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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/7/21

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

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Jeff Bezos - Caricature
Jeff Bezos - Caricature
(Image by DonkeyHotey from flickr)
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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, the workers add that their unprecedentedly profitable production increases during the pandemic need commensurate 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.

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is (more...)
 

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