Often despite dedicated efforts to the contrary, our nation collapses under its own dynamics, forgetting the lessons of history and the laws and policies that previous events have taught us. In A History of American Law (by Lawrence M. Friedman), the author succinctly characterizes the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon the workers who powered the economic explosion resulting from rapid industrial expansion:
Every legal system tries to redress harm done by one person to another. The industrial revolution added an appalling increase in dimension. It manufactured injury and sudden death, along with profits and the products of machines.
The men and women who labor to deliver the products and services that power the leading national global economy are, at the same time, consumers of that output. Although organized labor in the US has experienced membership decline over a number of decades, state and national laws exist in volumes requiring protection of workers, their safety, and that of workplaces, pension protections, and wage guarantees, among others. Other statutes, e.g. right to work, mitigate against organized labor and collective bargaining.
This nation’s westward expansion, sometimes characterized as manifest destiny, along with the opportunity to acquire vast profits, fortunes, and influence drove the nation to ignore its workers and the dignity of labor in pursuit of a prevailing intellectualized notion characterized as the free market. The human costs of the free market were and have been deemed a mere component of progress.
Friedman captured the results of that process in brief as well:
At the turn of the year , industrial accidents were claiming about 35,000 lives a year, and inflicting close to 2,000,000 injuries.
The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined millions with disability and shuttered an even greater number into their homes. Not to be denied sustenance, entertainment, clothing and accessories, or other household products, Americans plied their computer and tablet keyboards to make online purchases. This phenomenon led visionary entrepreneurs at Amazon, Walmart, Target, even local restaurants, to adopt strategies to meet the needs of a quickly demanding and expanding consumer appetite and commercial opportunity.
In this rush and crush of a new industrial revolution, workers once again were forced to engage in economic survival to the detriment of their own welfare. In a harrowingly detailed news report, The New York Times chronicled (June 15, 2021) in fine grit the stories of a number of Amazon employees as the megalith corporation met the pandemic challenges to succeed (The Amazon That Customers Don’t See, by Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford; https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/06/15/us/amazon-workers.html.)
While the “company [Amazon] touted breathtaking job-creation numbers, from July to October 2020 alone, it scooped up 350,000 new workers, more than the population of St. Louis; the turnover among its workforce was roughly 150 percent a year.” In more ordinary times, such labor dynamics would destroy or disable a company.
In recent years, Amazon was reported to have just under 800,000 full- and part-time employees, making it competitive in size to five US states. Gross income has been clocked at $280 billion. In 2019, Amazon hired more than 770,000 hourly workers, even though the company, including corporate staff, grew by just 150,000 that year, indicating that turnover was a major concern. At the same time, the pandemic was causing as many as 500,000 workers to stay at home, the Times reported, while the “company touted breathtaking job-creation numbers. From July to October 2020 alone, it scooped up 350,000 new workers, more than the population of St. Louis; the turnover among its workforce was roughly 150 percent a year.” In more ordinary times, such labor dynamics would destroy or disable a company.
According to the report, the success, speed, and agility of Amazon were possible because its founder, Jeff Bezos, had pioneered new ways of mass-managing people through technology, relying upon a maze of “systems that minimized human contact to grow unconstrained.” Amazon’s management approach to its human capital mimicked its application of technology to sorting and delivering packages, relying heavily on “metrics, bots, and chatbots.… Amazon’s system burned through workers…, casting a shadow over a business success story for the ages.”
Bezos was opposed to creating an entrenched workforce, describing that eventuality as a “march to mediocrity.”
As the pandemic spread, Amazon’s mighty system was lurching. Semi trucks sat at warehouses around the country, without enough workers to unload them. Customers discovered that items the company had deemed nonessential might take a month to arrive — an eternity for a business that had routinely delivered within two days. One critical reason: Warehouse laborers were not showing up.
Former executives from Amazon related that Bezos was opposed to creating an entrenched workforce, describing that eventuality as a “march to mediocrity.” Moreover, Bezos designed and developed a mechanistic hiring process on the theory that the company’s need for workers was so great all that was required was a “check box screen.” Worker productivity could also be assessed in a technological assembly-line manner.
Multiple attempts to unionize Amazon workers in various locations – New York City, Alabama – have failed decisively. The response to the worker wreckage caused by the previous Industrial Revolution was reflected in the adoption of workers’ compensation, workplace safety regulations, and wage and benefit protections to counter the costs to citizen employees.
The Amazon experience and that of the other mega corporations has yet to be accorded a thorough evaluation of its impact upon the nation’s existing proscriptions for workers and assessment of changes to address that impact. Their success, however, may spoil any appetite for reform.
According to another Times report (July 2), antipathy to unionization in the US does not go unnoticed outside our borders. When Bain Capital (Mitt Romney’s former gig) in 2013 purchased a controlling interest in a successful Canadian apparel manufacturer, relations with the company’s union deteriorated. Union officials voiced concern that the Canadian company was “importing an American model of fighting unions.”
About 30 percent of Canadian workers ae unionized versus 11 percent in the US, noted the news report, prompting one Canadian union official to comment:
The way they treat us is not how Canadians treat each other. Management doesn’t really understand what Canada is about.”
So it may be said about the dignity of labor and regard for workers in the United States.