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.

(Sunday Homily) Ten Reasons for Hope in a Time of Despair: Empire Is Crumbling before Our Eyes

Syriza (SYRIZA Poster: http://keithpp)

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JB 7: 1-4, 6-7; PS 147: 1-6; I COR 9: 16-19; 22-23; MK 1: 29-39 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/020815.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word is about hope in a world wracked by despair. All of us are starved for such hope. In fact, discouragement and apparent powerlessness describe not only our personal consciousness but the larger zeitgeist that is the constant focus of these Sunday reflections dedicated to confronting the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today’s confrontation should help progressives realize that our times are actually changing for the better.

Think of the most recent historical roots of today’s despair – the way the world was just 20 years ago. As described recently by Andre Vitchek, it was an unbelievably hard time for opponents of empire.

Then think of how things are different today. It’s the difference between the condition of Job in this Sunday’s first reading, and the healing Jesus brought to the poor in today’s gospel selection.

Twenty years ago Russia was controlled by Boris Yeltsin, a boozy western puppet who betrayed his own people. Like Yeltsin, other heads of state throughout Eastern Europe joined their western counterparts in a shameless surrender to imperial interests. They were largely “led” by the offspring of the elites who preceded them. China 20 years ago was still under the spell of the free market reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping. Meanwhile, Latin America reeling from decades of dictatorships imposed by the West had turned its economies over to neo-liberals trained in the Chicago School of Economics. The same was largely true of the Middle East and Africa. In those cases, dictators and the one-percenters were firmly in control. Christian vision of a kingdom where the earth belonged to everyone had been completely hijacked by religious fundamentalists and reactionaries including in his own way, the pope of Rome. All of this was largely hidden by both local and international mainstream media (MSM) which applauded dictatorships and plutocracies as “emerging democracies.”

Those were indeed hard times for anti-imperialists. I remember the despair. We were like Job in today’s first reading sitting on a dung heap lamenting the loss of hope enkindled by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Remember Job? He too was the victim of an incredible series of misfortunes. They reduced him to a condition worse than poverty. Without warning, he lost all his wealth; his children died; he became terribly sick; and his reputation went entirely south.

Job is the image of us all 20 years ago. Like Job, progressives couldn’t be blamed for wondering if our situation could ever change.

Perhaps believers among us had forgotten the general hope offered in today’s responsorial psalm. It reminds us of the goodness of Life – the divine energy in which we live and move and have our being. (Some call that Energy, “God.”) The psalmist reminds us that time and history itself have a way of healing broken hearts.  Life has a way of supporting even the most devastated.  And (as Job’s case illustrates) it eventually topples even those who appear to live on top of the world. God is good, the Psalmist reminds us. God is gracious and wise beyond our wildest imaginings. God unifies the poor, even when they’re hopelessly fragmented by elite strategies of “divide and rule.”

Today’s gospel reading offers more particular hope.  It recounts the first acts of a prophet from and imperial backwater, Israel – Jesus, the carpenter-preacher from Nazareth, a “Nowheresville” if there ever was one.

There he encourages the downtrodden every bit as crushed as Job. He heals with a touch, an embrace, a smile, a kiss of the foot, a word of encouragement as the afflicted assemble before him to find health and hope and relief from their demons.  In other words, today’s gospel locates hope outside the political structure of the day, outside the realm of priests, lawyers, kings and emperors. It finds hope on the margins of empire.

And when you think of it, that’s where hope is to be found today. It’s not grounded in American presidents, in our imperial army, in the European Union, or in “foreign aid.” As I said, it’s not even reported in the mainstream media.

And yet the world is changing for the better right before our eyes. And the locus of change is on the margins – in the 50% of the world that has almost invisibly (for Americans) broken free of the imperial order that has governed the world since the end of World War II. Eventually the gains of that 50% will change us too.

Think of the progress I’m referring to. To even perceive it you have to step outside the powerful system of propaganda that envelops us all. Here are 10 signs of hope emerging from the margins. They have for years been signaled by J.W. Smith and his Institute for Economic Democracy:

  1. World-wide people have lost faith in the western model of mainstream media (the Great Wurlitzer” as Smith terms it). Most have awakened to the fact that it’s all lies. In Latin America, Russia, China, and Iran, the new media is not even “alternative” any longer. Its mission is exposing the crimes of the West, its Empire and client states. Its message couldn’t be more straight-forward: No more torture, rape or genocide.
  2. Russia has risen from the ashes and is confronting the Empire on all fronts. Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world’s most effective international leader and practitioner of diplomacy and independence from Empire.
  3. Russia and China are both returning to their socialist roots advancing policies far more humane than their western counterparts.
  4. In Greece the overwhelming victory of SYRIZA has threatened the neo-liberal order in the heart of the European Union. The party’s anti-austerity message is already being spread to Italy, Spain, and France.
  5. Latin America has broken free of the shackles of the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are all forging their own paths while cooperating with and supporting one another. All are moving closer to Russia and China.
  6. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) themselves represent at least half the planet’s population. They are trading with each other in their own currencies now making themselves immune from western sanctions.
  7. On June 17th of this year, under BRICS leadership, 133 of the world’s 196 countries declared their intention to “destroy the New World Order” championed by western Empire.
  8. For those paying attention, even the ISIS barbarians are unwittingly serving the cause of peace by demonstrating the horror of wars instigated by the West. They behead on YouTube videos, while U.S. moviegoers cheer American Snipers who blow the heads off unsuspecting Iraqis defending their homes from Seals. ISIS barbarians set fire to prisoners with matches, while their U.S. counterparts use napalm and white phosphorous. The clash of barbarisms highlighted by ISIS promises to make pacifists of anyone capable of seeing parallels. (It’s up to progressives to make them apparent.)
  9. Even the U.S. president (the first ever influenced by liberation theology) sees parallels like the ones just referenced. He has criticized American exceptionalism by challenging his people to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
  10. The pope of Rome is attempting mightily to defeat Catholic fundamentalism and to turn 1/7 of the world’s population (i.e. 1.2 billion Catholics) in the direction of social justice and environmental protection as advocated by liberation theology.

None of these are “pie in the sky” hopes. They are simply facts known to the world outside our borders but hidden from us by the MSM.

Along with today’s liturgical readings, such changes should be cause for hope and encouragement. More than half the world has left Job’s dung heap. The world’s poor whom Jesus served and embodied are leading the way. The rest of us will join them soon.