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OM in the News: The Amazon “Factory” and Unions

April 13, 2021

All of our students are knowledgeable about Amazon, its growth, its products, and its hyper-wealthy chairman, Jeff Bezos. Many may have followed the news about the recent attempt to unionize at Amazon, starting with the Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center. The New York Times (April 12, 2021) takes an interesting perspective on the story, tracing the Bessemer facility to its origins as steel plant in the mid-20th century that provided middle-class lives to its workers. Now defunct, the steel factory is still a “factory”, writes The Times, but of a different sort, with Amazon paying $15 per hour, double the federal minimum wage.

That is not the kind of pay that seems likely to help again build a thriving middle class. And Amazon jobs are looking more and more like the future of the U.S. economy, with the company growing from 750,000 to 1.3 million workers in the past 18 months.

amazon book

A new book about Amazon, called “Fulfillment,” points out that Amazon’s warehouse jobs have a lot in common with the industrial jobs of the past. They are among the main options for people who graduate from high school or community college without specific job skills. They are also physically demanding and dangerous.
Fulfillment reminds us about the injuries and deaths that came with old factory jobs, and documents the similar risks that warehouse jobs can bring. Jody Rhoads was a 52-year-old mother in Carlisle, Pa. Her neck was crushed by a steel rack while she was driving a forklift in an Amazon warehouse, killing her. (“We do not believe that the incident was work related,” an Amazon manager reported to the government, falsely suggesting her death was from natural causes.)
One former Amazon worker adds: “Amazon is reorganizing the very nature of retail work — something that traditionally is physically undemanding and has a large amount of downtime — into something more akin to a factory, which never lets up.” And rather than working in teams of people who are creating something, warehouse workers often work alone, interacting mostly with robots.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why did the Bessemer workers soundly turn down the union organizing effort?
  2. How do fulfillment center jobs resemble factory jobs? How do they differ?
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