#CyberMonday may have passed, but the holiday season is in full force—and with it, the often-invisible impact on workers. Beth Gutelius is a Santa Fe-based senior research specialist at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois. Her academic and consulting career focuses on urban economic development and the changing nature of employment, with a specific focus on warehouses. The following interview has been edited for clarity, concision and style.
You were quoted in a disturbing Business Insider story last September that talked about the horrific conditions for the contracted drivers Amazon uses for one-day delivery.
Amazon isn't just becoming this monopoly behemoth and taking over stores. The biggest work Amazon has done has been cultural. It has raised our expectations as consumers as to when we get stuff. If we're not going to go and get immediate gratification in a store, then we want it quickly and we want it free. And that's actually impossible: You have to pay the workers in the warehouse, you have to pay the people delivering stuff. The shift to e-commerce has made it this hidden process and it's easy to forget that our choices as consumers … impact … lots of different kinds of workers.
You also were recently quoted in a New York Times story about Somali workers at an Amazon warehouse in Minnesota who successfully negotiated with the company because the negotiating group was so dense Amazon would have had trouble replacing them at peak season. Are there lessons to be learned from that particular situation?
For some of the research I do, I talk to employers and people who run warehouses. … Everyone says there is a labor shortage, a labor crisis. No warehouse can find all of the workers it needs right now, … so to replace 60 percent of your workforce or some major part of your workforce would be really difficult. In that case, Amazon's desire to have particular kinds of workers, target particular kinds of workers, is backfiring a little bit. Warehouses in general have tried to tap pools of disenfranchised workers, whether it's the former incarcerated, different immigrant populations in that Amazon case, workers with disabilities who have traditionally been iced out of gainful employment their entire lives. Amazon has this CamperForce program where they're trying to tap into retirees who are going around the country in their RVs … and get them to work in warehouses. They've done a lot of 'innovative' things and, in this case, they maybe misjudged both the potential for organizing there. … In the end, there's no silver bullet: The scales have been tipped against workers for a very long time [and] power has been moving toward the direction of employers and the rich for a very long time.
You wrote a really interesting piece for Medium last summer on the future of work, including the growth of technology. You wrote: 'The future of economic justice is a just transition to what will involve more technologically mediated labor markets and jobs.' Can you expand on what you're saying?
That part of the project [through the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education] is part of a set of industry studies to get a handle on [what technologies] in the next five to 10 years are coming online, who might first adopters be, and then to try to work with big organizing groups on what kind of policies might help shape these technologies. One of the things the Amazon workers in Minnesota were trying to push back against were very high productivity requirements. If you have a computer setting the standards for how fast you should be picking any set of items, that's clearly not going to work for every human body. … Bill Gates has proposed a robot tax for every robot that replaces a human. … That's controversial, but it's an idea. … If you have a workplace where workers structurally have a voice … you could engage the people who know the most about the work that's being done.
There are creative ways we should be thinking about this so that we're not saying, 'Oh my god, the robots are coming, we should get a universal basic income because no one is going to have a job.' I'm not against universal basic income, but there are lots of other ways we could think about trying to make sure that workers, especially low-wage workers, don't totally lose out. Sometimes people will say, 'You're just against technology.' I'm not. A lot of us on the left are not against technology, but we've seen the ways that technology can wreak havoc for those who don't have power and are vulnerable.