Ep. 35: Office Race (w/ Grace Blakeley)

Dec. 2, 2019

Ep. 35: Office Race (w/ Grace Blakeley)

Briahna talks to author Grace Blakeley about our era of hyper-capitalism, characterized by the growing dominance of the financial sector and weakened labor.

Then, Hear the Bern producer Ben Dalton interviews an anonymous Amazon worker, who describes the company's union busting, mandatory overtime, and relentless monitoring of workers.

Grace's book, Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation: https://repeaterbooks.com/product/stolen-how-to-save-the-world-from-financialisation


Briahna Joy Gray: Earlier this year, Bernie Sanders released the most sweeping pro-labor plan of any candidate to date. It didn't get a ton of media coverage, but this time I'm not going to argue that it's because of the Bernie blackout. I think the truth is that labor just isn't seen as sexy to most journalists and readers, because the average American just doesn't know as much about labor and how labor policies affect their daily lives like they used to.

As we discussed on episode 10 of this podcast, union participation dipped to a record low in 2018 to 10.5%.

If you care about wealth inequality, this is a huge and under discussed problem. Why? There is a direct correlation between high levels of union participation and low levels of inequality. When union participation peaked in the 1970s at over twice the rate it's at now, the gap between the incomes at the top and the bottom were narrower than ever. And for black Americans who had finally gained access to labor rights following the civil rights movement of 1960s, the gains were even greater

In the 1970s black Americans were more than twice as likely as white Americans to be in unions, and if that were true today, according to a 2012 study, the black-white wage gap would be nearly 30% lower among women.

Union participation is a social justice issue in addition to an economic justice issue. Higher union participation would help close the racial wealth gap, and banning at will employment, which only Bernie has a plan to do, would prevent employers in at will states from firing employees for discriminatory reasons. Something they can do now with impunity, no matter who the Supreme Court determines is a protected class.

Bernie's worker rights plan would double union membership in four years and simplify the process by which workers can organize, and importantly, it would prevent employers from their worst anti-union behavior.

For example, as I was doing research for this episode, I came across anti-union materials that Amazon uses to train managers. The company gives managers talking points and it also flags, quote unquote, "warning signs" for managers, so that they can identify warning signs that their employers are organizing and put a stop to it.

What are those so-called warning signs? Well, folks talking about such scary things as a living wage, a contract, and representation. According to an article that ran in Gizmodo last year, Amazon cheerfully informs managers that they are free to describe unions as, "Lying, cheating rats." And to speculate that forming a union could lead to the workplace shutting down. There was one particular term Amazon use that caught my eye. That term was customer obsession, as in, our business model is customer obsession.

Now, on the one hand this is a prime example of the kind of false cheeriness companies like to toss around to conceal the bleak illogic of unfettered capitalism.

Office Space: I- I have 15 pieces on. I- I was-

Well, okay 15 is the minimum, okay.

Oh, okay.

Now, you know, it's up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum or, well like Brian for example has 37 pieces of flair on today, okay.


And a terrific smile.

Briahna Joy Gray: In short, it's not enough for these people for you to simply do your job. Your employer wants your mind and your passion too.

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But on the other hand, that term, customer obsession, does speak to something true in the way that Amazon and other modern startups and megacompanies operate. Amazon is obsessed with its customers insofar as its customers are a means to which it meets its corporate goal, enriching shareholders. Amazon like all corporations is stock obsessed.

Amazon keeps its stockholders happy by operating at such enormous scale and at such razor thin margins, that it has become the dominant player in the E-commerce game. In fact, Amazon lost money for years in its pursuit of market dominance. With tons of money on hand they could undersell the competition until they dropped out, and then raise prices. It's a model that other startups like Uber, Lyft and Tesla have tried to emulate, hemorrhaging millions if not billions of dollars in the process.

It's why your Instagram feed is full of endless adds for meal prep subscription services. There's no shortage of venture capital floating around ready and willing to pick up the tab.

Another trend is for companies to acquire existing businesses and gut them, laying off workers and selling whatever remains for scrap all so that the owner can see his profit grow even more. We covered an example of that in episode 15 of this podcast, when I joined the Bernie campaign to protest the closure of Hahnemann Hospital, a downtown Philly institution that has served low income predominantly black and brown patients for years, until a private equity tycoon bought it to flip it into condos.

This is an episode about the reality of contemporary American capitalism. What it looks like from the top as Wall Street banks have become dominant drivers of the economy, and what it looks like from the bottom from the perspective from an anonymous Amazon employee traipsing exhausted across a million square foot fulfillment center. By the end I think you'll agree. As gang busters of the Dow Jones Industrial Average may be on any given day, both it and we are running on fumes.

