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labor “Free Shipping”, a Review

I know free shipping is not free, because I feel the toll it takes on my mind and body every day.

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The Cost of Free Shipping” by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese,

The Cost of Free Shipping arrived on my doorstep in a blue and white Prime envelope, or a “jiffy” as we call it in the warehouse. A yellow sticker was affixed to one side, reading “C-8 2.B.” That brief sequence was enough to tell me exactly where it was pulled from the conveyor belt, stowed on a shelf of raggedy bags, and later hauled onto a cart and wheeled over to a delivery van. I might’ve handled it myself, but I hardly have time to glance at the stickers, let alone notice my name and address on a label. So it goes working in one of Amazon’s last-mile delivery stations, where I report five days a week to ship customers their oh-so essential boxes of Fiji water and organic dog food. I know free shipping is not free, because I feel the toll it takes on my mind and body every day.

Authors Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese bring together 17 essays that provide a comprehensive analysis of the myriad externalities generated by Amazon’s trademark perk. The essays dig deep to capture the overt and covert mechanisms of control Amazon applies towards its workers and host communities. Amazon’s tentacles are rapidly extending their reach into every nook and cranny of daily life, making the authors’ framing of “Amazon Capitalism” all the more important. While monopolistic control is nothing new to the American economy, the corporation’s degree of control over workers and consumers via constant surveillance, data-tracking personal devices and all-powerful algorithms is. The behemoth’s marketing campaigns present this as progress toward a more convenient and efficient workplace and marketplace, but it is also a very real consolidation of power.

This has become abundantly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, as there is now a camera and monitor in our break room. A green circle is depicted around each employee as they pass through the field of view; it turns yellow if they get close to six feet from another employee, and then red once they are within six feet. Inevitably, my circle turns red on occasion: when I have to pass through a tight space, hand something to a coworker, or simply be able to hear them. Initially, I thought it was merely a tool to help us be more aware of social distancing. But then I saw “pictures of social distancing violations: 37” written on a manager’s whiteboard. While this type of surveillance is ostensibly conducted in the name of employee safety, I expect these images could easily be used against us if we ever made management’s life more difficult by organizing.

Conveniently, this camera is never focused on aisle E, which is inexplicably narrower than every other aisle in the facility. When it comes time to haul the bags of sorted boxes and jiffies (which can weigh up to fifty pounds) off their shelves and onto rattling carts, a massive traffic jam occurs. Bags partially block the aisle, and the algorithm dispatches a dozen or so “pickers” to the aisle at the same time, forcing us to scrape by one another with inches to spare, let alone six feet. One day when I was assigned to do social distancing (which comprises yelling at people for getting too close while holding a six foot pole) I pointed out to a manager how much of a health hazard this was. He said he had already escalated the issue to higher management, but they said nothing could be changed since we were almost in “Peak” season. That moment solidified my belief that Amazon will always prioritize productivity over worker well-being.

The authors note the unfortunate, though unsurprising fact that most customers still “relate to Amazon simply as a convenient and affordable place to shop,” while workers must labor furiously to deal with the corresponding demand. In my experience, however, this breakneck pace is driven not by overwhelming demand but by an intentional scarcity of labor in the name of profit. When work slows down, management offers us “VTO,” or voluntary time off, either before or during the shift. While my coworkers are understandably pleased to occasionally take advantage when the opportunity arises, we also all know the consequences: those left behind are subsequently overworked. Amazon presents VTO as a worker benefit, but we all know that it’s a double-edged sword, part of an exhaustive effort to “establish a perfect on-off switch for labor.” In addition, management deploys VET (voluntary extra time) and MET (mandatory extra time). The latter is deployed during peak season, where any permanent employee is required to work an additional shift on what is usually their first day off.

While these accounts may be grimly fascinating to readers observing from afar, the book could become truly important to workers inside Amazon. Several chapters provide insightful power analysis, identifying weak spots and the subsequent opportunities presented for organizing. Fulfilling our daily responsibilities on the job informs a general idea of these weaknesses, but there is much to learn from reading this book. For example, I know that we could interrupt the flow of packages if we went on strike, but the fact that built-in redundancy might allow Amazon to circumvent our site by rerouting, and the subsequent way in which that weakens our would-be leverage, is something I hadn’t accounted for prior to reading. Further, the description of the high “cost of obstruction” due to fixed costs in logistics infrastructure was emboldening, and not something I had factored into our power beforehand.

The brief history of Amazon organizing in Europe was also inspiring, it provides a vision of what might be possible here in the United States if enough people are truly committed to the cause. The German trade union Ver.di’s focus on shop-floor activism, and intentional avoidance of “third partying” language cultivated an understanding amongst workers that “we are the trade union,” to be viewed as “a tool for company organization, to which everyone has to contribute,” rather than a mere service provider, as unions have been more commonly viewed in recent decades. Correcting that perception amongst workers will be difficult, but not impossible, and thus it is crucial to learn from the efforts of our international comrades. 

These lessons, and the path forward detailed in the final chapters by veteran organizers and current Amazon workers alike, make this book absolutely essential reading for every driver, warehouse associate, and tech worker at Amazon. Establishing a bulwark against the most powerful company in the world won’t come without an energized, organized, and sustained effort of resistance. Amazonians United is spearheading that effort and all Amazon workers are encouraged to join us!

Anonymous is an Amazon employee

“The Cost of Free Shipping is published by Pluto Press as a paperback, hardback and ebook.