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What Amazon can learn from a 50-year-old factory strike

Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose
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Flickr / War on Want
Flickr / War on Want
On Friday, workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama voted decisively against forming a union. The Bessemer union drive drew national attention – and kudos from President Biden – and became a rallying cry for supporters of organized labor. But in the end, it wasn’t very close: 1,798 votes against the union, and only 738 votes for it.
I wasn’t shocked by the result – most plugged-in labor folks I follow were skeptical that the vote would go the union’s way, given the overall decline in support for organized labor in America and the particularly aggressive and well-funded counteroffensive Amazon has waged against the union drive for months.
There will be lots of analysis about What Bessemer Means for Amazon. (Brad Stone, at Bloomberg, writes that the union drive shows that “Amazon probably needs to act on a few important lessons to workers,” including listening to worker complaints and restoring trust with Black workers in particular.)
But I was struck, throughout the union drive, by the language the workers in Bessemer used to describe their motives for organizing. I read probably a dozen stories about working conditions at the Bessemer fulfillment center, many of which featured strikingly similar comments from workers:
One Amazon worker told the AP: “They are treating us like robots rather than humans.“
Another told the Senate budget committee that “We are not robots, designed to live to work.”
A third told the Guardian that at Amazon, “You get treated like a number. You don’t get treated like a person. They work you like a robot.”
While the votes were being tallied in Bessemer this week, I thought about another labor dispute I spent a long time researching for Futureproof that also featured lots of unhappy workers complaining about being treated like robots.
It took place in the 1970s, at a newly constructed General Motors factory in Lordstown, Ohio. In 1970, when GM opened the Lordstown plant, it bragged that it would be a dazzling tribute to technology – a "plant of the future” where humans would work alongside state-of-the-art factory robots.
GM’s executives loved the Lordstown plant, which was capable of producing cars at an unprecedented rate. But workers hated it. They were stressed out by their new production quotas, and they felt dehumanized and bored by their jobs, some of which now amounted to babysitting erratic machines. Far from freeing the assembly-line workers up to do more creative and humane tasks, the robots had actually had the opposite effect: They made their jobs more mundane and repetitive, and gave managers new ways to track their productivity and keep them on task.
Here’s how one Lordstown GM worker described his job:
You do it automatically, like a monkey or dog would do something by conditioning. You feel stagnant; everything is over and over and over. It seems like you’re just going to work and your whole purpose in life is to do this operation, and you come home and you’re so tired from working the hours, trying to keep up with the line, you feel you’re not making any advancement whatsoever. This makes the average individual feel sort of like a vegetable.
In many ways, the situation Amazon warehouse workers face is similar to the one GM workers faced in Lordstown 50 years ago. They are relatively well-paid and have good benefits, at least relative to other warehouse jobs. They’re surrounded by the latest technology, which has made their jobs safer and more efficient. But many of them are unhappy with the way Amazon tracks their productivity and “time off task” down to the second, punishing them for dawdling or missing their packing targets.
But that’s where the similarities end. Because unlike in Bessemer in 2021, workers in Lordstown in 1970 had a union, and therefore leverage. And in 1972, after repeated demands for changes to their jobs went ignored by GM corporate, they decided to strike.
via Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University
via Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University
The Lordstown strike became a national sensation. Newsweek called it an “industrial Woodstock,” and in 1972, a New York Times editorial called for GM to “be concerned with keeping alive the individual’s sense of worth in the robot-ruled workplace.” All over the country, people began talking about “Lordstown Syndrome”—a kind of existential malaise blue-collar workers felt about their increasingly robotic jobs, which stripped away their dignity and individuality and made them feel like cogs in a machine.
The Lordstown GM workers eventually prevailed. After a 22-day strike that cost the company millions of dollars, GM’s management caved. The company agreed to scale back production targets, give workers more time off, and form worker-led “humanization teams” that would work with management to make jobs less degrading and repetitive.
I use “Lordstown Syndrome” in my book as a cautionary tale of what happens when companies impose technological change from the top down, using it to exert control over workers rather than helping make their jobs easier and more rewarding.
But it’s also a good illustration of why Amazon may have been so scared of the Bessemer union drive. Unions create leverage – the kind that allows workers to advocate not just for higher pay and better benefits, but also to fight against the standardization and dehumanization of their work through technology. Workers in Bessemer weren’t just fighting for better working conditions or higher wages. They were fighting for an entirely different kind of employer-employee relationship – one that would treat them as human beings who need to go to the bathroom and get some fresh air and occasionally leave early to get to their daughter’s band concert, who can’t just be given a spot to stand in and told to follow an algorithm’s instructions all day.
Amazon, like GM in its heyday, has a lot riding on its ability to control its workers. It is a logistics business that famously obsesses over customer satisfaction, and Jeff Bezos may well consider his warehouse workers’ humanity to be a liability rather than an asset. (Bezos would not be alone in this; I suspect many CEOs sympathize with Henry Ford’s lamentation, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”)
But the lesson of Lordstown is that if you treat workers like machines, they’ll eventually get sick of it, band together, and fight back. That collective action might come in the form of a union, or it might look like something else. (Here is a story, for example, about how DoorDash delivery workers are coordinating to drive up their pay by gaming the app’s algorithm.)
Amazon’s leaders dodged a bullet in Bessemer. But they shouldn’t be breathing too easy. For hundreds of years, workers have chafed at their managers’ attempts to treat them like robots. And until Amazon can replace its warehouse workers with actual robots, it’s a good bet that its workers will find ways to resist their own dehumanization. Eventually, in some form or another, they’ll probably succeed.
Odds and ends
– Speaking of worker dissatisfaction, I really liked this Times op-ed by former Google employee Emi Nietfeld, about how the company’s happy-go-lucky corporate culture gave cover to some horrendous management issues. I think we’ll all look back on the 2010s as the era when tech companies used perks and free food to fool their employees into thinking they were working for summer camps and humanitarian NGOs rather than ruthless multinational behemoths.
– I’m doing a virtual event with the great Ethan Zuckerman at the Brooklyn Public Library on Tuesday night. You can RSVP here; it’s free, and should be a lively chat about the future of AI, technology’s impact on institutions and more.
– My pal and colleague Charlie Warzel is leaving the NYT and joining the Substack brigade. His new newsletter, Galaxy Brain, is self-recommending.
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Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose @kevinroose

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