A new series: on Amazon’s labor future

It’s bigger than just the company’s own employees

It seems clear that Amazon is one of the contemporary companies that is broadly transforming the nature of labor in the 21st century. This is happening along many different fronts: executives whose life-changing wealth is tied to the company’s stock success, cloud programmers looking for new ways to automate pieces of entire industries, third-party affiliate sellers and delivery drivers whose fates are tied to a company that does not, strictly speaking, employ them, and warehouse workers whose constant surveillance and negotiation with their own continually reprogrammed workplaces are becoming a model for a new kind of global blue-collar work. Any of these transformations would be significant: for all of them to be crucial in the evolution of an enormous company at once can be difficult to wrap your head around.

This is one of several reasons so many of us have been fascinated by the recent unionizaton election by employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Union protection for at least one class of Amazon workers, plus collective bargaining and everything that comes with it, might introduce some stability and predictability into this transformation of labor. So far, it’s the corporate side of Amazon that has been setting the pace. If unions were introduced to American Amazon warehouses, and they become commonplace, then everything becomes more recognizable. Workplace safety issues become part of the labor agreement; you have fewer standoffs directly between the company and politicians (at least pertaining to warehouse work); the jobs and careers themselves ideally become more stable, as greater salaries and benefits accrue to more experienced workers, and so forth. The 21st century labor struggle would look a lot more like the 20th century one, and not the wild, inchoate mess it looks like now.

But in Bessemer, the union was not approved at the ballot box. Two solid stories that have appeared in the past few days that describe how and why this happened are CNN’s overview, including several interviews with anonymous voters in that election, and Labor Notes’s interview with Joshua Fuller, one of the lead organizers from RWDSU, the union seeking recognition in the election. Together, they describe a workplace strongly motivated to unionize, but also one facing both procedural hurdles and a well-funded, impossible-to-ignore campaign by Amazon to defeat the unionization effort.

There will be court challenges arguing that Amazon illegally interfered with the election. There will also be a renewed push to pass the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act in Congress, a change that could make it easier to organize other Amazon workplaces. And other unions and labor activists, like the Teamsters (who are organizing delivery drivers in Iowa) and the SEIU, are proposing using different tactics against Amazon that are less dependent on winning union elections — a battle unions never won, despite great efforts, against Amazon’s predecessor, Walmart:

The idea is to combine workplace actions like walkouts (the ground war) with pressure on company executives through public relations campaigns that highlight labor conditions and enlist the support of public figures (the air war). The Service Employees International Union used the strategy to organize janitors beginning in the 1980s, and to win gains for fast-food workers in the past few years, including wage increases across the industry.

For its part, Amazon’s leadership seems to be aware that bad PR and public fights with politicians could leave it vulnerable going forward (which is one thing that made its social media strategy during the Bessemer election so bewildering — that move seemed likely to backfire, and difficult to sustain, Walmart-style).

In his final annual letter to shareholders, founder/chairman/outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos writes that Amazon needs to repair any perception (by the public or its employees) that the company is an unsafe or unhappy place to work:

If we want to be Earth’s Best Employer, we shouldn’t settle for 94% of employees saying they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work. We have to aim for 100%. And we’ll do that by continuing to lead on wages, on benefits, on upskilling opportunities, and in other ways that we will figure out over time.

But the message here is twofold: sure, Amazon would like to reduce workplace injuries and employee unhappiness — but the company’s leadership would like to do that on its own, as an executive measure led by Bezos and his team of experts, not as part of a political process or labor negotiation.

Later in the shareholder letter, Bezos cautions against Amazon behaving like other companies, comparing a reversion to the mean/default to death itself. But does that mean that Amazon shouldn’t behave like 20th centry Big Labor (whether the Big Three or Walmart), or that it should continue to confound expectations that Amazon itself has helped to set?

Until and unless the fundamentals of union organization change in the United States, the actor with the most control over the future of labor at Amazon’s warehouses — and not just there — remains Amazon itself. And that means our future is a little less predictable, a little more bewildering, and (despite Bezos’s protestations), fundamentally more geared to benefit Amazon’s leadership than its warehouse workers or even its customers.

This next week, I have a series of posts planned on labor at Amazon, starting with the warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and third-party employees, and how that labor continues to change as Amazon continues to dominate the retail and infrastructure business. My plan is to collect some threads on where things have been going, so readers of this newsletter can better understand where they might be headed. I hope you’ll enjoy them.