Deep in the In the aisles of a vast Amazon fulfillment center, an aggrieved young worker has mounted a tiny rebellion. A fan of comics, he opened up intriguing headlines as they arrived at the warehouse, stealing glances as he filled the shelves. After finishing a book, he hid it in plain sight. It was not scanning the barcode of the book or the corresponding shelf, so it was forever lost to Amazon’s electronic inventory system. Only he knew his location. It wasn’t really political sabotage, says Alessandro Delfanti, a University of Toronto communications professor who heard the story while interviewing warehouse workers for a book on Amazon. “It was more of a very small revenge, a very small way of reclaiming a little bit of time.”
You might call these secret micro-mutinies an American hobby. Martin Sprouse’s book in 1992 Sabotage in the American workplace: Anecdotes of dissatisfaction, mischief and revenge presents hundreds of similar stories. There’s the pickle conditioner who privately tossed pickles through the pickle factory conveyor belt until they burst. There’s the disgruntled (unimaginable!) Journalist who responded to his editor’s requests for brevity by writing the headline ‘DEAD’ followed by the story: ‘That’s what Harry Serbronski was after his car hit a telephone pole at eighty-six miles an hour. Continuing this great tradition, Amazon workers established the home screens from cameras supplied by their company to photos of Jeff Bezos maniacally screaming, or scribbling “unionize” on the dust-covered glass of delivery vans. Private mini-revolts, perhaps momentarily satisfying, in a world that is increasingly automated, monitored and unbalanced.
Listen to enough Amazon workers and you’ll hear the chorus, “We’re not robots.” While the company calls its warehouse associates the “heart and soul” of its operations, many workers say they feel at best like cogs, inhuman appendages of a machine. At worst, they become knots in the system, when their flesh-and-blood functions – fatigue, wear and tear on a ligament, call of the wild – hamper their ability to keep pace with robots. This chorus has gotten stronger over the years, culminating with the union struggle in Bessemer, Alabama.
Friday morning, the union was far behind in the vote count, with more than two votes to one for the “no”. Some 500 votes remain contested, mostly by Amazon, but there are too few to fill the gap. The results are a blow to organizers and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union, which hoped to represent workers, but the election remains a milestone – Bessemer is the first U.S. facility to reach this stage in a system that strongly favors employers. The RWDSU on Friday announced plans to file a complaint against Amazon for alleged labor law violations, which could call the results into question.
Meanwhile, a wave of innovations has put pressure on workers of all types, hunting them down in ever more sophisticated ways, pushing them to perform at increasingly robotic rates. It seems to be working: American productivity has increased by almost 70% over the past four decades. It is more than six times the wage rate, due in part to the erosion of collective bargaining. Since 1979, the union density rate in the United States has increased from 27 to 11 percent.
The drive to extract maximum value from workers at the lowest cost is of course not new. In the 1880s, an industrial engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor devised a new form of management consulting, later dubbed “scientific management.” Applying engineering principles to industrial work, Taylor roamed the floors of the factory, stopwatch and slide rule in hand, looking for ways to reduce downtime. Digital tracking was necessary, he argued, to fend off the “natural laziness” of workers. It became a gospel among the major steel and shipbuilding companies of the day and influenced Henry Ford’s famous assembly line processes.