Why Amazon Is Fighting So Hard to Stop Warehouse Workers From Unionizing

Yves here. This post provides an in-depth account of how Amazon has been using every trick it can to defeat the union vote that just started for its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse workers. I assume readers know that Amazon warehouses are modern-day sweatshops, with workers intensively monitored for the speed of execution of their tasks. For instance, from the New York Post, hardly a left-leaning publication:

Maureen Donnelly took a job with Amazon when the retail goliath opened a fulfillment center on Staten Island in September 2018. The 46-year-old Staten Islander quit after just one month. Last week, more than 100 workers and their supporters gathered outside the same 855,000-square-foot packing plant to protest working conditions and spotlight newly released data showing the rate of worker injury there was three times higher than the national average for similar warehouse work….

I’m not afraid of hard work. I’ve been a waitress, a newsroom clerk, an EMT and spent summers on a dairy farm in Ireland. At every job I’ve ever had, there was a sense it was a team effort. But when I walked into that Amazon warehouse, there wasn’t a team anything. It was just, “Do your job!”

I soon learned that only difference between an Amazon warehouse and a third-world sweatshop were the robots. At Amazon, you were surrounded by bots, and they were treated better than the humans.

In the beginning, I was pumped….I ended up with a 5 p.m. to 4:45 a.m. shift, Sunday through Wednesday. We did not get paid for lunch, which was a half-hour.

The job was mind-numbing. The same thing every hour. Every day. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I had “‘projections.” I had to stock at least 12 items a minute. I was not even close. It’s physically impossible. You were constantly like, “I gotta get this done.” The computer constantly showed you how far off you from making the quota.

I wasn’t disciplined because I was a newbie, and I quit before I could find out the punishment.

In one story in The Verge, Amazon lawyers confirmed the automated system tracks every second of a worker’s day. When too much time has been spent “off task,” warnings are auto-generated. If a worker receives six warnings within a 12-month period, the employee receives an automatically generated termination notice. Amazon says that supervisors are able to override the automatic firings.

The job crushed my spirit — and crippled my body. I would spent nearly 12 hours a day with with no one to talk to for more than five minutes. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was getting cranky with family. My knees were killing me. My back and shoulders constantly hurt. My left hip throbbed. After every shift, I’d ice my swollen ankles, which were triple the normal size.

By the second week, I just wanted out. I stayed as long as I did because of my father. I wanted him to be happy that I had a job.

I’d give little pep talks to myself to get through the shift. I’d say, “You can do this!”

Someone got hurt on a ladder. They never explained what happened but the rookies were retrained on ladders. Then they told me that with the holidays coming I would have to work more mandatory overtime.

That was the last straw.

The Internet is full of accounts like this, as well as data confirming short average tenures at Amazon warehouses. We’ve featured many over time.

As this article mentions in passing, even major shareholders to Amazon’s thuggish anti-union tactics. From the Financial Times, Amazon must not interfere with US union effort, say investors:

The Amazon investors, led by the Swedish groups Folksam and Ohman Fonder, collectively control more than $20bn in shares and also include the comptrollers for both New York State and New York City, Legal and General Investment Management, BMO Global Asset Management and the Church of England Pensions Board.

In a letter, they called upon Amazon to end its union-busting and remain “neutral”. They added that Amazon appeared to be going against the tenor of its own Global Human Rights Principles, published on the company’s website, which state it respected “employees’ right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organisation of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment”.

You may have noticed the absence of CalPERS, which likes to wrap itself in the ESG mantle, from this list. For a state agency that managed the funds of state and municipal workers, nearly all of whom are/were union members, to be nowhere to be found when it comes to labor organizing, is not a good look. We e-mailed CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco as to whether CalPERS would be signing the Amazon letter and got no reply.

By Sonali Kolhatka, the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Thousands of warehouse workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, are at the center of a potentially game-changing union vote taking place right now. On February 8, the warehouse workers were sent ballots by mail to decide over the next seven weeks if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union(RWDSU). Just getting to this point was a major victory considering the aggressive union busting by the world’s largest retailer and the fact that employees are working during a pandemic. If workers vote affirmatively, they would have the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, described to me in an interview the shocking details of what he calls “the most aggressive anti-union effort I’ve ever seen,” aimed at the 5,800-strong workforce. “They are doing everything they possibly can,” he said. The company has been “bombarding people with propaganda throughout the warehouse. There are signs and banners and posters everywhere, even in the bathroom stalls.”

According to Appelbaum, the company is also texting its workers throughout the course of the day urging a “no” vote and pulling people into “captive-audience” meetings. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is resorting to the most commonly told lie about unions: that it will cost workers more money to be in a union than not. One posterpasted on the wall of the warehouse claims, “you already know the union would charge you almost $500 a year in dues.” But Alabama is a “right-to-work” state where workers cannot be compelled to join a union if they are hired into a union shop, nor can they be required to pay dues.

