Gordon Campbell on the battle to bring some humanity into Amazon’s work practices

4b15a54de96508e30bebWhenever we use Amazon for online shopping delivery, we should feel guilty. The company’s labour practices are notoriously unsafe. Shop floor employees in Amazon warehouses are required to work punishing ten to 12 hour shifts that routinely require them to walk 24 kilometres a day to fill orders and stack shelves. Meanwhile, their work output and journeys round the warehouses are being electronically tracked and timed to maximise efficiency. In the book on which the film Nomadland was based, author Jessica Bruder reported on Amazon’s active recruitment of older van-living nomads who have an ingrained work ethic and a reluctance to ask for much in the way of benefits. In a fascinating article in Wired magazine, Bruder described Amazon’s warehouse in Hasler, Texas :

The walls featured murals of Amazon’s warehouse mascot, a bloblike orange character called Peccy, along with Orwellian slogans like “Problems Are Treasures” and “Variation Is the Enemy.” Wall-mounted dispensers labeled LIL’ MEDIC offered free pain relievers. A poster told workers to prepare to be sore. Everything was regimented. Handheld scanners tracked workers’ progress around the warehouse. Inside bathroom stalls, charts showing a palette of colours ranging from light yellow to terrifying puce instructed workers to examine their urine, and drink more water.

The personal wealth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founding boss, currently stands at about $US203 billion, just shy of the $US206.9 entire annual GDP of New Zealand in 2019. So you might think that Bezos has ample ability to share some of his immense hoard with the 800,000 Amazon workers who – thanks to the surge in online shopping during the pandemic – have made Bezos an even wealthier man over the past 12 months.

But Bezos is no mood to share. Yesterday (NZ time) the counting began after a bitterly contested union ballot at Amazon’s massive warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The outcome could end up making Bessemer the first Amazon facility on US soil to be unionised, but – in echoes of the US election – it may take weeks before the result is known, and it is questionable whether Amazon will accept the result if the vote goes against it. With good reason, the Bessemer struggle has been linked to other similar struggles against injustice. A week ago, Reverend William J. Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign put it like this:

“The union fight and the fight for voting rights and the fight against voter suppression is the same fight. Because all of those fights are fights to bring Black, white, brown, Asian, Native, and poor, low-wealth people together in the south… segregation was a political strategy employed by the wealthy interests of the south to keep the southern masses of Black and white folk divided so that they could keep the labour cheap.”

On the Amazon front lines

In order to skew the ballot, Amazon has engaged in all kinds of underhand tricks. At the outset, when the Bessemer workforce was organising to pass the 51% threshold required to hold a ballot at all, Amazon suddenly hired a huge intake of temporary new workers to dilute the likely pool of “ Yes” votes for change. The union defeated that tactic by successfully organising amongst the newbies, too. Amazon then tried to delay the vote and curtail mail-in voting, and the company also erected billboards advertising an early, inaccurate date for when ballots had to be filled in and returned. Amazon even got the city of Bessemer to change the traffic light patterns in front of the warehouse to give union organizers less time to talk to workers coming to and from shifts at the red light.

While less overtly violent, those tactics seem like a throwback to the union-busting strategies deployed to undermine the mine workers’ struggles for recognition in Kentucky’s “Bloody Harlan” County during the 1930s. The tactics seem particularly bizarre in 2021, given that several of the Amazon warehouses in Europe are unionised in line with the role that unions are legitimately seen to play in Germany, France, Italy and Scandinavia. Evidently, Amazon is afraid that if the company loses this battle at Bessemer, the union drive will soon extend to other company warehouses across the US. Such an outcome could even end up pushing the Bezos fortune a little below the $200 billion mark…

Bezos vs Bernie

Bezos also owns the Washington Post. In a very careful choice of words, the Post has reported that Amazon has been using “ hard ball” tactics during the Bessemer union drive. Yet beyond Bessemer, Bezos has even bigger battles in mind. It remains unclear just how serious the Biden administration is about fostering competition by policing, regulating and (perhaps) even using anti-trust competition law to break up each of the big quartet of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google into smaller, rival companies. The key players in any antitrust actions will be senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar. In a pre-emptive move, Bezos has reportedly been urging his minions to go on the social media snark attack against Sanders and Warren :

Amazon has long been at odds with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over their criticisms of the company’s labour and business practices. But the discord reached new heights last week when Amazon aggressively went after both senators on Twitter in an unusual attack for a large corporation. With each new snarky tweet from an Amazon executive or the company’s official Twitter account, insiders and observers alike asked a version of the same question: “What the hell is going on?” It turns out that Amazon leaders were following a broad mandate from the very top of the company: Fight back.

