Our latest edition is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Amazon Can Only Claim Their Jobs Are Decent Because American Work Has Gotten So Miserable

Amazon maims its workers and drives wages down, yet the company still attracts job applicants and claims to provide “good jobs.” Those claims were strong enough to play a role in the defeat of a union effort in Bessemer, Alabama — but that says less about Amazon than it does about the miserable state of the labor market.

The Bessemer fulfillment center where Amazon workers voted against forming the company's first union. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, just voted two to one against joining a union. In the run-up to the election, company representatives touted the great jobs Amazon provides. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs,” said one spokesperson.

Amazon’s message was at odds with reality. Even in low-wage Alabama, Amazon’s wages are well below the area’s median wage and just below the median for transportation industry jobs. Similar jobs elsewhere in the United States pay considerably more (although pay is dropping as Amazon enters more labor markets). Meanwhile, thousands of Amazon workers rely on food stamps to make ends meet.

As for workplace environment, the backbreaking pace and constant monitoring lead some workers to claim that Amazon treats them like robots, not humans. Many resort to peeing in bottles to avoid being penalized for “time off task.” Injuries in Amazon warehouses are more than double the industry average, and the company has failed to protect workers against coronavirus.

Still, Amazon wasn’t completely wrong. After all, the company has had no shortage of applicants for the hundreds of thousands of jobs they have added during the pandemic. A company executive recently made the bizarre claim that Amazon’s pay and benefits are so good that he considers the company “the Bernie Sanders of employers.” Presumably, at least some of the workers who voted against the union believed the company’s claims.

How can a company that maims its workers and drives wages down still attract job applicants and claim to provide “good jobs”? The answer says less about Amazon than it does about the current state of the labor market.

Amazon jobs only seem good because other “similar jobs” have gotten so bad. The company may pay double the federal minimum wage, but that’s a wage that hasn’t been raised in twelve years. In real terms, it has fallen over the past five decades. Nearly half (44 percent) of all workers now count as “low-wage,” and it’s even worse for black and Latino workers.

Meanwhile, some of the fastest job growth in the next decade will be in low-wage jobs like food service, janitorial, and home health. Most of these jobs have few to no benefits, little job security or opportunity for advancement, and plenty of management surveillance and harassment — not to mention unsafe working conditions. In that context, a job at Amazon might not seem too bad.

How did we get to a point where work is so bad that a job at Amazon seems good? There is nothing inherent about these jobs that makes them bad. It’s a question of power.

Fifty years ago, one in three workers was a union member. That meant they could organize and negotiate collectively to win higher wages, better benefits, job security, due process, and a degree of dignity and respect at work. Many unions also made headway in reducing racial, gender, and regional pay gaps.

But it went further than that. With one-third of the workforce unionized, union negotiations shaped the broader economy. Nonunion employers had to match union wages and benefits. And since almost everyone either was in a union or knew someone who was, there was a deeper understanding of the difference unions can make, and higher expectations of what constituted a good job.

Today, unions still make life better for their members. Union workers make on average 11.2 percent more than similar nonunion workers. The union advantage is greater for black and Latino workers. They are more likely to have health care and retirement benefits. And unlike nonunion workers, who can be disciplined and fired at management’s whim, union workers have due process rights.

But today’s unions don’t have the same power to shape labor markets that they used to. Unions have declined to the point that only one in ten workers are unionized. So instead of pulling nonunion companies up to a higher standard, unions are stuck defending their gains, while nonunion employers engage in a race to the bottom. As a result, nonunion wages have eroded, wage inequality has skyrocketed, the black-white pay gap has expanded, and overall job quality has declined.

More broadly, union decline has lowered expectations of what a good job can be. Workers may still want decent wages and benefits, predictable schedules, paid time off, safer workplaces, respite from management surveillance and harassment, and more. But without a way to exert power collectively to counter employers’ authority, these things stay in the realm of wishful thinking, not realistic goals.

At the same time, large employers like Amazon and Walmart have used what economists call their “monopsony” power (as dominant buyers of labor) to drive out competition and impose lower standards for wages and job quality. With lowered expectations and few other options available, Amazon jobs seem like a better deal.

Theoretically, workers still have the option of joining a union to improve their situation. But union decline means that fewer people are familiar with unions and how they work. Even if they are familiar with unions, existing labor laws throw up so many barriers to workers exercising their freedom of association that the simple act of joining a union now requires untold acts of bravery and heroism.

We just saw this on display in Bessemer, where Amazon waged a textbook anti-union campaign of threats, intimidation, and surveillance that convinced a majority of workers that joining a union was too great a risk.

Amazon may see the union election results as proof that Amazon workers are satisfied with their jobs. But they only show how broken the labor market is, along with the rules that are supposed to regulate it.

Legislation like the PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act, now before the Senate, would go a long way toward fixing those rules. So would raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as the original American Rescue Plan proposed. But it’s not enough. Raising expectations about what workers can fight for and win collectively can only come through workers exercising that collective power.

It took the labor struggles of the 1930s and ’40s to reshape workers’ expectations about what exactly made for a good job in the postwar decades. It will likely take a similar struggle to reshape expectations about work at companies like Amazon today.