"While my father's generation had breathed anti-racism, internationalism, and autodidactic altruism, neoliberalism oxygenated the opposite inclinations. Over three decades, this undermined and corroded working-class resistance to neoliberalism. And when neoliberalism itself collapsed, it no longer oxygenated conventional conservatism, but authoritarian far-right populism." (Paul Mason, quoted in Korte 2020, 79.)
CONVERSATION: "AMAZON'S METEORIC RISE IS A KEY MOMENT IN GLOBAL CAPITALISM"
With Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese
[This conversation published in March 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, Gespräch: »Amazons kometenhafter Aufstieg ist ein Schlüsselmoment im globalen Kapitalismus« « Zeitschrift LuXemburg (zeitschrift-luxemburg.de).]
What is Amazon capitalism and what are the ways to fight it? A conversation with Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese about neuralgic points in Amazon's supply chain, the importance of the "last mile" for unions, and growing worker* protests in the US during the Corona pandemic.
Some 25 years after its founding, Amazon is not only the world's largest online retailer, but also a movie producer, streaming service, logistics company, security technology producer, and the world's largest cloud computing provider. You talk about "Amazon capitalism" in the book. What do you mean by that? What is special about Amazon, apart from its size?
Ellen Reese: Amazon's meteoric rise is, in our view, a key moment in global capitalism. The company's rise to power reflects the increasing influence of neoliberal politics and corporate power in general. It represents a major shift in the global political economy, what we call Amazon capitalism. With this designation, we want to draw attention to two phenomena: First, to the new dimension of concentrated corporate power that manifests itself in size and influence over the global economy. Second, to the costs associated with the establishment of the business model and the supposedly free shipping. These are in fact borne by employees, local communities and the environment. Only if this rise is named and understood can counter-strategies be developed.
Amazon is not the only company that exploits workers and pollutes the environment...
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson: Of course not. But Amazon's size and dominance is changing the entire global economy. The company now controls countless things that affect all of our lives: Not only has it pioneered what you might call the spread of "one-click instant consumption," shaping the way we shop. It simultaneously controls half of the global cloud infrastructure and is the world's largest logistics empire.
The corporation's name represents and drives many of the destructive forces inherent in capitalism: the exploitation and dehumanization of workers, tax avoidance, the extreme inequality of wealth distribution, obsessive mass consumer culture, surveillance, erosion of privacy, or the assault on the ecological integrity of the planet.
One of the central questions you address in the book is how the working*class can assert its interests against Amazon. So far, the company has proven to be largely invulnerable. Why is that, and what would be points of attack for unions and social movements?
Ellen Reese: Amazon is projected to overtake Walmart as the world's largest employer by 2023. Worldwide, 1.3 million people work directly for the corporation. The vast majority are in the United States. In 2020 alone, about 500,000 were added due to growing online orders in the wake of the Corona pandemic.
Dialectically speaking, every strength has a weakness and vice versa. As Kim Moody rightly notes, Amazon's system relies heavily on just-in-time logistics. In e-commerce, time is of the essence for success. That's why Amazon is putting increasing pressure on workers at every part of the supply chain. If the global supply chains are accelerated, this has negative consequences for the working conditions of the workers there. But all this also makes corporate logistics very vulnerable. If one manages to identify neuralgic points in Amazon's supply chain and disrupt them through strikes or actions, considerable pressure can be exerted on the company. Of course, Amazon knows this and has built up a very complex logistics infrastructure. For example, the ability to move order volumes from one warehouse to the next. This is aimed at defusing potential worker actions and work stoppages.
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson: But a key element of Amazon's growing dominance is its dependence on time. For example, I've been looking at some of the issues that Amazon's last-mile suppliers face, which is the distance between the distribution centers and the customers. From a union perspective, it's essential to organize not only the warehouse workers, but also those who deliver the packages.
Just as Amazon has adapted to the changes in supply chain management associated with the growth of e-commerce, workers' resistance strategies must also adapt. In our opinion, in Amazon's supply chain, the last mile is the most vulnerable point. Therefore, the Amazon Delivery Service Partner (DSP) and Amazon-Flex drivers who pick up packages at Amazon's distribution centers have tremendous potential power.
Until two or three years ago, Amazon managed to keep its logistics centers in the U.S. almost completely union-free - practically for almost two decades. Why have they managed to do that over such a long period of time?
Ellen Reese: In the U.S., the economic system is more aligned with the interests of large corporations like Amazon than in many European countries, for example. The level of unionization in the U.S. has also historically always been much lower. If employees in a company want to be represented by the union, a majority of the workforce must vote in favor. Moreover, corporate use of anti-union propaganda is the rule rather than the exception. An example of this is Amazon's website www.doitwithoutdues.com, which Amazon uses to prevent the ongoing organizing process of workers* at a logistics center in Bessemer, Alabama.
As corporate power has increased, unions and workers* have lost institutional power. Union busting is barely prosecuted by our courts and is virtually legal. These giant corporations use legal loopholes to expand their market share and make union organizing difficult.
