Disrupting the Disruptors

Working at Amazon.com sucks. Can unions do something about it?

Erik Forman

Amazon.com warehouse workers around the world. Here, an employee moves boxes in the huge Amazon fulfillment center in Peterborough, England. (Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes­ter­day, 30 tech­ni­cians at an Ama​zon​.com ware­house in Mid­dle­town, Delaware vot­ed in the e‑retail titan’s first-ever union elec­tion in the Unit­ed States. The vote marks the arrival on U.S. shores of a ris­ing tide of Ama­zon work­er orga­niz­ing. Half a world away, more than 1,000 work­ers at three Ama­zon ware­house loca­tions in Ger­many staged a string of one-day strikes from May to Decem­ber of 2013, part of a cam­paign by the Ger­man ser­vice-indus­try union Ver.di to bring the com­pa­ny in line with the stan­dards of the country’s offline retail industry.

Workers face authoritarianism from all levels of management: a 'pronounced hierarchy,' Sam says, that robs technicians of control over their own work. Instead, he says, they are overseen by people with no hands-on experience with the machinery they’re using.

The Ama​zon​.com work­ers’ strug­gles are a cru­cial bat­tle for labor on capitalism’s newest fron­tier: the high-tech takeover of tra­di­tion­al indus­tries. Just when labor appears to be catch­ing up with the turn toward ser­vice-indus­try employ­ment — with the union­iza­tion of adjuncts in high­er edu­ca­tion, strikes at Wal­mart and fast-food stores, large-scale orga­ni­za­tion of taxi dri­vers, and Unite-Here’s vic­to­ries in hotel orga­niz­ing, to name just a few labor inroads — the ground is already shift­ing omi­nous­ly beneath its feet.

Flush with invest­ment cap­i­tal, thou­sands of would-be Jeff Bezos­es have set to work dis­rupt­ing” indus­try after indus­try in the same way Ama­zon has done for retail — apply­ing the tech­nolo­gies of the dig­i­tal age to cut labor costs, get around reg­u­la­tions and make work more pre­car­i­ous. As the strug­gles at Amazon’s ware­hous­es illus­trate, while infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies may make old indus­tries obso­les­cent, they are mak­ing the need for a strong labor move­ment greater than ever.

Run til failure

It is a mod­ern-day sweatshop.”

I’m talk­ing with Sam (not his real name), a work­er in the Mid­dle­town Ama­zon plant.

All these man­agers care about are num­bers — get it out the door, get it out the door, get it out the door. They blame it on cus­tomer obses­sion,’ ” he says.

Sam is one of 24 work­ers who main­tain the Moloch machine of belt con­vey­ors, flat con­vey­ors, flex con­vey­ors, max-reach con­vey­ors, motors, flat sorters, and assort­ed vehi­cles that fer­ry a riv­er of com­modi­ties through the warehouse.

Though Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma recent­ly deliv­ered a speech in front of an Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter” in Ten­nessee extolling the company’s con­tri­bu­tion to cre­at­ing mid­dle class jobs, the major­i­ty of posi­tions in the ware­house are sea­son­al jobs that pay around min­i­mum wage. And the work is not easy, as a series of high-pro­file exposés has shown.

Accord­ing to Sam, the work­ers on the floor of the ware­house walk 20 or 30 miles a day. Their rates [how rapid­ly they have to pick items] keep going up and up and up,” he says. It’s all these bean coun­ters who don’t care about machines break­ing down and peo­ple break­ing down. If you don’t make your rate by the third day, you’re writ­ten up. And on the fourth day, you’re fired.”

While tech­ni­cal work­ers are spared some of the worst of Amazon’s report­ed abus­es, they have oth­er issues to con­tend with.

A cen­tral issue in Amazon’s dis­pute with the Ger­man labor union Ver.di has been mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion of work­ers. The union says the ware­house work­ers should be clas­si­fied not as logis­tics work­ers, but as high­er-paid retail work­ers. Sam alleges that mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion result­ing in low­er pay is also an issue in the com­pa­ny’s U.S. warehouses.

Adding insult to injury, work­ers face author­i­tar­i­an­ism from all lev­els of man­age­ment: a pro­nounced hier­ar­chy,” Sam says, that robs tech­ni­cians of con­trol over their own work. Instead, he says, they are over­seen by peo­ple with no hands-on expe­ri­ence with the machin­ery they’re using.

Peo­ple who work in car­pet­land’ — office peo­ple — dic­tate our Stan­dard Oper­at­ing Pro­ce­dures. They write these for us and they have zero main­te­nance back­ground. It makes our job that much hard­er. We’re for­go­ing main­te­nance because some­one tells us we have to,” Sam says. If we hear a motor that’s going out, they’ll do an RTF, which is run til failure.’”

