Money Vs. Respect

By Lloyd Graff

If you’re looking for poverty and violent crime, Bessemer, in the great state of Alabama, is your town. It was also Amazon’s pick for a huge distribution facility with 6,000 workers, which opened exactly one year ago. Today the results might be in for a landmark union organizing effort and vote at the spanking new facility, built in the former coal mining, limestone, and steel-making town of 27,000, just outside of Birmingham. 

Is the Tide coming back for unionism in America, with President Biden rooting for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union and Bernie Sanders making an appearance?

Or, is the second biggest US employer behind Walmart going to use its $15 per hour wages plus hiring bonus and health insurance to carry the day? It’s a fascinating contest because Amazon pays so well in a starving community, yet the union feels it has a good chance to organize the facility. 

Both sides have a lot invested and think the election will be tight. Why? What does it mean for the machining world?

Jeff Bezos hates unions when they threaten his company, though his newspaper, The Washington Post, has been friendly to organized labor, unless it pertains to Amazon. 

You don’t go to work at an Amazon distribution facility if you are looking for a picnic. The work is physically demanding, repetitive, and very tough on the hands and wrists. If you work on the line, you are likely to be exhausted after a 10-hour day. Many of the workers are not young and have never done hours and hours of handling boxes, day after day. It isn’t coal mining or steel making. The facility is air conditioned and well lit, but make no mistake, Amazon pushes its people very hard, hand and forearm injuries are common, and many people do not last.

A woman who did domestic work once a week in our home eagerly took a sorting job when Amazon opened one of several facilities in the south suburbs of Chicago. She hoped the hourly wage, health insurance, and opportunity to use one of its perks, paying for a community college course in surgical instrument sterilization, would raise her up in the world. She ended up with severe hand and wrist disabilities from continually handling boxes, a common malady.

It is hardly a secret that Amazon is hoping and planning for robots to do more and more of the demanding and difficult work in its spectacular facilities, but we’re not there yet, and Amazon needs a million humans to pack and drive everyday.

These days, unions are seldom interested in attempting to organize smaller machining companies. My observation is that workers in such firms are generally heartily anti-union. In the machining world today, there is a shortage of skilled people. Workers who show initiative have ample room for advancement in a highly competitive milieu for talent.

If Amazon loses the election today, it will be more about working conditions than money. One of the biggest gripes about working for Amazon is that employees don’t even have time to use the bathroom in private. Drivers routinely take plastic bags with them to relieve themselves. 

Amazon always wins these elections because money talks. Amazon has argued that the cash and perks are worth the sore wrists and urinating in plastic bags. It builds facilities where Google doesn’t recruit. If it loses in Bessemer, that does not necessarily mean the Tide has turned, even if Joe and Bernie will cheer the results.

It will just mean we will get robots and driverless vans a year or two earlier.

Question: Have you ever been in a union? What was it like?

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7 thoughts on “Money Vs. Respect

  1. gordon erickson

    United Garment Workers, Ohskosh B’Gosh, 1981.
    For a sewing machine mechanic they negotiated fixed wages starting at 3.80/hr with 30 cent raises annually. I was knocking down about 105 after taxes until until my 90th day, when the union started taking the mandatory 25 a week dues. 80 a week couldn’t pay rent, so I had to roll. My boss was a bartender and my co-workers had 2nd jobs. You’d think a guy responsible for keeping 150 single needle and 50 double needle machines would be worth more than 80 a week, but the union wage is the union wage. After I left, UGW started billing me for dues until I moved enough times that they lost track of me.
    Naw, I wouldn’t want to be involved with a union again.
    I cant even imagine what it was like on the management side, having to watch people like myself who could learn the machine and perform repairs on such a large number of just slightly different machines each with an operator with a different personality move on over a couple dollars an hour. I understand their hands were tied though, and there was no option. If it happens in my shop, retirement will be immediate.

  2. Mark Jones

    Lloyd, good write-up. I’m an engineer, shop owner, and anti-union. My best friend is in a useful and needed union in the film industry in LA, so I do tend to see both sides of the argument.

    Amazon is the biggest user of robotics in the world, it’s just that they employee human robots. The automation will come so whether it goes union or not is probably a moot point.

    The nature of work, particularly low wage manual labor, is changing rapidly. Very soon we will have too many people for low wage jobs. I don’t know what the answer is but I worry for those who are older and/or not well educated.

  3. Russ Ethridge

    In the 70s, I was an “89 day wonder” summer fill in at a Big Three body panel stamping plant. You paid dues but were not a UAW member until 90 days which was fine for a kid looking for a summer job. When the stamping line went down one day, all the workers took smoke breaks or hung out except me. I started helping management and the engineers get the line re-started. I figured that we were all in the business of making cars, and we would all be out of work if we had no cars to sell. I was an oblivious idiot. The other workers were incensed that I helped management and did a job that I was not required to do. The dirty looks were intimidating, and I was dumbfounded by their anger. The assistant plant manager, however, gave me the rest of the day off with pay, undoubtedly using me to stick it to the rest of the line. Like I said, I was oblivious. To the rest of the line, I was some spoiled college kid, an “89 day wonder” at that, with no long term investment. They were there for “30 years and out”, and maybe they knew that giving more than required would only erode their bargaining position. Decades removed from those events, I’m still uncertain how I feel about unions. At the time, I felt my initiative and independence would be smothered by a union. But now, at a time when some Walmart employees have to reply on food stamps, I can see how a union might give workers, many with fewer choices than a college kid who was a short timer, SOME leverage with their employer. My personal jury is still out.

  4. lance Maynyan

    Union took our thriving family business that was employee-centric and literally burned it down in the mid-70’s. Organized by the least-productive workers who could never compete with the skilled tradesmen who didn’t need the union to prop them up. It so effected my father that the business never grew back to more than a couple dozen people and he went to his grave never really trusting anyone again. The good workers left not wanting to work under the stupid union rules and after the vote, only the dregs remained.
    After about 10 years they voted the union back out , were called scabs and not worthy of the union’s time. Th only people who benefited in any of it were the professional union organizers who are only leaches on our economy.

  5. Jim Zelek

    In Illinois the public employees have gone too far, 100k pensions, etc, our taxation reflects this, union dues to fund more corrupt politicians campaigns, I think this is nationwide, everybody loses with more taxation, how do you get state employees to realize this ?

  6. Mr H

    I worked right out of high school in a big shop for my tool & die apprentice program. It was union and as a 3rd year apprentice working at night shift I was told to slow down as I was making the day shift guy who had 20+ years in the trade look bad. I told the union steward who told me to slow down that day guy should be showing me up and I was only here to learn the trade, make the company money and get my raises. he wasn’t happy. In my experience in the 4 years I was there it seemed that the union protected the lazy and unwilling workers. I did learn a lot because I did apply myself and excelled. Got laid off after 3 1/2 years due to economy slump. When things picked up they wanted me back and I told them no as I found a better job machining and making more money than the top guy there in the shop. A lot of them I worked with would not have been able to work in a shop where you have to pull your own weight. I know have a business in machining and so glad I never stayed there. Anyway the shop is no longer, as the parent company closed the shop as they got tired of dealing with the union.

  7. Jeff

    I believe it depends on the Union you’re dealing with. We’re a Chicagoland manufacturer and our Union provides our employees with a much more reasonable health insurance option, pension and a negotiated 2% annual pay increase. Workers can still see greater pay increases beyond the annual increase when deserved and the bad apples can still be written up and terminated.


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