You can read the details in the Vox Media article inked to above. Warren and Sanders can probably be marginalised as radicals, but Bezos will have more trouble in painting Klobuchar as an extremist. In a long interview yesterday in the New York Times ( headlined “Why Big Tech Should Fear Amy Klobuchar”) the Minnesota senator sounded serious about tackling the monopoly powers of Big Tech. In the case of Amazon, the problem is its monopsony power, whereby firms essentially have only one platform on which to sell their stuff.

The regulators would be following the same logic that the US Justice Department used to tackled the telecommunications giant AT &T in the 1970s. AT&T was eventually broken up into seven competing telcos that came to be known as the Baby Bells. In New Zealand, and while wearing his academic hat, Geoffrey Palmer was clearly aware of Adam Smith’s warnings about the growth of monopolies and their unbridled power. Yet in the 1980s, Palmer seemed asleep at the wheel when it came to the danger of selling off a state monopoly like Telecom. To no-one’s surprise, Telecom became a private monopoly that hiked prices, strangled competition and set back innovation in the New Zealand telco sector for the best part of two decades.

Which is exactly the sort of thing that unregulated markets will do, given the chance. In the NYT article, Klobuchar cited not only the AT& T case but also the anti-trust suit launched by Bill Clinton’s Justice Department in the 1990s against Microsoft, which fizzled out after the incoming George W. Bush administration let Microsoft buy their way out of trouble by paying a negligible settlement to affected parties.

That’s the problem. Any attempt to change the behaviours – and the structures – of Facebook, Amazon, Google etc – is going to be fought out over such a long time that it will need successive Democratic and Republican administrations to support the case. Unfortunately though, their motives differ. The paranoid ideologues in the Republican Party think the problem with Facebook and Google is that their algorithms are allegedly biased against right wing politicians and their ideas. ( Conversely, liberals think the algorithms favour right wing extremists.) These clashing worldviews are colouring the bi-partisan moves being made to scrap ( or at least, significantly narrow) the safe harbour clause called section 230, that currently protects social media companies from being sued for the content they carry.

The Republicans want to use well-meaning types like Klobuchar and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to scrap section 230 altogether, regardless of the impact this would have on free speech. Their aim is to create an online climate that is likely to be infinitely worse than the current situation. They aim to create an Internet policed by wealthy GOP donor groups that – once they’re no longer constrained by the protections from legal liability offered by section 230 – will be able to set their lawyers loose onto any forms of personal, political or religious online expression that they don’t like. Arguably, this would create a more ideologically narrow even more commercialised Internet. Unfortunately, taking action against section 230 seems to be one of the few things that the Republicans and the Democrats currently seem able to agree upon.

Big Pharma, Hiking Up Vaccine Prices

Just when we were all starting to like Big Pharma for how it created those life-saving vaccines in record time, Pfizer has come along to ruin it all by gloating that …hey, vaccine prices are going to rise once this pandemic thing is brought under control.

During a recent virtual investor conference (PDF) hosted by Barclays, Pfizer Chief Financial Officer Frank D’Amelio said the company sees “significant opportunity” for its COVID-19 vaccine once the market shifts from a “pandemic situation to an endemic situation.”

Meaning: once Covid-19 has been bedded in as part of the landscape, the drug companies will have a new, locked in market queuing up for the latest versions of their vaccines to combat the latest variants of the virus, and governments will by then be hooked on their product.

Right now, the market is “clearly not being driven by what I’ll call normal market conditions,” D’Amelio explained to Barclays analyst Carter Gould during the virtual event. Instead, it’s “been driven by kind of the pandemic state that we’ve been in and the needs of governments to really secure doses from the various vaccine suppliers.”

Eventually, Pfizer expects “normal market forces … will start to kick in,” D’Amelio said.At that point “factors like efficacy, booster ability, clinical utility will basically become very important, and we view that as, quite frankly, a significant opportunity for our vaccine from a demand perspective, from a pricing perspective, given the clinical profile of our vaccine,” D’Amelio told the analyst.

It is going to be a huge new revenue stream. Around the world, governments that have (so far) made the Covid vaccinations available free of charge, will soon have a big decision to make, maybe as early as 2022. Namely, they will have to decide how much of this rising cost of Covid vaccines can governments continue to absorb and when do they start passing some of the costs onto the public? It will require a delicate balance. Right now, governments are trying to maximise the uptake of the vaccine, and in the medium term, it won’t’ help that cause at all if price factors become a deterrent.

Serpentine Fire

Offhand, I can’t remember seeing a warmer, more joyous set of images than those contained in the video for the new single “Same Size Shoes” (“Me and my boo /got the same size shoes”…) by Josiah Wise, who performs under the name serpentwithfeet. As one of the thread commenters said, it is vanishingly rare to come across a video featuring two young black men that isn’t about pain and suffering…

And in similar vein, here’s “Fellowship” another track from the new serpentwithfeet album, Deacon.