Q2 2021

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14 C I N E M O N T A G E G E T T I N G O R G A N I Z E D Lessons of Amazon WHAT A LOST UNION DRIVE MEANS FOR THE FUTURE OF LABOR ORGANIZING By Rob Callahan Unions can't be trusted. Management can. Fear an uncertain future. may have revolutionized the way the world satisfies its consumer wants. But when it comes to employees looking to exercise more clout in their workplace, Amazon is just pushing the same product as every other company. S h o w s p r o d u c e d o r d i s t r i b u t e d b y A m a z o n S t u d i o s o f t e n e m p l o y Guild members working under union contracts. For its operations in the enter- tainment industry, Amazon recognizes that collective bargaining agreements are simply par t of the cost of doing business. But make no mistake: with re- spect to the company's core business of Internet retail, Amazon has made clear how adamantly it opposes its employees enjoying a voice on the job. T h e b e h i n d - t h e - s c e n e s w o r k e r s whose labor makes possible Amazon's wondrous logistics don't ordinarily garner a lot of attention. Although it is the second-largest private employer in the U.S., most of Amazon's employees work far from the public eye. In the early months of this year, though, eyes turned to a huge warehouse in a small town out- side of Birmingham, Ala. The news media closely followed the fight there, which was widely reported as, in the words of one journalist, "the most consequential labor battle in decades." A m a z o n ' s B H M 1 , a n 8 5 0 , 0 0 0 square-foot facility — a "fulf illment c e n t e r " i n t h e i n d u s t r y ' s j a r g o n — employs roughly 6,000 blue-collar em- ployees. The workforce, overwhelmingly African-American, earns starting wages of $15 an hour for physically grueling work. It's labor that's not just physically but also psychologically taxing. Employ- ees are subjected to constant surveillance by software monitoring their movements in minute detail. An Amazon warehouse perhaps represents the apotheosis of the principle of "scientific management" pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor almost a century and a half ago; an app monitors each worker's "time off task," and employees face discipline or ter- mination if the algorithm deems them insufficiently productive. It was not lost on the essential workers laboring under this literally inhuman driver of efficiency that the pandemic's boost to e-commerce reportedly tripled Amazon's prof its, while simultaneously placing warehouse workers at heightened risk. (Amazon discontinued COVID-19 hazard pay in June of 2020.) Explicitly rooting their campaign in the Black Lives Matter movement, in the broader history of struggle for racial jus- tice, and in their faith traditions, workers dared to insist that they be afforded dignity and a voice on the job, rather than being relegated to the status of robots. "We hope that with a union we will finally have a level playing field," Jennifer Bates, a BHM1 employee and union activist, tes- tified in a Senate committee hearing. "We hope that they will start to hear us, and see us, and treat us like human beings." Amazon indeed heard and saw its workers pushing to unionize, and it treated them as a threat to be squashed. There wasn't much that was especial- ly novel or innovative about Amazon's campaign to defeat its workers' push for a union. For the most part, the company's strategies and tactics came straight out of the usual shopworn union-busting playbook, although it pursued those strategies with the relentless efficiency for which Amazon is rightly known. And it worked. The union reportedly had gathered signed authorization cards from a majority of the employees in question a few months previously, but when the National Labor Relations Board The company's tactics came right out of the union- busting playbook. Rob Callahan.

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