Complementing its heavy-handed in-person union-busting efforts is a slick website that the company created, DoItWithoutDues.com, where photos of happy workers giving thumbs-up signs create a veneer of contentment at the company. On its site, Amazon innocently offers its version of “facts” about a union that include scare-mongering reminders of how joining a union would give no guarantee of job security or better wages and benefits—with no mention of how Amazon certainly does not guarantee those things either.

On the company’s own list of “Global Human Rights Principles,” Amazon states, “We respect freedom of association and our employees’ right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment.”

But in a page out of Donald Trump and the Republicans’ playbook, the company tried to insist that even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the union vote must be “conducted manually, in-person, making it easy for associates to verify and cast their vote in close proximity to their workplace.” The National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon’s appeal for a one-day physical election.

Ballots were mailed out to workers on February 8, and the union and its advocates are shrewdly using the seven-week-long voting period to campaign and encourage workers to vote “yes.” But Amazon is also continuing its efforts at countering the RWDSU. Organizers in Bessemer had taken to engaging the workers while they stopped at a red light upon leaving the Amazon warehouse. But the company, according to Appelbaum, “had the city change the traffic light so our organizers wouldn’t be able to speak to them.” (A statement from Bessemer city denies the claim.)

So aggressive are Amazon’s anti-union tactics that 50 members of Congress sent the company a warning lettersaying, “We ask that you stop these strong-arm tactics immediately and allow your employees freely to exercise their right to organize a union.” Even the company’s own investors are so shocked by the tactics that more than 70 of them signed on to a letter urging Amazon to remain “neutral” in the vote.

The path to this union vote was paved by staggeringly high inequality that worsened during the pandemic as workers were stripped of their insultingly low hazard-bonus of $2 an hour while the company reaped massive gains over the past year. CEO and soon-to-be “Executive Chair” of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is the world’s second-richest man. He is now worth a mind-boggling $188 billion and saw his wealth increase by $75 billion, over the past year alone—the same time period that about 20,000 of his workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bezos’ announcement that he was moving into a new role at the company came on the same day that the Federal Trade Commission announced Amazon had stolen nearly $62 million in tips from drivers working for its “Flex” program. Appelbaum speculated that “what Bezos was trying to do was to create a distraction just like Trump would do,” and that “instead of focusing on the $62 million they stole from their drivers, people would talk about the fact that Bezos was getting a new title.”

Appelbaum sees the historic union vote in Bessemer as more than just a labor struggle. “Eighty-five percent of the people who work at the facility are African American. We see this being as much a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,” he said. Indeed, conditions at the warehouse are so shocking that they sound like a modern-day, technologically enabled incarnation of slavery. “People were being dehumanized and mistreated by Amazon,” said the union president. He explained, “people get their assignments from a robot, they’re disciplined by an app on their phone, and they’re fired by text message. Every motion they make is being surveilled.”

Union advocates are countering Amazon’s combative anti-union efforts with their own information war. In addition to organizers talking to the warehouse workers in Bessemer every chance they get, an informational website Bamazonunion.org shares data from various studies about the dangerous working conditions in Amazon facilities. The site reminds workers that unions are able to win contracts where workers can only be fired for “just cause” and not on the whim of managers; that complaints against the company can be filed via formal grievances; and that wages and benefits are negotiated collectively.

As a proud union member of SAG-AFTRA, my colleagues and I at KPFK Pacifica Radio have benefited regularly from such protections even against a small nonprofit public radio station struggling to make ends meet. When faced with a ruthless for-profit corporation that has built its empire on the backs of a nonunionized workforce, Amazon’s workers are on the front lines of those who most need the protections a union can provide.

“This election is the most important union election in many, many years because it’s not just about this one Amazon facility in Alabama,” said Appelbaum. “This election is really about the future of work, what the world is going to look like going forward. Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and they’re also transforming the nature of work,” he said. Indeed, the level to which Amazon has fought against unionization at just one warehouse in Alabama is an indication of how important it is to the company that its workers remain powerless.

