Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Vélizy, France – September 23, 2019. Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com
It is around 3 p.m. in a brightly lit Glasgow Amazon warehouse. We are walking around fulfilling our duties, when the managers summon us to the common room where we immediately observe the festive atmosphere and the burgers, fries and drinks. We had been expecting the usual monthly meeting where our superiors jubilantly inform us of our successes and amicably warn us of our infractions, but this seems a lot better.
We are told to relax and to set our handheld device which monitors most of our activities into “admin.” The responsibility for our lack of movement will now be assumed by the management. As we begin to eat, our site manager announces that one of our colleagues has been made “Associate of the Month,” a prize that comes with prestige and a £50 Amazon voucher. The walls of the common room are lined with the photographs of previous winners, a daily reminder of their success for the rest of us.
This “associate” — not “employee,” not “colleague” — has proven himself worthy of becoming a permanent employee. Starting from next month, he will be awarded the coveted “blue badge.” We are told that his tireless work ethic, his friendliness, flexibility and willingness to assist the rest of the workforce are the reasons he has been selected. We are told that he has demonstrated his unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction by consistently checking every product for expiry dates before packing it.
We happily clap for his success and the management reminds us that everyone has the chance to rise to his level. They commit to assisting us with anything we might need to reach our true potential. After all, we are a team of highly capable, passionate individuals. Reinvigorated and inspired, we resume our work.
The above description hardly fits with the dominant accounts of Amazon warehouses emanating from social movements and progressive media outlets. Anyone even remotely interested in issues of labor and resistance has read the horrific accounts of overworked employees — powerless cogs in the huge multinational’s ceaseless quest for maximum profits — collapsing from the stress, urinating in bottles due to the relentless pressure of meeting unmeetable targets.
Amazon’s intense union-busting operations, highlighted in full in the recent failed unionization drive in Bessemer, prove that the giant is not even remotely interested in workers’ well-being. Its partnership with the Pinkerton agency, notorious for killing striking workers in the late 1800s and its persistent drive to monopolize every sector of the economy it can get its hands on, complete the image of Amazon as the major incarnation of the post-modern dystopian superpower.
These issues are well-documented, and constantly met with new campaigns and organizing drives. But working for Amazon reveals a more complex reality, one that highlights the corporation’s underlying intentions and how it aims to shape the minds of tomorrow’s workers. Crucially, overt aggression, repression and control are only a last resort in a much darker project, which became increasingly visible because of the additional measures introduced due to the pandemic in the warehouse I worked in.
Being a picker in an Amazon Prime warehouse in the UK is a seemingly simple task. Your responsibilities are picking products from the shelves, neatly placing them in the requisite paper bags for delivery to the customers and then re-stocking the shelves. In each of these stages a handheld device tells you everything that you need to do: where the product is located, what the product is, if it requires additional packaging and in which bag it needs to be packed. In general, the system has been regimented to such an extent that within a few weeks workers know everything they need to know to do the job, and the Amazon behemoth proceeds smoothly with its productivity targets.
The warehouse I worked in is Amazon’s smallest in the UK. When COVID-19 hit, the need to maintain social distancing in its extremely narrow corridors meant Amazon’s notorious pick-rates had to be temporarily abandoned. As orders were surging and Amazon was exhibiting the full scale of its repressive repertoire in other sites, we were told to relax, walk slowly and focus on maintaining social distancing. While our superiors still had access to our performance statistics, we nevertheless had a period of serenity which was in stark opposition to what existed in almost every other site.
We began to joke with the managers and have time for some small conversations as we carried on our duties. All this, for the comparatively handsome wage of £9.50 an hour, one pound over the UK’s minimum wage. But once the relentless focus on targets was lifted, this revealed a clear image of the worker subjectivities that Amazon is trying to create.
Throughout the history of capitalism, systems of labor management have changed significantly. Instead of the heavy, Fordist reality of permanent employment in a single unionized industry from adolescence to retirement, most workers in the West are now experiencing the fluidity and insecurity of precarious employment. This labor regime is characterized by a rise of job agencies, a lack of labor rights, temporary contracts and the almost complete absence of unions.
These structural changes are accompanied by an intense focus on the workers as individuals, with governments, educational systems and cultural production increasingly promoting the values of individualism, entrepreneurship and competition in a race to the bottom where the most adaptable, most able-bodied, and most obedient survive to work another day. Amazon is the apogee of this new system.
