Deep thoughts from NBC Opinion: Warehouse workers of the world, don't let the COVID-19 crisis go to waste

I’m tempted to call this a palate-cleanser, mainly for the campy treatment NBC News seems to be giving it. It’s filed under their “Hot Take” category, and the headline on the guest opinion declares Amazon and Instacart delivery to be “a coronavirus goldmine” for workers seeking leverage in negotiations. Plus, the argument comes from someone named Paris Marx, whose name is a little too on-the-nose when it comes to the author bio:

Paris Marx is a socialist writer and graduate student at McGill University in Montreal. They are the editor of Radical Urbanist.

Basically, Marx urges the workers at online marketplace warehouses to follow Rahm Emanuel’s (in)famous advice to never let a crisis go to waste. Marx follows up on Chris Smalls’ significantly unsuccessful attempts over the past week to provoke a workers’ uprising in Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, which Marx hails as the beginning of a new chapter in American labor. YMMV on what Smalls’ protests accomplished other than potentially spreading the coronavirus further, but that and other protests in the order-delivery industry demonstrates the power of workers at this unique time, Marx argues:

Over the past decade, tech companies have become a driving force of U.S. economic power. And the COVID-19 shutdown has provided many of them with an opportunity to increase their share of consumer spending as many brick-and-mortar businesses are closed. Brian Merchant, author of “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone,” has gone so far as to call this moment the “Amazonification” of the economy. But it’s not just the companies that see an opportunity; their front-line workers have unprecedented leverage, and in the face of inadequate coronavirus protections, they need to use it.

With millions of people now staying home to slow the spread of the virus, delivery services like Amazon and Instacart are seeing significant increases in orders. Amazon says it’s hiring 100,000 additional workers to staff its warehouses, while Instacart, which uses contractors to pick up and deliver groceries, announced in March that it plans to hire 300,000 new workers to meet demand. But these low-paid workers are also putting themselves at risk as their customers stay safely home. And it doesn’t yet seem like either company is doing enough to support them. …

Clearly, the pandemic has shown how many thousands of American workers live every day. Despite filling roles that are essential to modern life, they remain in a separate, lesser class of employee even as their executives make millions. On the other hand, this reality has also reinvigorated labor organizers. As Chris Smalls, the fired Amazon organizer, put it in a letter to Bezos: “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.” It seems more workers may be waking up to that realization, and it can’t come soon enough.

Ahem. This might have been true under normal circumstances, and likely was true several weeks ago. Amazon had actually been having trouble staffing its facilities and had to raise wages in order to compete in the labor marketplace. They were also among the companies that pledged to raise entry pay to at least $15 per hour for all new and existing employees after the 2017 tax-cut package passed (although they compensated for the cost by reducing some bonus programs), and committed to a $19/hour floor for Whole Foods employees after that acquisition.

Now, however, the labor market looks very, very different. Marx somehow fails to mention that almost ten million American workers filed for unemployment benefits the last two weeks, and tomorrow’s jobless claims number is likely to be yuuuuuge as well. That changes the leverage calculus completely for everyone who’s not a grad student in Academia but someone who has to put food on the table. A $15 per hour warehouse job will look mighty mighty good to thousands of suddenly unemployed workers, especially those who have just lost service-industry jobs. As Smalls himself just discovered, it no longer pays to bitch about being sent home with pay to self-quarantine after exposure while potentially spreading the virus around the workplace and to bystanders.

Anyone who takes Marx’ advice will find this out the hard way. Amazon wants to add 100,000 more jobs, and they’ll probably draw 10 applicants or more for each one of them, although perhaps only after the unemployment benefits in the CARES Act run out. If they need to fill 100,001 or 100,002, don’t expect Amazon to worry too much about those prospects. Those who try to tell Bezos that he can’t live without them will find their prospects … not so good.

That makes Marx’ claim about the coronavirus being a “goldmine” for workers not just ridiculous but absurd. The pandemic and the necessity of shutting down large swaths of the economy because of it are the worst developments for workers since the financial-sector meltdown of 2008, or perhaps even the Great Depression — hopefully only temporarily, of course. Booming economies and tight job markets are the best possible conditions for workers. Maybe not for socialist activists, however, who usually see disasters as “goldmines” in the same way Rahm Emanuel and James Clyburn viewed crises.