Framing Labor

Framing Labor

What do the Matrix and labor have in common? The corporate state.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana’s quote has been stated in various ways, but the meaning remains the same: Without knowing the past, or history, we run the risk of simply wandering blindly into the future.

There’s also another phenomenon of human nature that greatly impacts how we proceed or journey into the future: It has to do with the way we frame things, the way we look at the world.

In their recently published work, Framers, co-authors Cukier, Mayer-Schonberger, and de Vericourt write, “Humans think using mental models. These are representations of reality that make the world comprehensible. They allow us to see the patterns, predict how things will unfold, and make sense of the circumstances we encounter. Reality would otherwise be a flood of information, a jumble of inchoate experiences and sensations.” These mental models are influenced by a host of complex factors, not the least of which is our upbringing and the culture in which that upbringing takes place.

When it comes to understanding the breadth of the “wicked problems” we face, we would do well to carefully consider the effect our culture – the American way of life if you will – has on how we frame the world. I submit that to a very large extent we live in a “Matrix” of sorts, one shaped by the ubiquitous nature of the corporate state. Sheldon Wolin writes about this in his final work, Democracy Incorporated; the term he uses to describe what I call the Matrix is “inverted totalitarianism”.

What? No union?

A case in point is what took place not too long ago in Bessemer, Alabama where Amazon warehouse workers voted – by a margin of nearly 2:1 – not to unionize. From what I’ve read about the grueling nature of warehouse work at Amazon, I was surprised unionization was defeated so handily. Like most stories having to do with human nature, there’s no clear-cut answer. Yet, after reading a number of articles about what went on in Bessemer, a clearer understanding began to emerge.

One of the significant factors, aside from what management did to dissuade workers, is Amazon’s turnover rate, which averages 100%. What this means is that a union organizer has to present the case for unionization to a constantly changing pool of employees, many of whom are essentially new hires. It’s also an administrative nightmare to simply keep track of employees, let alone organize the conversations necessary to move folks to see things from a perspective other than that being fed to them by Amazon management. In other words, change the way in which new hires frame their reality.

So, why is Amazon’s turnover rate 100%? This has to do with the nature of the work: It is grueling, and most folks simply cannot keep up. It’s also dangerous to one’s health. In, “Amazon’s Disposable Workers: High Injury and Turnover Rates at Fulfillment Centers in California” the authors point out that Amazon’s injury rates for warehouse workers are significantly higher than those of similar operations. Another work pins the rate at nearly twice that of similar operations.

Amazon’s approach is to treat people as though they are a commodity. “You’re just disposable”, is how one former warehouse worker put it in a recent FRONTLINE documentary. In, “Amazon’s Disposable Workers” the authors write, “Instead of cultivating workers to stay with the company for the long term, Amazon relies on a high-churn model that uses and discards workers without regard for the cost to their health or potential disruptions to their lives, their families, and their communities.”

Why on Earth would anyone want to work in such an environment?

The Precarity of US Labor

Those who work entry-level Amazon warehouse jobs in Bessemer are largely unskilled, and prior to joining Amazon, probably worked minimum wage jobs. The median, individual income in Bessemer is $17,632, which, based on a 40-hour week, comes out to around $8.50 per hour. It’s a near certainty these folks also had to provide for their own health care. At $15 per hour, Amazon pays nearly twice the median rate of pay in Bessemer; Amazon also provides health care benefits on day one. Perhaps putting up with a potentially dangerous work environment, one that demands nearly super-human performance is a risk many folks are willing to take – at least once. Does this look like justice or a hidden form of slavery? It strikes me as the latter.

The frame through which so many of us peer at the world leads us to think – in this free-enterprise system, as we like to call it – folks have the right to work, provided they’re qualified, wherever they choose. But is this true? What options do low-skilled folks living in Bessemer have outside of the Amazon job? The answer is not many.

So, here you are, working for nearly twice what you had been paid and enjoying health care benefits. Sure, it sucks to suffer the anxiety and fear of not keeping up with the “machine pacing” requirements; it’s also hard on your body, having to put up with the constant physical strain. And each morning, Amazon supervision is telling you that the benefits you enjoy come without union representation. Never mind Amazon’s injury rates are twice the national average for warehouse workers, and never mind the turnover rate is 100%. These things don’t affect you today: You’re making good money and it’s not because a union made it so, but because Amazon came to town. You tell yourself, I can keep up and I won’t get hurt.

The Nature of the Matrix

That Amazon is not held to account for the way in which it treats its employees is an artifact of the corporate state. The idea behind organized labor – unions – is to provide a corporate counterbalance to the power held by those who own the means of production. Now, after nearly seventy years of erosion in union power, the system is grotesquely out of balance. Why would this be so? It’s because those in power – those who own the means of production and others who control the levers of government – have unwittingly colluded. Under the guise of providing jobs for people, many of which could easily be offshored, our elected representatives have given in to the demands of big business. These demands included undermining the power of organized labor. Today, labor unions are hamstrung, not only by regulations that make it next to impossible to organize workers but by the perception, perpetrated by those who control the system, that unions are useless and unnecessary.

As the saying goes, if we do not understand history, we’re doomed to repeat it. The struggles of the first half of the twentieth century are little known, and because of this, they are upon us again. In our age, however, an age marked by political divisiveness that’s managed by a for-profit media, we cannot seem to get our arms around the problem. And because the corporate state is ubiquitous – it makes up the Matrix in which we live – we have a hard time focusing on anything other than what keeps us distracted in the first place: endless titillation, spurred on by social media and customized, delivered at your door the next day, consumption.

Those who are members of the unskilled labor pool in Bessemer, and in countless other communities across the country, live a precarious existence. For many of these folks, it comes down to either working for an inhumane employer or going hungry.

Is it a surprise, then, that unionization was voted down at the Bessemer warehouse? Not hardly: When it comes down to putting food on the table and being able to visit the doctor without having to declare bankruptcy, what choice does one have? That those in Bessemer are willing to take what’s in front of them, rather than risk what’s needed for the long term, is not at all surprising. The question is whether the folks in Bessemer; the multitude of others who’ve worked for Amazon and are now back on the streets, and the rest of us, will come to our senses and recognize the power we have when we work together.

Collectively, we need to take the red pill and leave the Matrix. We need to recognize the imbalance in power and how the corporate state is at the root of the injustices under which so many suffer.

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