“The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.”–John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
I worked at an Amazon fulfillment center–Amazon SDF8–in Jeffersonville, IN from July 2014 until February 2018. I tried to start a union there, a workers’ union. I failed–we failed (one can’t form a union alone.) But I say “I” failed, because I was the leader. I was the most vocal, open supporter. I documented the work environment clearly, honestly–brushing aside the mountains of colored information Amazon supplies to its employees–and posted the document online. I passed out 800 cards with the URL (shown below front and back). It freaked managers out. Although tier one employees are not allowed to carry their phones into the building, the company began calling my phone in my car and leaving benign sounding messages saying, “We just wanted to ask you about the cards you’ve been passing out.”
Hourly employees were extremely receptive. They unanimously said to me, “Everything you said is true.” They said how surprised they were when they read the document–how “fair” it was. They were dying for change, but they are conditioned to believe that there is nothing they can do–a debilitating combination of fear and apathy–scared to lose their jobs, apathetic because they believe Amazon is just too powerful. I told anyone who wanted to listen–if fifty percent plus one of hourly employees vote yes for a union, we have a union, and there isn’t anything a half-trillion (now trillion) dollar company can do about it. Employees would nod in agreement, but I suspect, in their hearts, most simply didn’t believe it was possible. The company rhetoric, the systematic physical and psychological subjugation of employees was, from my perspective, astonishing. What could I do besides compose that document and pass out those cards?
But, because I wasn’t successful in unionizing Amazon SDF8, it doesn’t mean the effort was a failure. It was probably the most important thing I have tried to do in my life. If I had started out from my first day in 2014, with the notes I had not yet written, with the strategy I had not even contemplated at the time, I suspect there might have been a chance of success. But I had no idea at that time that I would eventually become an unlikely labor organizer, not because I’m a real go-getter, but because I saw a need that was impossible to disregard. I still have those notes and that strategy. All labor organizations, and, all individual laborers have been, thus far, anemic in confronting Amazon’s redundant anti-labor engineering.
Amazon is a paradox. It’s a company that destroys as it builds. It offers a seemingly endless variety of consumer goods, yet it has an oblique relationship with choice and value. It is a system, a network that exists ostensibly to serve customers, but it serves its own growth above all other considerations. Its focus on its own growth, dependent on disposable workers, makes it impossible to offer human empathy to the very workers it needs for operation, growth, existence. The workers serve the system/network. Amazon uses its power to manipulate and exploit the labor free-market. Labor has no system or network united enough to counteract that manipulation/exploitation. The human element becomes subordinate to the growth of the network. So, the network has no interest in the human interests of its workers. Living wage, job security are secondary–worker experience is only an issue as it pertains to network fulfillment and growth.
Employees work amid a constant drone of information signaling how to perform, what’s going on with the company, and how grateful workers should be to be a part of it. Employees can’t just come and do their jobs, they must submit to the culture, submit to the network bodily and psychologically. The rate of employee turnover is concealed. Employees disappear, and the network replaces them.
Technology has the potential to be the great equalizer, the great emancipator. So far, Amazon has used it to move in the exact opposite direction, effecting the greatest precision concentration of wealth in modern history to one human, at the same time implementing the most regressive and dehumanizing labor practices that certainly I have ever seen. There is a reason that the Europeans both implore and admonish Amazon in their present campaign–“We are not robots.” This analogy is not hyperbole. Amazon workers in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the US feel they have lost jurisdiction over their own bodies.
“Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me.”–Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Why does Jeff Bezos want to conquer every corner of the business world? Is it because he wants to be the most powerful businessman in the world? Hence the most powerful man in the world? Or is it because he wants to serve mankind? Create equality? What did he set out to do? Modern conquerors don’t take land, they take economies. Modern slavery in not racial, it’s economic–control over the working poor with outlandish leverage. Modern conquerors become our de facto leaders, exert influence over the lives of millions–with little training, with no moral or philosophical test to ensure fitness–power obtained through business acumen, or brutal business practices, or sometimes just being in the right place at the right time.
