Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is a professor of sociology at the California State University, Long Beach, and a member of the California Faculty Association. His research has focused on the movement of goods around the world and the logistics workers who make the entire system of global capitalism function. Together with Ellen Reese, he edited the book The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, published by Pluto Press in 2020. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
I‘ve spent most of my career studying how capitalism functions via logistics and how workers across the global supply chain are impacted by neoliberalism and capitalist exploitation, racism, and violence. I started when I completed this project called Choke Points a couple of years ago with Immanuel Ness. I was giving talks to folks all around the world, from New York to London and Paris. Many of the questions we got from organizers, activists, and folks in the labor movement were about Amazon. I had just begun my own research on Amazon. I was really interested in studying the company from a labor and logistics perspective.
Eventually, I got in touch with Ellen Reese, who’s a professor at UC Riverside, located in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, which is known as the world’s warehousing capital. We worked together on an idea for a book on Amazon that would include workers’ and activists’ perspectives.
Throughout the book, you use the phrase “Amazonification of the economy.” How would you describe this phenomenon, and how is it different from the role that other mega-companies like Walmart play in the global economy?
My previous work focused a lot on the rise of big-box retailers like Walmart and how they’ve dominated the global economy by their mastery of logistics and the way they move goods and how that has impacted workers. I realized that Amazon does a lot of things differently and that e-commerce in general has made a lot of changes to the movement of goods, resulting in the “Amazonification” of the economy.
For example, I looked at a case study of Amazon’s subcontracted last-mile delivery drivers who work for third-party delivery service partners. These workers drive Amazon vans and wear Amazon uniforms, but they don’t work for Amazon. Their employers are small, third-party trucking companies. In this way, Amazon uses the legal system to avoid paying its fair share and to withhold protections and benefits from workers.
We argue in the book that e-commerce — and this is largely driven by Amazon, which is the world’s largest e-commerce firm — is leading to what we call a “worker speedup.” Workers now have to work faster and under more pressure. Related to this are what I call “technologies of worker surveillance and control” that corporations use to spy on their workers. Workers’ movements are codified into the most minute metric.
All this has led to increased racialization of the workforce, in which people of color, particularly women of color, are overrepresented in the most backbreaking, hyper-surveilled jobs in the e-commerce industry. And Amazon is driving this, which is leading to an immense amount of profit for a very small group of mostly white male executives.
The surveillance of workers and worker speedup have always been tactics used by the bosses to eke out more profit from their workers. So how is the Amazonification of the economy in this period different? How do you think about this process in the broader context of neoliberalism and the history of capitalism?
Amazon is the outcome of several historical processes related to capitalist development, neoliberalism, and finance capitalism. But because of Amazon’s scale and growing power in the global economy, it is propelling or accelerating some of these novel processes of combining big tech and squeezing of blue-collar workers and changing the nature of working-class jobs.
These massive corporations are on a scale and size almost never seen in human history. They have so much concentrated power to, for example, rewrite laws, as they did in California, with the gig economy law that Uber got passed to avoid taxes by classifying workers not as employees but as contractors and members of private, fake businesses.
Unlike many sectors of the economy, Amazon has increased its profits as a result of the pandemic and shutdowns. How has Amazon’s role in the economy shifted in the last year? What might this tell us about trends in the global economy going forward?
Ellen Reese and I began this project before the pandemic. Amazon was already growing at breakneck speed. We were already seeing major industry shifts in logistics and retailing, including the emergence of Amazon web services, which accounts for a large portion of Amazon’s profits. And then a few months before our book was scheduled to publish, the pandemic began and everything accelerated. What we’ve seen over the last year is obviously a concentration of corporate power in the emergence of Amazon, which will soon become the world’s largest private employer.
Amazon is already the second-largest private employer in the U.S., but of course it’s bigger than the official numbers show because there are hundreds of thousands of workers who should be employees of Amazon but who are not considered such. Amazon is not responsible for these workers. And these are the workers who deliver over 50 percent of all Amazon Prime packages. They are contract workers, or they are kind of like gig workers. They’re flex drivers as well. They drive their own vehicles to deliver the products. And we’re seeing this all over the world.
Further, over the last 12 months, there’s been this unprecedented demand for e-commerce delivery. This has led Amazon to go on a hiring spree, and they’ve nearly doubled their workforce. Currently, the global workforce is about 1.3 million people, and this number doesn’t account for the half a million other workers who deliver Amazon’s goods to your doorstep.
I think we’re going to see Amazon continue to build market power and take on a greater role in increasing corporate dominance, in the United States, Europe, and increasingly in the Global South. In the U.S., we are likely to see changes in the economy and in consumption. One of the things I’ve argued is that Amazon is not solely responsible for this, but it is really driving a change in consumption, at least among middle-class consumers. This is a lot different from only a few years ago, when the supply chain used to end at a Walmart store, a brick-and-mortar store, that you physically got into your vehicle to drive to and buy a product.
Now the supply chain ends at our place of residence, our apartments, our homes, right where we live — or increasingly, Amazon lockers. My university, California State University Long Beach was the first public CSU. This is the largest public education system in the United States. And now we have an Amazon campus store on our campus. It’s a brick-and-mortar store, and it’s right outside my office. I remember writing the introduction to the book, looking at this damn store. And we will see more of this. Amazon is increasingly expanding into grocery work and establishing workerless stores. They’re opening several stores in the UK without workers. Automation is going to play a big role in the coming years. Shopping malls are not going to come back after the pandemic.
Meanwhile, we are seeing Amazon invest heavily in the Global South. They’re trying to deal with, already, the competition of other firms in both Latin America and Asia. In the Middle East, they’re buying up small e-commerce firms. Amazon is also trying to increase its market share in Mexico in particular. They’re really doing some different things there in terms of how they are hiring warehouse workers. The conditions in those facilities are exploitative at a level not even seen in the U.S., in terms of how workers are being pitted against each other. There is almost a kind of gamification of work there. Workers struggle against each other to get color badges in order to get steady employment.