Such as with the help of the Amazon Flex platform....
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson: Yes. In order to drive competitors out of the market in last-mile delivery, Amazon relies on subcontractors and solo self-employed workers. For this purpose, the services Amazon Delivery Service Partner (DSP) and Amazon-Flex were founded. With the help of DSD, Amazon outsources deliveries to subcontractors, who in turn employ their own drivers and lease delivery trucks from Amazon. Or they use Amazon-Flex. This is a platform where solo self-employed people can register as parcel delivery drivers - with their private car, similar to Uber. Amazon Flex drivers* and DSPs delivered half of all Amazon Prime packages in the U.S. in 2019. Although these workers* wear Amazon uniforms, sometimes ride in Amazon delivery trucks, and use Amazon delivery software, they have no legal relationship with the parent company. This puts pressure on unionized companies like UPS and the working conditions there.
What about workers at the big warehouses? Why do U.S. unions seem to have such a harder time organizing workers in the big warehouses than the German or Italian ones?
Ellen Reese: There are many complex reasons for this. One that is not discussed often enough is the strong racism of the U.S. economy. Workers* of color disproportionately work in the most stressful and precarious jobs in the United States. The large logistics centers are one such area. They are often located in communities of color with high unemployment rates. There is high turnover in the warehouses, which has to do with dissatisfaction, but also with disciplinary actions and frequent firings. Electronic and video surveillance of workers*, the pressure to work fast and not to have too much "free time" make it extremely difficult for workers* to organize in the workplace.
In the last two or three years, labor disputes have been on the rise at Amazon in the United States. Since the beginning of February, 5,800 workers at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama that you mentioned earlier have been voting on union representation for the first time. In your book, you describe a variety of recent conflicts, protests, and even strikes. Some are supported by unions, others are carried out by self-organized workers. How do you explain this increase? Is this the beginning of a movement or more a confluence of individual conflicts?
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson: What we are seeing now with the increase in unrest is, in our opinion, a collective mobilization that will continue to spread. We see as very hopeful, for example, the internationalist orientation of the struggles, which continues to grow. Examples include Amazon Workers International and Amazonians United. We are also hopeful about the growing solidarity between workers and community activists fighting for social justice.
What role does the covid pandemic play in labor struggles?
Ellen Reese: The upsurge in protests started before that. But the pandemic is certainly fueling it. Because it made it uniquely clear that it's ordinary workers* who are suffering the most, while big corporations like Amazon are growing massively - at the expense of workers' health and well-being. The pandemic also exacerbated many Amazon workers' dissatisfaction with their health and safety on the job, which was already high due to their relatively high rates of workplace accidents and injuries.
Like many other frontline workers, Amazon warehouse workers* have participated in various collective actions aimed primarily at better health and safety standards. They have organized petition drives, filed lawsuits against the company in court, and called for protests and strikes. Many of Amazon's warehouse workers are black. Therefore, the growing Black Lives Matter movement is not only an important source of inspiration for them. Many workers also see their struggle as part of the Black Lives Matter struggle.
You have pointed out the different forms of organizing struggles at Amazon: Traditional U.S. unions like SEIU and the Teamsters are involved, smaller unions like the RWDSU, grassroots initiatives like Amazonians United, and there are also community organizing strategies. What do you think are the reasons for this heterogeneity of collective actions? And what unites these struggles?
Jake Wilson: The U.S. workers* movement has traditionally been made up of many unions. Sometimes they compete with each other in organizing workers*, sometimes they cooperate. And sometimes they disagree on priorities and strategies. Putting it positively, one could say that the efforts of the different actors are united by a common concern: to counter Amazon's rising economic and political dominance and to empower workers and their communities.
In the sociological discussions of recent years, service sector workers have been perceived mainly as fragmented, hardly able to act collectively and anything but a protagonist of social change. How do you see this in light of your experience with Amazon - one of the largest private employers in the U.S.?
Ellen Reese: We think this view of service workers* as defeated and irrelevant agents of social change ignores some important successes in recent years. These include the recent "Fight for " campaign, that is, the union demand for a nationwide minimum wage of per hour. In many cities and some states, such a wage has been enforced. Such victories show that underpaid workers*, who are disproportionately people of color, can band together and very well effect social change. It also ignores the recent surge in collective action by workers* in service sectors such as health care, who are becoming increasingly militant in their demands for health and safety in the workplace and forming new unions during the pandemic. Of course, the challenges of employer retaliation and the fragmentation of workers* and their organizations should be taken seriously and not denied. But we also see signs of an increasing willingness to take action and solidarity among workers in the service sector and are hopeful that this will continue to grow.
The interview was conducted by Jörn Boewe and Johannes Schulten
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
Ellen Reese is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside. The book she co-edited with Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2020), is the most comprehensive critical work to date on Amazon's rise as one of the world's most powerful corporations and on resistance to it.