Amazon might have set out to attract customers. It evolved to insinuate itself into our culture (the marketer’s holy grail). Our culture lives by its terms. Coercion (maybe extortion), rather than attraction, might be the better word describing how the company gains market share. And if coercion is the optimum word, how is the company using its power, size, and weight to obtain customers? What reservations does it have about allowing workers, schools, businesses, communities, publics to sacrifice for its gain?
When Musk or Wozniak talk about a future man serving machine, take a look at its precursor now. We don’t have to wait for AI to take over the world to be bound by a machine network. Amazon is an extant system of man serving machine serving man, or, possibly, worker and consumer serving network–a network existing to replicate itself until it fills all available space.
A future network, in its beginning, will lack total power, total influence over its field. If it needs human workers, or human pets (as some thinkers quip), it might rely on time-tested combinations of authoritarian control strategies implemented through the latest digital or quantum technologies to produce something akin to Foucault’s “docile bodies.” Like American slaves of the 19th century or like Amazon workers of today, these “bodies” will operate within delineated time and space parameters, with an optimum useful life expectancy range, and will be self-regulating through indoctrination and continuous reinforcement.
A modern leader will embrace all workers with compassion, not leverage them against each other. She will be self-reflecting, rigorously honest. She will lead by the principle that all people have value. She will, within her sphere of influence, relentlessly pursue the implementation of this principle. Bezos’s fatal flaw is that he confuses his building, buying, and operating of businesses with the improvement and the general welfare of the human species. It appears to me that the rhetorical presentation of altruism is much more important to Amazon and Bezos than any real benevolence.
The company’s October 2nd announcement that it will be raising its minimum wage to fifteen dollars by which Bezos says the company wants to “lead,” carries with it the benefits of great PR and fiscal expediency. Amazon, indeed, eliminated two hourly employee compensation programs to pay for the raise: VCP (Variable Compensation Pay) and RSUs (Restricted Stock Units)–programs that were themselves designed to defer and avoid hourly employee pay. The fifteen dollar wage does not constitute a commitment to the Amazon worker. It is a carefully considered network business strategy. It does nothing to mitigate the existing extreme power dynamic–workers used, discarded, replaced.
I certainly didn’t understand or know what Amazon is and what it does until I started working there. It was then that I saw what the company does to human workers. I was like, holy shit! I had just gotten out of school. (I had many blue-collar jobs before that.) I had studied English and critical theory–so I had some experience in critical analysis, but I never intended to be a labor advocate or an Amazon corporate critic. (I have no intention of writing about this fake shit the rest of my life–there is so much other cool stuff out there. My next blog post might be about why the band Slothrust is the most important band out there playing today.) I recognized almost immediately that Amazon was and is a propaganda machine. I began discussing this phenomenon with the senior managers at my facility. Most of these guys had MBAs (there were no women senior managers at SDF8), but they didn’t even seem to understand what propaganda is. Roger Waters puts it this way–“The essence of propaganda is repetition.” Sut Jhally says this–“This is how propaganda works. It works by getting your words in the mouths of other people.”
“Concha would finish all arguments by bringing on supper and saying with a shake of her head, ‘Every poor man socialista . . . a como no? But when you get rich, quick you all very much capitalista.'”–John Dos Pasos, The 42nd Parallel
For my graduate thesis, I had the choice of writing a critical work or a creative project. I wrote a long, experimental poem. I never think much about it, and I sure never thought I’d be quoting from it. But while I was working at Amazon, and going round and round with managers about the disparity between the actual work environment and the company rhetoric, I remembered a passage and how prophetic it would become. Now, I wrote this passage, but these aren’t my words. They belong to a character, and the writer has the responsibility to allow her characters to be true to their nature and to say what they will–
It’s pretty easy to see,
when there are two opposing sides,
what I always do–
Who’s profiting from their side,
and who’s just doing it
because they’re just
someone who got fucked
and calling attention to
a fuckin’ situation.
And who’s making billions of dollars–
who might have a conflict of interest–
who might lie to protect their side.
That dude don’t give a shit.
He was livin’ up here–
he don’t give a fuck.
It’s not gonna help his life one way
or the other.
You gotta look
where everyone’s comin’ from.