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55 comments

  1. ambrit

    I’m wondering if the physical plant at the Amazon Bessemer site is too much of an investment for Amazon to shut it down if the union wins certification there. I would not put a lockout past the Amazon management.
    Wal Mart shut down one of their stores after the employees voted in a union in that store.
    From 2015: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/union-walmart-shut-5-stores-over-labor-activism/
    From 2019: https://thewalrus.ca/walmart-has-everything-except-unions/

    One worrying aspect of this is the attitude of the Amazon management. Roughly, people are treated as machines. That is not only morally and ethically wrong, but it also can become massively counter-productive for the company. There is a cost to indoctrinating and training new hires at any firm. The “headline” example quit after one month. Either management lowers the amount of training to compensate or tries to go to an all robot workforce. (Cyborgs do not count, although, the level of outside micromanaging reported suggests that ‘cyborg’ is not far off of the mark.)
    I wonder if we are going to see a new River Rouge Plant style of strike any time soon.
    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Overpass
    Also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Hunger_March
    The cost of civilization: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_worker_deaths_in_United_States_labor_disputes

    Reply
    1. cnchal

      > . . . if the physical plant at the Amazon Bessemer site is too much of an investment for Amazon to shut it down if the union wins certification there.

      My understanding is that Amazon leases warehouses from local yokel bigwigs so ithey have a bagholder at the ready.

      > Roughly, people are treated as machines.

      People are treated like electrified bags of protoplasm, and the greater than 100% yearly turnover is a form of pollution. Every year one to two million people are ground into a cripple at Amazon, but have no fear, there will be pleenty moar where those come from. Bezos has his White House connections and influencers in place and Joe has indicated that immigration will go full bore shortly. In hockey, that’s called skating to where the puck is going to be.

      I wonder what life will like living under the giant prick when revenue and takings grow into its stawk price? Hell for 90%, heaven for the top 10%

      Amazon shopper = whip cracking sadist

      Reply
      1. Massinissa

        You’re right. Amazon will pretty much never run out of The Reserve Army of Labour. Especially now that theres 10 million more people in that reserve army than there was this time last year.

        Reply
        1. Tansey

          And Joe Biden is legalizing at least 11 million more to compete with the ten million Americans out of work because of the pandemic. Hammer those wages down, hammer those wages down…

          Reply
    2. tegnost

      yes I wondered this too before I got too far into it. Just like uder/lyft threatened to leave california if prop 22 failed. These tech companies aren’t just disgusting, they’re snowflakes, too.
      Re: “Global Human Rights Principles,”
      If you put on the special “prime only” glasses the governance text disappears and it just says
      “workers can go die.”

      Reply
    3. Massinissa

      There’s some kind of weird myth that Henry Ford raised the wages at his plant so that workers could have a chance of buying their own Ford car.

      The truth is actually he raised the wages at his factories that high because he got tired of people leaving after a month. Not even joking, its well recorded.

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Could the skill level needed to do either job be a factor? An assembly line job can be pretty complex. One needs to understand the process to master it. A warehouse job looks to be pretty simple. In “ye olde days,” one needed to understand mapping functions and inventory systems to function efficiently in a warehouse. One needed to not only find and retrieve an item, but, conversely, put an item in the proper place initially. Today, I’ve read, these functions are automated and the “worker” is a glorified “fetcher.”
        Above, I wondered about the ‘costs’ to the company of training. On further reflection, I notice that the workforce has already been trained to use hand held electronic devices. Growing up with an iPhone in one’s hand could be considered as ‘training’ for the Amazon jobs. This was prompted by my having encountered WalMart workers use their own ‘smartphone’ as a scanning device to identify items and look up the physical location of the item with it. The worker was using equipment they had purchased themselves to do a job for an employer. All it takes is an “app.”

        Reply
      1. Procopius

        I’ve been wondering whether Team Biden might rejuvenate OSHA enough to enforce some the the standards remaining after the Trump Bunch trashed the place. I don’t think it can be done with executive orders. Biden has been putting good people in place, and they need time to get a grip on things, but I think conditions in the Amazon warehouses are so bad that they must violate even the reduced regulations left by the Trump Bunch. I look forward to further news on this topic.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I don’t see the evidence that the Amazon warehouse conditions are the result of Trump. They’ve always been operated this way.

          Amazon had warehouses with 100 degree temps in the summer under Obama. What got them to stop was bad press, as in ambulances coming periodically to haul workers away who’d collapsed due to heat stroke. Even then, analysts said Amazon more likely broke down and spent $52 million on air conditioners because they determined it would be a net plus for its electronics (as in robots), not people.

          See this from 2012, under Obama. Same backbreaking conditions (and this was understood to be about Amazon (see https://www.theverge.com/2012/4/3/2924128/warehouse-conditions-ecommerce) but had to be sort of hidden, I think because some journos who’s gone undercover at a poultry producer and publicized its bad practices were found guilty of…something, I am too far behind to look it up.

          https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor/

          Obama made it clear he thought these backbreaking jobs were swell. He endorsed them at a warehouse opening in 2013. From our post:

          But Obama in trying to tout this as a success story revealed either that he’s completely out of touch or that he’s conditioning American to regard a state of peonage as middle class. Not all that long ago, “middle class” meant you could after a few years of work and savings, buy a house in the suburbs, afford to have children and have a reasonably comfortable family life, and send those kids to college. “Middle class” also generally meant college educated, white collar employment plus the higher-skilled, better paid blue collar jobs.