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This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas, and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray, and I'm coming to you from campaign headquarters in Washington, DC.

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Financialization, that's what author Grace Blakeley calls the form of capitalism under which we have lived since the late 1970s, when an economic crisis prompted governments to lift banking regulations, emphasize finance-lead economic growth and generally shift power away from workers and toward capital. Grace lays out the history of this radical transformation of the global economy in her new book, Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation. It's out now from Repeater Books. I spoke to her about why democratic socialism offers a way forward given tepid growth for the 99%, growing inequality, and the reality of climate change.

On this episode's B-side, Hear the Bern producer Ben Dalton talks to an anonymous Amazon employee about the daily grind of working in an Amazon fulfillment center, so be sure to stick around until the end. I'm excited for you to get to know Ben.

I want to ask you first and foremost, how you got involved in this area and how you started to be a writer and a professional in this realm?

Grace Blakeley: Yeah, so I mean I started by working at a think tank in the UK, a kind of left-leaning think tank. We were doing a project, basically looking at, like, some of the big problems with the British economy, particularly those that had emerged over the last 10 years since the financial crisis. And I, kind of, specialized in- in macroeconomics in looking at the, kind of, big picture stuff when it came to the economy. And there was just a real... I think in the one hand there was a real sense that something quite big had changed in 2008. Since then, we've had wage stagnation, productivity stagnation, low levels of investment, rising inequality, and a whole bunch of kind of political problems that gone along with that, and it's been the same as well in the US.

And I kind of want to und- wanted to understand the role of the crisis that it had played in that, but also understand why over the last, kind of, 40 years really our finance sector's grown so much and, other areas of the economy have shrunk, particularly the manufacturing. And in I wanted to, kind of, situate that in an understanding of, alongside the discussion of debts because it's quite clear that in the British and American economies that debt has become much, much more central to our- our economic models, to household finances, to corporations et cetera.

And, you know, initially doing that analysis of the economy these things don't really seem to fit together in a natural way. So, the research that lead me into the book was looking at this idea of financialization, which in a technical definition is like the increasing role of financial markets motives act as an institution in the operation of the international and domestic economies.

Basically, what it means is it's bigger banks and bigger investors so people who, kind of, manage a lot money playing a more significant role in all areas of the economy. So, it's not just that the finance sector's grown and other sectors have shrunk, it's actually the- the rise of finances kind of influence the behavior of all sorts of other economic actors. So, we've had the financialization of the household, which is associated with rising borrowing. We've had the financialization of the corporation, which again is associated with much more power to shareholders who can kind of own that shares in these firms, and less power to workers and lower levels of investments. And often, again, high increases in- in debt levels, and my book kind of ties together these trends that we've seen particularly in- in Anglo-American Capitalism in- in the UK and the US, and link that to what happened in 2008 and all the problems that we've seen since then.

Briahna Joy Gray: I think that's something that is a- is a bit of a barrier to folks, particularly who are more conservative and who are- have more faith in markets, is a lack of understanding of how much things have changed from earlier decades. So, there's this- this perception that this is just the way the world is, this is the way it always has been, markets are something kind of natural, organic right? And to the extent that anything has changed it has been that there's been more regulation, and that is kind of the source of all of the problems. So, can you help paint a picture of what the world was like in the mid part of the last century or wherever you locate, you know, before we got into this- this financialization period?

Grace Blakeley: Yeah, so the- the kind of approach that I adopt in the book is- is really one that centers, is an analysis of history that centers class. So that basically centers the complex between people who live off work and those who live of wealth, so labor and capital with a- with a small L and a small C. When you look at history in those terms you see some- some really big changes between the- the period that was called the golden age of capitalism, this post-war period between kind of 1945 and the 1970s where you have, you know, much more stronger unions a much more- a much larger state that played a much bigger role in regulating the economy, higher taxes, much greater levels of regulation out of the finance sector and associated with that low levels of inequality, low levels of unemployment, and more productive capitalism.

What I argue in the book is that, in the '70s that model became unsustainable and the reason it became unsustainable is, because it rested on an attempt to kind of mute those tensions between people who live off work and those who live off wealth. And that worked well as long as the economy was growing, but when it started to shrink when you know you came across problems in the 1970s you ended up getting much more overt conflict between people who live off work and those who live off wealth.

And lead to this- this crisis moment in the 1970s where you had kind of industrial complex, you had economic crisis, all sorts of political problems like those we're seeing today, which ends again a kind of victory for that class of people who live off wealth. Because they were able to basically implement a set of policy proposals that transforms the institutions that govern the economy, and which gave rise to this period of finance that growth.