The small celebration described above betrays some important elements of the real dystopia behind Amazon’s patent smile. These performances intend to reinforce Amazon’s already-held beliefs about itself, its purpose and its identity. In that sense, they fulfill an almost ritualistic purpose. The walls are lined with inspirational slogans and the photographs of previous “Associates of the Month.” The gifts offered to staff in the form of free food and other trinkets have the purpose of showing our boss’ “appreciation” for our hard work.
When some workers are elevated above the rest of us because of their hard work, obedience and “unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction,” this is nothing more than an employer recognizing a worker’s contributions to their own profitability. But at Amazon this is presented as a recognition of the worker’s outstanding personal qualities.
As we participate in cheering for these workers, we collectively reinforce both the underlying premises of this celebration and our own beliefs that someday we could be the ones in their position.
And we need to be in their position. Because as a newly contracted worker at Amazon in the UK you do not have labor rights or security. Amazon does its hiring for pickers and packers exclusively through employment agencies. This absolves the company from all responsibility towards its workers and maintains Amazon’s right to dismiss them whenever it wants. Apart from enabling Amazon to manage all its operations without regard for the nuisance of workers’ rights and well-being, this precarity is also an excellent tool for sorting through vast numbers of individuals to retain the select few who will be offered the coveted blue badge, a permanent contract.
Such contracts are with Amazon rather than an agency and include labor rights such as a relatively humane sick policy. This is in sharp contrast to agency workers who get fired if they call in sick more than a few times over a six-month period. Amazon contracts also include various benefits, like training sessions, that workers can access to rise up the occupational hierarchy. Most importantly, the blue badge protects workers from arbitrary dismissal — once you “make” it, Amazon can no longer get rid of you from one day to the next. As workers, this badge is our security and we are all striving to achieve it.
This landscape is further enforced by Amazon’s nominal commitment to positive ideals such as diversity and mental health. The walls were lined with phrases such as “Diversity is our strength,” and, indeed, the workplace was the most multicultural that I have ever found myself in. During Black History Month, posters were put up of “inspirational” Black personalities. Of course, people such as Malcolm X were not included, but Martin Luther King, Serena Williams and Oprah Winfrey were. Interestingly, a quote by Angela Davis was also included, demonstrating the extent to which capitalism can adaptively recuperate some radical figures to suit its projects.
A similar commitment was observed with regards to LGBTQI rights. In a video we were shown during our induction training we were repeatedly encouraged to notify our superiors if we experienced any mental health issues and were assured that we would be supported.
Far from reproducing the classic stereotype of the oppressive corporation that carelessly participated in racist, sexist and homophobic stigmatization, Amazon invests both internally and externally in promoting a modern image of inclusivity and tolerance. This goal makes perfect sense: why would the biggest multinational in the world lose productive workers on account of characteristics that do not impact profitability? If you could walk and you could communicate in English, you were good to go.
When the mechanics of Amazon’s labor practices are considered in their totality, the intent behind the ritualistic celebrations as described above comes into view. The entire performance has the objective — and direct consequence — of crafting workers that are grateful for the opportunity to participate in entrenching their own alienation. Amazon succeeds in getting the workers to exert themselves, to compete with each other, while at the same time maintaining a facade of collective spirit and diversity which it uses to defend itself against the threat of unions and other worker-led organizing efforts.
Many of the managers and supervisors that participate in this circus have themselves been through it as agency workers. They are not malicious or evil. They have simply been more fully sculpted and are thus invested in the performance because they deeply believe in it. This belief does not necessarily manifest itself in a delighted performance of the “good worker” stereotype. Indeed, many workers are critical of Amazon and their position within it. However, in the absence of a wider critical and oppositional narrative, Amazon’s “ideals” and practices of worker competition and overexertion become naturalized.
The result is a deep subjective identification with our oppression and with the behaviors that are required of us. With time, everyone partakes in the circus, As an anarchist and a union organizer who was acutely aware of what was happening around me, I found even myself trying to work as efficiently as possible in order to get a recognition and security that was always just slightly out of reach.
Workers’ conversations with each other circulate around the blue badge: who deserves it, who is working well and who is not, who believes they have been snubbed, and who is “cheating the system” by trying to use personal relationships to improve their chances. Amazon’s organization of labor is heavily dependent on collaboration. If, for example, a worker has stowed an item incorrectly, it directly impacts the next worker who will try to pick it. This means that every individual mistake adversely impacts everyone’s chances of achieving employment security.
Underneath the veneer of happiness and support, we are participants in an all-encompassing system of individualism and subtle but omnipresent competition that is designed to enter deep into our psyches. The more you participate, the more you reproduce it with a smile on your face.
