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Pushing Back Against Platform Giants: Labor Power and Solidarity at Amazon
As platforms have become giants over the course of the last years, accumulating an immense amount of wealth, workers across platforms in different parts of the world push for a better, fairer working world.
Research & Commentary
March 30, 2023
In recent weeks and months, Amazon warehouse workers walked off the job in protest and staged strikes across the globe. These actions are unfolding at a time in which Amazon has announced yet another round of layoffs – now amounting to 27,000 workers across different roles in this year alone. These two developments have come to characterize the realities of platform workers, or possibly the world of workers more generally: labor organizing is intensifying, but the ongoing economic crisis has expressed itself in insecurity for workers. While one could say workers are continuing to organize despite our moment of insecurity, one could also argue it is perhaps precisely because of it.
Amazon – alongside other global platforms such as Google and Meta, but also Uber and Deliveroo, is navigating not only moments of ongoing economic crisis, but also the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. While some corporations, including Amazon, have amassed immense profits amidst it, these are not pocketed equally. It is clear: These platforms contribute to the further exacerbation of inequalities and workers are the ones who are paying the price. These inequalities are not only class-based, but also gendered and racialized – reflecting larger dynamics in the economy and labor market. The current wave of industrial action by workers across the platform economy, in pursuit for fairer and safer working conditions, has intensified because of the pandemic, and been triggered in by it. Labor struggles today can be understood within the larger trajectory of labor organizing and ongoing economic crisis that has affected livelihoods amidst different levels of inflation, and devaluations. As a result, the current waves of layoffs d not do away with the general observation that Amazon is at the top of the list of corporations and platforms that have come to symbolize inequality in our economic system today.
While Amazon has grown into the e-commerce giant synonymous with e-commerce today, its eco-system of platforms and its political, economic, and societal power extends far beyond that. We can understand platforms as mediating different products and/or services by using the Internet. In the case of Amazon, its platform eco-system also includes Amazon Web Services (AWS), which has monopolized the cloud platform industry, but so too its digital labor platform of Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). MTurk workers complete microtasks like data labelling identifying objects, a task central for machine learning algorithms to train AI. Though these three workforces labor (in)directly for Amazon and may unite on that basis, their realities, wages, and location within the labor market are fundamentally different and so too their labor struggles. MTurk workers are not even considered Amazon workers at all, but are instead independent contractors paid by piece. In many ways, Amazon’s diverse eco-system resembles the broader platform economy – it too is diverse. That diversity must be recognized and understood in order to support workers in these labor struggles and conceive of the various ways by which inequalities are produced and reproduced, and fought.
Let’s sketch out the realities of Amazon warehouse workers and those of MTurk to grasp this more concretely. Amazon warehouse workers are bound by the location of their warehouse, of going to work there and having assigned shifts. This translates to a more traditional organization of workers, their wages, and their working hours – albeit their productivity can be understood as pushed to new bounds. Workers are not only monitored and disciplined through their managers and other higher-ups, but also technologically through their Units Per Hour (UPH) rates – meaning whether they are for instance prepping and stowing an item, or picking and packing items as productively as they should.
MTurk, in contrast, differs both in its nature of the platform and the work. In other words, workers are not tied to a location and can be based anywhere. They are also not paid based by a fixed hourly wage, but completed and approved task. As web-based gig workers, they are neither considered workers of Amazon, nor of the requester who posts and pays for the task. While Amazon warehouse workers can also be employed precariously based on their contracts, this precarity and historical continuation of piecework on MTurk defines the very fabric of the employment relationship. As MTurk workers have their productivity measured through their approval rating, their work is exclusively mediated through the interface void of any social dimension. There is no human interaction on the interface per se, as workers are anonymized while requesters can also anonymize themselves.
These dimensions do not only define the ways by which workers are alienated from one another, but also integral to the ways by which workers form solidarity and collectively organize. The fact that Amazon warehouse workers labor under the same roof means that they encounter one another, they see each other and can potentially speak to one another and form solidarity. Yet, given that workers are located within their own local and national context, it means that organizing can take on different (trans)national appearances with wages and safer and fairer working conditions binding them. Their contexts can facilitate collective organization both through traditional unions and grassroots ones and workers-centered coalitions. But collective organization can also undermined by these conditions and Amazon. In other words, workers are confronted with Amazon’s different union-busting tactics as they protest, strike and carry out union drives across its logistics network.
We cannot think of industrial action and organizing in traditional terms when we think of MTurk workers. The design of the interface and MTurk means that you cannot encounter other workers while on the job, and if MTurk workers strike, they risk losing their gig wages altogether. This would also not undermine MTurk given the global supply of labor. MTurk workers push us to think of alternative ways we can form and express our solidarity and collective action. They do so on Chrome extensions like Turkopticon, where they rate requesters to help each other to avoid certain requesters or seek out others. They also use forums like Turker Nation on Reddit where they give tips to one another on how to best navigate the platform. Rather than withholding these tips from one another, they push against MTurk’s alienating conditions and utilize the very infrastructure of the Internet for their own interests.
As platforms have become giants over the course of the last years, accumulating an immense amount of wealth, workers of across platforms in different parts of the world push for a better and fairer working world. They are within their own local and national contexts, but also united by the transnational nature of so many of these platforms and their regimes of surveillance and algorithmic management and wage discrimination. As workers state time and time again that these platforms are nothing without their labor, and as they grow their solidarity and organize traditionally and alternatively, it is important to support them in fighting back their inequalities.
Sarrah Kassem is a Lecturer and Research Associate at the University of Tübingen. Her new book, Work and Alienation in the Platform Economy: Amazon and the Power of Organization, explores the different aspects between being a location- or web-based worker who is paid a traditional or gig wage and what it means for workers’ alienation, but also for how they organize traditionally and alternatively.