Sometimes a raise is more than just a raise.
For the Amazon workers who will see their hourly pay move to $15 this November, it can mean an entirely different life. Amazon’s company filings indicate that its median hourly wage last year was $13.68, which in itself is misleadingly high given that it includes all workers, not just those on the lowest rung. In any case, the wage increase will likely mean an addition of around $3,000 to workers annual incomes. For a workforce which has been notorious mainly for its financial precarity, that can make a world of difference.
What lessons can be taken from this astonishing gain? What can Wisconsin workers — particularly those who are or will be employed by huge multinational corporations — take from this news? The answer comes in two parts.
First, it should be understood the wage increase was and is part of a larger struggle. Most of the talk around the announcement has centered around Bernie Sanders and Jeff Bezos after Sanders lambasted Bezos for his workers’ poor living conditions and consistent use of government aid to make ends meet. While Sanders certainly drew national media attention to the issue, he was in some sense late to the party. Well before the Bezos-Bernie feud began, workers in Germany and Spain successfully coordinated a strike action which dented sales on Prime Day, traditionally an extremely profitable day for Amazon. In the U.S., workers have been trying to unionize for years — and almost always have been thwarted by Amazon.
Amazon executives don’t seem to detect any irony in their shift from warning employees about scary union words like “living wage” to lobbying Congress for fair labor conditions. But it should be obvious to anyone who doesn’t work in Amazon’s Death Star-esque Seattle headquarters that the move is a cynical political ploy. Executives are terrified of unionization, which would likely mean both improvements in working conditions and an organized, politically muscular workforce capable of pursuing its own interests. Amazon is willing to sacrifice the former to avoid the latter.
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Bezo’s actions suggest Amazon workers don’t need an organization — in fact, he’ll give in to worker demands to make sure an organization never forms. It’s a classic anti-worker move, and it should be recognized as such. Work improvements given freely by the boss are false idols — they come with strings attached and can be taken away as quickly as they are offered.
The Amazon wage increase should also teach Wisconsin workers something fundamental about the way labor relates to employers. It’s an old truth that many may know already, but it goes against some deeply-held articles of faith, so it is worth repeating. Amazon was able to raise wages of 350,000 employees without, apparently, restructuring itself in any meaningful way. That should be conclusive proof that the compensation for low-wage workers is not in any way linked to their productivity, or how hard they work — it is a function only of how much the boss is willing to pay them. In a vacuum, if no paper ever printed anything about Amazon’s working conditions or more importantly, if workers never organized themselves, Amazon would likely have been perfectly happy to keep paying its workers poverty-level wages.
Workers could work harder, for longer hours, sacrifice their time and degrade their lives, and it wouldn’t make a difference in their pay. So when the time comes for Wisconsin workers to demand fair treatment for their work and corporate cries poverty, they should remember Amazon. They should remember that they are subsidizing the company’s profits with their quality of life and their inadequately compensated hard work. And they should demand to be paid what they are worth.
Sam Palmer ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in biology.