The future is not completely unpredictable. Many of the most powerful economic and political trends in this country can be found inside an Amazon warehouse. And what happens to the workers there will say a lot about our collective future.
Our nation—as it often has throughout modern history—is experiencing a diffuse sense that our future is uncertain, that our economic prospects are unstable, and that the material success experienced by past generations may become impossible to attain for future generations. The fabled “economic anxiety” afflicting millions of us with a vague sense of dread is real enough. This, despite the fact that our stock market has reached all-time highs and unemployment is nearly as low as it can ever be expected to get and, of course, we all live in the richest country in the world.
America does not have a business problem. Business is booming. We have a distribution problem. The fruits of our economic system are not being shared in anything resembling a reasonably fair or adequate way. We are living in an age of economic inequality not seen in a century. For nearly 40 years, the incomes of most people have been almost flat, while the huge gains produced by our economy have gone to a tiny number of people who are very rich. That’s it in a nutshell. The rosy economic figures reported in the business pages do not matter to most people, because they are not sharing in them. We are a nation of millions looking in from the outside at a posh luxury house party attended by a select few. The rest of us are not invited.
During election years, much is made of the decline of American manufacturing, as political candidates shake their heads sadly at unemployed auto workers. But in reality, our economy long ago completed its shift from one based on manufacturing to one based on service industry jobs (which not coincidentally tend to be lower paid and offer less economic security). Now, the business world is already looking forward to the next shift in the economy—one in which many of those service industry jobs are replaced by automation and artificial intelligence.
The massive decline of the brick-and-mortar retail industry is one of the most popular current bets in the financial world. There is zero doubt that the near and medium term will see millions of regular jobs—from taxi drivers to fast food workers to retail store employees of all types—disappear as they are replaced by computers and robots. The clock is ticking on many retail jobs. They simply will not exist for much longer. This doesn’t mean that stores will disappear; it just means that a huge chunk of the business now conducted by humans working in stores will move online, or be automated.
One popular proposed solution for this among many technologists has been to offer everyone in America a guaranteed basic income. This solution is premised on the idea that automation will actually destroy far more jobs than it will create, thereby leaving a large number of people permanently unemployed, and necessitating a basic income in order to stave off a social crisis. Others say that this worrying is nonsense (people have been predicting technology-induced job doom since the days of the Luddites), and that automation and AI, even if they destroy retail jobs, will create more and better jobs in their place.
Who is right? We don’t know yet. So let’s focus on what we can confidently predict. Whether or not the net number of jobs goes up or down, we do know that millions of retail jobs as they exist today will likely disappear. As traditional retail stores are replaced by online retailing, a large number of those retail jobs that disappear will be replaced by warehouse jobs—instead of hiring people to work in stores to sell stuff, people will be hired to work in warehouses to pack and ship the same stuff, that customers order online. This is one of the most rock solid predictable trends in the American workplace. And it is certain that no company in America will be hiring and employing more of these warehouse workers than Amazon—the beast that is already leaving the entire retail industry, from book stores to clothing stores to grocery stores, cowering in fear.
The Amazon warehouse worker is the face of the future of American work. No, everyone a decade from now will not work in a warehouse, and every warehouse worker a decade from now will not work for Amazon. But these workers sit at the place where the most powerful trend in employment meets the most powerful company in retail. They are the prototypical job of the near future. And how good that job is will represent how well the coming American economy is able to solve its current problems: Low, stagnant wages, lack of job stability, and rampant inequality.
How is Amazon doing on those measures so far? Horribly. Those warehouse jobs offer low wages, little job stability (bolstered by the fact that many of the jobs are seasonal or subcontracted rather than full time), and meanwhile the guy who runs Amazon is one of world’s richest humans. Amazon is in fact the embodiment of every bad trend in the workplace. If we are to make the prototypical job of the future something less than dystopic, we have a lot of work to do.
So, to get to the fucking point of all this: The only realistic way for the future of work not to suck is through the power of organized labor. Either Amazon warehouse workers will organize and unionize and assert their (considerable, latent) collective power to raise their own wages and improve their working conditions, or the future of work will continue to be just as bleak as the present. Let me state this in an even clearer way: There is nothing—NOTHING—more important for American unions to do right now than to unionize Amazon warehouse workers. Unions in America represent a paltry 7% or so of private sector workers, which is a “Prime” (heh) reason why we have the problems that we have in the first place. Power in the workplace has shifted drastically to the side of corporations and away from you, the human. If we ever want to stem inequality, we need unions to get stronger. And if unions ever want to get stronger, they need to move into where the economy is going, rather than spending all their time wallowing in the jobs of the past. Where is the economy going? Into the Amazon warehouse. And do our nation’s most powerful unions have a comprehensive plan to organize all of these workers, thereby saving both the workers and the unions themselves?
Not at all. Not even a bit.
There have been sporadic and largely unsuccessful attempts to unionize certain Amazon locations here and there, but absolutely nothing on the scale of what is needed. What is needed? Tens of millions of dollars, dozens and dozens of professional union organizers working exclusively on this, and a multi-year funding commitment. It’s not that the big unions can’t afford such large-scale commitments; they just haven’t decided to do it. And the longer they wait, the more entrenched the current system becomes, the more entrenched inequality and precariousness in the workplace becomes, the more entrenched Amazon’s corporate political and economic and cultural power becomes, and the more certain it becomes that all of the bad trends that are obvious to us all right now will continue because nobody is putting in the effort to reverse them in a systematic way.
Tens of thousands of Amazon workers across America cannot organize themselves and spontaneously collectively bargain with one of the world’s most powerful companies. That’s not realistic. But the people sweating with tired feet in unstable warehouse jobs are capable of understanding that they can get a raise and a better job if they come together. That’s just common sense. It is the job of the union world to help them get there. It is going to take a lot of money. But not spending that money now will prove to be a very, very bad mistake. This is one of those urgent strategic decisions that labor unions either will or won’t fuck up. I guess we can meet back here in a few years to see which one was the case.
Organize the Amazon warehouse workers. Make the future better. We could all be working in a warehouse sooner than you think.
Update: An Amazon spokesperson responded to this piece with an email saying that “Amazon employees receive highly competitive wages with regular pay increases and bonuses,” and that “Throughout the year on average, nearly 90 percent of associates across the company’s US fulfillment network are regular, full-time employees. These individuals work in innovative, state-of-the-art facilities with climate control and advanced technology.” Asked about unions specifically, the spokesperson said “we respect the individual rights of our associates and have an open-door policy that encourages associates to bring their comments, questions and concerns directly to their management teams. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.” Amazon declined a request to be interviewed about unions in their workplace.
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