Amazon will raise the minimum hourly wage for all employees, including at the recently-acquired Whole Foods grocery chain, to $15 on November 1. According to founder Jeff Bezos, Amazon did this after “[listening] to its critics,” which is a statement that illustrates perfectly why a one-time wage hike isn’t a panacea for all of the workers under Amazon’s very large umbrella—instead, they need a union.
The poor labour conditions across Amazon’s entire operation—from its warehouses, to its call centers, to its offices—are well-documented. Amazon employees themselves have numerous times over the years attempted to unionize in order to collectively negotiate better pay and conditions on their own behalf. Right now, organizing efforts are reportedly underway at Whole Foods and workers at Amazon fulfillment centers in Germany are striking today.
If Amazon counted its own employees as legitimate “critics” of their working conditions then it could have listened to them at any point over the last two decades. But it didn’t. Amazon has only acted now, and in this narrow way (which doesn’t cover issues like working hours and safety), because of external criticism from the media and from politicians like US senator Bernie Sanders—in other words, bad press.
What the wage hike amounts to, then, is a gift from management. Amazon workers don’t need gifts when it’s convenient for Amazon; they need the ability to negotiate these things for themselves, on their own terms.
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At every step, Amazon has crushed internal unionization efforts through a variety of means, including hiring a high-powered law firm to fight employees’ organizing efforts in 2014. Since 2000, as The New York Times reported at the time, Amazon has advised its managers to undertake heavy-handed anti-union activity in the workplace. Last week, Gizmodo reported that Amazon distributed a 45-minute training video on how to stop unionizing efforts to Whole Foods managers. The video instructed managers to be alert for subversive phrases like “living wage” and advised them that saying things like “Unions are lying, cheating rats” is within their legal rights.
And now, amid growing labour unrest and intense anti-union activity on Amazon’s part, a conveniently-timed wage hike.
A better minimum wage is a good thing, but it’s not any kind of solution. It doesn’t cover working conditions, and it doesn’t allow for any sort of mechanism to address concerns about wages or anything else in the future. Amazon employees needed better pay, but they still need a way to fight for themselves.
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