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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Vanessa Veselka on Trying to Unionize Amazon

Posted by Alison Hallett on Tue, Dec 13, 2011 at 11:29 AM

Local author Vanessa Veselka (we reviewed her book Zazen here) has an Occupy-inspired piece in the Atlantic about her attempts to unionize Amazon during the early 2000s. It's a good, ranging pieces that touches on the WTO protests, the difficulty of unionizing on an assembly line, and Amazon's transition from selling books to selling everything. ("I don't remember the first wicker dog or communion dress to come into the warehouse. What I do remember is that nobody knew where to put the stuff.")

What I had set out to do at Amazon was something called "salting." A "salt" is an old union term for someone who gets a job somewhere for the purpose of unionizing the other employees. While some see it as a bit devious, I see it more like a literacy campaign. Reading, like the ability to organize, ultimately takes people where they want to go, not where you think they should. And I was okay with that. Furthermore, I wasn't trying to get people to join some particular union. I was trying to pass on what I knew about how to build one.

Unfortunately, the first rule of salting is that you have to try to do your job better than everyone else. I picked books so fast I got nauseated and had around-the-clock headaches. The leads loved me, but I came home unable to do anything but eat pizza and sleep, useless, and with all the handling from the leads on the job, I couldn't talk to anybody. I had no way of finding out if there was any interest in organizing. If I tried to say something in passing to anyone, my numbers slipped and the leads wanted to know what was wrong. Did I need anything? Other pickers couldn't talk to me for the same reason. The persistent whisper of escalating productivity was everywhere.

As that first month dragged on, I tried to tell myself I was organizing, but what I was really doing was driving across town in a beater car working 8-12 hours shifts with no overtime for $8.72 an hour. I was just like the guy hoping to save up someday for a tour van. Or the person theoretically writing a novel. The fact that I, too, was motivated by some grand plan, which in this case was class struggle, was irrelevant.

Read the whole thing here.

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