I used to think a union started like this: You round up all the hotheads, get them in one room, and storm the castle. Which would be great if it were true because then it would only take a couple of weeks out of people’s lives instead of years. First you have to build a good organizing committee. Ideally, that means getting people from all jobs and shifts, ethnicities, genders-about one person for every ten workers-so you can talk to each other in some kind of sane fashion. These were things I’d learned talking to union folks at the WTO protests and I wanted to pass them on.
I had to find the people who could find the right people, not just anybody who was frustrated. They had to really love their jobs and love the company because those are the only people who would stick around to make it better. All of which meant that the people I was looking for were the ones who believed in Amazon and Bezos the most.
He was the one who told me Bezos was going to close the Seattle warehouse. It was too expensive to run. Huge fulfillment centers were springing up around the country. In Nevada, they were getting $5.15 an hour and people had to work 12-hour shifts, five days a week. Mandated overtime pay didn’t start until after 40 hours of a workweek. So when production lulled people were sent home or told not to come in the following day to shave costs. These were the new models. This was the future.
Shaving overtime by sending people home mid-shift, or giving them “the next few days off,” was the practice in Seattle too, but in Nevada there was no velvet glove, no nod to personal identity. Workers there were herded through long security lines and body searched on their way in and out before they could clock in. The ventilation was terrible and they got fired for the slightest complaint-at least these were the reports.
Some managers who had been sent out to these warehouses and had expressed concerns were fired. So were the managers who cast doubt on Bezos’ plan for mechanization. A few of them wrote a heartfelt letter to Jeff one night, and that was the end.
Everywhere we saw the movement of a new plan, something I was told Bezos and his upper echelon developed sequestered away in a wooded camp. Bezos apparently had a weakness for coded project names and, according to several of the longtime workers this one was originally, “Project Fargo.” But some of Bezos’ closest team had seen problems and voiced them. They, too, were fired. In fact, many of the 150 workers let go before the fourth-quarter posting were from upper management and appeared to be people who had quietly spoken against Project Fargo, which was Bezos’ plan to become the Walmart of the Internet.
People in the warehouse weren’t talking about the ethics of Project Fargo, though. Their issues were more immediate. Temps were flooding in and benefitted employees out. There was a production speed up. Wages were half the local, living wage. Health care was inaccessible. Furthermore, stock options, which had been the carrot, were becoming worthless. If you weren’t there in 1997 when Amazon went public, you were out of luck.
You had to buy in at prices as high as $105 a share, which is hard to do on $9 an hour. Those who had were watching their stock plummet. Between December 1999 and the close of 2000, the stock’s value fell by 90 percent. Beyond that, small things irked people. Bezos was buying multimillion-dollar companies left and right and simultaneously taking the free Tylenol away, which, let me tell you, the Amazon employees needed. And everywhere, on the periphery, was the threat of closure.
Workers I met over the next few weeks whispered about conditions in the Nevada warehouse, glad they weren’t there. Some feared it would happen in Seattle but most felt protected. They trusted Bezos and many of them worked with him. They felt a part of Amazon’s success and were proud of what they’d built. I frequently heard people say that if “Jeff” knew what was going on in the warehouse, a whole bunch of things would change.
But Bezos had been hiring Walmart executives for a couple of years by then, specifically so that they could redesign the distribution centers. Walmart actually sued him in late 1998, claiming he was hiring for privileged operational information about Walmart warehouses. They settled out of court but Bezos was ordered to move some of the ex-Walmart executives into other departments. The changes, however, were already in motion. The idea that “Jeff” was the good king away from the castle remained. It was one of the hardest things to let go because it meant what you believed in might be a lie and that’s a blow to anyone.
Our first organizing committee meeting was held in a small apartment and there were about six of us. I had invited an organizer from the ILWU to come talk about labor law. Among the employees, the big surprise was that this one woman, greatly admired by her coworkers and an extremely loyal employee, had shown up. And she was pissed. She had kids and the overtime stoplight was the bane of her life. She was sick of spending all her money on emergency childcare and having to tell her kids she wasn’t going to be able to come home, again. She was a key part of the operation and few people could step in to do what she did, so for her, the yellow stoplight may as well have been red. She was mandated to stay. One day during Christmas, she couldn’t get extra childcare to cover and said she was going to have to go home. They told her she might not have a job when she came back. For most of us without kids that ridiculous stoplight was an annoyance. For her it was nightmare. She wanted to organize to change stuff like that. That was the character of the whole group. They wanted to make Amazon better.
Organizing had died out in the warehouse over the summer when Amazon announced they were letting go of 70 percent of their permanent workforce by fall. They couldn’t say which 70 percent, though, which is certainly one way to keep people on their toes. As always, the assertion among employees that they weren’t really “workers,” but rather, “associates” made it more difficult to organize them.
After the stock Market crash in 1929, the German philosopher Kracauer looked around at his generation of workers and said-they don’t know where they belong. He saw the piano lessons of the would-be bourgeois girls training them for typing pools. He claimed the “social space of the office” was creating a working class alienated from its own issues and he dubbed them the Salaria. They were paid like workers but their self-conception was bourgeois. And he attributed their numbers to the rapidly growing workforce that was emerging “out of the apparatus of distribution.”
With the Occupy movement now reinvigorating the discourse on class, and our narratives on tech gurus like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos crystallizing into myth, it is worth reflecting on one of the moments when our models of identity as it relates to business shifted gears. In the close of 2011, I can say that I know a couple of millionaires. I know way more people who make under $25,000. I know almost nobody in the middle. In many ways, Amazon is the perfect snow globe of late stage capitalism. You shake it up and watch the pieces fall into place, but no one can call it a natural process. The brilliance of their approach was that they let you belong. They wanted your ideas. They took them and made money off them and paid you $9.50 if you put in some years. But for a generation of latchkey kids, many of whom craved that tribal sense of belonging more than anything, it really was a family.
WashTech was beaten on the customer service side a year after I left. Subsequent drives were squelched wherever they came up. Mostly they didn’t get started because temps aren’t legally employees and have no rights. In 2001 Bezos hired the Burke Group, the most formidable “union avoidance” consultants in the world, to address his labor problems. He was getting taken to court in the United Kingdom and needed an aggressive campaign to get around the stronger labor culture. In the US, more fulfillment centers opened in states where union shops were illegal. I still see small headlines here and there, on this failed Amazon union drive or that, or some worker passing out from exhaustion. Just last week, Germany’s Der Speigel railed on Amazon’s practice of repeatedly hiring temps for two weeks, letting them go, then rehiring them so that they were paid out of German job creation subsidies. But it all goes by in the background, a video stream or a shortened link on twitter.
Today, I think Amazon probably did know about me, and that what they knew was that I was essentially harmless. I was more valuable for my production speed than dangerous for my organizing. But to make the case that Amazon is anti-union barely approaches relevance. Most companies are anti-union, that’s not important right now. What made Amazon unique was the way in which it was.
Bezos once bragged in a Wall Street Journal interview that he told temp agencies to hire the “freaks.” The assumption at the time was that Bezos wanted creativity. But his creative staff wasn’t coming out of the temp agencies, the warehouse recruits were. And I never met a “freak” who wouldn’t throw over a decent wage to work somewhere lousy if they felt they belonged. These were people who wanted to be a part of something. They wanted to be valued for who they were, rather than what they produced. I often wondered if what Bezos really figured out was that if you gave freaks a home, they would give you everything they had-their best ideas, their longest days, and their rights on the job.