In the Wake of Protest: One Woman's Attempt to Unionize Amazon

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Amid the Occupy demonstrations, a former anti-WTO activist recalls her efforts to organize workers at the online books giant.

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Occupy demonstrators are shutting down ports along the West Coast today. For a movement that needs to show its strength and expand beyond city parks, it is a dramatic step that has many watching the news with bated breath. And yet, it has echoes in the past. In 1999, during the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union threatened to shut every port from Hawaii to Alaska if the city of Seattle didn't let the protesters they had arrested out of jail. It worked. And for people like me, unions suddenly became relevant.

I had been at the WTO protests. I had watched hundreds of UPS Teamsters wearing shirts that said "Kicking Ass for the Working Class" march into the pepper spray and concussion grenades. The people I knew seemed unable to organize in groups larger than twenty-five, so the organization union actions made an impression.

I don't know precisely what's going to come out of the Occupy protests of the last few months. But I know what I did after the "Battle for Seattle." I decided to get a job working in the Amazon warehouse solely for the purpose of unionizing it. No one asked me to do it. No one paid me. I took the task on out of a newfound zeal and a belief in what unionizing could do.

Up until then my ideas about unions were vague. I was pro-union in orientation, not experience. I had seen John Sayles' Matewan and knew that "Solidarity Forever" was a song, but that was about it. What ideas I did have were steeped in nostalgia and rooted in a desire for working class authenticity.  I found ethical simplicity of a world in which the boss is the guy in the office, and the worker is the guy in the coal pit very appealing, but it wasn't all that relevant.

But the Teamsters and the Longshore had something we didn't, the mystique of the blue-collar worker. Like most of my generation, I made my living in the service industry. We worked, sure, but we weren't 'workers.' Somehow, our shiny tech world was exempt from class struggle. Our economy depended on market speculation. It revolved around saleable ideas, stock options and vesting. People at Microsoft and Amazon were walking away with hundreds of thousands of dollars after two or three years. By fall of 1999, though, fewer and fewer people were getting lucky and jobs were growing scarce. If you wanted in to Microsoft, you had to spend years temping with rolling layoffs. And if you did get in, you better not complain. 'Be grateful you have a job' became the new mantra. Besides, your manager probably listens to Sonic Youth and won't care if your hair is green-isn't that enough? 

For some it wasn't. A nascent tech workers union called WashTech had sprung up and was trying to organize contract employees out at Microsoft. The campaign failed, but not before it sparked off a union drive within the customer service side of Amazon. Down in Oregon, the Powell's Books workers had just unionized and a whole crew of them up had come up for WTO. Discussion between unions and environmentalists, affinity groups and student anti-sweatshop organizers was heady, the kind of cross-pollinating going on now through the Occupy movement.

I remember a Powell's worker saying that Powell's supplied 40 percent of Amazon's used books. And the Teamsters said they loaded and shipped them.  And of course, the orders were processed by the very customer service center that was organizing with WashTech. Since Amazon's whole business model was built on speed, accuracy, and convenience, it was easy to see the potential for leverage. Because what I had seen at WTO was power. The Longshore workers and UPS had the power to shut something down. Amazon was a bookseller and the warehouse was where they kept the books. Moreover, I needed a job and was tired of waiting tables. I was also tired of the way we all lived, unsustainably and bridging the gap with credit cards. Here we were, a generation of workers fueling the largest expansion of business since the transcontinental railroad and we didn't have living wage jobs or benefits. The bigger these companies got, the more we were asked to give. The start-up model where everyone worked 72 hours a week and got paid nothing had become the new standard of productivity and wage rates.

Standing on an overpass on New Year's Eve 2000 I looked out over Seattle. Midnight hit and the only sign of Y2K was that the PEMCO bank clock started blinking the wrong time. The apocalypse and its convenient organizing strategy of dystopian collapse, apparently wasn't coming. So when the roar of WTO diminished, I got a job at the Amazon warehouse.

Right about the time Nike-town was being smashed to bits by anarchists , Time magazine named Jeff Bezos "Person of The Year." Yet Amazon had failed so far to show a profit and stockholder pressure was on. In January, five days before fourth-quarter earnings were to be published, Bezos laid off around 150 workers, nearly 2 percent of its workforce, and posted its first-ever gains.

