Amazon workers have had enough

Issue 131

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re staying safe at home and holding up well!

Not as many COVID-19 reads this week; I’ve cut back a bit on news consumption. It got a little overwhelming. But I still have some great reads for you.

First, a great article on how COVID-19 demonstrates the importance of the workers who are devalued because they help “produce” life rather than profit. Then, a lot about how Amazon is being absolutely horrible and workers are pushing back. Plus, how Elon Musk is an idiot, Airbnb is collapsing, SoftBank might be done with WeWork, housing could mess with the financial system again, automakers see SUVs as the future (not EVs), cities closing streets to cars, and why COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to change directions.

Stay safe!


News roundup

✊❤️ The Marxist Feminist Collective argues this crisis demonstrates the necessity of social reproduction, how those workers are undervalued under capitalism, and how the society that emerges from COVID-19 must center them, not profit.

Capitalism’s ability to produce its own life blood—profit—utterly depends upon the daily “production” of workers. That means it depends upon life-making processes that it does not fully and immediately control or dominate. At the same time, the logic of accumulation requires that it keeps as low as possible the wages and taxes that support the production and maintenance of life. This is the major contradiction at the heart of capitalism. It degrades and undervalues precisely those who make real social wealth: nurses and other workers in hospitals and healthcare, agricultural laborers, workers in food factories, supermarket employees and delivery drivers, waste collectors, teachers, child carers, elderly carers. These are the racialized, feminized workers that capitalism humiliates and stigmatizes with low wages and often dangerous working conditions. Yet the current pandemic makes clear that our society simply cannot survive without them. […]

This pandemic can, and should, be a moment when the left puts forward a concrete agenda for how to support life over profit in a way that will help us move beyond capitalism. This pandemic has already shown us how much capitalism needs social reproductive workers—waged and unwaged, in hospitals and infrastructure work, in households, in communities. Let’s keep reminding ourselves of that, and of the social power that such workers hold. This is the moment when we, as social reproduction workers, must develop the consciousness of the social power we hold, in our national contexts, at the borders that divide us, and across the globe.

🦠 Interesting piece by Elizabeth Kolbert on the wider impacts of past pandemics, which have “sparked riots and propelled public-health innovations, prefigured revolutions and redrawn maps.” And don’t forget how they utterly decimated indigenous populations through colonization.

🇨🇦📱 By Paris: Nationalize the Telcos (Passage): “In the months ahead, it’s likely these new patterns will cement themselves into more permanent ways of working, communicating and enjoying entertainment, which means it’s time to finally reckon with the telecom oligopoly that holds us hostage.”

🇨🇦📦 By Paris: Trudeau’s Deal With Amazon Is A Dangerous Mistake (Passage): Justin Trudeau announced Amazon Canada will deliver essential supplies to provinces and territories, instead of giving that responsibility to Canada Post. It seems something similar is happening in the United Kingdom. Relevant: My argument to nationalize Amazon was republished in Jacobin.

Tech dystopia

📦😈 In Amazon news: On Monday, warehouses workers in Staten Island walked out over the company’s COVID-19 response that leaves workers at risk, then Amazon fired the organizer, Chris Smalls. Amazon tried to claim he’d broken company rules, but leaked notes from a leadership meeting attended by Jeff Bezos showed they smeared him as “not smart or articulate” and crafted a PR strategy to fight union organizing. New York City has announced it will investigate the firing. In a letter to Bezos, Smalls set the record straight on how management was trying to hide the news that a worker had tested positive, and he concluded with the following:

I don’t give a damn about your power. You think you’re powerful? We’re the ones that have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do? You’ll have no money. We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that.

On Tuesday, Whole Foods workers staged a nationwide sick-out over the lack of protections offered to workers in response to COVID-19 and Amazon workers in Chicago also walked out. Chicago workers were back out on Saturday demanding the warehouse be closed and cleaned after they were informed a second worker tested positive. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Detroit are also planning a walk out over crowding, lack of cleaning supplies, and management not telling them when their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, Amazon contractors in the Philippines are stuck at their call center and being forced to live in ‘subhuman’ conditions because Amazon’s contract stipulates they cannot work from home.

✊😷 After a wave of worker action this past week, companies will begin providing retail workers with more safety and protective equipment

🤦 Elon Musk imported “over 1,255” “FDA-approved ventilators” from China to help with COVID-19. When he donated them, we found out they were BPAP machines — good for sleep apnoea, useless for COVID-19. Meanwhile, his misleading tweets about COVID-19 haven’t been taken down by Twitter, despite breaking its rules.