          If you had any doubts that that vision of middle class life was on its way to extinction, the Obama speech made it official. Amazon has been repeatedly cited here and abroad for abusive conditions in its warehouses. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011:

          Over the past few months, interviews with 20 current and former warehouse workers provided a glimpse of what it’s like to work at the facility near Allentown.

          Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse.

          During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat workers.

          In a better economy, not as many people would line up for jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour in a hot warehouse. But Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants.

          Amazon was embarrassed into installing air conditioners in many of its warehouses. But otherwise, the picture hasn’t changed much. From the Lehigh Valley Morning Call, one of the papers in the Allentown area, on Monday:

          The Seattle company announced Monday that it is hiring a total of 5,000 warehouse workers at 17 fulfillment centers, including the Lehigh Valley. It is also hiring 2,000 customer service representatives in North Dakota, Washington, West Virginia and Kentucky…

          Pay for warehouse positions in Upper Macungie is $12 per hour, according to Amazon’s website. The median pay for similar jobs in the region is $14 per hour, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

          The jobs come with a benefits package, company stock awards and bonuses, the company said.

          So notice, first, that those 7,000 jobs aren’t in Chattanooga, but all over the US. Second, Amazon’s cash comp is markedly below local averages. And although it offers a “benefits package,” it’s not clear that it’s better than what other area employers offer. The article doesn’t add that some of these 7,000 jobs are part time and/or seasonal…..

          The message from Obama is clear: Americans are now expected to celebrate when companies are willing to pay at or not much above a living wage. As long as you pay enough that the workers don’t wind up having to seek public assistance in the form of food stamps or emergency rooms for medical care, you’ll now be promoted as creating better conditions for Americans. That’s true as long as you remember that the Americans that benefit from this grinding down of ordinary citizens are Obama’s backers and other members of the elite.

          https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/07/more-obama-big-lies-touting-sweatshop-amazon-warehouse-jobs-as-middle-class.html

          Reply
      2. PlutoniumKun

        I think a key question though is whether Amazon are opposing the Union simply because they don’t like the idea of workers being treated fairly (i.e. the company is run by greedy sociopaths), or whether reasonably paid workers are an existential threat to their entire business model.

        I don’t have any figures on it, but while Amazon is large and successful In Europe, it is nowhere near as dominant, and I wonder if that is down to stronger labor rights ensuring that they don’t have a big competitive advantage over alternative retailers or direct online competitors. I don’t use Amazon for obvious reasons, but when I’ve been trying to get things online I’ve never found Amazon to be cheaper or in any other way better than online suppliers from the UK, Germany or France that I’ve used. The only exception is for some fairly obscure US sourced products that I wanted (most recently a book published by the University of Chicago that I wanted that I couldn’t get through local bookshops – I ordered it directly from the publisher instead at about $10 more).

        Curiously, the new Amazon distribution centre in Ireland (relocated from the UK due to Brexit) is being located in Dublin, which most distribution companies avoid because of the high cost of land and labour, there are much cheaper options in the smaller towns in the midlands. Possibly they may hope to take advantage of the floating population of non-EU students that make up most of the casual workforce here, although even they can’t be pushed around too much as they usually have better alternatives unless they are working illegally. Amazon may have a different model in Europe, probably based on more automation.

        Of course, a company like Amazon must be highly vulnerable to strike action. Even a one day strike in a few key warehouses at the right time of year would cause chaos. It may simply be all about power.

        Reply
        1. John A

          A key advantage for Amazon is the sheer range of products available, and the associated data they can harvest in relation to these. This enables Amazon to adjust their prices accordingly in relation to other, less comprehensive online vendors, to gain marketshare. Basically, Amazon have the resources and data to undercut competitors and knock them out, so in the short run, actual costs are perhaps less critical. But I guess if you are a psychopath, pulling the wings off butterflies aka offering poverty wages and abysmal conditions, simply because you can, is part of the fun,

          Reply
          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Amazon for a very long period of time showed no profit but was cash flow positive due to getting cash from customers before it had to pay vendors. So don’t mistake predatory pricing for cleverness.

            Reply
              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                Let us hope that those Swedes who buy from Amazon end up losing their jobs or businesses because of Amazon. Maybe that will teach them something.

                Reply
          2. James Simpson

            Strange. Here in the UK, I’ve not bought anything through Amazon for at least eight years. Ebay, Gumtree and others have been perfectly fine and usually cheaper.

