United States | MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS | TRADE UNIONS
A well-oiled model of workforce casualization
The Amazon effect
Positioned among the companies that are reaping huge profits in the coronavirus pandemic and run by the richest man on earth, Amazon has not only worsened the crisis of small and medium-sized urban stores worldwide, it has expanded a thoroughly rapacious model of workforce organization.
Daniel Gatti | Rel UITA
“After six months of shifts moving boxes at an Amazon warehouse near Mexico City as a contract worker, Jaime Hidalgo believed that job stability and brighter prospects beckoned when he finally received the company’s ‘blue badge’ making him a member of staff.”
“Hidalgo, 35, was convinced that the mandatory overtime and the 60-hour weeks had been worth it as he became a fully-fledged Amazon employee – but within weeks he was fired when a stomach bug meant more bathroom breaks and less time on the warehouse floor.”
That is how a long and well-documented piece on the Amazon universe in Mexico, published on April 28 on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news portal, begins.
The authors of “Inside Amazon’s shadow workforce in Mexico,” Christine Murray and Avi Asher-Schapiro, interviewed 15 former employees of the multinational corporation who agreed to tell how the company owned by Jeff Bezos—the richest man in the world who fancies himself as a progressive businessman—shamelessly exploited them before firing them on flimsy grounds.
Hidalgo’s story is repeated throughout the accounts of the other former employees of the company.
“Interviews with workers, copies of pay slips, and WhatsApp messages from Amazon HR reveal that many had to work overtime beyond legal limits while others were let go without severance, forced to resign, or laid off after falling ill with COVID-19,” the two journalists report.
When asked to comment, the company merely said that it complied with the labor laws of every country it operates in, claiming, of course, that for Amazon “nothing was more important than the safety and well-being of its employees.”
Three labor lawyers refute that claim on at least several aspects, “from excessive forced overtime to the use of contractors for non-specialized tasks to layoffs without severance being paid” or sick workers required to remain on the job, and 60-hour workweeks, when the law only authorizes up to 48 hours with no more than nine hours of mandatory overtime, and only under extraordinary circumstances.
And Amazon could soon be on shaky ground in another aspect if it does not adapt its practices to a recent Mexican law that limits subcontracting.
But anything goes for companies like Amazon that move more money than many countries and set their own conditions for operating in each territory they set up shop in. And if the local authorities complain, they simply pull out and take their business and jobs elsewhere.
The pandemic was a godsend for Amazon. Along with the vast majority of e-commerce companies, it grew exponentially, and to meet the demands of a market expanding like never before, it was able to make use of millions of workers around the world who were suddenly laid off.
In 2020, some 500,000 people joined the workforce of the multinational corporation, which currently stands at more than 1.3 million. In that paradoxical sense typical of businesspersons, Amazon’s management refers to its workers elegantly as “associates.”
In the Mexico warehouses, more than two-thirds of these “associates” are outsourced to contractors, forming a huge “shadow workforce,” according to the former workers interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation reporters.
“Social inequality is largely a product of these kinds of practices that have deformed the world of work (and) have allowed for exploitation,” Mexican senator Napoleón Gómez told the journalists.
In every country in which Amazon operates, the “associates” earn above the legal minimum wage, but they are also subjected to a use-and-discard type of permanent rotation system and to grueling working conditions, with insanely fast work paces, mandatory overtime that is both excessive and unpredicable, and an Orwellian control.
“The schedule is really tough, it’s 12 hours of walking … they measure everything,” is how Christian Montiel, 38, described working for Amazon.
By “they measure everything,” Montiel meant a system that monitors employee productivity around the clock at Amazon warehouses worldwide.
That system is called TOT (time off tasks) and it consists of devices that keep track of the number of boxes each employee packs and the barcodes they read, as well as the time it takes them to move from one place to another, even the time it takes them to punch in and out of work.
The “associates” must wear electronic bracelets that allow their foremen to locate them at all times.
“When the TOT shows a drop in your productivity and that you ‘wasted’ a certain amount of time, the supervisor comes around and tells you how to make up for the time you wasted, or else face disciplinary actions or dismissal,” an employee told the French periodical Le Monde Diplomatique, which also published a report on Amazon this past month of May.
The TOT also measures the time employees “waste” in going to the bathroom, and since there are few bathrooms in the warehouses and they are located far from the work areas, it is common for both male and female workers to use bottles to relieve themselves.
Such situations were widely denounced by workers at the multinational corporation’s Bessemer warehouse, in the U.S. state of Alabama. For a long time the company denied the accusations, until it was forced to admit that it was a widespread practice, and not just in the United States.
Amazon is run under a global work model that it applies in all of its subsidiaries and which involves avoiding a direct relationship with workers, Chris Forde, co-director of the Centre of Employment Relations, Innovation and Change at Britain’s Leeds University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation journalists.
“How can there be companies that treat people this way … and no-one does anything about it?” the researcher asked.
Some of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse wanted to say and do something about it. And that something was forming a section of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which groups some 80,000 workers in those sectors.
None of the Amazon warehouses in the United States have a union. And they will continue without one for a long time to come.
Right from the start it was an uneven fight. The law that regulates unionizing efforts in companies in the United States is, like many other laws in that country, absurd, and, not surprisingly, it favors the interests of management.
Workers wishing to form a union to defend their rights must first obtain the signature of 30 percent of the workers on a company’s payroll and then put the decision to a vote to be ratified by a majority of the workforce.
Nothing stops the company from exerting all sorts of pressures to prevent the union from ever seeing the light of day.
The pro-union workers at Bessemer completed the first step successfully: they secured the necessary signatures to call the election. But they failed in the second step: last month, close to 1,800 workers voted against forming a union and only 738 voted in favor.