This empha­sis on short-term prof­it, he says, only cre­ates more inef­fi­cien­cy in the long run.

We aren’t giv­en the time to actu­al­ly fix things. We have to push it off to a Sat­ur­day night — when they shut down, hope­ful­ly — and then it’s very stress­ful for us and makes our jobs hard­er … The 20-minute fix it’ll take, they won’t give us the equip­ment for it … [so it] turns into a four-hour fix down the road.”

But what pushed the work­ers over the edge was being dis­ci­plined by a young man­ag­er for what they say are indus­try-stan­dard ways of per­form­ing basic pro­ce­dures, such as run­ning con­vey­or belts. At first, Sam says, the work­ers tried to work with­in Amazon’s sys­tem to deal with the problem.

We’ve actu­al­ly had to go to human resources [about the man­ag­er],” Sam says. We’ve reached out as high as we could to say it’s unan­i­mous across the board.”

Man­age­ment didn’t lis­ten. So the work­ers met with an orga­niz­er from the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists & Aero­space Work­ers (IAM) and began sign­ing autho­riza­tion cards. That’s when Sam says high­er-ups final­ly took notice.

The two days before we hand­ed in the cards, they end­ed up repur­pos­ing’ [the man­ag­er] in anoth­er role in anoth­er facil­i­ty. They had already known about the cards. Some­body had leaked out what we were doing, and imme­di­ate­ly they took action,” Sam says. What lengths do you have to go to get peo­ple to lis­ten? Our voic­es didn’t mat­ter until we made the move that we made.”

Orga­niz­ing by the book

On Decem­ber 6, the IAM filed cards with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board request­ing an elec­tion to rep­re­sent the 24 main­te­nance mechan­ics at Amazon’s Mid­dle­town plant for the pur­pos­es of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. With the fil­ing, they kicked off a process that has played out thou­sands of times since the NLRB was cre­at­ed to medi­ate indus­tri­al con­flict in 1935. Com­pa­nies have fig­ured out how to game the sys­tem, skirt­ing or sim­ply break­ing the law to throw elec­tion votes in management’s favor.

In 2011, unions filed 2,108 peti­tions for elec­tions at the NLRB. Of these, almost 700 were with­drawn before a vote could take place — in many cas­es because the employer’s anti-union cam­paign destroyed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a fair elec­tion. Of the 1,398 union elec­tions that the NLRB did con­duct, unions only won 69 per­cent. Fil­ing for an NLRB elec­tion is a roll of a loaded dice. It’s pos­si­ble to win, but only if the cam­paign can deflect a bar­rage of text­book anti-union maneuvers.

And so far, accord­ing to the union, Amazon’s anti-union cam­paign has stuck to the usu­al script, echo­ing the mes­sag­ing it used to com­bat anoth­er dri­ve more than a decade ear­li­er. This time around, Ama­zon suc­cess­ful­ly pushed the NLRB to include six addi­tion­al work­ers in oth­er depart­ments, who had not been involved in the orga­niz­ing pre­vi­ous­ly, in the bar­gain­ing unit. The union believes this was a tac­tic to dilute support.

With­in a week of fil­ing, the com­pa­ny also brought the anti-union law firm Mor­gan, Lewis, & Bock­ius onto the scene, accord­ing to the IAM. High­er-ups from Boston have arrived, too, Sam says, requir­ing work­ers to come in every week for what is com­mon­ly called a cap­tive audi­ence meet­ing.” In these meet­ings, the union says, senior exec­u­tives have asked work­ers to give them anoth­er chance, promised pol­i­cy changes, tarred the union’s rep­u­ta­tion and made sub­tle threats.

Accord­ing to Sam, In the begin­ning it was relaxed. They tried to pull us into a round­table, which is a group meet­ing where they sit us down and they say, What’s going on? We know stuff is wrong.’ Then they brought in some cor­po­rate peo­ple and they start­ed giv­ing us [rea­sons] why unions don’t work in Ama­zon … they’re bring­ing out all the bad pro­pa­gan­da with unions, as far as the strik­ing process.”

As the weeks went on, the prover­bial car­rots and sticks mul­ti­plied. Pre­vi­ous­ly, main­te­nance work­ers had always been exclud­ed from in-plant raf­fles and con­tests, but in the past month, Sam says, par­tic­u­lar­ly out­spo­ken work­ers have mys­te­ri­ous­ly won prizes that include Ama­zon Kin­dles and a $500 gift certificate.