And what I argue is that since the financial crisis we've entered another period like that in the 1970s, where the old model's kind of broken, that we haven't figured out what's going to come next because in 2008 that model that finance that growth broke down in the same way that that model of social democracy broke down in the 1970s. And what happens next to that is going to be also determined by that balance of power between those different forces in society.

The movement that we see today around socialism, democratic socialism is based on the idea of the analysis that it should be the majority people who live off work, anyone who earns a wage, workers basically who should come together and determine how the economy should work, rather than allowing a small number of people at the top to set all the rules and own all the stuff.

Briahna Joy Gray: Why was it in the 1970s that the- the people who live off wealth ended up winning out, and then what- what- what did that victory look like? What kinds of laws and rules did they put into place that set us up for the place that we're in now?

Grace Blakeley: Yeah, so part of what happened during the 1970s was that there was- there was some big changes that took place internationally, so in 1971 the present wood system collapsed. And this was the system whereby the dollar was pegged to gold, and other currencies like, you know, the pound was pegged to the dollar. And associated with that were big constraints on the ability of money to move all around the world, there were strict limits on what's called capital mobility. And alongside that much more significant regulation of the finance sector, so when Bretton Woods collapsed these, kind of, constraints on- on money on capital movement collapsed with it.

And this really shifted the balance of power between labor and capital, and the reason it did that is because, you know, today it's so normal for us to hear things like, "We can't tax billionaires, we can't tax corporations because they'll just leave the country." That was not something that it would've impossible to say during the- the kind of '50s and '60s because there was such large constraints on capital mobility, so the kind of ability of money to move all around the world, the removal of constrictions from capital mobility really did shift the terrain and gave those, kind of, organizing in and around the right a- alongside, some kind of economist who were on the right... Who had come up with a bunch of- of new ideas about how to reinvigorate, kind of right-wing ideas on- on economics.

It gave them much greater influence because the capital had basically come up with this- this ability to flee if unions became too powerful, if the state implemented too many taxes, too much regulation. And this again is something that has really shaped the development of capitalism over the last several decades, it was integral in the way in which the financial crisis developed because the- the emergence of those big international financial institutions would not have been possible without capital mobility.

And then it's also been really integral in the- the emergence of these big imbalances between different economies, you know, when Trump talks about China manipulating its currency and that having this big current account surplus. A lot of that has to do with the way that financial capitalism and capital mobility have shaped the global economy over the last several decades, so that was the really the big structural change that facilitated this- the shift in- in the balance of power between those two classes.

But it was also a company by a change in ideology and a change in ideas, and effectively those on the right were able to argue their- their perspective more effectively and were ultimately able to win control over the state of the- of the Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK, and use that power to implement their model.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, so when you talk about how the nature of capitalism has changed from that time to the- to the present, we have this- this kind of Puritan notion of capitalists as, there's kind of like a moral quality to it, people are just working hard and striving, and calvinistically moving across America. What you describe is as a shift from an emphasis on kind of creating jobs and creating projects or creating mater- you know goods and services to a kind of capitalism that's focused more on extracting rents in the form of debt, can you talk a little bit about that?

Grace Blakeley: Yeah, so you know the justification that we often have, and I think this came up clearly in this debate about billionaires, right, is that extreme inequalities of wealth are justified on the basis that there is a class of people who use their wealth in order to create jobs. They channel investment into the most profitable activities and in doing so they expand economic output and, yeah create jobs and boost employment in the process.

What we've seen, really, since the 1970s has been a- a kind of inversion of that situation where rather than investment leading to the expansion of production, and jobs creation, and- and boosting employment, we've seen much more investment channeled into just speculation. So, into the purchase of already existing assets where about you nearly seen, particularly when it comes to real estate, just large chunks of real estate being bought up by a small number of people.

But also, within corporations the focus has shifted from the production of things and the expansion of investments towards merging and acquisitions, share buybacks, dividend payouts, et cetera. Really satisfying this idea that it's the only responsibility of a corporation is to maximize value to shareholders, and if that means cutting investment, if that means cutting wages, if that means producing less stuff, well that's fine because, you know, this is what corporations are supposed to do.

So, you know, the problem this model creates are- are essentially one of low investment and low wages that suck demand out of the economy, which means that we get to a situation where wages are low that has been concealed by very high levels of debt. Corporations are also highly indebted because they've not been investing and they've been paying out lots of money to the shareholders, which means that consumption by individuals becomes constrained and investment by businesses also becomes even more constrained.

And when you don't have consumption investment then, you know, you haven't got enough demand in the economy to keep it going basically. Accompanied by that in the UK, we have very low levels of government spending, which mean the- that another channel of demand is- is shot off and the problem you get is just very low levels of growth. The kind of stagnation that we've seen in the British and American economies since the financial crisis, because people aren't spending, businesses aren't investing, and the government isn't spending either.

