The headline is supposed to evoke a “what the hell are you talking about?” reaction. Most of us have heard or read about the hellish experience of non-union workers toiling away in Amazon’s warehouse fulfillment centers around the country. The pay sucks, even if marginally better than most retail workers outside Costco, and the work conditions are apparently insane as computers monitor workers movement in an endless speedup.
But Warehouse workers are only part of Amazon’s workforce. In fact, of the roughly $20 billion Amazon spends above and beyond the cost of acquiring the goods it resells to its customers, about a third ($6.6 billion) is spent on shipping costs. (From Amazon’s annual report) And a very large percentage of that shipping is done through unionized delivery companies, particularly UPS and the US Postal Service. In 2013, UPS delivered about 182 million Amazon packages, or 30% of Amazon’s total deliveries particularly among its Prime two-day delivery customers. Up to one third of the truck in a typical residential UPS delivery truck these days is filled with Amazon packages. And Amazon has made the US Postal Service the exclusive carrier for Sunday deliveries by the company, which will boost revenues and employment for unionized postal workers.
Retail overall is an almost completely non-union sector outside the grocery chains, so it is worth considering that e-commerce companies such as Amazon are actually boosting unionized employment by shifting revenue to direct delivery to peoples’ homes– and expanding employment for unionized outfits like UPS and the postal service.
The reason this is important is strategy for supporting union organizing, particularly at Amazon itself. Campaigns to directly organize Amazon’s warehouse workers will continue, but we all know breaking into a completely non-union division of a company is an extreme challenge. (Although a recent deal with the NLRB by Amazon to stop harassing workers talking about work conditions and pay on the job will help).
However, a key focus for organizing and customer support for unionized workers should concentrate on the shipping side of Amazon’s and other e-commerce companies. First and foremost, customers should be demanding continued unionized delivery of packages and support any union actions to pressure Amazon to maintain that largely unionized delivery system. Amazon is already talking about substituting in its own delivery services, so fighting to ensure delivery remains union, such as customers refusing delivery from non-union Amazon fleet drivers should be an important strategy.
A conscious pro-union campaign in support of union delivery at Amazon would ideally encourage non-union warehouse workers to recognize that Amazon already indirectly hires union workers for a large part of their operations, so there is no reason they shouldn’t recognize unions in their fulfillment centers as well.