            Reply
            1. Rob Dunford

              I am the same. I look on Amazon for items, read reviews, then find the same item on eBay for the same price including postage.

              Reply
        2. The Historian

          I have someone who is very close to me who worked for Amazon Corporate – for four months. I would love for him to write something about his experiences, but as he says, he doesn’t burn bridges and who knows if he might have to work for Amazon again in the future.

          But what I’ve gleaned from talks with him is that Amazon’s corporate structure is much like Enron’s. The only thing that matters is the stock price and how much money they make. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING else matters. They also have a rank and yank system in place, like Enron did, and you are ranked wrt how much monetary value you have in the company.

          My someone quit after four months because although the pay was wonderful – he took a $100,000/year paycut and loss of stock options – to go to work for another company – they have absolutely no respect for you as a human being. They completely ignored the things in his original contract that they had agreed to, like having sufficient private time to spend with his family. My someone was working 80-90 hrs a week and it was not unusual for him to be told at 10:30 at night that he had to make a presentation to senior staff at 8:00 AM the next morning. And, oh, btw, have it ready for review by 4 AM so that other directors could mark it up. When he started he was supposed to be a lead data scientist, but after a month he was made senior manager of a division, the next month another division was added to his responsibilities. He quit after they tried to load a 4th division on him.

          It doesn’t surprise me at all that they would treat their workers in their ‘fulfillment centers’ like less than humans, they even treat themselves that way. My someone was just amazed at the attitude of his fellow co-workers that they didn’t see anything wrong with how they were being treated – and in fact, they often bragged to each other about how many hours they work, but I guess the pay was so good, it blinded them to everything else, also very much like Enron’s senior staff’s corporate culture.

          Reply
          1. James Simpson

            This is merely how capitalism works. Like it or not, it’s the future for all workers unless we reject it categorically.

            Reply
            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              Its not how ordered capitalism under law worked during and shortly after the New Deal.

              Its how self-ordered capitalism under lawless anarchy works now. But law was changed around to make it possible. And law could be reverse-changed to what it was before the Great Anti-New-Deal-Repeal was legislated.

              And Free Trade could be abolished, to turn America into a refuge for Americans to re-establish the New Deal laws and ordered capitalism under law.

              Reply
          2. Jokerstein

            I worked at Amazon for over 14 years in Seattle as a techie, and I did not experience what your close person describes. But, I DID see it. Amazon has a culture that implicitly drives people to overstretch themselves without any explicit input from the company: it’s been said that it’s where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves. You CAN, if you’re in the right place and without toxic management, step off that treadmill. I did so, and survived there relatively happily for seven or eight years, working 40 hours, but recognizing that my career was frozen. I didn’t mind that – I was getting VERY well comped (average yearly gross was ca $250K).

            However, since 2009-10 there was a lot of bad hiring and the number of toxic management increased dramatically. That also corresponded with Bezos basically losing all interest in the retail space, and it getting handed over to Wilke, who was a crap CEO.

            When I started in 2005 it was a great place to work, but when I got kicked out for disagreeing with my skip-level boss, I was glad to go. The do have a target of managing out ca 10% of staff per year, even people like me who got ratings of Outstanding and Role Model year after year.

            The corporate space is not uniform by any means, but the are areas that are still good for people like me are much harder to find.

            Reply
            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              And this is what every Amazon shopper supports with every Amazon purchase.

              The only way to even roll this back even a little bit is to make buying-from-Amazon as publicly shame-worthy as wearing animal-cruelty fur.

              Reply
  2. Egidijus

    It’s modern slavery in a plain sight. But most of the public is conditioned by propaganda how cool is Amazon and alike companies and what a smart guy is Bezos and his cohort. Everybody wants to be him. Hail Cesar, I mean Bezos!

    Reply
  3. Altandmain

    Amazon doesn’t want to pay workers a fair wage or give them humane working conditions.

    A union would increase the bargaining power of labour. Everyone knows this.

    There are charts like this all over the web: https://cdn.theatlantic.com/thumbor/jVSktjRzr53SzxLyhWZmkrCAm0I=/0x18:620×389/620×372/filters:format(png)/media/img/posts/2016/03/CPSdataUnions_webfig1/original.png

    In regards to the comments:

    You may have noticed the absence of CalPERS, which likes to wrap itself in the ESG mantle, from this list. For a state agency that managed the funds of state and municipal workers, nearly all of whom are/were union members, to be nowhere to be found when it comes to labor organizing, is not a good look. We e-mailed CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco as to whether CalPERS would be signing the Amazon letter and got no reply.

    I don’t think that the senior union management gets it – what happens to private sector unions will happen to the public sector.

    Here in Canada a couple years back, the teacher’s unions try to support an effort (which unfortunately failed) to unionize the Toyota plants.