And this all relates to a kind of capitalism become an essence of which is extraction from those who live off work to those who live off wealth, rather than a form of creation. And even that form of creation obviously involved exploitation and having its own problems and constrictions, the issue with finance that growth and financialization is that those inequalities just become so much sharper and the extractive nature of capitalism, which is inherence at kind of any kind of capitalism really, just becomes much more obvious.

Briahna Joy Gray: When you're thinking about how to curb that kind of speculative behavior, I'm think about things like Bernie Sanders the way he plans to finance the student debt cancellation, is partly on a- a- with the small tax on speculative treating, and it does seem as you're describing kind of that relationship between these more speculative kind of- or extractive form of capitalism and the consequence of enormous debt that people are living under, but there seems to be a real kind of poetic justice, to structuring that particular plan that way. What other kind of interventions would help to reset us into a more productive less extractive path?

Grace Blakeley: The theory I line out in my book is basically that in many ways, capitalism as it exists and as has existed in the past has run out of road. and it has run out of road because it's- it's managed to sustain itself over the last, kind of, couple of decades through creating tons of debt and through expanding in space. And what you're seeing now is it's running out of space into which to expand, and not that much new debt can be created because people are already so heavily indebted that they just simply can't afford to take on anymore.

You know if you look at the global economy, we have a global debt that bubbles three times the size of GDP. And so, what I argue is that rather than trying to say we need to go back to the kind of nice form of capitalism like the one we had in the post-war period, which you know is itself not going to be sustainable for those two reasons, we need to think much bigger about moving towards the system of democratic socialism.

The other imperative there and probably the most important imperative, is the fact that it's going to be impossible to- t- to deal with climate breakdown under a system that prioritizes the pursuit of- of profit over all other social and environmental growths. As long as we have that idea that the only responsibility of a corporation is to maximize profit, is to maximize shareholder value, then they have no incentive to actually deal with emissions.

So for a bunch of reasons it as though capitalism's kind of reaching the end of the road, and I think you know I- I situate a lot of the- the rise of the far right in this context, which is some sort of recognition that actually the expansion of capitalism is coming to an end. And the response from the far right being shut down the borders, kick out people who don't look like us, and save what's left for people that we consider as the people.

So, you know, in that context I think the only real way forward is to move towards the system of democratic socialism, which is obviously what Corban is advocating in the UK while Sanders is advocating in the US, and as well as massively kind of boosting investments, doing things like The Green New Deal, providing better health care, better housing, et cetera.

The basis of that system is really shifting power in society. So just like those previous transitions that I mentioned were based on rebalancing power in society between people who live off work and those who live off wealth, this next transition has to be based upon another rebalancing of power. Again, from people who live off wealth- wealth to those who live off work, and there's a bunch of policies now that are being developed in the US and the UK that speak to that.

And I think one of those is the- the ownership funds that Sanders has recently talked about setting up, which would transfer ownership of corporate shares to workers up to the value of 20% at the corporation, and therefore give workers not only a share of the- the corporation's returns also a voice in how that corporation is managed.

And in the book I argue for a whole bunch of other policies that are currently not vein from a, kind of, public banking system that could direct credit to parts of the economy where it's most needed through to something like a people's asset manager, which would be capable of kind of managing our collective pensions well and overseeing that democratically.

So, having a board that would decide where that money was being invested and investing it based on collectively determined goals, like environmental unsocial justice.

Briahna Joy Gray: Hmm [affirmative]. You know what's funny about this is that I think when you look at polls and the popularity, the rising popularity of democratic socialism, the popularity of policies like canceling student debt, canceling medical debt, housing for all, there's a significant generational divide there. And it feels like younger people, because, you know we don't have to get sold on this, we don't have to particularly even understand the- the, like, technical financial aspects of, you know, what you've described to have a kind of intuitive sense that the system as it is just isn't working out anymore.

When you see people moving into their late 30s realizing they still don't feel secure enough to have children that their student debt burden is in fact their child. You know, increasing that number of people who are living with their parents, parents living with grandparents, et cetera, et cetera.

You don't have to explain the crisis. So, I'm wondering, you know, do you have a kind of a- pitch to folks who might not necessarily be receptive to the kind of financial explanation of what's going on, but who can understand in real terms how their lives have changed? And how their generation is able to live versus earlier generations? What would you say to folks who are more trusting of markets, and who are skeptical of a new system that in our lifetimes is perceived to be unvetted? You know democratic socialism is- is kind of n- new scary term for some folks. You know, how do you get people to kind of loosen, you know, develop a healthy skepticism of capitalism and understand that democratic socialism isn't something that is trying to, you know, empower the government as much as empower the people?

