From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
On April 9, the vote tally was released in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) drive for union recognition at Amazon’s giant warehouse at Bessemer, Ala. It was 738 in favor and 1,798 against with over 500 votes challenged, mostly by Amazon. Of the 5,800 workers eligible, only 55% even bothered to vote. Leaving this as a mere defeat for labor hides more than it reveals about the present moment.
Powerful employers like Amazon have an immense advantage in union elections, having full access to workers in their authoritarian-run workplace. Some Bessemer Amazon workers contacted RWDSU and gathered over 3,000 union authorization cards for an election.
TURNOVER DERAILS ORGANIZING DRIVE
Unfortunately, their organizing drive started last June at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, dramatically limiting in-person access to employees. Amazon spared no expense, hiring union-busting consultants in an omnipresent anti-union propaganda campaign that included weekly mandatory meetings, one-on-one chats with managers, a daily barrage of emails and texting, phone calls, constant rumors of a possible closure, monitoring and planting company talking points in employee Facebook discussions.
Amazon’s firings, contested as illegal by the union, and especially working conditions, drove a tremendous employee turnover. Turnover in the thousands per month was a huge obstacle to recruiting fellow workers to join the union. Amazon also grew exponentially during the pandemic, when many precarious workers lost their livelihood, making them desperate and afraid to risk their new Amazon income and healthcare coverage offered upon hiring.
Even under these conditions Amazon workers nationwide had been staging work actions, especially after COVID-19 struck and nearly 20,000 Amazon employees tested positive by last October. Safety walkouts and demonstrations began as early as last March and spread to 50 work sites across the country. Over 1,000 Amazon workers nationwide reached out to RWDSU for help during the union drive. The overriding issue continues to be Amazon’s brutal and inhuman working conditions confronting those living on the edge.
TO AMAZON, ROBOTS AND HUMANS ARE THE SAME
Amazon’s tyrannical conditions of labor begin from an algorithm that runs an army of robots that don’t get sick in a pandemic; they don’t complain about speed-up. The algorithm seamlessly weaves humans into the same production process, tracking their every motion on the job, constantly inching up quotas to meet the superhuman capacity of robots.
As Bessemer worker Jennifer Bates put it in her testimony before a Bernie Sanders budget committee hearing on “The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America”:
“Working at an Amazon warehouse is no easy thing. Shifts are long, the pace is super fast, you’re constantly being watched and monitored. They seem to think you’re another machine.”
The absolute limit to the long hours and inhuman pace of work is death. An Amazon-modeled online retailer in South Korea, Coupang, was cited for death-by-overwork when 27-year-old Jang Duk-loon was found dead from a heart attack after his night shift. Eight claims are being filed against Coupang for death-by-overwork in the past year. Amazon has twice the average rate of safety and injury violations for warehouse workers.
Workers are also demanding a living wage, which capital drives down even as worker productivity rises astronomically. Amazon occupies a former U.S. Steel mill site with jobs that paid in today’s dollars more in the range of $50 an hour. At the hearing where Jennifer Bates testified, Bernie Sanders emphasized that worker productivity has skyrocketed even as capital demands they get paid less, adding that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, already the richest man in the world, had his net worth go up to $182 billion, up $77 billion since the pandemic started while ordinary workers struggle to survive.
DEHUMANIZATION OF LABOR IS PRIMARY
Yet the singular focus on pay inequality betrays the limited thinking of many, including union officials who are not in the workplace where the primary concern is the dehumanization of laboring activity. There, all intelligence and science, as Marx once put it, goes into the machine and its algorithm, while the human being is reduced to a material force.
In mass strikes and wildcats, rank-and-file workers have opposed the inhumanity of capitalist automation since the beginning of its introduction after World War II. Workers’ human solidarity begins with questioning the very nature of their life activity under capitalist production. As one miner asked during the 1949-50 general strike in the coal mines over the introduction of a monster machine, the continuous miner, “What kind of labor should man do?” Answering that demands a return to Marx’s humanism and philosophy of human activity.