    It’s also why I urge for public sector workers to take a hostile view towards free trade. What happens to private sector unions (ex: loss of jobs to low wage nations) will affect them. It may not seem immediately obvious at first, but it will set a dangerous precedent. Look at the graph again – note the collapse around 1994 of middle class income when NAFTA was signed.

    Not to mention, the conservative movement has proven adept at exploiting animosity towards public sector workers once jobs in manufacturing are gone, because now public sector workers are the only ones with defined benefit pensions. Maybe in the past, public sector jobs paid less for pensions, but now with middle class jobs outsourced due to free trade and wages lowered, it’s being used by conservatives.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Just to clarify, the CalPERS board has only 6 of 13 members that are elected by its beneficiaries, the rest are various ex officio members (like the State Controller and State Treasurer) or gubernatorial appointees. Those 6 are just about never union leaders. One current board member, David Miller, was a former union president, but of a 3,000 person geeky union.

      But yes, more generally, the hidden hands at CalPERS are SEIU and CSEA, and they do have more clout with CEO Marcie Frost than the union board member stooges. So one does get to more or less the same place via a less direct route.

      Reply
    2. eg

      I see that private sector worker vs public sector worker hostility over job security and pensions more often now (also hear it on talk radio) in Canadian press and in particular where the online version of the papers feature a comments section.

      Reply
  4. ook

    Reading ‘Alabama is a “right-to-work” state’ makes it clear that even if they win, they lose, because in Alabama you’re only allowed to have a union if it allows unlimited free-ridership.
    In addition to the ongoing financial sabotage, Amazon will know who joins and who doesn’t.
    I am also disheartened that the left has allowed this kind of labeling to go unchallenged: “right to work” should be called “right to work for less”.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      Many of us here in the North American Deep South have used that anti-motto for years.
      I remember seeing “Right To Work For Less” bumper stickers when Louisiana was floating a “Right to Work” state law in the 1970s.

      Reply
    2. Rudolf

      Right to work equals right to fire for no reason at all. It amazes me that the business owners can get away with this crap and people buy it.

      Reply
  5. Mark Gisleson

    My stint in a modern warehouse wasn’t Amazon but Mattel’s version of the four-day, ten-hour shift was much the same albeit without the constant computerized monitoring.

    Amazon would never have hired me. They would have understood that an ex-resume writer would have too good an understanding of labor law and if that had not dissuaded them, my social media history would have revealed my old school labor organizing roots.

    I grew up shoveling manure and in the summer I often worked very long hours in the fields when we baled hay. I spent the better part of a decade doing piecework in an asbestos-ridden Firestone tire factory, then (and maybe still) the largest tire factory in the world. I have worked as a drywaller and for a while drove prostitutes to their clients.

    None of these jobs were remotely as difficult or as barbaric as doing ten-hour shifts in a modern warehouse that was, as I have admitted, not nearly as soulless as an Amazon warehouse.

    A ten-hour shift means you do not sit until your first (of two) breaks, and you must take that break in the cafeteria. Time spent walking to and from the cafeteria (no matter how far away your work station) is part of your break. The cafeteria is the ONLY place in the entire facility where you are allowed to sit. There are no sitting jobs, even jobs where you could sit have no chairs and in any event a no-sitting policy means you will be written up if you’re caught sitting down.

    Lunch is half an hour, same rules but you’re not being paid. You cannot take your lunch or a break in your work area (because if you did, how could they easily monitor whether you’re sitting on “their” time?).

    If this doesn’t sound horrible to you, try it for yourself. Pick a starting time and then remain on your feet for three hours. You can stand in one place if you like. Then note the time and walk 100 feet. Sit down, and then walk another 100 feet after 15 minutes have elapsed. Make sure you’ve walked that second 100 feet before the fifteen minutes is up.

    Remain on your feet until five hours have passed since the start of your work day. Note the time and walk 100 feet, sit and eat your lunch. You get half an hour. Enjoy it because you’re not being paid for that half hour. Go back to work for three hours, then take another fifteen minute break. After that, remain standing until ten and a half hours have elapsed since the start of your work day. THEN you can walk to the parking lot and (in my case) walk half a mile home.

    That was the easy part. Now do that three more days in a row. Then remember that this experience would be significantly worse if you were working for Amazon.

    And the ONLY point to the no-sitting policy is to make it easier for supervisors to spot the slackers. This won’t seem like a big deal to you unless you try to stick to these work conditions for a couple of days. I strongly encourage doubters to try this regimen. You don’t have to work, just try staying on your feet for that long.