Grace Blakeley: That's such a good question, I think it cuts to the heart of what the core benefits on this project are- are all about, which is actually delivering on that promise of freedom, right? And of collective agency and- and creativity, that was the basis of the promise of neoliberalism, which was saying you know, "We're freeing people from the overpowering states." But which has not been delivered or if it has, it has only been delivered to a small minority of people.

And even then, you know, are generally working in jobs that they don't enjoy and that don't satisfy them for less pay, working longer hours, and are unable again to kind of, you know, exist as creative, expansive human beings with a sense of dignity and freedom and power over their own minds.

And I think the promise of democratic socialism is to say, "It's not even mainly about letting the state do what it wants to do and- and handing over power to bureaucrats. It's actually about restoring power to working people." Which is why the electoral avenue of it is only one element, it is important to have control over the states, important to have a very strong political movement that able to, you know, win general elections and hold politicians to account.

But just as important as that is having a labor movement that is resisting the logic of capitalism within the corporation. Just as important as that is having, you know, dynamic local community lead organizations that are pushing back against the logic of neoliberalism in local communities. By having renters’ unions, debtors’ unions, people coming together to actually say, "Half of them is not working and it is damaging me, my community, you know, my family in these ways. How can we resist that?"

And to be honest I think that realization of our collective power that we gain from engaging in social movements, engaging in the labor movement, engaging in campaigns, that consciousness is already eroding the assumption that capitalism is the only system that we can possibly hope for. Because that assumption is based upon the idea that people cannot come together to plan economic activity to, you know, decide where investment should go to run their communities, it's best that we leave that to the rich people who have all the stuff and make all the rules, you know.

It's basically based on the assumption that people can't be trusted to take control over their own lives, and the sooner people actually engage in these movements and realize what can be generated and the creativity that can be delivered by people cooperating and- and- and working towards a common goal, that is already undermining the individualism that is like, you know, just exist at the very heart of the market system.

And to be honest I think that's what makes me most optimistic about the prospects for both Corban and Sanders and- and socialists all over the world, is that you know regardless of what happens electorally we are seeing these big [inaudible 00:28:03] emerge and when. I think, you know, in the US it was so inspiring being able to hear and seeing the teachers strikes that were this amazing form of solidarity that wasn't jus, "We are demanding higher wages." It was actually saying, "We are demanding a completely different way of organizing the economy."

Briahna Joy Gray: So some people and especially given the popularity of Sanders in 2016 and the way that's kind of trickled across in a way that I'm very excited about a lot of other candidates in the race, there are people who have now taken positions that are somewhere between were we were pre, kind of, Sanders revolution and where Sanders is, and there are folks that say, "Okay, like, I'm a little bit on board you've convinced me." People need something like a living wage, we obviously need to do something about health care in this country, you know something- something about our financial system needs to be reined in. and we've seen, you know, more than one candidate propose a wealth tax in certain interventions like this.

But you've also written about, what you've called solutionism, which it seems... Tell me if- correct me if I'm wrong, kind of a kin to what sometimes refer to as incrementalism or kin kind of like a- a partial approach to resolving these problems. Why do you think we need to go whole hog and as- as opposed to sell-in for some of these half measures?

Grace Blakeley: For a number of different reasons. I think primarily the problem is one of power, it's not just one of policies. So again, I kind of push back a little bit against this idea that all you need to have is a plan, because historically brilliant politicians who have gone into state power with a plan, and without, a powerful social movement, without kind of backing from a large swath of people have either been co-opted. So because of the huge power the corporation, the finance sector that has over the state and over politics in general, that their radicalism has been- has been dented by that or they've simply, you know, given up because it's been a real struggle and because there's been so much backlash.

The problem with assuming that capitalism can just be tamed by nice, good politicians who can go into the state and just wield state power in a way that's beneficial to- to working people is- is that, yeah, it doesn't speak to that question of power. As long as the people who have the power are the same, as long as we are basically giving over control over our resources, control over our law making to a small minority of people who aren't accountable to a wider social movement, you are going to see those problems re-emerge.

And there is a deeper problem as well, which is I think that question of, "Why are we asking people to give a vote to politicians who just want to take more control away from them, and use their power to shift what's going on in society? Why aren't we handing power back to people and saying you know, that people should be organizing in their workplaces?" Saying, "There is a bunch of local elections happening happen in the US recently." Those are really important races that can help the- the... In which communities can kind of come together and demand a different way of organizing, you know, the local state, right?

I think disempowering people by saying, "I have a plan, give me your- your vote because I will fix things for you." Is not only kind of naive about the nature of power in society, it's not inspiring. By coming to people and saying like, "You have the power to change things, and I will make myself accountable to you, and I will, you know, foster the emergence of this movement, and I will use control over the state to give power back to working people." That's a very different proposition than just, "I'm going to fix capitalism."

