State of the Union

Inside an Amazon Warehouse, Robots' Ways Rub Off on Humans - The New York Times

I have Amazon on my mind lately.

As I wrote last week, Sonomans forced the giant mega e-tailer to abandon plans for a delivery warehouse that would have been situated on a small rural highway and would have impacted negatively the commute, and the quality of life, for all of our neighbors.

But it got me thinking about the folks who work in all those Amazon warehouses and the labor movement aimed at giving them a hand.

The first union victory at an Amazon warehouse happened recently at one on Staten Island in New York. The organizers, two guys who actually worked in the warehouse, one of whom had been fired for his union activities, were able to convince their fellow employees to organize for better pay, working conditions, and safety. You know, the stuff the 19th and 20th century organizers fought for and won, but has since been eroded by economic uncertainty and managements’ anti-labor lies.

There have been several attempts to unionize Amazon warehouses. Some have lost by small margins, others by enormous ones. The question that comes to mind is…why? Why is the richest company in retail, with the second highest private workforce in the country so afraid of the union?

While the rest of America was fighting for a $15 per hour minimum “living wage”, Amazon was already at $15 per hour and has since bumped up to $18 per hour. Wow you could be saying, they get paid pretty good, bravo for Amazon. If so I believe there is a job waiting for you at a local warehouse.

Now compare that with the minimum wage in let’s say Alabama which is $7.25 per hour. Amazon is paying almost triple minimum wage there. In New York the minimum wage is $13.25 per hour. Amazon’s pay is only 35% higher, still higher but not quite as nice as Alabama. Again wow, Amazon is a progressive company paying way above the minimum for jobs that are essentially minimum wage work.

The reality is that in essence they are buying off their employees, in effect saying if you unionize we’ll take your pay down to the state minimum. Not that big a deal in New York, where the union was successful, much more so in Alabama where a union vote was turned down by a 2-1 margin.

To Amazon, you, Mr./Ms. worker, are just a cog that can be replaced at any moment. Amazon attrition rates hover at around 150% per year at the warehouses. Think of that for a moment. That means not only is there a full scale turnover in a year, but half of the ones who replace the former employees are also replaced. Some of that is from the temporary workers hired for Christmas, the Nomadland wanderers who work only till they have enough to move on. Some of them are probably young workers looking to have one year or so of a high paying job that will see them through a couple of years of college, the people who don’t care about issues like health insurance, retirement, or even worker safety. But most of it is from people who quit or are fired for real or imagined infractions.

There is a yang for the yin of high pay and it comes from the management style of the company’s computers. Yes that is right, it’s the computers that monitors the workers, not a human supervisor. Every movement, every package packed, every step taken by a warehouse worker is monitored by the data system that controls not just that warehouse, but all warehouses. Make too many mistakes, ie, turn the wrong way or take too many steps or heaven forbid take an unscheduled bathroom break and the system makes a note and sends a warning. Do the same thing twice and you’re gone. Occasionally instead of sending warning notices for some “infraction” it sends termination notices. Instead of a human supervisor calling you in for a face to face meeting, it’s a chatbot telling you to shape up.

All of that comes directly from the top. Jeff Bezos believes that all humans are inherently lazy and will do only the minimum to achieve the necessary. Thus the more pressure, the more control, a company has on it’s employees, the better for the company.

Then of course there is the case of the worker who got COVID, ended up in a coma, and the company sent a notice that if he didn’t show up for work he would be fired. Ultimately they paid his disability insurance and added that he was “in their thoughts and prayers”.

All of this is in the service of two objectives. The first is having total and utter control of the retail marketplace. The second is that utterly insipid phrase “increasing shareholder value”.

Look I get it. You make an investment in a company you expect a return on that investment, that’s fair. But when the entire goal of the business model is only to increase the shareholder value you are not serving the community, the country, or the world that you are selling to. Pawning off employee management decisions to a computer system so you can increase your share price by a penny or two is ultimately counterproductive.

I admit I have a biased view on this issue. I was a business owner for 35 years. I managed employees, hired, fired, paid the taxes, paid the rent, all of those things and I still think the Amazon unionization effort is worthwhile. An employee is more than a cog in your system. An employee is the lifeblood of your company, the people who are turning Jeff Bezos into the richest man in the world or second richest depending on the day of the week. Treat them right Amazon, not just in terms of wages, but in terms of humanity.

Otherwise you’ve just got them working on the chain gang.

Shapiro Out