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Around the world in a basket

Christopher Mims had just embarked on his study of the global retail supply chain when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Quickly, he found, affluent consumers redoubled their efforts in the very business Mims was investigating:

“Confronted with the harsh reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a life of consumerism to think that the answer to the existential fear at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping. (page 6-7; all quotes here come from arrives today)

Arriving Today is published by Harper Collins, September 2021.

More than ever, shopping during the pandemic meant shopping online. This added complications to the global logistics systems Mims was studying and added another strand to the story he weaves into Coming Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How We Buy and What We Buy. (Harper Collins, 2021)

The book traces the movements of a single typical online purchase – a USB charger – from the time it leaves a factory in Vietnam until it is delivered to a buyer in the United States. It sounds simple enough, but it’s an extremely complicated story, which Sims tells very well.

In doing so, he delves into the history and present of container shipping; the working conditions of seafarers, stevedores, truckers and warehouse workers; why items are scattered in a “distribution center” the same way data files are scattered on a computer drive; the great difficulty of teaching a robot to grasp flexible packaging wrapped in plastic film; and why no supercomputer can calculate the best route a UPS driver can take to complete a hundred or more deliveries in an average day.

How long can this system continue to swallow more resources, more small businesses, more lives? If there’s one major weakness in The Sims’ treatment, it’s that it suggests the online retail juggernaut must, inevitably, continue to grow indefinitely.

A key issue that is missing from the book is the energy cost of the global supply chain. However, Sims pays great attention to the brutal working conditions and relentless exploitation of workers in many segments of the distribution system. At the very least, this evidence should raise questions about when a tipping point will be reached. When, for example, might workers or voters be called upon to organize an effective counterforce against insatiably greedy billionaires like Jeff Bezos? When, darker, might the portion of the population with discretionary income become so small that it could no longer sustain the consumer economy?

“Taylorism – the dominant ideology of the modern world”

The common thread running through Sims’ presentation is: ‘Taylorism’ – the early 20th century management practice of breaking down factory work into discrete moves that can be ‘streamlined’ to increase corporate profits. business – has now turned many other industries into assembly lines. Today, writes Sims, “the factory walls have dissolved. Every day more and more of what we do, how we consume, even how we think, becomes part of the factory system.

The factory system, in Sims’ narrative, now stretches across oceans and across continents. It finds clear expression in facilities owned or controlled by Amazon’s management practices. In Amazon’s sorting, packing, and shipping facilities, what makes the company “particularly Darwinian” is the floating rate that constantly and coldly passes judgment on employees.

Since warehouse work is divided into discrete, measurable and countable tasks, management algorithms constantly track the number of operations performed by each worker. Those in the bottom 25% are systematically fired and replaced. As a result, Sims writes, “most Amazon warehouse workers are constantly at risk of losing their jobs, and they know it.”

There is no paid sick leave, so cash-strapped employees often have no choice but to work even when injured or ill. (Free coffee and free ibuprofen are made available to help them overcome fatigue or pain.) But if poor health leads to a drop in performance, they won’t “make the rate” and they’ll be fired. . Those who are exceptionally physically fit and rarely get sick are likely to be exhausted by the relentless pace eventually.

To replace workers, says Sims, “the company has pretty much given up on interviewing new hires.” Screening and training new employees can be expensive processes, but they are processes in which Amazon invests little. A constant cohort of new hires are dropped into the current and they just sink or swim:

“Everyone I spoke to about their first few months at Amazon said the attrition rate they witnessed was over 50% in the first two months.” (page 209)

Some companies might see high employee turnover as a huge handicap. For Amazon, says Sims, high revenue isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Turnover allows the company “to retain only the most able-bodied members of the American workforce” (page 235) and constantly replace them with new employees who have not yet fallen ill or wounded.

If that weren’t enough, the high turnover rate benefits Amazon in another important way: “It’s almost impossible for workers to unionize.” (page 210)

UPS trucks in Manhattan, 2010. Photo by Jeremy Vandel, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.

The last mile

“[Amazon’s] relentless measurement, a quest for efficiency, soft hiring standards, and rolling targets for hourly rates are the perfect system for ingesting as many people as possible and weeding out all but the most physically fit. (pages 235-236)

As Amazon’s share of retail purchases grows and it Taylorizes its warehousing, there is another important link in the supply chain where the company sees an opportunity to cut worker compensation and reduce increase business profits.

Until recently, the movement of packages between sorting centers and along the “last mile” to customer doors was controlled by a wide range of trucking companies. One of the largest of these companies, UPS, is a throwback to a time when most truckers were unionized, well paid, and received benefits such as paid sick leave, company health insurance, and pensions.

A UPS driver is well trained, often very experienced, and learns to “go from stopping their truck to pulling a package in nine seconds.” (page 271) But a full-time UPS driver also earns over $30/hour plus benefits. Jeff Bezos, who grew his wealth by $65 billion in the first year of the pandemic, covets this UPS driver’s paycheck, as well as the paycheck of anyone else in the supply chain whose the work, if it cannot be robotized, could be handed over to a minimum wage worker, aka “independent contractor”.

UPS and FedEx, Sims writes, together own 80% of the U.S. package delivery business. FedEx, along with almost every other package delivery company, pays roughly minimum wage, with minimal benefits. Do you want to guess which company Amazon would like to emulate?

Indeed, since 2018, Amazon itself has entered the delivery business. “By the mid-2020s,” Sims writes, “Amazon Logistics…should overtake UPS.” (page 252)

Citing the research of Brandeis University professor David Weil, Sims concludes:

“Everything about Amazon’s decision to hire delivery companies that hire drivers, rather than hire those drivers directly, is to drive down wages, eliminate workplace protections, evade any liability in the event of an accident, to avoid litigation in the workplace, to eliminate the expenditure on social benefits and to eliminate the possibility for drivers to one day unionize….(page 278)

In the last sentence of his book, Sims cites the 100 billion packages a year currently shipped through the online retail supply chain, and he urges us to “imagine a future in which that number doubles or triples; imagine a future in which this is how virtually every finished object arrives anywhere. (page 288)

Imagine: factory jobs in all sectors will have moved to the lowest-wage countries with adequate industrial capabilities. Once-well-paid factory workers in Rust Belt towns will compete for Amazon warehouse jobs that offer them minimum wage, for as many months as their bodies can handle the ever-accelerating pace of simple repetitive tasks. Robots will have replaced human employees wherever possible. And last-mile delivery drivers will take orders from Amazon but receive their meager paychecks from other companies whose names most of us will never see.

In this paradise of capitalist productivity, who but Jeff Bezos will still have enough income to fill his shopping carts?


Top picture: Your basket is fullcomposed by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain graphics.