May 1 is International Workers Day, a designation dating back to labor movements of the 1880s that endures as a day for workers around the globe to demonstrate and march in solidarity. On May Day 2020, legions of hospital, retail, and grocery store employees, and delivery drivers walked off the job to protest a lack of workplace protections against the COVID-19 virus.
This coming May 1, on the far side of the pandemic, America is at a turning point. More than 22 million jobs were lost last year, and it’s likely that millions of them won’t come back in our drastically altered economy. Which industries will fully rebound? What jobs are gone forever?
One thing’s for sure: Amazon is hiring. The online retail behemoth thrived in 2020, fed by the consumer needs of a population stuck at home. Amazon’s profile became even higher last November, when the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) put on an aggressive campaign to try and unionize a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers voted 2-to-1 against unionization.
The union was proposing dues of nearly $500 a year for full-time employees. That’s a lot of money — equal to a month’s worth of groceries, a mortgage or rent payment, or a medical bill. If I were an employee, I know I’d also just be sick and tired of all the fuss: a barrage of anti-union meetings and text messages from Amazon management, countered by phone calls from RWDSU reps; and national media attention including pro-union endorsements from Senator Bernie Sanders and actor Danny Glover. What a racket. No surprise most ballots were marked “NO.”
I sympathize but was disappointed. I’m a former union member, represented by the Teamsters when I was a flight attendant. In labor organizations vs. big business, I will always side with labor. I hope other warehouses will rally to organize despite the defeat in Bessemer.
In addition to Amazon, on-demand courier services such as Shipt, PostMates, InstaCart, Doordash, GrubHub, Uber Eats and Seamless (just to name a few) will dominate for the foreseeable future. Consumers order meals and goods from the comfort of home while delivery drivers can “be their own boss,” work flexible hours and make money simply by using an app downloaded to their cellphone.
Drivers work as independent contractors and are not paid an hourly wage or offered any benefits or protection by the tech company that manages the app. This model — the so-called “gig economy” — allows the company minimal liability, exponential profit and a workforce unable to take collective action against unfair treatment. Attempts by California state lawmakers to force companies like Uber and Lyft to offer benefits such as a standard minimum wage have — so far — proved unsuccessful.
Will our future be one of pro-worker humanity and solidarity, or a capitalist dystopia ruled by Overlord Bezos? Only time will tell. In the end, we may all be powerless against job-replacing technologies. Things like self-checkout kiosks and warehouse robots are already a reality; driverless freight trucks and city buses are imminent.
I know I’m concerned about being replaced by a robot. I recently consulted the website willrobotstakemyjob.com about my usual lines of work. Hotel front desk? Retail clerk? Barista? My odds of obsoleteness are greater than 90 percent.
I typed in “Flight Attendant,” and the site churned out a predicted 35 percent possibility. Phew! There’s hope. I could fall back on my old airline job. Who knows? SpaceX may soon need staffing for its commercial flights.
Does outer space have a Teamsters local?
Alexandra DeArmon grew up in Frederick. She encourages you to stick it to The Man. Email her at email@example.com.