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Amazon Warehouse Union Victory Could Change US Labor Movement

Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse is a quintessentially 21st-century workplace, where human “order pickers” select items from shelves delivered to them by a fleet of robots. But when the leaders of the newly formed Amazon union wanted to unionize the place, they did turned to a 1936 manual entitled Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry. The brochure recommends, among other things, a “chain system” in which workers recruit other workers.

That Amazon workers should look back at the history of the steel industry isn’t as odd as it might sound. Steel was an important sector of the American economy a century ago, just like e-commerce is today. In the 1930s, major steel companies defied unions, portraying them as meddling middlemen. “Outsiders weren’t necessary in the past,” said one manifest from Bethlehem Steel warned workers. “Nothing has happened that makes it necessary now.”

Last week, workers at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island made history by becoming the first facility in the United States to organize. Organizers have attributed their success to the fact that their start-up union is run by workers and not by those who could be branded “outsiders”. Manager Chris Smalls was a former worker at the site. Other key members still worked there, speaking to colleagues about the union during breaks and at the bus stop after shifts. They brought food; collected phone numbers; T-shirts distributed.

Unions have been desperate to gain a foothold at Amazon, and with good reason. The company is so big that it can also shape the working conditions in other companies. I was once at a conference for UK delivery company executives who admitted they were underpaying their workers but complained that they had no choice because Amazon had fooled consumers into expecting their goods to be free and super fast to be delivered. Countries with strong trade unions are also struggling with this dynamic: the German trade union Verdi regularly calls strikes in Amazon warehouses to try to bring the company into line with broader industry agreements.

Amazon’s use of technology to monitor workers has spread to other companies as well. 2020 was the start AWS panoramawhich uses computer vision technology to analyze surveillance camera footage in workplaces to detect when employees are not following rules like social distancing.

The bigger question is whether the Amazon camp victory will mark a turning point for the broader US labor movement. The headline pay still look bleak. Last year, only 10.3 percent of US workers were union members, down from about 20 percent in the early 1980s. Among the 16- to 24-year-olds, who work disproportionately in non-union sectors, it was just 4.2 percent. The US is not alone: ​​union membership has halved on average across OECD countries since 1985.

But even before this victory there were signs of a turning point. A Gallup Poll Last year, 68 percent of Americans supported unionization, the highest level since 1965. Workers have begun forming unions in unexpected places, from Starbucks to tech companies to glossy fashion magazines. The macroeconomic context also plays a role: the shortage of workers since the pandemic has made people more confident in keeping their heads out.

It’s also possible that the experience of “essential workers” during the pandemic has riddled some of the existential fear that robots could soon replace their jobs. Despite all the rumors of a looming wave of automation that would lead to mass unemployment, robots didn’t step in to solve problems like the shortage of truck drivers. “To do my job of sequential stop-order picking, there isn’t a machine right now that can do that,” a warehouse worker told me recently. “The ruling class calls it unskilled work, they say it is unskilled work because anyone can do it. If anyone can do it, then any machine can do it, but obviously they haven’t programmed or built a machine to do it can Do it.”

Staten Island’s robots don’t threaten to displace humans, but they do set an unrelenting pace for their work — an issue that has helped spark support for the union. When the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, an organization of workers, unions, and health and safety professionals, questioned 145 workers there, two-thirds said they experienced physical pain at work (particularly in feet, knees, back, ankles, shoulders and hands).

Unions have long waited for such a moment. The victory at Amazon suggests that American jobs like this can indeed be unionized – but only from the inside out.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/39c18844-9855-4bc6-ab39-a8f7ac215df9 Amazon Warehouse Union Victory Could Change US Labor Movement

Adam Bradshaw

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