💰 “Governments are injecting unprecedented amounts of money into the economy, often for good reason. But unless steps are taken to prevent it, this will simply be hoovered up by the ownership class.” — Laurie Macfarlane

🤖 Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski, authors of “People’s Republic of Walmart,” make the case for economic planning. “[W]e must recognise that economic planning is not only for emergencies, but instead see how the emergency just shows how planning provides superior, more rational allocation to the market in general.”

💰 “These workers have been idled to save lives. If they’re non-essential and unable to work from home, they should be on staycation, not sending out resumes. […] At least for the next few months, the federal government should make staycation payments to people whose last job has vanished due to social distancing restrictions. The payments should not be conditional on looking for work, like traditional unemployment benefits.”

📱🏠 Airbnb bookings in Europe collapsed 80% in the week beginning March 9 and another 10% the following week, while U.S. bookings are seeing similar collapses. Meanwhile, cities are finding many of the apartments previously available for short-term bookings are now being listed for long-term rental.

🚘😠 Lyft’s Express Drive program partners drivers with rental agencies so they can get a car to drive at ~$240-270/week. However, now with COVID-19 there aren’t enough riders for drivers to earn enough money — if they should be on the roads at all. Yet Lyft has done little to help them.

🇺🇸👁 Washington state’s new facial recognition bill was literally written by a Microsoft employee and has major problems

😂 SoftBank may back out of its agreement to purchase $3 billion in shares from WeWork’s former CEO Adam Neumann and other shareholders, including early employees hoping to sell their shares and get out

Critical urbanism

🚌❤️ Five London bus drivers have died of COVID-19, and at least six (by my count) members of the U.S./Canada Amalgamated Transit Union including a driver in Detroit who’d complained about a passenger coughing on the bus on March 21

🏠📉 What’s the potential impact of halting mortgage payments on the financial system?

If mortgage servicers fail, there is no one to collect mortgage payments and disburse the money to investors of mortgage bonds. The entire mortgage infrastructure would collapse and investors would be holding potentially worthless mortgage bonds. Banks servicing loans and/or holding mortgage bonds would be short on the cash that they typically lend to homeowners. 

The contagion that would cause in the financial system is impossible to know—but it could potentially be devastating. Mortgage lending could come to a halt. Pension funds could take yet another hit. It could make the economic recovery after the pandemic take even longer.

🇺🇸🚫💵 “In an intra-city press conference on April 1, officials in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Paul, Minnesota, said that Congress and state governors need to cancel rent payments now, echoing the urgent demands of frustrated tenants and activists in those cities and beyond.”

🌍😷 “Over 2,600 cases of the novel coronavirus have now been confirmed across 39 countries within the World Health Organization’s Africa Region (excluding North Africa) with 49 deaths. There are widespread concerns by public health and development analysts the weak health systems of many countries and the nature of informal work and housing in densely populated cities could cause a spike in infections and many deaths. Nearly every country in the West African sub region has announced some form of restriction to movement including Africa’s most populous city, Lagos, going into lockdown.”

🇬🇧🚄 Taking the trains back under public ownership would “realise the vision of a railway that enables everyone to travel easily and affordably right across Britain, as part of a completely accessible sustainable transport system, fully connected with buses, trams and other public transport.”

🚙🛢 GM and Ford want us to believe their future is electric. Haha, think again: “The two biggest U.S. automakers will make more than 5 million SUVs and pickup trucks in 2026, but only about 320,000 electric vehicles, according to detailed production plans for North America seen by Reuters.”

🏙🚶‍♀️ “To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.”

📚❤️ Libraries are closed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still helping their communities. They’re feeding the hungry, using 3D printers to make face masks for health workers, providing wi-fi access, helping the homeless, and making their resources available online.

🛴📉 Lime is trying to raise money at a $400 million valuation to survive. The last time it raised money it was valued at $2.4 billion.

🇬🇧🚲 London health workers are getting free loans of e-bikes to avoid transit

🚲🛴 New York City legalized e-bikes and e-scooters

Climate crisis

🌱 “In this disaster lies an opportunity to reflect and change direction in the hope that if we do, nature will be far more generous than we deserve.” — David Suzuki

👎 People who argue that “Corona is the cure, humans are the disease” are laundering a “lazy ecofascism” which may not seem racist in the surface, but which repeats the same framing as those who blame environmental destruction and climate change on overpopulation

🇳🇿🛬 Air New Zealand expects revenue decline of around 90%, for COVID-19 to impact air travel for at least the next two years, and that “the Air New Zealand which emerges from Covid-19 will be a much smaller and largely domestic airline”

🇺🇸💺 U.S. airline companies are discussing a plan to consolidate services on their routes, so the companies would continue selling tickets separately, but all the passengers would go on the same plane. I say, at that point why not just nationalize them?

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