Monday, April 12, 2021

Is There A Union in Amazon's Future?


Amazon is one of the biggest and most powerful corporations on Earth.  It is one of the main reasons why shopping nowadays usually involves a smart phone and a delivery truck rather than a drive down to a brick-and-mortar store.  Its tremendous dominance was only increased by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down (and often eventually shuttered) many local and regional in-person businesses, but only improved Amazon's bottom line.  So when such a corporate giant faces a threat to unionize, it's big news.


Over half a million people work for Amazon worldwide.  Most of them are low-level warehouse employees who typically spend ten-hour shifts keeping up with the robots that tell them everything from which package to pack into which box down to how often they can go to the bathroom.  Working at an Amazon warehouse is no picnic, and yearly turnover rates approach 100% in some places.  In Bessemer, Alabama, at one of Amazon's warehouse facilities, a few workers decided they'd had enough and approached the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to see if they could jump through the necessary hoops to hold an election about organizing a local.


A recent article on the Wired website points out that the twenty-first century has not been kind to U. S. unions.  Union membership, as a percentage of all workers, has declined from a high of 27 percent in 1979 to 11 percent more recently, so forming a union at an Amazon facility would be bucking the trend.


A personal note:  I am no fan of unions, having grown up in the famously anti-union state of Texas, and having had an unpleasant personal encounter with a faculty union at my former university in Massachusetts.  I won't say the union there was the main reason I left Massachusetts for Texas, but it didn't incline me to stay, either. 


Nevertheless, I recognize that if powerful corporations in need of employees are left strictly to their own devices in a competitive environment, they will tend to extract the maximum amount of labor for the minimum amount of pay, and that labor will work under conditions designed to maximize the corporation's profit, and not to make the workers' lives easier.  That seems to be what has happened in Amazon's warehouses, which are among the most automated in the world.  But even Amazon hasn't yet been able to devise a "lights-out" warehouse (no people inside) which can handle the unimaginable variety of stuff that Amazon sells.  So they hire lots of workers, work them very hard, and when the workers get tired of it or suffer work-related injuries, they leave and Amazon hires others.


Believe it or not, something like this went on for decades with another monopoly:  AT&T, back when it was the Bell System.  Look into the biographies of middle-class women who were in their 20s from the 1910s up to the 1950s, and the chances are surprisingly good that they spent time as a telephone operator.  It didn't take a lot of special training, the jobs were spread out all over the country, and typically an operator's career tided her over between high-school graduation and when she got married.  It was not as physically demanding a job as working for Amazon is today, but it was tedious, and eventually AT&T operators and technicians joined a union that became the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in the late 1940s.  The union led some strikes in the 1950s and 1960s, but by then the network was so automated that supervisory personnel stepped in to keep the phones ringing.  And as the number of operator jobs declined, so did the clout and influence of the union.


Did the CWA improve the lot of phone-company employees?  As there is no way to rewind history and run it again without the CWA, it's hard to tell.  And the same thing goes for the question of unionization at Amazon.  As with most controversial issues, the dire prophecies at both extremes are probably not going to happen.  While working at Amazon is not done for jollies, it also does not typically wreck the lives of all who enter its doors.  And while unionizing Amazon employees would no doubt take away some money from the company's bottom line, it's not like they're running on fumes.  One share of Amazon stock would currently set you back $3,300 these days, and it's nearly doubled since 2018. 


Human justice is always an inferior approximation to divine justice, and unions, being made of fallible people just like corporations are, are not the surefire answer to every worker's prayers.  Everything is so politicized these days, including unions, that whatever union might be formed for Amazon employees would perforce become a supporter of the Democratic Party, whose winning candidate for president is currently doing what he can to create a more favorable environment for unions generally.  If a union of Amazon employees would stick to its knitting and use every dime of dues to better the working conditions of its members, then I'd have no objection.  But if it went the way of all too many unions these days and turned into yet another self-perpetuating bureaucracy supporting a few well-paid union tycoons on the backs of the lowly exploited workers, then I'd say it should be sent to perdition, with no return address on the package.


The unionization vote in Bessemer failed, by the way, although the union is saying it's going to fight the results in court.  The times being what they are, chances that unionization of Amazon workers somewhere will succeed eventually are fairly high, and then we'll get to see if the RWDSU will live up to its promises.  If they do, well and good, because it would be nice if one of the few manufacturing-like job categories that is in a growth mode became a more viable option for more people—and if it paid enough to support a family, for instance, without landing the breadwinner in the hospital or rehab.  If they don't, well, the only way we'll get rid of it is if Amazon finally figures out how to run that lights-out warehouse, and lays off its last unionized warehouse worker some day in the future.


Sources:  The Wired article "As Amazon Workers Organize, They Stress: 'We Are Not Robots'" by Caitlin Harrington appeared on Apr. 9 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Communication Workers of America. 

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