Why is Amazon so terrified of workers forming a union?
What’s so bad about a union, from a management perspective?
What seems evident from the aggressive overreaction from Amazon management is that it truly does fear workers getting any power at all. The ideal, from a management perspective, is that workers be powerless.
The reason is obvious: if workers have no power, then management can do what it wants with them. An Amazon warehouse employee spoke to a New York reporter. Just read this preface to the article (and the article itself is also worth reading):
Every shift, Darryl Richardson clocks in to the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, at 7:15 in the morning. He walks up four flights of stairs, and waits. Soon a robot arrives with a pod, which holds inside it the parts of someone’s Amazon order. Richardson picks out the items, places them in a tote, hits a button, and starts the process all over again. He does this for 10 to 11 hours a day, except for two breaks lasting 30 minutes each.
The work is grueling, and last year, Richardson decided to do something about it. He contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to ask about the process of unionizing his Bessemer facility. Now he and his co-workers have entered the final days of voting on whether to unionize, an outcome Amazon has vigorously fought to avoid. If the company loses, other warehouses could unionize quickly behind Bessemer: In the weeks since RWDSU went public with its organizing drive, over 1,000 Amazon workers in other cities have inquired about a union.
Though Amazon pays its warehouse associates $15 an hour and offers some limited benefits, Richardson describes dehumanizing conditions inside his warehouse. Workers still aren’t paid enough for their physically demanding labor, he said, and Amazon is so greedy for their time that they can barely go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Amazon needs a union, he told Intelligencer, and they need one right now.
Consider how Amazon treats its warehouse employees. Amazon can get away with such treatment only so long as workers are powerless. (Imagine holding managers accountable for meeting a similar set of work requirements — real-time performance measures, hard quotas, TOT, the same breaks as the workers. Managers would not stand for it— and they don’t have to: because they have power, they can refuse to meet such requirements.)
Managers fear that those who do the work will add to their “worker” and “employee” identities (which lack power) the new identity of “union member.” If they can see themselves in that light, it changes their self-concept to one in which they have power — and a way to exercise power: the strike.
That would be bad (from management’s perspective) since if workers every day can view themselves as “union members,” that would be a constant subliminal reminder that they do have power — if they stick together.
The broader implications perhaps unnerve some politicians — those who have been elected by a total vote that’s less than half the number of registered voters. Many who are registered fail to vote — some don’t care about their civic responsibilities, but many encounter so many barriers that in practice they cannot vote. Many politicians are elected by a small fraction of registered voters — and since some who could vote fail even to register to vote, even registered voters don’t match the number of potential voters. (“Unregistered voters” would go away if we had automatic voter registration, but for some reason Republicans strongly oppose automatic (or even easy) voter registration — in fact, they oppose anything that would encourage more people to vote.)
Politicians elected by a relatively small minority of the total registered voters probably realize that if voters (not just factory workers) get the same spirit as unions, and use similar methods to communicate, organize, and coordinate — working together to effect change — they could indeed change the status quo. Those who owe their office to poor voter turnout will not see a large voter turnout as a good direction to go.
The fear demonstrated by Amazon shows the degree to which hypercapitalism has in some ways altered the overall social structure, tilting it in a feudalistic direction. There are the very wealthy and powerful, who are few in number but have most of the money. They see themselves as having unlimited rights (though occasionally someone will step so far over the line that it can’t be covered up), and they work to block the power of the majority, undermining that power (through election skulduggery (gerrymandering, restricting who can vote, making voting more difficult) and through restrictions on unions and — when possible — killing unions or at the very least preventing them from forming). The current social structure has the wealthy/powerful at the top (the lords) and at the bottom (in terms of rights and power) low-level labor in a non-union environment (the serfs).
Update 18 Nov 2021: Amazon is still terrified of workers gaining any power at all.
Update: 23 Dec 2021: In Edwardsville IL, Amazon managers did not allow workers to leave their warehouse when tornado warnings sounded. Six died — see this report. In Bessemer AL, Amazon managers did not allow two warehouse workers to go home when they felt ill. Both died — watch this brief video.
Amazon’s interference in the Bessemer AL union vote was so egregious, the vote will be taken again. I wonder whether the outcome will change, especially given the two recent deaths.
Update: 9 April 2022 — Success at last. The Amazon Labor Union has been voted in at Amazon’s warehouse JFK8!