Pluralistic: Amazon illegally interferes with an historic UK warehouse election (06 May 2024)

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A hand depositing a ballot in a perspex ballot box on a black background. The box is full of yellow-green piss and the ballot features an angry robot made from Amazon boxes and the phrase 'I am not a robot.' The box has an Amazon logo across its top.

Amazon illegally interferes with an historic UK warehouse election (permalink)

Amazon is very good at everything it does, including being very bad at the things it doesn't want to do. Take signing up for Prime: nothing could be simpler. The company has built a greased slide from Prime-curiosity to Prime-confirmed that is the envy of every UX designer.

But unsubscribing from Prime? That's a fucking nightmare. Somehow the company that can easily figure out how to sign up for a service is totally baffled when it comes to making it just as easy to leave. Now, there's two possibilities here: either Amazon's UX competence is a kind of erratic freak tide that sweeps in at unpredictable intervals and hits these unbelievable high-water marks, or the company just doesn't want to let you leave.

To investigate this question, let's consider a parallel: Black Flag's Roach Motel. This is an icon of American design, a little brown cardboard box that is saturated in irresistibly delicious (to cockroaches, at least) pheromones. These powerful scents make it admirably easy for all the roaches in your home to locate your Roach Motel and enter it.

But the interior of the Roach Motel is also coated in a sticky glue. Once roaches enter the motel, their legs and bodies brush up against this glue and become hopelessly mired in it. A roach can't leave – not without tearing off its own legs.

It's possible that Black Flag made a mistake here. Maybe they wanted to make it just as easy for a roach to leave as it is to enter. If that seems improbable to you, well, you're right. We don't even have to speculate, we can just refer to Black Flag's slogan for Roach Motel: "Roaches check in, but they don't check out."

It's intentional, and we know that because they told us so.

Back to Amazon and Prime. Was it some oversight that cause the company make it so marvelously painless to sign up for Prime, but such a titanic pain in the ass to leave? Again, no speculation is required, because Amazon's executives exchanged a mountain of internal memos in which this is identified as a deliberate strategy, by which they deliberately chose to trick people into signing up for Prime and then hid the means of leaving Prime. Prime is a Roach Motel: users check in, but they don't check out:

When it benefits Amazon, they are obsessive – "relentless" (Bezos's original for the company) – about user friendliness. They value ease of use so highly that they even patented "one click checkout" – the incredibly obvious idea that a company that stores your shipping address and credit card could let you buy something with a single click:

But when it benefits Amazon to place obstacles in our way, they are even more relentless in inventing new forms of fuckery, spiteful little landmines they strew in our path. Just look at how Amazon deals with unionization efforts in its warehouses.

Amazon's relentless union-busting spans a wide diversity of tactics. On the one hand, they cook up media narratives to smear organizers, invoking racist dog-whistles to discredit workers who want a better deal:

On the other hand, they collude with federal agencies to make workers afraid that their secret ballots will be visible to their bosses, exposing them to retaliation:

They hold Cultural Revolution-style forced indoctrination meetings where they illegally threaten workers with punishment for voting in favor of their union:

And they fire Amazon tech workers who express solidarity with warehouse workers:

But all this is high-touch, labor-intensive fuckery. Amazon, as we know, loves automation, and so it automates much of its union-busting: for example, it created an employee chat app that refused to deliver any message containing words like "fairness" or "grievance":

Amazon also invents implausible corporate fictions that allow it to terminate entire sections of its workforce for trying to unionize, by maintaining the tormented pretense that these workers, who wear Amazon uniforms, drive Amazon trucks, deliver Amazon packages, and are tracked by Amazon down to the movements of their eyeballs, are, in fact, not Amazon employees:

These workers have plenty of cause to want to unionize. Amazon warehouses are sources of grueling torment. Take "megacycling," a ten-hour shift that runs from 1:20AM to 11:50AM that workers are plunged into without warning or the right to refuse. This isn't just a night shift – it's a night shift that makes it impossible to care for your children or maintain any kind of normal life.

Then there's Jeff Bezos's war on his workers' kidneys. Amazon warehouse workers and drivers notoriously have to pee in bottles, because they are monitored by algorithms that dock their pay for taking bathroom breaks. The road to Amazon's warehouse in Coventry, England is littered with sealed bottles of driver piss, defenestrated by drivers before they reach the depot inspection site.

There's so much piss on the side of the Coventry road that the prankster Oobah Butler was able to collect it, decant it into bottles, and market it on Amazon as an energy beverage called "Bitter Lemon Release Energy," where it briefly became Amazon's bestselling energy drink:

(Butler promises that he didn't actually ship any bottled piss to people who weren't in on the gag – but let's just pause here and note how weird it is that a guy who hates our kidneys as much as Jeff Bezos built and flies a penis-shaped rocket.)

Butler also secretly joined the surge of 1,000 workers that Amazon hired for the Coventry warehouse in advance of a union vote, with the hope of diluting the yes side of that vote and forestall the union. Amazon displayed more of its famously selective competence here, spotting Butler and firing him in short order, while totally failing to notice that he was marketing bottles of driver piss as a bitter lemon drink on Amazon's retail platform.

After a long fight, Amazon's Coventry workers are finally getting their union vote, thanks to the GMB union's hard fought battle at the Central Arbitration Committee:

And right on schedule, Amazon has once again discovered its incredible facility for ease-of-use. The company has blanketed its shop floor with radioactively illegal "one click to quit the union" QR codes. When a worker aims their phones at the code and clicks the link, the system auto-generates a letter resigning the worker from their union.

As noted, this is totally illegal. English law bans employers from "making an offer to an employee for the sole or main purpose of inducing workers not to be members of an independent trade union, take part in its activities, or make use of its services."

Now, legal or not, this may strike you as a benign intervention on Amazon's part. Why shouldn't it be easy for workers to choose how they are represented in their workplaces? But the one-click system is only half of Amazon's illegal union-busting: the other half is delivered by its managers, who have cornered workers on the shop floor and ordered them to quit their union, threatening them with workplace retaliation if they don't.

This is in addition to more forced "captive audience" meetings where workers are bombarded with lies about what life in an union shop is like.

Again, the contrast couldn't be more stark. If you want to quit a union, Amazon makes this as easy as joining Prime. But if you want to join a union, Amazon makes that even harder than quitting Prime. Amazon has the same attitude to its workers and its customers: they see us all as a resource to be extracted, and have no qualms about tricking or even intimidating us into doing what's best for Amazon, at the expense of our own interests.

The campaigning law-firm Foxglove is representing five of Amazon's Coventry workers. They're doing the Lord's work:

All this highlights the increasing divergence between the UK and the US when it comes to labor rights. Under the Biden Administration, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has promulgated a rule that grants a union automatic recognition if the boss does anything to interfere with a union election:

In other words, if Amazon tries these tactics in the USA now, their union will be immediately recognized. Abruzzo has installed an ultra-sensitive tilt-sensor in America's union elections, and if Bezos or his class allies so much as sneeze in the direction of their workers' democratic rights, they automatically lose.

(Image: Isabela.Zanella, CC BY-SA 4.0, modified)

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