Amazon Workers to Vote on Unionization: Bezos Says He Can’t Afford It

Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 7: 1-7; Psalm 147: 1-6; 1 Cor. 9: 16-19, 22-23; Mark 1: 29-39.

Tomorrow, 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama will vote on unionization. Of course, their decision will affect workers throughout Amazon’s mammoth enterprise – most of them non-white. The company employs 798,000 full-and part-time employees. In 2019, its net revenues were around $280.5 billion. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, is himself worth about $184 billion. He’s the second richest man on the planet.

Work at Amazon

Despite company profits and the wealth of its chief, there’s good reason for the unionization drive including alienated labor resulting from:

  • Low pay: Recently, Amazon raised its wages to $15 per hour. It also extended to its workers a $2 per hour bonus for “heroic” service during the pandemic. However, the company has since removed that extra pay in the light of its claims that the pandemic’s severity has diminished. Amazon workers dispute that assertion, while maintaining that $15 per hour remains inadequate remuneration for their heavy workloads. And besides, Amazon workers’ unprecedentedly profitable production increases during the pandemic need due reward.
  • Intense surveillance of workers: Sophisticated AI technology tracks every move of each Amazon worker – to such an extent that those not meeting production goals can be threatened with imminent job termination by a robot without intervention from a human supervisor.
  • Union-busting: That same sort of technology makes sure that workers on break do not congregate for purposes of conversation related to union organizing. Those caught engaging in such exchanges have been summarily fired.
  • Wage theft: Last Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission fined Amazon $61.7 million for actually stealing tips from Amazon’s Flex drivers over a two and a half-year period. Flex drivers are hourly workers who receive no benefits and use their own cars to make deliveries.
  • Dangerous working conditions: Work at Amazon is three times as dangerous as employment across the private sector and twice as dangerous as warehouse work in general. 911 records show that on the job mental episodes and even suicides are common in the Amazon workplace.  
  • PR to the contrary: The Amazon website proclaims that it supports the Black Lives Matter movement. However, according to Amazon’s largely non-white workforce, the items just listed tell another story.

Today’s Readings

I bring all of this up, because this Sunday’s readings suggest themes of work, overwork, and low pay.  They implicitly compare the alienated work of “hirelings” and “slaves” to that of the self-chosen pro bono work done by Yeshua and Paul in service of the poor. Both types of work are exhausting. But one is human, the other not.

What I’m driving at is reflected in my translations of these thoughtful readings about work. Please check out the originals here:

 
 Job 7: 1-7:
 Joining Job
 On his stinking POS
 Wage workers know
 That life is hard
 When a plague requires
 Months of misery
 Sleepless nights
 Overtime work
 And hopeless days
 That drain their lives
 And have them wondering
 If they’ll ever
 Smile again.
  
 Psalm 147: 1-6:
 Brokenhearted,
 Some look to “God”
 And still find words
 Of prayer,
 Praise and thanks
 That transform 
 Even bricklayers’ 
 Tattered blueprints
 Into transcendent plans
 Of infinite intelligence,
 Power, and wisdom
 That one day will find
 Bosses humiliated
 And poor workers 
 Finally earning 
 Their just wage.
  
 1 Cor. 9: 16-19, 22-23:
 Paul’s proud labor
 Was teaching
 Which he too found 
 Underpaid and driven
 As he gave hope to
 Those too poor to pay
 Just as his Master had
 In order to help them
 Regain that grin.
  
 Mark 1: 29-39:
 Yes, Jesus too 
 Worked hard
 As a day-laborer
 Become faith healer
 First of his friend’s 
 Feverish in-law
 And then 
 Of the insane
 And those afflicted
 With unnamed infection
 Of every type.
 Sustained by prayer
 At early dawn,
 He too soon returned 
 To his tireless grind
 As a selfless
 Pro bono physician
 Without borders.

Alienated Labor or Not

Do you see what’s happening in those readings?

The first one from the Book of Job indirectly reveals reluctant wage labor (a la Amazon) to be like sitting on top of Job’s famous pile of excrement (Job 2: 8-13). It’s pure drudgery. It’s slavery. Its misery leads to sleepless nights, and a shortened life entirely deprived of happiness.

By way of contrast, the second and third readings describe unalienated labor. In both the case of Paul and Yeshua, the work is completely exhausting and without monetary remuneration – but by their own choice. (The gospel reading’s description of a typical “day in the life” of Yeshua the Christ is actually quite detailed. It’s up in the early morning for prayer and then dealing with a constant stream of impoverished peasants seeking relief from diseases both mental and physical. Then it’s on to the next town for a round of the same – all without charge.)

Of course, the difference between the work Job’s text references and that of Yeshua and Paul is that the latter determined their own workload and pace of activity. They exhausted themselves because they freely chose to do so – not in the service of a distant wealthy slavedriver like Bezos, but in service to Life Itself.

Though union organizers don’t put it this way, that’s the ideal of the labor union movement – a humanized workplace, where workers have voice and some control over conditions in the place where they spend fully half of their waking hours.

As economists like Richard Wolff point out, an even more humanized workplace would be run entirely by workers. They’d determine for themselves every aspect of their workday – what to produce, where to produce it, the pace of work, and what to do with the profits. In such a cooperative there’d be no alienation, no intense surveillance, no dangerous working conditions, no underpayment or wage theft.

Conclusion

Naturally, all of us have to work. But exhausting labor too (like that of Yeshua and Paul) can bring a sense of joy and participation in creation of the universe like that described in today’s responsorial, Psalm 147.

Even work for Amazon could be dignified – absent the intense surveillance, constant race against the clock, low pay, and wage theft at the hands of one of the wealthiest companies in the world run by the globe’s second richest man. That sort of work can and does drive people over the edge even to the point of suicide.

The efforts by Alabama’s Amazon employees to unionize represent an attempt by wage earners to humanize all of that harshness. Within the capitalist system as we know it, unionization is the closest workers can get to escape slave-like conditions and completely alienated labor. The real humanization however would come from transforming the workplace into a cooperative where employees would be self-empowered.

As always, the call of today’s readings is to do what our faith tells us the Great Father-Mother God did: become human. In today’s instance that means humanizing the workplace. That means opposition to Amazon’s exploitation of workers. It implies support of unions everywhere. It suggests support of the co-op movement.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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