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Why Onions Might Become a Symbol of Worker Uprisings

Amazon wants to prevent workers from saying ‘union’ on their chat system. Luckily, language is flexible

Even those of us who regard Amazon with great cynicism and contempt were aghast to read that the massive retailer wants to make it nearly impossible for employees to discuss working conditions on an internal chat app. As reported in The Intercept, which reviewed company memos on the project, the forthcoming software would block and flag posts that used words including “union,” “living wage,” “restrooms,” “diversity,” “harassment,” “accessibility,” “ethics” and many others. News of this proposed censorship follows the successful unionization of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island — the first of its U.S. facilities to achieve such a victory.    

Clearly, workers will need other communication channels to organize and advocate for higher pay and better treatment. Amazon’s own messaging platform was never going to be suitable nor safe for those conversations. But Jeff Bezos and his executive lackeys have initiated a peculiar war of words that may give rise to new slang among its labor force. Because while they can try to ban phrases used to critique management, people have always found ways around language policing. One coded substitution has already been widely endorsed: “onion” instead of “union.”

There’s a rich tradition of this online, and across the political spectrum. Throughout the pandemic, anti-vaxxers who want to evade suspensions while spreading junk science have used innocuous group names like “Dance Party” and “Dinner Party,” or referred to vaccinated people as “swimmers.” QAnon believers disguised their affiliation with the conspiracist network by co-opting hashtags like #SaveOurChildren. On TikTok, your post can be removed if it mentions dying or suicide — so Gen Z coined the terms “unalive” and “unaliving” to talk about those subjects. If they bring up weed, they might spell it “oui’d” or even write out “leaf emoji.” Tumblr has repeatedly cracked down on sexual content, leading users to invent outlandish euphemisms. 

If Big Tech now wants to apply similar restrictions where workers can pull together for leverage, they will not only sabotage any union-busting effort by adding to the labor side’s grievances, they’ll also force a pro-“onion” argot into existence. The onion emoji itself could end up on strike signs as an image of solidarity. And really, isn’t it a rather good one? A healthy, hardy vegetable grown in the earth, humble yet strongly flavored, good for almost any recipe. Hell yeah, onions. Amazon can’t prevent unions by making them seem like fun secret clubs with whimsical logos.  

So go ahead, Bezos. Knock yourself out trying to scrub the very concept of a union from the collective consciousness — you’ll just find yourself buried in onion content, still unable to prevent the most exploited workers from uniting against you. Ever think it could be easier to give people bathroom breaks and fix your pay system

Maybe then you won’t have to muzzle them.