At the start of April in Bessemer, Alabama, we saw the first unionisation drive of Amazon’s US history. The vote came against the backdrop of a plethora of complaints of poor working conditions lobbied against Amazon and, more broadly, the deepening inequalities we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic. It would ultimately fail, but what can we learn from this? And why should we care about it in Ireland?
The poor working conditions in Amazon facilities have garnered a lot of attention. The most prominent, for the visceral reaction it invokes – is the urinating in bottles accusation. Many workers at Amazon’s ‘fulfilment centres’ and drivers alike have claimed the need to urinate in bottles – stemming from Amazon’s ruthless efficiency and productivity standards which doesn’t leave time for bathroom breaks. Amazon surveils its employees, tracking their ‘time off tasks’, with excessive time-off-tasking leading to write ups. Speaking to Vice, one employee said that they try not to go to the bathroom or get water for fear of being fired. This would not appear to be an unfounded fear, either. Bloomberg reported in 2020 that many Amazon workers are fired within a year or two of starting for productivity infractions.
Amazon of course denied this being the case – on Twitter. Proclaiming that if the urinating in bottles charge were true, no one would work for Amazon. However, much evidence that this does in fact take place was proffered to Vice reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley. And yet, people do still work for Amazon. In fact it’s the second largest employer currently in the US, behind Walmart – and growing. The sweet blowback of Amazon’s quippy tweet was that it laid bare the balance of power between Amazon and it’s workers. Amazon’s working conditions are such that people have to pee in bottles. Yet they still work there. In huge numbers. Bessemer, Alabama is a relatively poor town, with less than 15% of its population having attained a Bachelor’s degree. The notion that those warehouse workers – in a pandemic especially, are making a choice is nonsense. One Amazon worker who spoke to Vice, Catherine Highsmith, was laid off from her job because of the pandemic. She had heard bad things about Amazon and it’s conditions, but she was desperate.
“In New Jersey, warehouse workers earned $24 an hour before Amazon moved in. By 2019, warehouse workers in New Jersey earned $17.50. In 68 countries where Amazon has opened one of its largest facilities – average industry compensation drops by more than 6% during the facility’s first two years.”
Amazon pay their workers $15 an hour. The same $15 that leftists in the US tried to force Joe Biden to install as the federal minimum wage earlier this year. This is also higher than the average for an order and stock filler in the US – according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, at $12.92. Amazon also provides healthcare to their workers. Two weeks ago Amazon also launched their AmaZen Zen Booth for meditation and wellness practice. Good right? Not exactly.
In unionised positions, warehouse workers earn upwards of $30 an hour in the US. Bloomberg reported that one man – Joey Alvarado makes $30 an hour working with Stater Bros Markets – a southern Californian supermarket chain. Also, Amazon drives down warehouse wages. In New Jersey, warehouse workers earned $24 an hour before Amazon moved in. By 2019, warehouse workers in New Jersey earned $17.50. In 68 countries where Amazon has opened one of its largest facilities – average industry compensation drops by more than 6% during the facility’s first two years.
Amazon has also adopted a gig economy model for its delivery workers where drivers download an app to accept assignments, Deliveroo or Uber style. The pay is $50 for three hours. When factoring in the cost of their own vehicle and fuel, it comes out at more like minimum wage. UPS, by contrast, has a similar model where drivers are paid by the mile and given a stipend for phone internet. They are members of a union. Many of Amazon’s workers struggle financially. There is little opportunity to move up or earn more money and more than 4,000 of Amazon’s employees are on food stamps in the US.
Only a few months after the facility in Bessemer opened up in March of 2020, a few employees met to discuss the possibility of a union. The working conditions being the catalyst. They met with members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to discuss the potential unionisation effort. Having weighed up the pros and cons, they decided to do it.
So set in motion the historic and laborious effort of unionising in one of the most union averse companies and sectors in the US. Long shifts into the night, sleeping in cars, grabbing two minute conversations with workers as they were stopped at red lights, accumulating signatures. However, they weren’t the only ones working hard to sway worker opinion.
“Anti-union leaflets were passed out and workers were sent texts almost daily. Workers were also forced to attend anti-union seminars during work hours. Amazon says this was simply to allow workers understand all the facts of joining a union and give them a chance to answer questions.”
