American workers are like moths to Amazon’s flame


Not an Amazon job – for all sorts of reasons. Photo by Arron Choi on Unsplash


“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”
– Andy Warhol Inc. workers are unionised in Europe. But in the United States, Amazon employees are not, and the status quo seems unlikely to change in a hurry. Just days ago, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted overwhelmingly against unionising. This has significant implications for America, for its workers and for the sort of work that Amazon symbolises.

Let’s break it all down.

Amazon is second only to Walmart among American companies, in terms of workforce size. Had Amazon’s employees in Bessemer voted to form a union, it’s likely to have been the start of a bigger movement to restore the sense that workers can — and must — fight for fairness and safety. Amazon’s first union in America might have been, in a sense, the equivalent of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York 110 years ago. That’s in the sense of being a trigger for worker activism. The Triangle fire, in Manhattan, caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, and led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards as well as strong demands for workers’ rights.

Back in September 2019, Elizabeth Warren campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination by comparing the sweeping change brought by the Triangle factory fire to her own policy agenda.

So yes, if an Amazon warehouse in America had a union, it would have a catalytic effect, somewhat like that New York fire more than a century ago.

Second, unions can mean good things for workers but Americans are increasingly passing on them. Steven Greenhouse, author of  Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, said in 2019: “the percentage of workers in unions [in the US] is at its lowest level in over a century – down to 10.5 per cent from a peak of 35 per cent. All this helps explain why wages have stagnated for decades, income inequality has soared and corporations and billionaire donors have undue sway over our politics, policymaking and political appointments.”

By contrast, look at the way Amazon workers in Europe deal with the company. They do it from a position of strength. At the end of March, as the world waited to hear if Bessemer’s nearly 6,000 eligible Amazon workers had voted to unionise, Amazon workers in Germany were on a four-day strike to demand higher wages. The week before, Amazon logistics workers in Italy had gone on a 24-hour strike over issues that included delivery workloads. Last year, Amazon workers in France struck work over concerns about their safety during the pandemic.

Third and last, the failure to unionise means the parameters of America’s Amazon-type jobs will be set by the company. What this might mean was explained, in great detail, by David Leonhardt in ‘The Morning’ newsletter of April 12. Amazon pays $15, double the US federal minimum wage  of $7.25. But, unlike the kind of factory jobs that were once available in America, Amazon jobs don’t offer economic growth and are more isolating. Like factory jobs, however, Amazon work is physically demanding and can be dangerous.

Basically, says Mr Leonhardt, an Amazon worker earns roughly $31,000 a year, “which is less than half of US median family income and low enough in many cases for a family to qualify for subsidized school lunches”.

He made reference to former Amazon worker Spencer Cox, who’s writing a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota about the company. Mr Cox says that “Amazon is reorganizing the very nature of retail work — something that traditionally is physically undemanding and has a large amount of downtime — into something more akin to a factory, which never lets up.”

That sounds about right. The fact that American workers (or at least those employed by Amazon) don’t recognise this is dispiriting. They seem like moths to Amazon’s flame and it can only burn them.