Tim Bray, a respected engineer and vice president at Amazon, has quit. Yesterday he announced that he was resigning “in dismay” at the company’s firing — or in Amazon’s own jargon, releasing — of workers who had dared to question it over workplace safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Moreover, the company had also recently attempted to smear workplace organisers as ‘inarticulate’ in the media. Bray claimed in a blogpost that this was “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture”.
Amazon has been treating some of its ‘associates’ poorly for years. When I went undercover at the company in 2016, it was a disciplinary offence to take a sick day — even with a note from the doctors. The most striking incident occurred when I found a Coca-Cola bottle half-filled with urine sitting incongruently on a shelf full of miscellanea from Amazon’s website. So afraid were certain workers of taking a bathroom break that some poor drudge had decided, on balance, that pissing into a coke bottle was the safest option.
“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first” — so wrote Frederick Taylor in his influential book The Principles of Scientific Management more than 100 years ago. Taylor popularised a sort of managerial Leninism in which productivity was elevated far beyond any concern for the wellbeing of the “mentally sluggish” worker who was to be subjected to its diktats.
Amazon is the closest thing we have to a Taylorist behemoth today. As Bray writes in his blogpost:
The Romanian migrant workers I interviewed at Rugeley in 2016 compared their jobs to ‘modern slavery’ due to stringent productivity targets. Workers were mere units of production; their physical and emotional wellbeing was secondary.
When an Amazonian executive breaks free and speaks out, it’s tempting (for me at any rate) to say “I told you so, you fucking fools” (as Robert Conquest once said about the Soviet Union). Yet now is not the time for schadenfreude. Amazon is accruing immense power during the Covid pandemic as consumers rely on remote delivery to satisfy their basic needs.
It is unfortunate that previous worker testimonies were not treated with the same seriousness as Mr Bray’s resignation probably will be. But if we ever hope to tackle the overweening power of Amazon and its founder — who is now the richest man in the world — we need every ally we can get.
Welcome to the struggle, Comrade Bray.