Amazon’s Well-Lit Satanic Mills

By Alec Dubro

We lost the union election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama — once a strongly union steel town — by 1798 to 738. And I say “we” rather than “they,” because working people everywhere lost — not just the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Unlike millions of people worldwide, I’ve never worked on the shop floor of an Amazon warehouse. However, in 1969 I began a two-year job in San Francisco at Nor-Cal Superstop a music record warehouse that involved much of the same thing: picking orders, lifting boxes, restocking, unloading and loading trucks and more.

It was hard work at times and safety procedures were often lax, but it was a far cry from Amazon’s well-lit satanic mills. We had as many bathroom breaks as we needed; there was no high-tech surveillance; we weren’t written up for missing a quota when machines broke; there were no drug tests; there was open camaraderie. And there wasn’t ubiquitous anti-union propaganda — mostly because we were members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Warehouse Local 880.

Being union didn’t remedy all the problems. We began work at slightly over minimum wage which didn’t rise until one year’s service. We had no shop steward and rarely saw a union rep. The health plan was affordable but barely adequate. There was a passable grievance procedure, but the workforce of dozens of occasionally sober San Francisco hippies was undisciplined and pugnacious enough that the boss was generally constrained from arbitrary and unfair actions.

I don’t mean to excessively romanticize warehouse work in the late Sixties; there were plenty of shops that were much worse than ours. But even though the owners of Nor-Cal were a conglomerate, they didn’t have either the power or the desire to control that much of their workers’ lives.

I can’t imagine what today’s Amazon conditions wreak on a worker’s soul, but the indoctrination must be thorough enough — and jobs scarce enough — that the workers at the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse rejected union membership this past week by more than two to one. I won’t say that the nays voted against their own interests, because who am I to tell others what their interests are. But the decision to vote no was extremely short-sighted and, well, selfish.

You don’t just join a union for yourself: You join it for everybody who works for a living. The people enjoying their $15 an hour at Amazon either forgot or never knew that that wage came about almost entirely because of the union backed and funded Fight for $15. And failure to build the labor movement means that legislative attempts to improve health and safety laws, workers compensation or fight harassment will be that much harder. Joining a union is akin to wearing a mask: You’re not just protecting yourself; you’re protecting the most vulnerable.

For instance, according to a 2020 House Judiciary Subcommittee report on competition, Amazon’s warehouses lower wages for all warehouse workers in the surrounding market. Why? For the same reason that slavery undercut wages for free workers: a pool of unpaid or underpaid workers simply lowers the prevailing wage.

To be sure, the union made mistakes. For one, a scarce majority signed initial RWDSU cards, where most organizers these days advise waiting until an a much larger percentage are willing to commit. And, apparently, the union’s parent, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was unaware of the drive until the NLRB made the election filing public last November.

But union mistakes pale beside the disgraceful ferocity of Amazon’s anti-union campaign. The relentless propaganda, the endless compulsory harangues, the immense amount of money spent by one of the world’s largest corporations — these all made a union victory, in one of the most anti-union states in the country, unlikely. But worried that even such an onslaught would not be enough, Amazon created a website (doitwithoutdues.com populated with animated characters extolling the company.

Of course, union organizing in the US, even against the most intractable of employers, can and sometimes does succeed. It’s important that unions, with better strategy and more abundant resources, try again at our second-largest private sector employer. I know what a good warehouse shop floor can be like, and I know the difference a union, and strong personal bonds, can make. We need the laws, and we need the resources, but we also need education and community support. Or else we’ll wind up with an anomic, indifferent and increasingly regulated workforce — which is, after all, Amazon’s vision.

So, wear a mask and join a union. We’re all depending on you.

Alec Dubro was a warehouse worker. He was also a Rolling Stone record reviewer, a journalist and president of the National Writers Union