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.“
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
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.