Modern Times, old economyBy
I am a glorified temp. White collar Manpower. A contractor. I have worked for national and international corporations for years. I never trusted them. Not the people, necessarily, but the machine. To the machine, I am not a person. I am the hired help. A “human resource.” Consumable. Disposable. If work gets slack and I have to move on, it’s not as if anyone is breaking any promises to me I knew they wouldn’t keep. I never let them make them. Like Chaplin’s tramp, just a cog in the machine.
Ah, but “Modern Times” was 80 years ago. And now? The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy observes that this weekend’s New York Times article about Darwinian workplace conditions for white-collar workers at Amazon under Jeff Bezos has drawn more comments to the Times’ website than any other it has published. Cassidy writes:
Perhaps Times readers, who tend to be well educated and reasonably well off, like reading about bad things happening to people like themselves. But I think it goes deeper than that. As the “New Economy” celebrates its twentieth anniversary—on August 9, 1995, Netscape’s initial public offering took place—it is becoming harder to ignore some of its negative aspects. Behind all the technological advances and product innovation, there is a good deal of old-fashioned labor discipline, wage repression, and exertion of management power.
Behind the websites of the New Economy are a lot of old-economy infrastructure: people, trucks and warehouses. In them, Amazon is not competing against Apple or other tech firms, but against Walmart and other low-wage, no security employers. Unions organized to oppose oppressive pay and workplace conditions a century or more ago. Will they come back now?
Amazon, for its part, has long resisted efforts to unionize its workforce, both in the U.S. and abroad. This battle is still ongoing. After the Times article came out, an official at a big British labor union, the G.M.B., which is seeking to recruit some of the roughly seven thousand people who work at Amazon’s U.K. distribution centers, accused the company of treating its staff like “robots” and imposing work conditions that often lead to physical and mental illness. A petition authored by the G.M.B. cites a survey of Amazon staff, which found that seventy-one per cent of them reported walking more than ten miles a day at work, seventy per cent felt they were given disciplinary points unfairly, and eighty-nine per cent felt exploited.
I don’t recall the word “exploited” being bandied about much in the dot-com era. Today, though, it crops up quite a lot. In a stinging response to the Times article, Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, reminded his readers that American private-sector unions “were originally formed as a response to exploitation by 19th century mill owners.” He added that, by “keeping a cowed workforce under the lash with non-stop pressure, bullying and psychological warfare, Bezos is the 21st century equivalent.”
Amazon is getting some unwelcome spotlighting here, but it is hardly unique. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)