The degree of workers’ belief and investment in this new form of collective identity is therefore inversely proportional to the possibility of even considering collective organizing. The focus on individual qualities, combined with a relatively privileged wage and a relatively supportive working environment, masks the structural inequalities that form the basis of one’s labor experience in Amazon. With time, workers accept the idea that they must prove themselves worthy of rights that were once considered non-negotiable.
Taken together, these processes cultivate a vicious cycle of neoliberal individualism that makes collective dreams not only impossible, but unimaginable.
Against the overwhelming force of neoliberalism’s assault on all spheres of social and economic life, most unions in the UK have proven themselves woefully inadequate. Fundamentally based on an organizing model that was catered to the stereotype of the Fordist, male, industrial worker, they have been unable to respond to the needs of today’s precarious workforce. At Amazon, this was most appallingly demonstrated by their complete inexistence in, or around, the workplace. While global unionization drives at Amazon warehouses are noteworthy, the reality in most UK sites remains bleak.
Even in the weeks leading up to a momentous coordinated strike by Amazon workers in Europe, we did not see a single union leaflet or representative outside our workplace. Most workers had no idea that a strike was even taking place. Instead, when Amazon attempted to quell the strike by literally bribing its workforce, offering a one-off sum of £300 to permanent employees and £150 to temps and labeling it a “bonus,” most workers saw it as another welcome recognition of their efforts. Without a union to explain to the workers why they received this sum, the company was successful in using the strike to reinforce its own hegemony.
Unions are supposed to empower workers, especially the most exploited segments of the workforce. In the UK, the opposite is the case. The more precarious one becomes, the least likely they are to find a union in their workplace. The temporariness and acute mobility associated with agency work means that even if a union were to attempt to organize precarious workers, it would be met with profound logistical difficulties. Temporary postings and the threat of arbitrary dismissal make it hard to build the trust required to engage temp workers in conversations about organizing.
The engaged and empowering presence of radical unions and other social movements in our communities is a critical first step for us to begin imagining alternatives to this dystopian abyss. Since reaching workers in their workplace is not only difficult, but could even jeopardize their livelihoods, the neighborhood emerges alongside the shopfloor as a crucial site of struggle. This could take the form of regularly holding outreach actions such as stalls and events in working class communities instead of the centers of cities, which may guarantee higher participation on paper but excludes vast sums of overextended and impoverished workers.
However, long-term engagement and a questioning of the neoliberal hegemony that is inculcated daily through working at places like Amazon can only be achieved by establishing social centers in those communities. For example, the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is a key node in the networks that foster the organization of precarious and migrant workers in the city.
Other instances of radical, autonomous social spaces can be found across Southern Europe and are of inestimable importance to social struggles. These include radical social spaces such as K-Box in Athens, which operates on a range of domains, including hosting an autonomous health clinic and providing space for various social movements to organize. In Madrid, the Fundacion Anselmo Lorenzo, tied to the radical CNT union, is a space committed to the preservation of historical memory and to the further political education of the masses. These are only two examples of how social centers connect concrete, oppositional social action to practical, creative empowerment.
Establishing a radical space in working class communities directly challenges the fragmentation of the working class that neoliberal policies are trying to achieve both on an economic and social level. It enables workers to come to the space in their own time instead of scrambling to make a set meeting or event. Rather than trying to get people to engage in some abstract propaganda, it establishes a sustained dialogue with communities over the long-term. It also allows unions and movements to provide real opportunities for empowerment by, for example, holding regular workshops on employment rights.
These skills and knowledge will stay with workers regardless of whether they become activists and will directly tip the scales in favor of the working class as they share them with their friends and relatives. However, some will become active and will bring these ideas and practices with them to their workplace. In the UK, initiatives to achieve community embeddedness have begun, albeit on a small scale.
As the monopoly of companies like Amazon expands, employing ever-increasing numbers of the total workforce, such radical community spaces become crucial sites of empowerment. We must be acutely aware that we are not simply fighting against the further impoverishment of the masses, but against the gradual and complete obliteration of all possibilities of imagining alternatives. We are grappling with a monster that is infinitely better resourced than us.
The issue thus becomes one of utilizing our available resources with maximum efficiency. As Amazon continues its efforts to convince ever larger swathes of workers that there is no alternative, we may be running out of time. The establishment of a physical commons, not as a side-project in other movement activities but as a central priority, emerges as an inescapable necessity for our liberation.