I was hired the following week.

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My first day at the warehouse, I was handed a green lanyard that said TEMP and led through a security checkpoint with about 30 other people where we showed our cards and underwent a simple bag search. It was just like an arena show. I didn't think much of it at the time, why they searched us on the way in, but it made sense later.

Once through security, the warehouse opened up into a brightly lit place with soaring ceilings from which motivational banners hung. These weren't the pictures of kittens clinging to tree limbs saying "Hang In There" in script. No, these were sweeping vistas, mountaintops, desert roads through Joshua Tree at sunrise.  I don't remember what any of them said exactly-something about growth and expanded horizons, maybe a little Sun Tzu-but the message of the images were clear: We were part of a new dawn. 

Our group was taken upstairs for orientation, where they gave us cookies and Dixie cups full of juice while we listened to motivational speeches by employees with stock options. Today, we rarely think about the language of work because inane job titles have become so ubiquitous. But at the time, having it explained to me (at great length) that I was an "associate," not a worker or employee, and that I needed to "challenge" myself to think in these terms felt nothing short of Orwellian. Since I was clumsy about it, I often got gently corrected: I did not have managers or supervisors: I had team leaders. I did not work in a warehouse or distribution center: I worked in a fulfillment center.

At that same meeting, they handed out placement tests to see where we belonged. If I wanted to organize, I knew I needed to be where I had freedom of movement and could talk to people. I wanted to be a picker. But that meant I had to score better on the test and accurately read and reproduce long sections of numbers. As a former 'shelver' at a library, this was not a problem. I became a picker.

Downstairs on your way into the picking side of the warehouse, was a traffic light. It looked like a real one except that it was stopped on yellow.  Later, I would learn that the color did change throughout the day. When it was green, you could go home when your shift was done. When it was yellow, best to ask and when it was red, you should know better.

The associate lead who had guided me through orientation now handed me off to another lead for training. Basically, my job was to find the books on the shelves and put them on carts to be processed. I was given printouts of orders and logged each list in at a computer terminal. When I was done picking the list, I logged out.  What the computer did, aside from other logistical feats, was track my productivity. It told me how many books I picked per minute. If this number dipped, one of the many leads that floated around would come to check on me, just to see how I was doing. It was all done with velvet gloves.

Once, I saw a  25-year-old manager shout across the warehouse at a man in his fifties whose numbers had dropped telling him to "step it up." But that was rare. Everything at Amazon was translated into language that respected personal identity above all else. No one was fired. They were just "not really a good match." They were going to be "happier somewhere else." And, after they followed their bliss out the door, a temp like me took their place.

What I had set out to do at Amazon was something called "salting." A "salt" is an old union term for someone who gets a job somewhere for the purpose of unionizing the other employees. While some see it as a bit devious, I see it more like a literacy campaign. Reading, like the ability to organize, ultimately takes people where they want to go, not where you think they should. And I was okay with that. Furthermore, I wasn't trying to get people to join some particular union. I was trying to pass on what I knew about how to build one.

Unfortunately, the first rule of salting is that you have to try to do your job better than everyone else.  I picked books so fast I got nauseated and had around-the-clock headaches. The leads loved me, but I came home unable to do anything but eat pizza and sleep, useless, and with all the handling from the leads on the job, I couldn't talk to anybody. I had no way of finding out if there was any interest in organizing. If I tried to say something in passing to anyone, my numbers slipped and the leads wanted to know what was wrong. Did I need anything? Other pickers couldn't talk to me for the same reason. The persistent whisper of escalating productivity was everywhere.

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As that first month dragged on, I tried to tell myself I was organizing, but what I was really doing was driving across town in a beater car working 8-12 hours shifts with no overtime for $8.72 an hour. I was just like the guy hoping to save up someday for a tour van. Or the person theoretically writing a novel. The fact that I, too, was motivated by some grand plan, which in this case was class struggle, was irrelevant. That thought, as it sunk in, depressed me to the point where out of desperation, I took my chance.