    Reply
    1. JCC

      I’ve also worked in places like the warehouse you mentioned. At one, the break time was 15 minutes, period. And part of that break required you to stand in line to punch out before the break and punch back in at the end of the break at the only time clock in the bldg.

      There were about 60 employees (a non-unionized machine shop) and it was a long line.

      An overheard conversation between two young women:

      Woman 1: I just passed my 90 day mark and I got a $0.10 raise.
      Woman 2: What!?! I passed mine and they only gave me a nickel.

      I put in my notice at the end of the day… but that was years ago when decent jobs were relatively plentiful even though it was at the time when unions were starting to phase out

      Reply
  6. JCC

    After reading yesterday’s link to the Adam Curtis interview, I decided to re-watch his film, Pandora’s Box, and just finished Chapter One.

    Turning people into “cogs in the machine” didn’t work out well for the U.S.S.R. and I don’t think it will work out well for Amazon in the long run, or people in this country generally.

    Good luck to the Bessemer employees (and all Amazon employees), they will need it.

    Reply
    1. James Simpson

      None of this capitalism stuff will work out well for humanity in the medium term when the climate crisis it’s accelerating kicks in. If we really want our kids to live a full three score years and ten, we’ll be concentrating on that.

      Reply
      1. Massinissa

        I’m going to miss all the coral reefs. There’s no way to save them so I’m trying to figure out what the ocean will be like without them (It won’t be good: at least 25% of marine life depends on coral reefs, and alot of oceanic marine life probably exist because of eating fish or other life near the reefs), but other than finding out that there have been entire geological periods without reefs (most of the Cretaceous didn’t have them, as an example, though the Jurassic and Triassic had them: Apparently there was some kind of anoxic event that killed them off) only for reefs to return tens of millions of years later. I can’t find much information on paleo-oceanography on the internet. I might have to buy some books. Once I, uh, even figure out what books I would need to buy.

        Oh yeah apparently 1/5 of the world’s protein comes from sea fish, mostly coastal fish, which uh, are the ones that will have a harder time surviving once the reefs collapse.

        Reply
        1. ambrit

          I imagine that all the human artifacts that are inundated as the sea level rises would function as artificial reefs. Not quite enough, but something. Some places are already using ‘junqued’ items to try and form artificial reefs.
          See, off of Pensacola: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XavoiJxK0ck
          There is quite a bit of this happening.

          Reply
        2. James Simpson

          1/5 of the world’s protein comes from sea fish

          I’m a veggie and take supplements. Apparently, the Neanderthal people’s demise might have been at least in part due to endemic disease caused by their lack of access to fish. There aren’t anywhere close to enough fish to feed the world right now; we’ve been grossly overfishing the oceans since the Middle Ages, according to George Monbiot in his book ‘Feral’. What’s the solution?

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            But the Neanderthals didn’t “demise” for at least a 150,000 years. And they only demised after the Cro-Magnon Invasion.

            So can we be sure fish had anything to do with it?

            Reply
  7. Steve Ruis

    Re “Why Amazon Is Fighting So Hard to Stop Warehouse Workers From Unionizing” Why is Amazon fighting unions so hard? Well, the above and “fighting unions” is a badge of honor amongst plutocrats, as is disparaging the New Deal, liberalism, etc. It is woven into their fabric as they climb the wealth charts. To be recognized as a member of the plutocrat club, you must be wealthy . . . and espouse the same attitudes as those already there.

    Reply
  8. The Rev Kev

    Pretty disgusting to read how the workers are being treated in those Amazon warehouses. And it is not like the targets that they are given are realistic long term. I began to wonder if Amazon was going to be the flagship on how the future workforce was going to be treated everywhere. Certainly as Yves mentioned, Obama signed off on it. But of course the question remains – why. Is Bezos such a sociopath that is ‘trickles down’ to the rest of Amazon? It can’t be about the money as he can never spend what he has. So it must be about power. And how do you assert that power? Quoting from the book “1984”-

    “How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“
    Winston thought. “By making him suffer”, he said.
    “Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

    To tell you the truth, this obsession to control each and every minute of those workers lives and movement does sound familiar. So sit yourselves down and let me spin you a tale. Before the International Space Station there was Skylab back in the 70s. It had three crews go through but the trouble began in the second team. NASA was learning how to schedule the astronauts time with the first team so by the time the second team went up they had planned every single minute of their day for an 84 day rotation. Every single minute – and the NASA engineers were proud of their ability to do it. In reality it was a shambles.

