“We are not robots” was chosen as the slogan of a GMB-led campaign against dehumanising work practices at Amazon warehouses. But these days many of Amazon’s employees are, in effect, managed by them. Self-driving autonomous robots bring containers to workstations, dictating the rhythm at which items are stacked and sorted. Eliminating walking time for employees has helped Amazon to triple individual output. But the even more relentless pace has led to a reported rise in worker injuries, as corners are cut in the struggle to keep up.
In most mid-20th-century factory environments, such a clear and present danger to health and safety would have been taken up by the relevant trade union. But 21st-century titans of the digital age, such as Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, have completed the destruction of that old settlement between capital and labour. By aggressively undermining attempts at organising, Amazon has ensured that in the United States, where it employs close to a million people, not a single workplace is unionised. If an equitable balance of power is to be restored, it will require the kind of courage and persistence shown in Britain by the fledgling App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU). Last week’s landmark verdict by the supreme court, which upheld the ADCU’s demand that Uber class its drivers as workers entitled to benefits, rather than self-employed, should inspire other insecure and exploited workforces to band together.
All of which makes a ballot taking place in the small, blue-collar town of Bessemer, Alabama, a signal event in the evolution of big-tech capitalism. After overcoming last-minute legal obstacles placed in their way by Amazon, 5,800 employees at its Bessemer warehouse have until the end of March to vote on whether they wish to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Pay at the warehouse is more than double Alabama’s meagre minimum wage, but shifts are 10 hours long, with two 30-minute breaks. One pro-union worker told the New York Times she hoped it would lead to a better break for lunch, and the freedom to stretch or go to the toilet without falling behind on her daily quota. These are aspirations that should shame a company that last year amassed $386bn (£275bn) in revenue, and is run by the richest man in the world. But they don’t.
Instead, Amazon has resorted to bullying. Bessemer’s mainly black workforce has been subjected to an anti-union campaign bordering on the intimidatory. At mandatory meetings, employees have reportedly been told they may lose benefits if they join the RWDSU. Misinformation has been disseminated regarding union membership fees. Anti-union text messages have been sent to workers’ phones.
If Bessemer votes yes to a union, a vital precedent will have been set. It may be that the workforce decides not to take the risk, fearing reprisals. But regardless of the outcome, Amazon’s determination to retain oppressive control over every aspect of its employees’ working lives should trouble those of us who benefit from the delights of same-day delivery.
More broadly, Bessemer’s Amazon workers, along with organisations such as the ADCU, should be seen as pioneers in the necessary task of rehabilitating collective bargaining in post-industrial liberal democracies. In the US, as union membership has slumped, the adjusted average hourly wage has barely shifted from $20.27 in 1964 to $22.65 in 2018. Over roughly the same period, high earners saw their share of US aggregate income almost double. The modern marginalisation of unions has removed what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith described as a healthy “countervailing power” to mighty corporations. The loss is not merely financial. As academics such as Robert Putnam and Michael Lind have recently argued, unions also generate a sense of empowerment, solidarity and collective self-esteem.
Not far from Bessemer, Rosa Parks ignited the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. The dignity of labour in the digital economy of the 21st century is also something worth fighting for. Whatever their decision next month, the Amazon workers of Bessemer should be celebrated for making their voices heard.