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, a little- a little bit of not me, us huh? Well, thank you so much Grace that's- that's incredibly helpful. Can you tell listeners and watchers where they can find your book and others of your writing, or any other appearances you're going to be doing in the States while you're here?

Grace Blakeley: Yeah, so my book is called Stolen: How to Save The World From Financialization. And you can get it at all the bookstores, but it's sold Repeater and distributed by Penguin in the US, and you can find me on Twitter I'm @GraceBlakeley with two Es.

Briahna Joy Gray: Okay, great. Thank you so much I really appreciate it.

Grace Blakeley: Thanks so much for having me.

[music playing].

Amazon Training Video: We're excited to have you at this training, specifically designed to give you the tools that you need for success when it comes to labor organizing. During this course, we'll cover several important topics such as our position on unions, associate rights, signs of employee disengagement, and how to identify, escalate and address associate concerns. We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either.

We will boldly defend our direct relationship with associates as best for the associate, the business and our shareholders. We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders, or most importantly our associates. Our business model is built upon speed, innovation and customer obsession, things that are generally nor associated with unions.

When we lose sight of those critical focus areas, we jeopardize everybody's job security.

Ben Dalton: Maybe I would just start with, like, the obvious thing, which is that... So, you've asked us not to use your name or, like, any identifying characteristics. Why is that?

Amazon Worker: For fear of retaliation at work.

Ben Dalton: Is that a thing that you've seen happen to colleagues?

Amazon Worker: I've heard of people being let go for organizing or being suspected of organizing, but also, we're an at will state, so we don't really have job protections. Really, they could just let me go tomorrow and not have to give any reason whatsoever. So, I don't really feel secure in my job in any way.

Ben Dalton: Do you work at a fulfillment center?

Amazon Worker: Yes, I do.

Ben Dalton: Could you paint a bit of a picture of what that's like, what it looks like inside?

Amazon Worker: So, it's just under a million square feet, so a really enormous facility. Half of it is inbound half is outbound, the side I work on is inbound and it's four stories of storage for product. So, one of the most difficult jobs that as far as I've come across is, the job of stowing product into these robotic shelves that- that wander around. The come up to the- to the worker and then, you know, we stow product in it, and they go away.

And then the other job that's so difficult is for the picker who the robot comes to them when someone places an order, and they have to pick that item off the shelf. The job itself is really not that difficult, right, what makes it so difficult is the rate that Amazon wants the worker to work at. For the person stowing product, they want you to have 11 seconds between scanning a product, putting it on the shelf, scanning the shelf tag and then picking up your next product and scanning that.

And for the person that picks the product off the shelf, they're supposed to do their process in like, seven or eight seconds. I think it's seven seconds, so the rate at which you're expected to work in a 10-hour shift is punitive.

Ben Dalton: And what apparatus or tools do they use to sort of ensure that people are keeping up to the expected pace?

Amazon Worker: You know, everything's computerized so your scanner's connected to the computer so every time you're scanning your rate is registered, and once you stop scanning a clock starts ticking. That's called time of task, TOT, and if you accrue 30 minutes of that within the full day then someone might come talk to you and, you know, give you a warning or something.

Ben Dalton: So, it's like a panopticon, you're under a constant surveillance it's impossible to escape that surveillance?

Amazon Worker: Yeah, and literally there is, a camera pointed at each and every stow station, you know. So, there's probably like 25 or 30 stow stations on each side of this large square where all of the robots are inside of, and that's four stories high, you know, there's a- There's a camera on every single station. So, you're literally assuming you're constantly being watched by the camera, but then also your movements are being registered by the computer and your scanner.

Ben Dalton: And how long have you been working there?

Amazon Worker: I've been here for six months.

Ben Dalton: So, you started working after the October 2018 decision to increase the hourly rate to at least $15 an hour?

Amazon Worker: Correct. Yeah, the facility I work at actually opened September 2018, but additionally I started for Amazon the day after thanksgiving last year at sortation center just as a seasonal worker.

Ben Dalton: So, how do you heard from some of your coworkers who were there prior, and then after that change how it had, sort of, a concrete effect on their lives? Do they talk about that at all?

Amazon Worker: So, the facility I work at it opened like, I guess, just before that change, so it's like I don't think that really the previous structure really factored into, you know, really mattered to anybody at the facility I'm at. Online in different Amazon Facebook groups and stuff people have complained about there's bonuses and stock options that they used to get, no longer are getting those. I think they feel like it- it was kind of duplicitous, I think, giving the raise because they would've preferred it the other way or at least they would've preferred getting the raise and still getting those bonuses based on their, you know, productivity and stuff.

