Episode 77: Prime Collective Bargains

In the seventy-seventh episode of The Latest, we explore whether or not the push to unionize Amazon workers will be delivered in two hours or misplaced by a courier. David Butler, the head of sustainability at global agricultural biotech company Alltech and the host of the “How to Stop Climate Change” (www.howtostopclimatechange.com) podcast, joins the program for this week’s O.J. Simpson Twitter Update.

The Latest with Greg Ott
Episode 77: Prime Collective Bargains
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Transcript

Those voices are discussing unions, those things that happen when two people join together to sacredly vow that they’d like to have a pension plan.

After President Joe Biden seemingly endorsed a movement by Amazon workers to vote for their right to unionize, many across the country are asking themselves the same question: does keeping my Prime membership make me a scab? 

Six thousand Amazon workers are voting to unionize in Alabama, the state of Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville where it’s hard to believe there are any workplace rules besides “don’t you dare schedule my shift during a high school football game.” 

But Amazon is fighting efforts to organize warehouse labor tooth-and-nail, fearing that unionized employees might slow down the pace at which workers are replaced by robots.

From closing down call centers attempting to unionize in 2001 to disseminating anti-union messaging today, Amazon has long been committed to taking on movements to organize labor with the same type of ruthless efficiency that makes it a business leader. After all, if they pay too much for labor, how else would they be able to fund in-house product developers who rip off the design of a shoulder bag stitch-for-stitch in order to sell a generic knockoff under their own private label?

Amazon famously offers a $15 minimum wage, access to good employee benefits, and thousands of below-student-film quality titles on Prime Video that makes TBS look like The Criterion Collection.

But one author who took up a job at an Amazon fulfillment center once described the work as “the most physically painful experience of my life,” a harsh assessment for someone who’s clearly never sat in the audience of an improv show.

To keep up with the demand for the kettlebell that you’ve just got to have by tomorrow, as if it’s going to make a difference, warehouse workers are said to endure around-the-clock surveillance, second-by-second task quotas, and are so discouraged from taking bathroom breaks that they’re forced piss into empty bottles, an indignity that should only be reserved for the damaged souls who seek out Times Square on New Year’s Eve. 

These are the same facilities where, over the years, laborers have also suffered bouts of exhaustion and dehydration while working without air conditioning, occupational hazards such as getting your head crushed by a forklift, and numerous heart attacks, suicides, and other tenebrous episodes that bake the value of a human life into your $119 annual fee.

Now, I’m not pretending that this is enough to convince me to stop using Amazon; having a Fred Flintstone halloween costume and a case of toilet paper brought to your door without having to look another person in the eye is a true public service.

But the Amazon.com website — that’s www.amazon.com, for those who haven’t been — makes billions of dollars in profit, and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is worth $196 billion alone. That’s enough money to buy an autographed, first-edition copy of The Da Vinci Code, and still have $196 billion dollars.

And whether it’s a fulfillment center employee, or a “gig worker” wearing down the drive train on their Camry so you don’t have to take the bus home from karaoke, workers across the country continue to be taken exploited as gigantic corporations make record amounts of cash, allowing the Walmart family to splurge on vintage racecars while you struggle to understand how many car accidents you’ll need to endure in order to satisfy your deductible.  

As an actor, I’ve long been a member of two unions, which entitles me to free DVDs of 11-month-old TV shows that I can’t watch — not because I don’t have a DVD player, but because I’m behind on my dues. 

But when I was active — a period loosely defined by occasions in which I was mistaken for a dog in order to sell home improvement supplies, or performed past-its-expiration-date comedy sketches between the dinner and dessert courses of a corporate night out — both unions were there for me when I needed them.

Now, keep in mind that my job was not particularly difficult — memorizing a paragraph about the Egg McMuffin or asking a cruise ship pensioner to join the cast on stage during an “interactive” murder mystery might crush your soul, but it’s not exactly back-breaking work. 

And even though neither union was perfect, they provided me formal methods of resolving disputes with my employer, helped alleviate circumstances that were unsafe, ensured fair compensation for my work, and provided me with years of insanely affordable health insurance. I even get free quarterly magazines that allow me to get the most out of my trash can. 

Growing up in the Detroit area, my family and friends were directly involved in the car business, which means I’ve heard plenty of bad stories about labor unions like the UAW. Tales of guys who wouldn’t let you screw in a lightbulb without the permission of five others, work-halting negotiations over each and every little benefit adjustment, people who’d been on the job for 30 years who hadn’t worked a day in 29. 

I get it: unions aren’t perfect. And while the labor disputes among the Screen Actors Guild and the United Auto Workers and Amazonians United are certainly not identical, what’s the same is that people who want to work shouldn’t live paycheck to paycheck. After paying the rent, there should be enough left over to save, to invest, to feed, and to remain an active member in good standing on Xbox Live. 

And Amazon workers might decide that they’re better off without a union — and that’s fine! But now that President Biden has seemingly endorsed the effort, stating that worker voting to unionize are making a “vitally important choice” — would you prefer the chicken, garnished with the ability to address common issues in the workplace, or would you prefer the fish, garnished with an adult diaper to help you reach the end of your 12-hour shift — employees can at least know that they tried to have a say in whether or not the spaceman can comfortably afford to build another perpetual clock within the mountain of his backyard while giving workers a greater piece of his company’s success that makes such a pointless endeavor possible. 

I can’t stress this enough: I do not want my Amazon packages slowed down before I’ve had the chance to see that they’ve been stolen from my porch.

But this isn’t my problem: this is Amazon’s problem, who’s made a promise to yuppies like me that this stuff’s going to get here no matter how many miles the picker has to walk to track down my external hard drive. 

But whether you’re a full time warehouse employee with a 401K, or a gig driver with flexible hours, those possessing the true workplace benefits are the ones making bank on your broken bones for my brown boxes.