Amazon pulled out all the stops. Before the election it offered workers a bonus in exchange for quitting, thus facilitating the removal of disgruntled workers, and once the campaign began, it fired 250 people it identified as critical, Le Monde Diplomatique reports, quoting employee sources.
Its only valid arguments were that it offers health insurance to its workers as soon as they set foot in its warehouses, and that it pays more than 15 dollars an hour, double the legal minimum and considerably more than what the vast majority of employees of other service industry companies are paid.
The rest were all lies and intimidations. Amazon told its workers, for example, the many “other things” they could buy with the 50 dollars they would otherwise be “required” to pay as dues to the union.
That was a lie. The law in Alabama (as in another 26 states with management-friendly legislation) by no means forces workers to pay union dues.
To carry out its antiunion campaign, the company resorted to modern union busters, who, unlike their peers of decades past, do not use clubs or guns to “persuade” workers against unionizing, and instead don respectable suits and offer their services as “consultants.”
In an article on the Bessemer defeat featured in The Nation, Jane McAlevey, a university specialist on the world of labor and a correspondent for that left-wing U.S. newspaper, cited the 1988 book Confessions of a Union Buster, in which the author, Martin Jay Levitt, provides a first-hand account of union busting strategies and tactics.
The book, McAlevey says, is “full of swagger, as it should be, given how many campaigns Levitt helped destroy.”
And she goes on to quote extracts from the book.
In one, Levitt says: “Union busting is a field populated by bullies and built on deceit. A campaign against a union is an assault on individuals and a war against the truth. As such, it is a war without honor. The only way to bust a union is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, and always, always attack.”
In another he tells his readers: “Each ‘union prevention’ campaign, as the wars are called, turns on a combined strategy of disinformation and personal assault.”
Following instructions from its consultants, Amazon management at Bessemer sent letters to its workers, convened mandatory attendance meetings in the workplace, threatened layoffs, and spread rumors that the warehouse could be shut down if a union was formed. In addition, details of the personal lives of the union promoters were mysteriously made known.
The company also influenced the local mayor’s office.
As a result of the pandemic, RWDSU activists decided to forego door-to-door canvassing and instead approach workers on the street leading up to the gates of the Bessemer warehouse.
The spot chosen by the unionists was a traffic light, which meant workers who drove to work had to stop there for a couple of minutes, thus allowing unionists to speak briefly with them and hand out fliers to them.
But Amazon appealed to the municipal authorities complaining that the light caused traffic jams. The mayor’s office agreed to remove it.
Like all large multinational corporations, Amazon has enormous pressuring capacity over state and local governments in the cities and towns in which it operates, especially in areas blighted by unemployment, as noted by Le Monde Diplomatique.
With its more than 800,000 workers distributed across 110 warehouses similar in size to the Bessemer facility, the company owned by Jeff Bezos is currently the second largest private employer in the United States, and in two years time, when construction of another 33 warehouses is complete and tens of thousands of additional workers are hired to service them, it could climb to first place, ahead of the Walmart supermarket chain.
But the RWDSU also made mistakes, McAlevey says.
Not canvassing door to door and focusing solely on “digital strategies” was one such mistake. As she sees it “there is no substitute for house-calling in a hard campaign, period.”
Another mistake was assuming that because the company’s workforce was made up primarily of Black and Latino workers, they would vote in favor of unionizing.
More than 40 percent of Black voters in Bessemer County voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections, in line with local evangelical pastors, with whom the RWDSU failed to engage, according to the articles published in both The Nation and Le Monde Diplomatique.
Alabama, moreover, is unique in having the only Mercedes Benz factory in the world that has no union, despite employing thousands of workers.
And in a country like the United States, lobotomized by decades of neoliberal and individualistic rhetoric and constant antiunion campaigns, with the rate of unionization dropping from 20 percent in 1983 to 11 percent in 2020, it is not surprising that companies succeed in convincing the very workers they exploit.
A 19-year-old worker at the Bessemer plant quoted by Le Monde Diplomatique called unionists “thieves” who rob their members by charging them union dues in exchange for nothing.
“There is a huge gap between the fantasy world painted by Amazon, in which everyone is in the same boat, working to delight customers, and the harsh reality of fast-paced work,” and yet the fantasy is alluring, George Washington University visiting professor Robin Gaster told the Argentine newspaper Página 12.
Gaster predicts that “a great defeat such as that at Bessemer will not encourage workers in other Amazon warehouses to risk organizing.”
Things could change, McAlevey writes, if the Senate passes a law (the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, or PRO Act), which has already been passed by the House, protecting the right to unionize, at least more than the current legislation does.
But the bill might be struck down in the Senate, and not just because Democrats have a very slight majority there, but also because “modern” business lobbies operate strongly even among members of that party.
While Joe Biden declared his support for the unionizing efforts of Amazon workers, in the 2020 elections Jeff Bezos did not hide his preference for the Democratic candidates over Donald Trump, and the influence of large technological multinational corporations in the apparatus of the governing party of the United States is more than proven.
Meanwhile, work casualization models are making strides in the world as companies such as Amazon, Walmart, and McDonald’s gain increasing ground.
It will not be just trade unions that will have to adapt their strategies to this new reality, but anyone seeking to change the state of affairs worldwide.
These are companies that are contributing to make the world an increasingly hellish place—that was how they were described at an inter-union meeting held in the United States to discuss, among other things, the organization of a boycott of Amazon.
The meeting, Le Monde Diplomatique reports, was held via Zoom and somebody pointed to the irony of Amazon getting richer as they debated the possibility of a boycott on Zoom, whose cloud computer partner of choice is, precisely, Amazon Web Services…