But all Amazon did was just replace those benefits with the raise, so it kind of... It wasn't like they were really giving that much more.

Ben Dalton: So, I mean, I've had a lot of different kinds of- of jobs over the years an- and often times, like, the workplace culture differs markedly in term of how the people who work there support each other or- or talk, or whether they're just sort of like atomized and focused on whatever it is that they have to do to get through the day. How would you describe sort of like the sense of comradery with the other people that you work with? Does- is there any of that or not really?

Amazon Worker: When there is it's- it's because, like, we've taken the initiative to try and make that happen, you know, in- in general your working kind of isolated and I don't sense that there is a great sense of comradery. It's like we have to make the effort, but I think part of that is by design because a lot of the work we do is, seems to be kind of competitive because, like, when I was talking about the rates for, like stowers. So, your stow rate is tracked and you can find that what is, they- they'll either post it or you can ask your manager or whatever, but for the people who are in, like, the bottom five percent they will probably be written up for...

Receive a, you know... Write up for, low productivity and then on your third write up you're probably going to get fired. So, you're constantly competing to not be in that bottom percentage that's- that's going to- at risk of losing their job.

Ben Dalton: Right, right. Yeah, it's like there- there definitely will be some losers, right, like the system is set up in such a way that there is, like, a group of people who- who are going to get screwed essentially.

Amazon Worker: Yeah, and it drives some people, you know, to actually kind of cheat and to better their numbers people will... I- I've heard of people taking, like, product that's desirable you know, like, small stuff that's easy to stow, taking it on their way back from break off of somebody else's station and bringing it to theirs or something like that. Like, it's the antithesis to teamwork in- in my perception that it's, like, it's driving people to compete with each other rather than to go out of their way and help each other so that the whole team succeeds.

Ben Dalton: Right, right. And you mentioned that you had a sense that some people had been let go because there was, like, some possibility that they might have been like organizing, is there a general suppression of any kind of, like, latent, union sympathy or- or attempts to sort of build that sense of solidarity?

Amazon Worker: There's a very strong anti-union attitude from management and- and it's no secret. There is something called the VOA board, voice of the associate and that's the tool that Amazon uses to let people imagine that their voice is being heard. So, associates can write on their like critiques, or criticisms, or suggestions, or you know complaints whatever. And then management will answer it on the board and it's right there next to the time clocks, right in front of HR so anybody's going to see, you know, who's writing on it.

You don't have to put your name, but if you don’t, you're going to be viewed anyway, so they can go back and look at the security footage if they wanted to see who wrote something. And recently some- several people, like, in a span of a couple of days wrote about needing a union at Amazon and, you know, there's a- the typical response from them is, "A union doesn't work with the Amazon business model."

And, I'm not sure what business it's supposed to work with better than others, but yeah it doesn't work with them and they have an open-door policy, and you can come to them and talk about anything and whatever. But, yeah, it's a- a pretty flimsy, you know reasoning they have on that, but yeah, it's very, it's known to be very anti-union in their stats.

And I- I think anybody who is organizing feels like they're being watched and is- is always concerned about retaliation and, like, maybe being moved to a less desirable job, you know, somewhere where they feel like they're kind of set up to fail.

Ben Dalton: Right. Yeah, I- I can't help but notice that when we were messaging prior to this you were using, Signal, which is a very strong, encrypted, end to end encrypted, messaging system. Is that-

Amazon Worker: Yeah.

Ben Dalton: Anything to do with your work?

Amazon Worker: Basically, being a pro-union worker, you know, you kind of feel like you need to take precautions.

Ben Dalton: Right, right. So, [sigh], stop me if this is something you don't want to get into, but is- have you, like, thought of trying to do organizing work as well? Like is that something that you've thought of taking on yourself?

Amazon Worker: Yeah, I would definitely love to see our work organized I think- I think the workers could absolutely benefit from Amazon being organized.

Ben Dalton: And I'm- I'm also just curious, I have over the years come across a fair number of, I think, of a particular kind of, like, genre of writing, which is white collar former Amazon workers or just like general silicon valley types who are, like, writing about the- the great unmatched genius of Jeff Bezos. They- they write about him in a way that- that feels like hagiography almost, like, you know describing-

Amazon Worker: Yeah.

Ben Dalton: Like Isaac Newton or something. Have you run into any of that or, like, how- how do people talk about Bezos within the company?

Amazon Worker: Pretty much not at all.

Ben Dalton: Hmm [affirmative].

Amazon Worker: I don't think he really comes up at all, as far as like... I think Amazon think they're a lot more clever than they are as far as, like, our- our facility you know, it could be managed much better. The whole, like, company flow, the logistics s- stuff like that could be better. Part of the problem I think is- is because it is run top down, that the people actually doing the work who have good ideas of how to do it better their voices, like, just aren't heard no matter what, you know.

