Thursday, February 23, 2012

In the Wake of Protest: One Woman's Attempt to Unionize Amazon

Amid the Occupy demonstrations, a former anti-WTO activist recalls her efforts to organize workers at the online books giant.

Occupy demonstrators are shutting down ports along the West Coast today. For a movement that needs to show its strength and expand beyond city parks, it is a dramatic step that has many watching the news with bated breath. And yet, it has echoes in the past. In 1999, during the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union threatened to shut every port from Hawaii to Alaska if the city of Seattle didn't let the protesters they had arrested out of jail. It worked. And for people like me, unions suddenly became relevant.
I had been at the WTO protests. I had watched hundreds of UPS Teamsters wearing shirts that said "Kicking Ass for the Working Class" march into the pepper spray and concussion grenades. The people I knew seemed unable to organize in groups larger than twenty-five, so the organization union actions made an impression.
I don't know precisely what's going to come out of the Occupy protests of the last few months. But I know what I did after the "Battle for Seattle." I decided to get a job working in the Amazon warehouse solely for the purpose of unionizing it. No one asked me to do it. No one paid me. I took the task on out of a newfound zeal and a belief in what unionizing could do.
Up until then my ideas about unions were vague. I was pro-union in orientation, not experience. I had seen John Sayles' Matewan and knew that "Solidarity Forever" was a song, but that was about it. What ideas I did have were steeped in nostalgia and rooted in a desire for working class authenticity.  I found ethical simplicity of a world in which the boss is the guy in the office, and the worker is the guy in the coal pit very appealing, but it wasn't all that relevant.
reuters_WTO.jpgBut the Teamsters and the Longshore had something we didn't, the mystique of the blue-collar worker. Like most of my generation, I made my living in the service industry. We worked, sure, but we weren't 'workers.' Somehow, our shiny tech world was exempt from class struggle. Our economy depended on market speculation. It revolved around saleable ideas, stock options and vesting. People at Microsoft and Amazon were walking away with hundreds of thousands of dollars after two or three years. By fall of 1999, though, fewer and fewer people were getting lucky and jobs were growing scarce. If you wanted in to Microsoft, you had to spend years temping with rolling layoffs. And if you did get in, you better not complain. 'Be grateful you have a job' became the new mantra. Besides, your manager probably listens to Sonic Youth and won't care if your hair is green-isn't that enough? 
For some it wasn't. A nascent tech workers union called WashTech had sprung up and was trying to organize contract employees out at Microsoft. The campaign failed, but not before it sparked off a union drive within the customer service side of Amazon. Down in Oregon, the Powell's Books workers had just unionized and a whole crew of them up had come up for WTO. Discussion between unions and environmentalists, affinity groups and student anti-sweatshop organizers was heady, the kind of cross-pollinating going on now through the Occupy movement.
I remember a Powell's worker saying that Powell's supplied 40 percent of Amazon's used books. And the Teamsters said they loaded and shipped them.  And of course, the orders were processed by the very customer service center that was organizing with WashTech. Since Amazon's whole business model was built on speed, accuracy, and convenience, it was easy to see the potential for leverage. Because what I had seen at WTO was power. The Longshore workers and UPS had the power to shut something down. Amazon was a bookseller and the warehouse was where they kept the books. Moreover, I needed a job and was tired of waiting tables. I was also tired of the way we all lived, unsustainably and bridging the gap with credit cards. Here we were, a generation of workers fueling the largest expansion of business since the transcontinental railroad and we didn't have living wage jobs or benefits. The bigger these companies got, the more we were asked to give. The start-up model where everyone worked 72 hours a week and got paid nothing had become the new standard of productivity and wage rates.
Standing on an overpass on New Year's Eve 2000 I looked out over Seattle. Midnight hit and the only sign of Y2K was that the PEMCO bank clock started blinking the wrong time. The apocalypse and its convenient organizing strategy of dystopian collapse, apparently wasn't coming. So when the roar of WTO diminished, I got a job at the Amazon warehouse.
RTR2U1O3.jpgRight about the time Nike-town was being smashed to bits by anarchists , Time magazine named Jeff Bezos "Person of The Year." Yet Amazon had failed so far to show a profit and stockholder pressure was on. In January, five days before fourth-quarter earnings were to be published, Bezos laid off around 150 workers, nearly 2 percent of its workforce, and posted its first-ever gains.
I was hired the following week.
My first day at the warehouse, I was handed a green lanyard that said TEMP and led through a security checkpoint with about 30 other people where we showed our cards and underwent a simple bag search. It was just like an arena show. I didn't think much of it at the time, why they searched us on the way in, but it made sense later.
Once through security, the warehouse opened up into a brightly lit place with soaring ceilings from which motivational banners hung. These weren't the pictures of kittens clinging to tree limbs saying "Hang In There" in script. No, these were sweeping vistas, mountaintops, desert roads through Joshua Tree at sunrise.  I don't remember what any of them said exactly-something about growth and expanded horizons, maybe a little Sun Tzu-but the message of the images were clear: We were part of a new dawn...


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