    A NASA scientist would come up with an idea for an experiment and would demonstrate that it would take only five minutes. But in space to do it would actually take fifteen minutes putting the astronauts even further behind. It was high pressure and it reached breaking point. So the astronauts went on strike. Just switched off the radio and followed their own interests for a day. That is not something many people have heard about. After that it went to a more reasonable system but here we are nearly half a century later and the engineers of Amazon are doing the exact same thing to their workers as NASA did. There will be blowback-

    https://sofrep.com/fightersweep/the-true-story-behind-nasas-1973-skylab-mutiny/

    Reply
    1. PhillyPhilly

      Yeah well if I recall, those astronauts never did spend any more time in space. Amazon can keep treating its workers like dogs as long as it has an unlimited supply of desperate workers. Which, unless something really changes in the US, will be quite a long time.

      Reply
  9. Ep3

    Remember that for decades, millions worked in factories. They unionized. Then they were demonized and degraded. The union was called socialist, communist, mafia supported, thuggish. Nobody believed (and many still don’t today) how repetitive, mind numbing, pace driven the jobs are and were. Union factory workers were overpaid and lazy. Yet when you tell someone “well if the jobs are overpaying and easy, why don’t you take the job?”, they always give an excuse to say no.
    But it’s not just the pay & benefits. When a union comes in, everyone becomes equal. No longer can someone “kiss up”/brown nose to the boss and earn favors, extra breaks, easier jobs. The boss cannot have favorites or pets. Everyone is equal, except for what hierarchy the union establishes, usually seniority.
    I spent a year working in a grocery distribution center warehouse, unionized. Then 7 years in a non-union factory. +2 years in unionized govt. I see a lot of pros and cons.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I remember reading somewhere that part of the reason for persecuting Socialists and Communists out of Union leadership was to create a space to fill with government-friendly Mafia-controlled personnel.

      Reply
  10. KLG

    Late at night I’ve been re-reading my foundational material recently…Michael Harrington, Bertell Ollman, E.F. Schumacher, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the odd post-modern piece for some very light seasoning…Nothing new in all this.

    I highly recommend this classic from 1974, published when I was a freshman in college and still in print: Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century.

    Reply
  11. Carolinian

    Does Amazon–even now–make a profit on its mail order business as opposed to AWS? One might suggest that the “why” in the headline is that the entire business model is based on shaving costs and lowering prices to smite competitors despite the additional business cost of shipping on demand. Doubtless this would also be the defense that Walmart would make for its anti-union stance–low pricing.

    Bezos seems quite open about his desire to replace all those warehouse workers with robots if he could pull it off. But in the real world, as opposed to his futurist dream world, he hasn’t been able to pull that off–at least so far.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I didn’t mention that, and I would need to have a very hard look at Amazon’s financials but I’ve understood AWS is hugely profitable and what you make of the retail business significantly depends on how negative you are about the fact that it is nearly always cash flow positive yet profit negative.

      Reply
  12. Felix_47

    I grew up working union in the laborers and then the teamsters and then the UAW, Amazon and retailing are the major industries in the US now. Unless it is prevailing wage construction is all immigrant. Meatpacking is all migrant. The auto industry is in Mexico at 2 bucks per hour. Much of trucking is non union. If we had Unions like we did 60 years ago and there was a strike at that Amazon warehouse no truck would cross the picket line potentially at every Amazon warehouse in the US. 60 years ago a national Teamster’s strike was taken seriously.I hope the Union succeeds. But there is no question that US workers and Union workers are less productive, less cooperative, and a lot sloppier than migrant workers. But our attitude should be that for the privilege of doing business in the US you get the good and the bad. If you don’t like it Mr. Employer feel free to open up in Haiti or Somalia or Honduras and see what you can sell and how long your wife tolerates it. For years the employers I work with have told me they do all in their power to avoid hiring Blacks and domestic whites. They all want Mexicans or Hondurans or Somalians or Nigerians or Haitians and the poorer they are and the less English they comprehend the better. And without E verify they do it brazenly. It seems like both political parties talk jobs and build it better or whatever but we need to look at their actions. No politician that I know of has advocated enforcing and properly funding E Verify let alone punishing employers. I am happy to see the workforce at this warehouse is mostly Black. Maybe they can get some solidarity together and do something better than elect people like Joe Biden. Remember, if the truckers delivering to this place or the longshoremen unloading the crap from China destined for Amazon honored the strike Amazon would have to bend. In my era nobody crossed a picket line……nobody if you valued your life. I must date myself……unions like we did 60 years ago……. My fear is they might win but lose the battle. Amazon will just shut the warehouse down. That is why all the unions have to work together. And the teamsters of old would have shut the entire operation down nationwide. With a nationwide strike on deliveries to the warehouses it would be drawn out fight like the steel contracts or auto contracts of long ago in that country some of us remember. I don’t know what law was passed to prevent it.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Your comment on union members is not true. Numerous studies have found that workers in craft unions (skill based, like electricians or for that matter, accountants) do better work than non-union workers.

      Reply

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