Amazon’s Greatest Weapon Against Unions: Worker Turnover

Historians in the News
tags: unions, labor history, Amazon

Chris Smalls made a lot of friends in his first year working at an Amazon warehouse in 2015. But within a matter of months, most of them were gone.

“That’s the name of Amazon’s game: Hire and fire,” said Smalls, 32. “They know that people don’t want to be here long, that these jobs break you down physically and mentally.”

Smalls would know better than most. Amazon terminated him last March after he led a walkout at his Staten Island, New York, warehouse over safety concerns. Now Smalls has started an independent effort to organize a union at that facility, battling the same force he saw from the inside: Amazon’s high turnover rate.

“It’s definitely one way to avoid a union,” he said.

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Turnover can be expensive for employers, since they have to constantly hire and train new workers who, for at least a period, will be less productive than the ones leaving. But labor experts say a company of Amazon’s size and sophistication would not have high churn if it didn’t prefer it that way.  

Joseph McCartin, a historian and director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, said industrial titans a century ago were concerned about the toll turnover was taking on their operations. He said it was a prime motivator behind Henry Ford’s famous $5-a-day compact with workers, which increased wages significantly in 1914. According to McCartin, lower turnover eventually helped foment the pre-World War II union organizing boom, since it helped stabilize workers within their industries.

But in recent years, McCartin said management philosophy at many companies has moved in the other direction, as employers wield turnover to better control the workforce. Amazon, he said, may exemplify that calculation.

“For the past 20 years or so we’ve had more and more employers who’ve gone full circle to the model that used to exist at the turn of the last century ― the model that people like Henry Ford started to break from, [the idea] that turnover actually works for us,” McCartin said.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said modern employers like Amazon can mitigate the traditional expenses of turnover thanks to technology that cuts down on the costs of training. Amazon workers, after all, are largely managed by algorithms.

“It is by design,” Lichtenstein said. “They do want turnover. They don’t talk about it, but they want it.”

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