In India, which we discuss in the book, Amazon is basically going head-to-head against Walmart to try to get a slice of India’s massive emerging middle class. Among the approximately 1.3 billion people living in India, there are high rates of poverty, but there is also an emerging consumer class that Amazon is spending immense efforts trying to appeal to in order to get a leg up on Walmart. Walmart bought Flipkart, which is the largest e-commerce company in India, so Amazon is trying to counter that.
At the same time, there have been waves of resistance and rebellion in India, specifically in New Delhi, where workers and independent small business owners and merchants are very much threatened. And there’s a large informal sector in India that could stand to lose out when these big tech companies come in and continue to squeeze people.
Is it fair to say that Amazon’s exploitative practices, like its innovations in worker surveillance tactics, have sparked a new wave of resistance among Amazon workers? The workers fighting to form a union in Bessemer, Alabama, right now have explicitly cited Amazon’s horrific working conditions as a reason they need a union. Can you speak about what workers around the world have been doing to fight back against Amazon?
There have been different forms of worker activism. One of the forms that we highlighted in the book was the organizing work of Amazonians United, among workers in Chicago in particular. One of the things that’s really important about Amazonians United’s work is that they’re really interested in developing and building worker power from the bottom up. They focus a lot on worker organizing and building connections between workers to come together and to talk about the workplace in order to change the workplace themselves.
There’s also the “Make Amazon Pay” movement that launched last year, in which Amazon workers and their allies staged protests on Cyber Monday and Black Friday in 2020 during the pandemic. So here you have this massive global corporation that is known to not pay taxes and to avoid investing in communities, and is instead taking from workers — not only taking their labor and the rewards of that labor, but also making communities pay for its practices. There is also Amazon’s environmental impact: in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, which has a population of over 4 million people, Amazon is now the largest private employer in this region. Inland Empire has basically become a sink of racial capitalism and environmental racism. Communities of color, disproportionately Latinx and Black communities, are absorbing the toxins of these thousands and thousands of truck trips a day to move the goods that make free shipping possible. These goods are then brought to Los Angeles and delivered by highly exploited delivery drivers.
What we’ve seen is that across the world, Amazon employs predominantly workers of color in some of the hardest, most hyper-surveilled jobs; especially in the United States, Black and Latinx workers are over-represented as warehouse workers, the lowest-paid workers of Amazon’s entire corporation.
They’re underrepresented in management positions, and overrepresented in the hard, burnout types of jobs that lead to high injury rates. But also, immigrant and migrant workers are overrepresented in these jobs all around the world. And so in terms of resistance, it’s paramount that the same workers who are overrepresented in the most exploitative conditions should be the workers who lead the movement to oppose and to organize and increase worker power.
That’s why what is going on in Bessemer is so important. This is a majority Black fulfillment center. There’s a high percentage of Black women who are employed there. The movement for economic justice for the workers in that Bessemer facility is inseparable from racial justice organizing.
That is one of the strengths of the organizing that’s emerging here in the United States: there is a connection between immigrant rights, Black lives, and worker justice. And Amazon again provides a useful thread that can bring these groups together. Amazon owns Ring doorbell systems, which is the largest surveillance for the masses. You have a large number of middle-class, many white folks, buying these Ring doorbell systems to police people of color in their neighborhoods. And this data is turned over to the police. Hundreds of police departments have access to a Ring doorbell system. So again, this extends beyond just kind of buying a product on e-commerce. There are other forms of the state-corporate nexus. Amazon Web Service, the largest cloud infrastructure in the world, contracts with ICE, the CIA, a lot of state agencies.
Amazon is fueling the emergence of this kind of corporate-state nexus. Now, is Amazon the only corporation that does this? No. But Amazon has such a scale, and such a size, and such an influence that we have to pay attention to it, because its power and revenue eclipses that of many countries around the world.
As Amazon gets bigger and employs more workers — many of them gig workers who are unprotected, unorganized, and hyper-exploited — the jobs it creates will replace unionized jobs. Consequently, the unionization attempt in Bessemer is important. It could set the stage for more Amazon unions or even more unionization attempts at other big corporations across the country, creating union jobs for workforces that are predominantly made up of people of color. With this in mind, how do you see the role of unions and Amazon in the national economy?
The unionization effort in Bessemer is historic. But there are multiple ways that workers can resist and better their working conditions. The workers in Bessemer are fighting to form a union as part of the RWDSU to represent the workers in collective bargaining. And this is huge. But it’s also huge what Amazonians United is doing. They’re doing a different way of worker organizing, that’s worker led, right? So there’s different models in which workers can fight back. And so all those are really important in the broader struggle.
Another important aspect of this is that Amazon is an international company. Capital is global, so worker actions and worker power and movements that connect and intersect with worker’s rights must also be global, and they should be intersectional. In recent history, mainstream unions haven’t attended to other pressing social justice issues. That’s why so many folks are amped about what’s going on in Bessemer and what other global movements of workers are doing. Amazon Workers United is a global coalition of Amazon workers from all over the world who are also meeting, strategizing, and coordinating actions. This is all part of what I think is really important work. The attacks on unions are also attacks on communities of color. Unionizing a huge corporation in the warehouses of Amazon would be a huge leveling factor.
And of course, in concert with that, we have to mobilize to also curtail the obscene wealth that Amazon offers to a small group of executives, this ultra-rich class who are not paying their fair share. There are schools dwindling. Water is poisoned, poverty is rising, and they continue to keep more and more resources for themselves. It has to be a multifaceted kind of movement that’s global.