Union victory for Amazon warehouse could change US labour movement

Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island is a thoroughly 21st-century workplace where human “pickers” select items from shelves brought to them by a fleet of robots. Yet when the leaders of the newly formed Amazon Labor Union wanted to unionise the place, they turned to a manual called ‘Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry’ from 1936. The pamphlet recommends among other things a “chain system” whereby workers recruit other workers.

That Amazon workers should look back to the history of the steel industry is not as strange as it might sound. Steel was a vital sector of the American economy a century ago, as is ecommerce today. In the 1930s, large steel companies were resisting unions by portraying them as interfering intermediaries. “Outsiders have not been necessary in the past,” one manifesto from Bethlehem Steel warned workers. “Nothing has happened to make them necessary now.”

Last week, workers in the Staten Island Amazon warehouse made history by becoming the first facility in the US to unionise. Organisers have attributed their success to their start-up union being led by workers rather than people who could be branded “outsiders”. Leader Chris Smalls was a former worker at the site. Other key members still worked there and they spoke to colleagues about the union on break times and at the bus stop after shifts. They brought food; gathered phone numbers; gave out T-shirts.

Unions have been desperate to get a foothold in Amazon for good reason. The company is so vast that it can shape working conditions in other companies, too. I was at a conference once for UK delivery company executives who admitted they paid their workers too little but complained they had no choice because Amazon had led consumers to expect their goods to be delivered free and superfast. Even countries with strong unions struggle with this dynamic: German union Verdi regularly calls strikes at Amazon warehouses to try to bring the company into line with wider sectoral agreements.

Amazon’s use of technology to monitor workers has also spread to other companies. In 2020, it launched AWS Panorama, which uses computer vision technology to analyse footage from security cameras in workplaces in order to detect when employees are not complying with rules like social distancing.

The bigger question is whether the Amazon warehouse victory will mark a turning point for the wider US labour movement. The headline numbers still look bleak. Last year, just 10.3 per cent of US employees were union members, down from about 20 per cent in the early 1980s. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, who work disproportionately in sectors without unions, the number was just 4.2 per cent. The US is not alone: trade union membership has halved on average across OECD countries since 1985.

But there were signs of a shift even before this win. A Gallup poll last year found 68 per cent of Americans approved of unions, the highest reading since 1965. Workers have started to form unions in unexpected places, from Starbucks branches to tech companies to glossy fashion magazines. The macroeconomic context matters, too: a shortage of workers since the pandemic makes people more confident about sticking their necks out.

It is also possible that the experience of “essential workers” during the pandemic punctured some of the existential fear that robots could soon replace their jobs. For all the talk of a looming wave of automation leading to mass unemployment, robots did not step in to resolve problems like a shortage of truck drivers. “To do my job of sequenced stop-order picking, no machine exists right now that can do that,” one warehouse worker told me recently. “The ruling class calls it unskilled labour, they say it is unskilled labour because anyone can do it. If anyone can do it, then any machine can do it, but obviously they haven’t programmed or built a machine that can do it.”

The robots in Staten Island don’t threaten to displace humans, but they do set a relentless pace for their work — one issue that helped galvanise support for the union. When the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, an organisation of workers, unions and health and safety professionals, surveyed 145 workers there, two-thirds said they experienced physical pain while doing their job (especially in their feet, knees, backs, ankles, shoulders and hands).

Unions have waited a long time for such a moment. The victory at Amazon suggests American workplaces like these can indeed be unionised — but only from the inside out.

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