Breaks at Amazon were signaled by a loud buzzer. If it was your group's turn, you filed out along the taped lines to the bathroom, or to a fenced area outside where you could smoke. The smoker's hutch was small and 20 or 30 people might be packed in there, which meant there was no privacy to talk. Security cameras were also trained on the hutch. I remember it was the day after Mardi Gras and riot cops had attacked some drunken frat boys downtown mistaking them for ad hoc demonstrators. Everyone was laughing about it in the smoker's hutch. One guy made an earnest comment about freedom of assembly just as the buzzer went off. I jumped in beside him walking back to the warehouse. "Do you really believe people should be able to get together if they want?" My next question was: has anyone here ever tried to start a union? He looked at me strangely and I said, "Meet me in the parking lot after work."

I was terrified.  Sitting in my 1981 Corolla waiting for him to finish his shift, my mind raced. Had he gone to management? Had someone else overheard me? What if I got fired? I did, after all, need this lousy $8.72-an-hour job. But then I saw him come out of the warehouse and we talked.

My plan, if you could call it one, was to get people together in a room and get out of the way.
I used to think a union started like this: You round up all the hotheads, get them in one room, and storm the castle. Which would be great if it were true because then it would only take a couple of weeks out of people's lives instead of years. First you have to build a good organizing committee. Ideally, that means getting people from all jobs and shifts, ethnicities, genders-about one person for every ten workers-so you can talk to each other in some kind of sane fashion. These were things I'd learned talking to union folks at the WTO protests and I wanted to pass them on. My plan, if you could call it one, was to get people together in a room and get out of the way. It wasn't my place to weigh in on their future. But I had to find the people who could find the right people, not just anybody who was frustrated. They had to really love their jobs and love the company because those are the only people who would stick around to make it better. All of which meant that the people I was looking for were the ones who believed in Amazon and Bezos the most. But why would they talk to me? I was a temp.

With the man I met on the smoker's porch that day, I just got plain lucky. He had been there since the beginning with Bezos and was devoted to Amazon. His suggestions had led to a redesign of the conveyor-belt side of the packing lines, resulting in substantial increases in production speed. And while Amazon sales were growing at an annual rate of 300 percent, he was trying to raise his kids on $9.50 an hour -- and he'd been there for four years. One day he sprained his wrist on the job and called in. Two days later he was told if he didn't present a doctor's note by the next day, he would be let go.

He was the one who told me Bezos was going to close the Seattle warehouse. It was too expensive to run. Huge fulfillment centers were springing up around the country. In Nevada, they were getting $5.15 an hour and people had to work 12-hour shifts, five days a week. Mandated overtime pay didn't start until after 40 hours of a workweek. So when production lulled people were sent home or told not to come in the following day to shave costs. These were the new models. This was the future.

Shaving overtime by sending people home mid-shift, or giving them "the next few days off," was the practice in Seattle too, but in Nevada there was no velvet glove, no nod to personal identity. Workers there were herded through long security lines and body searched on their way in and out before they could clock in. The ventilation was terrible and they got fired for the slightest complaint-at least these were the reports.

Some managers who had been sent out to these warehouses and had expressed concerns were fired. So were the managers who cast doubt on Bezos' plan for mechanization. A few of them wrote a heartfelt letter to Jeff one night, and that was the end.

Everywhere we saw the movement of a new plan, something I was told Bezos and his upper echelon developed sequestered away in a wooded camp. Bezos apparently had a weakness for coded project names and, according to several of the longtime workers this one was originally, "Project Fargo." But some of Bezos' closest team had seen problems and voiced them. They, too, were fired. In fact, many of the 150 workers let go before the fourth-quarter posting were from upper management and appeared to be people who had quietly spoken against Project Fargo, which was Bezos' plan to become the Walmart of the Internet.

People in the warehouse weren't talking about the ethics of Project Fargo, though. Their issues were more immediate. Temps were flooding in and benefitted employees out. There was a production speed up. Wages were half the local, living wage. Health care was inaccessible. Furthermore, stock options, which had been the carrot, were becoming worthless. If you weren't there in 1997 when Amazon went public, you were out of luck. You had to buy in at prices as high as $105 a share, which is hard to do on $9 an hour. Those who had were watching their stock plummet. Between December 1999 and the close of 2000, the stock's value fell by 90 percent.  Beyond that, small things irked people. Bezos was buying multimillion-dollar companies left and right and simultaneously taking the free Tylenol away, which, let me tell you, the Amazon employees needed. And everywhere, on the periphery, was the threat of closure.