At the same time, mul­ti­ple copies of an anti-union peti­tion sur­faced, the union says. The peti­tion sug­gest­ed maybe we should table this”: anoth­er com­mon man­age­ment tac­tic to demor­al­ize workers.

Man­agers also began fol­low­ing work­ers around, tak­ing pic­tures of them as they worked in order to doc­u­ment com­pli­ance with safe­ty pro­ce­dures, Sam says. Vio­lat­ing a safe­ty pro­to­col can mean an instant firing.

The goal of an anti-union cam­paign is to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment so tense that work­ers sim­ply want the union ques­tion to go away. In this case, the tac­tics worked. Yes­ter­day’s vote was 21 to 6 against unionization.

The IAM elec­tion at Ama­zon, while unsuc­cess­ful on the terms set by the NLRB, may prove to be an impor­tant step toward build­ing a move­ment that can win. The odds were stacked against the work­ers, but our pres­ence there has real­ly gen­er­at­ed more inter­est,” says John Carr, the IAM orga­niz­er. Even though unsuc­cess­ful this time around, a day lat­er and the phone has­n’t stopped ring­ing from oth­er Ama­zon employ­ees inter­est­ed in what an orga­niz­ing effort could do to assist them.”

Dis­rupt­ing capitalism

If this plucky band of tech­ni­cians can inspire oth­er Ama­zon ware­house orga­niz­ing, they may be able to estab­lished a foothold for labor in a com­pa­ny that has been called the Wal­mart of e‑commerce — a sec­tor that may soon dis­place bricks-and-mor­tar retail. Achiev­ing these gains will require think­ing out­side the box of the NLRB process, and cru­cial­ly, expand­ing orga­niz­ing to include Amazon’s low­est-paid work­ers, the staff that picks and packs orders.

It will be a hard fight, but if eco­nom­ic trends are any indi­ca­tion, labor doesn’t real­ly have any oth­er choice. In a grow­ing num­ber of cities, dis­rup­tive” indus­tries have giv­en cor­po­ra­tions new ways to exploit work­ers. Brick-and-mor­tar schools and uni­ver­si­ties are threat­ened with obso­les­cence by the rise of MOOCs,” short for Mas­sive Open Online Cours­es.” Taxi dri­vers now fre­quent­ly com­pete with an unli­censed, free­lance fleet of Lyft” and Uber” cars. Hotels face AirBnb. News out­lets strug­gle against the Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Sil­i­con Valley’s dis­rupters” like to fan­cy them­selves as genius­es and vision­ar­ies, but in real­i­ty, their inno­va­tions” boil down to a famil­iar cor­po­rate for­mu­la: Cir­cum­vent reg­u­la­tions, under­cut labor stan­dards, auto­mate in order to reduce labor costs, or com­mod­i­fy a niche of human exis­tence pre­vi­ous­ly out of reach of the mar­ket. And prof­it. Massively.

This expan­sion, in turn, will like­ly attract Wall Street invest­ment and fuel mas­sive expan­sion, lead­ing to the even­tu­al pri­ma­cy of the new, dis­rup­tive” com­pa­nies over the old. The pro­gres­sion is almost inexorable.

But crack­ing the code to orga­niz­ing Ama­zon — and all the prog­e­ny of dis­rup­tive” cap­i­tal­ism — is not an impos­si­ble task. The work­ers have the same trump card they have always had. As Sam put it: With­out us, the build­ing doesn’t run, and they don’t see that. Or didn’t until we threat­ened to go through with the union orga­niz­ing.” Every minute that the Mid­dle­town Ama­zon warehouse’s con­vey­or sys­tem is shut down costs the com­pa­ny $44,000 because pack­ages have to be re-rout­ed to oth­er facil­i­ties and shipped via overnight deliv­ery. Imag­ine what coor­di­nat­ed strike action, or even sim­ply mass pick­ets at mul­ti­ple plants could do?

As tech­no-cap­i­tal­ism inno­vates and dis­rupts its way back to 19th-cen­tu­ry-style exploita­tion, work­ers are begin­ning to find their voice. The next step is to find a way to make this newest breed of boss­es listen.

Full dis­clo­sure: The IAM is a web­site spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors have no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Erik For­man has been active in the labor move­ment for over a decade as a rank-and-file orga­niz­er, at the fore­front of cam­paigns to union­ize the U.S. fast food indus­try. He cur­rent­ly works as a labor edu­ca­tor in New York City and is pur­su­ing a Ph.D. in cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Fol­low him at twit​ter​.com/​_​e​r​i​k​f​orman.
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