While shopping on Amazon may be a warm and amiable breeze, working for Amazon is an endless and excruciating violent tempest, according to a New York Times report on conditions among the company's beleaguered white-collar employees. The Times investigation, based on interviews with scores of professional-level workers, depicts a totalizing, overbearing workplace in which members of every department are under constant surveillance and evaluation, pitted against one another in an endless lethal endurance match.
Amazon's demands are brutal even by tech industry standards. Where working hours are concerned, 80 is the new 40. The emails roll in well past midnight, followed by the texts asking why the emails haven't been answered. Employees are required to make constant sacrifices to the needs of the company, with weekends and vacations regularly demanded as offerings. The company shows no mercy even in extreme cases: an employee with breast cancer was told she would be fired because her "personal life" was interfering with her duties, and another who had just given birth to a stillborn child was put on a "performance improvement plan" for her insufficient job devotion. The end result has been a state of almost-universal trauma, with one person sadly relaying that "nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."
But one word is noticeably absent from the whole of the Times's inquiry into the company's insidious practices: union. None of the workers speak of the possibility of unionization, and the Times reporters don't appear to have asked about it. While there are near-universal reports of misery and exploitation, quitting is the only remedy anyone can seem to come up with.
This is unfortunate, since many of the wrongs described by the Amazon workers are precisely those that robust collective bargaining can help to mitigate. Regular defined hours, real guaranteed vacation time, no employment consequences for having a child: these must be fought for and secured. Amazon's employees are constantly having to pay corporate expenses out-of-pocket without reimbursement (a practice that California has made illegal.) Measures of their job success are deliberately fuzzy in order to keep them perpetually on edge. All of this could be addressed through a solid contract. Currently, forced into a "a river of intrigue and scheming" by the company's system of anonymous peer ratings, colleagues turn against colleagues to save their own skin. A dose of locked-arm solidarity seems like it might cure the atmosphere.
The Amazon revealed by the Times goes far beyond the ordinary collection of white-collar blues, though. It's a truly extreme case; it resembles an efficiency-worshiping package delivery cult just as much it does a 21st-century Dickensian workhouse. Psychological torture and manipulation is a regular feature of the employee experience. Coworkers are encouraged to savagely tear each other's ideas apart, on the theory that camaraderie undercuts innovation. So withering are the harsh critiques and "hostile language" encouraged in meetings that even the most cool-headed rationalistic techies are driven to outpourings of emotion and fear. The stated company ideal is for one to become an "Amabot," a perfect diligent android, one's identity permanently subsumed into the mighty Amazonian Borg.
The megalomaniacal Jeff Bezos hovers over the whole enterprise, orchestrating the mind games and occasionally swooping down to terrify low-level employees with personalized chastisements. Bezos's style as chief executive is more Ahab than Iacocca, with ecstatic visions of new shipping methods regularly carrying him to hysterical orgiastic frenzy, each followed by intensive new demands on his hirelings. Amazonians teach his Principles to their children, and the place appears to be only steps away from requiring conversations to begin and end with a "Praise be to Jeff."
The company's abuses of its employees are not confined to the headquarters; its blue-collar workers face their own set of tribulations. The stockers and packagers of Amazon's warehouses operate in notoriously punishing environment, often working eleven-hour shifts and walking twenty miles per day. Those who become unproductive even for a few minutes are fired, with the older, weaker employees regularly culled. Bathroom use is closely monitored as part of a program of intentionally impossible speedups by management, reviving brutal time-crunching techniques most recently seen in Soviet industrial plants. Employees must attend mandatory callisthenic exercise sessions, the health-related justifications for which are belied by workers' statements that "they do not care if you keel over on the line." (Indeed, occasionally they are simply crushed to death by machinery and forgotten forever.) To judge from these first-person accounts, the best available comparison is to prison, though even most actual correctional facilities are mercifully free of forced jumping-jack regimens.
The warehouse workers are almost totally captive to the firm's whims, and efforts to improve conditions in the labor camps have been abortive. (The Times does report one adjustment: in Pennsylvania, rather than simply keeping an ambulance running outside of the over 100-degree warehouse, and carrying employees off when they dropped, an exposé by the local newspaper caused the company to reluctantly fit an air conditioner.) Organizing campaigns have foundered, and a raft of harrowing testimonials has done little to quell the allure of free two-day Prime shipping. The Supreme Court recently blocked the litigation route, decreeing that Amazon didn't need to pay workers for the time they spend in mandatory 30-minute security screenings, in which the company carefully ensures that nobody is wandering away with a prophylactic.
Any attempt to unionize one of Amazon's corporate tributaries will be rough. One of the company's top priorities is making sure all efforts at collective action are snuffed in their infancy. Even in Germany, where unions are basic players in the labor market, Amazon's staunch refusal to negotiate has rattled organizers, and the company has threatened to take its workhouses elsewhere at the first sign of flourishing union density. At least one American vote has already failed after Amazon called in its lawyers to gently persuade some Delaware technicians that it would not be in their interest to make trouble.
But the road isn't impossible to travel. There have already been small victories, like the NLRB ruling requiring Amazon to post reminders of employees' unionization rights. And the Germans have not been discouraged, vowing to continue with strikes and pursue Amazon to the ends of the earth.
In fact, the digital economy is proving far more hospitable to labor organizing than might have been expected. Online media companies like Gawker and Salon are going union. The Uber drivers have tried to coordinate a fight to regain what the app expropriates from them, and it's not wild to think that IT workers have their own dormant possibilities. And as New York magazine reported last year, new organizing efforts are emerging from the substantial "tech underclass" of blue-collar workers serving Silicon Valley, like Facebook's bus drivers. Amazon itself may be significantly more cutthroat and obstinate than any other employer, but the workers profiled by the Times would be mistaken to think they're in the wrong place for a union.
White collar workers like Amazon's marketers and designers are an important part of the ongoing effort to ensure reasonable workplace conditions for all. Studying the words of the warehouse and professional workers side-by-side, one sees how similar many of their grievances are; each is united by the fact that membership in the Amazon "team" is a sentence upon an immiserating death ship. Of course, white collar workers also suffer their own unique problems; they remain exempt from the time-and-a-half overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act. But box-packers and book-marketers alike are watched over by a fiendish Bezos, their lives surrendered to the great cause of one-click drone-delivered toilet tissue.
So let this operate as an open letter to Amazon employees: if you're sick and tired of being sick and tired, the labor movement awaits you. Don't cry at your desk, organize! Amabots of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your complimentary Prime subscription.
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