Workers I met over the next few weeks whispered about conditions in the Nevada warehouse, glad they weren't there. Some feared it would happen in Seattle but most felt protected. They trusted Bezos and many of them worked with him. They felt a part of Amazon's success and were proud of what they'd built. I frequently heard people say that if "Jeff" knew what was going on in the warehouse, a whole bunch of things would change. 

But Bezos had been hiring Walmart executives for a couple of years by then, specifically so that they could redesign the distribution centers. Walmart actually sued him in late 1998, claiming he was hiring for privileged operational information about Walmart warehouses. They settled out of court but Bezos was ordered to move some of the ex-Walmart executives into other departments. The changes, however, were already in motion. The idea that "Jeff" was the good king away from the castle remained. It was one of the hardest things to let go because it meant what you believed in might be a lie and that's a blow to anyone.

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Our first organizing committee meeting was held in a small apartment and there were about six of us. I had invited an organizer from the ILWU to come talk about labor law. Among the employees, the big surprise was that this one woman, greatly admired by her coworkers and an extremely loyal employee, had shown up. And she was pissed. She had kids and the overtime stoplight was the bane of her life. She was sick of spending all her money on emergency childcare and having to tell her kids she wasn't going to be able to come home, again. She was a key part of the operation and few people could step in to do what she did, so for her, the yellow stoplight may as well have been red. She was mandated to stay. One day during Christmas, she couldn't get extra childcare to cover and said she was going to have to go home. They told her she might not have a job when she came back. For most of us without kids that ridiculous stoplight was an annoyance. For her it was nightmare. She wanted to organize to change stuff like that. That was the character of the whole group. They wanted to make Amazon better.

As more people came aboard in February and early March the rumors started flying. WashTech, a nascent tech union, was catching fire on the customer service side. The searches in and out of the warehouse were getting more intense. They were looking for union leaflets. Non-solicitation policies were being handed out and the warehouse management, so obsessed with production speed and numbers, suddenly started having mandatory meetings during people's shifts wherein they talked about the "Amazon family," warned against unions, and cried poor.

Meanwhile, on the picking side of things, life was just bizarre. Project Fargo had gone underground and a new project, Project Alexandria, had taken its place. We were going to have books in hundreds of languages. People who couldn't read Swahili were desperately trying to figure out how to code books in it. It was a technical fiasco. Needless to say, Project Alexandria as it was didn't last long, but the company had other visions. Amazon Everywhere™ was launched, more companies were purchased, more lawsuits engaged.

Every day, a few more people came onto the organizing committee, but we still had no one from the packing side. I decided to move over, but Amazon wasn't the kind of place where you just asked to work somewhere else, not in that union-phobic environment. I had to come up with a reason that was believable yet utterly harmless. So I told them I was into river rafting and wanted to build my upper body strength. It was exactly the kind of innocuous self-expression Amazon supported. I was moved immediately.

The move was pointless, outside of building my upper-body strength, because it was no easier to talk to people there even though you worked right next to each other. The conveyor belt was throwing packages at you and you had to keep up. If you tried to talk, leads came around, just as with the pickers. If your numbers slipped, it was "I need a little more from you today. We're trying to hit 14,000 over these next few hours," etc.

That's where I was working when the Dot Com bubble popped. March 10, 2000 is the official date of the tech crash, but it's not like sirens went off or anything. In some ways, for those of us in the warehouse, the crash seemed remote. Layoffs had been going on for a while. Stocks had been inaccessible for most, so the fact that it was crashing affected few people. Amazon was also still clearly successful and growing. In fact, during that year of collapsing profit margins, Amazon expanded theirs by six percent. The driving talk in the warehouse at the time wasn't about the crashing tech industry. We wanted to know something less abstract: Where were all the books?

I don't remember the first wicker dog or communion dress to come into the warehouse. What I do remember is that nobody knew where to put the stuff.  It didn't fit in the empty book slots. Little of it could be packed in the "multi-volume-packaging" we had. I recall staring down an Eleanor Roosevelt doll in a box from China and trying to figure out what to do. What we were seeing then was the revived Project Fargo. We had entered the toddler stage of becoming the Walmart of the Internet.

