What I’d Like to Order on Amazon Prime Day

An algorithm for worker justice

My name is Mary Beth and I am an Amazon Prime member…it has been 2 days since my last 1-click order…

If you don’t know Amazon Prime Day is coming you must be living under a rock; for the Amazon marketing machine has everyone from Forbes to CNN to the NY Times hyping the deals we all get access to on Prime Day (but you must join!) a mix of paid content and marketing posing as journalism. Amazon moves into more and more markets (from books, to groceries to sophisticated cloud computing with massive government contracts!), but the most significant may be our attention.

I confess — I am addicted to my Amazon Prime. Even before the pandemic, working crazy hours and discovering “we are out of toothpaste or toilet paper” what a relief to be able to order quickly and be done with it. I actually get birthday presents to friends and family on time now, because with my one-click I don’t have to remember a week in advance to pick something, wrap and package it and make a trip to the post office. I love my Audible books and I love watching movies and series on Amazon Prime — now they even have WNBA games streaming!

I’m hooked. I am hardly alone — there are 147 million of us in the US (up 24.6% from 118 million a year ago) and 200 million of us in the world.

Just a few weeks ago more damning news about Amazon’s horrific worker safety record and now the powerful expose in the New York Times documenting the nightmare for workers in an Amazon warehouse and a machine that almost cannot help itself exploit them. So what is a longtime workers’ rights advocate with cardboard Amazon boxes leering with their big smile on the front porch to do?

What I want to order for Prime Day is an algorithm for worker safety, for living wages, for a voice at work to speak up about sexual harassment, or line speed or whatever issue workers in Amazon warehouses, or driving an Amazon branded van or car to my house want and need to raise.

The great news is, the technology exists for this.

After the PR debacle of Amazon clearly bullying the workers in Bessemer that required the notoriously arrogant and aloof Bezos to basically make a public apology and announce that he needed to listen to his workers… and commence conspicuous ad buys in the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and more touting their $15 an hour. (Nevermind that $15 an hour is what advocates are asking for a minimum wage and for fast food workers not warehouse work which has always paid more, as it should.)

Let’s be honest fellow Prime members, $15 an hour is about 30K a year. If we were living on 30K a year, how often would we be doing our one-click shopping — or streaming another movie or ball game for $4.99? Shouldn’t Amazon workers who make this all possible be paid enough to be Prime members themselves if they choose to?

Personally, I would pay $1 more per delivery to ensure living wages — wouldn’t you? I would happily get my delivery in 2 days not one — so workers can have reasonable line speed and real bathroom breaks — wouldn’t you? But we don’t even need to with what 200 million of us are already paying! Amazon can more than afford to make a choice to respect and value their workers more — as the brilliant Molly Kinder at Brookings has documented, Amazon made billions during the pandemic and workers saw little to none of it.

Jeff Bezos, this is not that hard — it is so much easier and less expensive than, say, travelling to the moon. You will never be “the Best Employer on Earth” going it alone. You need help. And interestingly, the technology of collective bargaining is working in Amazon warehouses in Italy, France, Spain and Germany and packages are delivered just fine!

Alexa — bring us a union!

Last week Congress took unprecedented action to hold Big Tech more accountable — this is very good news. It is necessary but not sufficient to help Amazon be the business leader we need it to be. Congress also took action earlier this year to advance the PRO Act — common sense legislation that would give workers a fair shot at forming a union and having their own vehicle for raising their voices in the workplace — to bargain for wages that will support their families, to speak up about safety and dignity on the job. Amazon workers in Europe have unions because they have better labor laws protecting their rights.

In Bessemer earlier this year, I got to meet one of the workers behind the one-click magic we all love. Her name is Jennifer Bates. She works hard at an Amazon warehouse — she has worked in a union shop before. She knows the difference a union could make and that’s why she took the risk of publicly campaigning and organizing her co-workers with their union RWDSU and they’re not giving up. If the Bessemer workers had the protections of the PRO Act, Amazon couldn’t have pulled the outrageous union-busting it did to scare the workers.

Amazon needs Jennifer Bates, Derrick Palmer and hundreds of thousands like them to power their business model. A union would mean Amazon could hear from Jennifer and her co-workers, identify problems and solve them together, invest in a workforce that would take pride in their work and proudly fuel growth — but in that bargain, come home from work healthy and whole and make enough to take their kids on a vacation or save to send them to college.

There is no one-click solution for me to help Jennifer and her co-workers but there really can be an algorithm for worker safety and prosperity. It’s called a union. And these workers are not alone; incredible journalists are exposing the Amazon “employment machine” and a growing coalition is mobilizing to support them, and Labor is stepping up not backing down.

In the meantime, this Prime Day, you can join me in assuaging your guilt about whatever we spend on bargains by matching with a contribution to Jobs with Justice, MorePerfectUS or Athena! Or buy a few more copies of Fulfillment, Alec MacGillis’ magnificent and haunting new book on Amazon for Fathers Day gifts…you still have time to get them delivered for Sunday!

Photo by Wicked Monday on Unsplash

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Mary Beth Maxwell

Mary Beth Maxwell

Special Advisor on Worker Power; OSF, Labor, LGBT and civil rights organizer, Mom, Omaha native, served in Obama administration, ARAW, HRC, Jobs w Justice.