Berkeley. “That it’s a way to equitably allocate wages, that there is an orderly process for dealing with sexual harassment allegations, with issues about absenteeism — whatever the company is concerned about.”

But others were skeptical that allowing janitorial workers to unionize would have any benefit for the company’s broader work force in New York, much less anywhere else in the country.

The problem, said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is that servicing buildings is just too far removed from what most Amazon workers do. Many companies have unionized building-service workers but are otherwise union-free, she said.

Like those companies, Amazon seemed intent on drawing the line at service workers: It walked away from discussions with labor about a framework that could have made it easier to organize employees who perform core functions, like packing goods at the company’s fulfillment centers.

The question is whether Amazon can sustain this hard line indefinitely. If it can, progressives and labor activists may have contributed to the loss of 25,000 jobs and billions in future tax revenue without winning any tangible benefits for workers.

But there is reason to believe that Amazon may have to bargain with labor in New York at some point, and that unions and other progressive groups will have established an important principle when that happens.

After all, many of Amazon’s facilities are not like automobile plants or call centers, in that the company can easily plunk them down anywhere. Amazon tends to locate warehouses reasonably close to customers, of whom there are potentially millions in the New York area. It has sought to put its white-collar hubs in areas with many high-skilled workers, a practice that also favors cities like New York.

In its statement about the demise of the Queens plan, the company noted that there “are currently over 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island, and we plan to continue growing these teams.”

And that logic is likely to apply to a variety of tech companies that seek customers and workers in liberal hubs.

“You don’t have huge numbers of highly educated people who they need who want to move to small cities in Arkansas,” Professor Fisk said. “I think California and New York and a lot of other places may have more leverage to insist on the high-road approach.”

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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