Clearly, Amazon solved their sorting and packing problems. I don't know how because I was let go right around as this shift began. A lead came up to me one day and said my services were no longer needed.  Fifteen minutes later, I was escorted to the door and thoroughly searched on the way out. I wondered if Amazon knew what I was doing. I was talking to a lot of longtime employees and they were on the lookout for things like that. They must have known.

In late August, though, after more layoffs, I got a letter offering me my warehouse job back. It said they thought I had been a stellar member of their team. I had the right attitude. My hard work had been noticed.

So maybe they didn't know?

Organizing had died out in the warehouse over the summer when Amazon announced they were letting go of 70 percent of their permanent workforce by fall. They couldn't say which 70 percent, though, which is certainly one way to keep people on their toes. As always, the assertion among employees that they weren't really "workers," but rather, "associates" made it more difficult to organize them.

After the stock Market crash in 1929, the German philosopher Kracauer looked around at his generation of workers and said-they don't know where they belong. He saw the piano lessons of the would-be bourgeois girls training them for typing pools. He claimed the "social space of the office" was creating a working class alienated from its own issues and he dubbed them the Salaria. They were paid like workers but their self-conception was bourgeois. And he attributed their numbers to the rapidly growing workforce that was emerging "out of the apparatus of distribution."

Amazon's success didn't just come from predatory buying and selling practices.  Nor did it come from of simple ingenuity. It was a combination of these elements and deals struck by one generation with itself regarding personal identity, worker's rights, and the value of stock speculation. Was the right to have green hair and torn t-shirts worth it? Was our need to be understood more important than a living wage? Were these even the choices we faced?

Amazon is the perfect snow globe of late stage capitalism. You shake it up and watch the pieces fall into place, but no one can call it a natural process.
With the Occupy movement now reinvigorating the discourse on class, and our narratives on tech gurus like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos crystallizing into myth, it is worth reflecting on one of the moments when our models of identity as it relates to business shifted gears. In the close of 2011, I can say that I know a couple of millionaires. I know way more people who make under $25,000. I know almost nobody in the middle. In many ways, Amazon is the perfect snow globe of late stage capitalism. You shake it up and watch the pieces fall into place, but no one can call it a natural process. The brilliance of their approach was that they let you belong. They wanted your ideas. They took them and made money off them and paid you $9.50 if you put in some years. But for a generation of latchkey kids, many of whom craved that tribal sense of belonging more than anything, it really was a family.

But then, so was the Medici.

WashTech was beaten on the customer service side a year after I left. Subsequent drives were squelched wherever they came up. Mostly they didn't get started because temps aren't legally employees and have no rights. In 2001 Bezos hired the Burke Group, the most formidable "union avoidance" consultants in the world, to address his labor problems. He was getting taken to court in the United Kingdom and needed an aggressive campaign to get around the stronger labor culture. In the US, more fulfillment centers opened in states where union shops were illegal. I still see small headlines here and there, on this failed Amazon union drive or that, or some worker passing out from exhaustion. Just last week, Germany's Der Speigel railed on Amazon's practice of repeatedly hiring temps for two weeks, letting them go, then rehiring them so that they were paid out of German job creation subsidies. But it all goes by in the background, a video stream or a shortened link on twitter.

Today, I think Amazon probably did know about me, and that what they knew was that I was essentially harmless. I was more valuable for my production speed than dangerous for my organizing. But to make the case that Amazon is anti-union barely approaches relevance. Most companies are anti-union, that's not important right now. What made Amazon unique was the way in which it was.

Bezos once bragged in a Wall Street Journal interview that he told temp agencies to hire the "freaks." The assumption at the time was that Bezos wanted creativity. But his creative staff wasn't coming out of the temp agencies, the warehouse recruits were. And I never met a "freak" who wouldn't throw over a decent wage to work somewhere lousy if they felt they belonged. These were people who wanted to be a part of something. They wanted to be valued for who they were, rather than what they produced. I often wondered if what Bezos really figured out was that if you gave freaks a home, they would give you everything they had-their best ideas, their longest days, and their rights on the job.

And that's what they did.


Images: Reuters.

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Vanessa Veselka is a writer. Her work has appeared in Tin House, BUST, Bitch Magazine, Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and elsewhere. Zazen, her first novel, is out on Red Lemonade.

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