Even if they're putting it out on the board and- and corporate gets screen shots I believe of everything the associates write in that VOA board. So corporate has the ability to know, you know, what people are saying and- and to get suggestions whatever, but it seems like they just... It's more of a meritocratic kind of environment and it's presumed that the people at the top have the best ideas and- and it's kind of-

Ben Dalton: Right.

Amazon Worker: Run like that. So there- there is-

Ben Dalton: Right.

Amazon Worker: A lot of, like... There's poor communication in general, which is surprising. You would think, like, Amazon would be much better at this, but communication is a- is a big problem at work as far as, you know, things running smoothly.

Ben Dalton: Right, so since it's so hierarchical, they don't benefit from, like, the wisdom of the people who are actually doing the work, who obviously-

Amazon Worker: Correct.

Ben Dalton: Have the most sort of intimate familiarity of how these systems function.

Amazon Worker: Yeah, definitely.

Ben Dalton: I'm calling from a political campaign. Bernie obviously has placed a lot of emphasis on the rights of workers. This country has, you know, some of the weakest labor protections of any country in the developed world. Do you feel as though your concerns as somebody who's working in this fulfillment center are well represented or could be better represented, either by the Sanders campaign or just like by the broader progressive movement of which it's a part?

Amazon Worker: The fact that we don't feel like we have job security, and the fact that I was hired to work here for 40 hours a week, it's four 10 hour shifts, but during prime, around the weeks surrounding prime week and then coming up for, you know, the whole holiday season with just, like, a day or two notice Amazon can change my schedule like back in early October they had us come in for mandatory overtime. And that morning a full tower shift of mandatory overtime, and that morning they informed us that our next week schedule is going to go from being a 10-and-a-half-hour shift to a 12-hour shift. So, that week I worked like 58 hours.

Ben Dalton: Right.

Amazon Worker: And they can just demand that, and the- the workers have- have no recourse. So, the fact that they can demand overtime, and that we don't have job security, and we don't really have any say in the workplace makes me feel like I have been completely let down by my representatives at the state level and at the federal level.

Obviously, republicans, you know, aren't going to be there for you, but even democrats that pay lip service to, supporting workers. I feel completely let down by them and- and like they don't have my back at all, which is why I appreciate Bernie, like, going on the picket line with people, and being a champion of workers’ rights that's the kind of people that I want representing me.

Ben Dalton: So, when you pull a week like that with 58 hours, does that essentially mean that you're on your feet that entire time?

Amazon Worker: Yes, there are sit down jobs at Amazon.

Ben Dalton: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What kind of toll does that take?

Amazon Worker: Yeah, it's incredibly exhausting.

Ben Dalton: Yeah.

Amazon Worker: Just you kind of feel like a zombie after a while. Fortunately, it's not year-round because we would just die, but it is, like, you know a month or two out of every year where it's like your entire life is just working, like there's nothing left over. Spending time with family or entertainment or whatever, there's just like there's no energy or time left over for anything else during those time periods.

When I mentioned the immense size of the facility, the break rooms where you can purchase food or get coffee or, the smoke areas are around the center of the building front and back. And on a 10 hour shift you get two 15-minute breaks, and those breaks include your walk time to the break areas.

So, if you're at the far end of the facility it can take five minutes to walk to the break area, so five minutes there; five minutes back leaves you with just a five-minute period to actually sit down and rest. So that's not really sufficient for the kind of physical work that we do.

And I- something else I would say, as far as, like, with the increase in pay and people feeling like they're getting a fair deal with that, with the mandatory O, and with the benefits like the paid time off and vacation time. And then they have something called unpaid time, which they give you like eight days’ worth throughout the year; it's 80 hours. That might sound kind of generous, but if you consider like within the 52 weeks of the year the hours that we work come out to like 56 or more hours’ worth of work in that year.

So even the time of for rest isn't sufficient considering how physical this job is and the long hours that we do work.

Ben Dalton: Well, [sigh], yeah it sounds brutal. I hope that it gets better, I really appreciate that you were willing to take time off of like, you know, the minimal time that you are not working to talk to us.

Amazon Worker: Mm-hmm [affirmative], yeah. Yeah, and I would say a lot of the people there actually enjoy the work they do, it's just the conditions under which we do it is unfair and that's what needs to change.

Briahna Joy Gray: That's it for this week. Let us know what you think at [email protected] or send us a tweet with the hashtag #HeartheBern. If you haven't already please take a moment to rate, review or like us on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, YouTube or wherever you're listening. As always transcripts will be up soon, till next time.