Amazon turned its attention and thus ruthless efficiency into stopping its workers efforts at collective action. A shiny new anti-union website was set up – doitwithoutdues.com, apparently replete with cartoon infographics, dancing dogs and of course, fear mongering anti-union sentiment. I say apparently, because by the time I went looking – it had been taken down, such was the clearly unforeseen public distaste. The information on the website told its workers that if you’re paying dues it will be restrictive – meaning it won’t be easy to be helpful and social with each other. Care packages were sent out complete with t-shirts, pins and instructions on how to vote ‘NO.’ Anti-union leaflets were passed out and workers were sent texts almost daily. Workers were also forced to attend anti-union seminars during work hours. Amazon says this was simply to allow workers understand all the facts of joining a union and give them a chance to answer questions.
This radical information campaign had the desired effect, too. Before the vote had taken place, workers spoke about Amazon cutting their wages and potentially shutting down the facility. When it was all said and done – the unionisation effort lost by 1795 votes to 738.
Why do we care? Especially some 6,000 kilometres away.
Earlier this year it was reported that Amazon had attained planning permission to build a warehouse, not unlike the one in Bessemer, in Dublin. Only the latest in a long line of large tech facility openings in the Silicon Bog, or the Silicon Isle or the Silicon Republic or… Ireland has loads of tech jobs, is the thing.
Not only is this a problem for existing warehouse jobs – as previously mentioned it drives down warehouse wages. But Amazon also has a long history of bullying states, particularly around payment of taxes. In 2010, following pushes from Texas officials to pay $270 million in taxes, amazon closed its facility in the state and scrapped its plans of expansion. In Seattle in 2018, the city council debated a tax on large employers which was meant to pay for homeless services and affordable housing. Amazon opposed it publicly – telling a newspaper columnist in the state that it would halt plans to build one tower and reconsider its lease for a second. The tax was eventually repealed.
A lot has been made about how Ireland already shows it’s arse – otherwise known as it’s 12.5% corporation tax incentive – to attract foreign investment. But even apart from that, Ireland has a thriving tech industry with other ways of avoiding both tax and employment responsibilities.
Martin McMahon, activist and host of the ‘Echo Chamber Podcast’ has been talking about bogus self-employment for a long time. This is the practice of falsely classifying a worker as self-employed, when they in fact carry out their work exactly as an employee. This is in order that the company needn’t pay PRSI or provide basic employment rights – maternity pay, holiday pay, protection from erroneous dismissal etc. He went before the Committee of Public Accounts in March and told that, extrapolating from figures from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in the construction sector, that €1 billion was being lost in tax revenue from this.
He also mentioned that this practice was big in the technology and multinational sector, where the use of intermediary companies – third party companies which hire workers for tech firms, is prominent. It’s unclear what percentage of tech jobs in Ireland are misclassified as self-employed. However, I was in contact with a worker from a very large and ubiquitous social media company earlier this year regarding a piece of collective action he and his colleagues were taking. He and his colleagues are not classified as employees, despite working full time with the large social media company, on company provided laptops with a contract without an end date. They were pushing for basic sick pay. My understanding is that they got it.
All this is to say that the multinational and tech industry in Ireland already uses its considerable weight to get its way. States like Ireland are either unwilling or unable to take action against these companies. Workers on the other hand, might be better placed.
In Germany, where union culture is strong, Amazon warehouse workers went on strike and though not able to unionise, were able to get improvements in overtime scheduling, an increase in break rooms and a pledge by Amazon to pay Christmas bonuses – a standard practice in German industry. This piece of collective action in an industry with a long history of anathema to unions, both blue and white collar, is something.
A Christmas bonus and a second room for tea seems a monumentally small something though, when considering the last year’s developments – I will admit. In a totally not deranged indicator of a perfectly unbroken society – Jeff Bezos added $74 billion to his net worth in 2020. The same 2020 that saw massive job loss and financial insecurity.
Though the pandemic exacerbated it, Bezos’ feudal level wealth is not, of course, exclusively a consequence of his multiplicity of courier tentacles being our only connection with the outside world for the last year. His wealth has been growing in parallel with deepening inequality for a long time.
Amazon’s size and influence is growing. 1.3 million people now work for the megacorp worldwide, and it looks as though a fulfilment centre is coming to Ireland. If there is any hope that Ireland won’t be bullied into accepting poor and dangerous working conditions in exchange for meagre taxes and a loss of autonomy in tax policy – it’ll be workers, not the state who does it. Perhaps that, rather than a win, is what we can take from the Bessemer effort. That there is worker consciousness growing out there, however burgeoning a stage it might currently be in. And that a worldwide worker consciousness, class consciousness, is what could bring about a reckoning for these companies. Failing that, we can learn meditation.
Featured photo by Nina Smirnova
This article was supported by: STAND Programme Assistant Alex