Fox guest Rebecca Walser suggested that the only reason some Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama wanted to unionize was to get more bathroom breaks.
Walser told host Neil Cavuto that yesterday’s defeat for a union at Amazon's Bessemer warehouse was “a win for the worker, Neil, because the workers in Alabama said, ‘Listen, we’re making over $15 an hour, $15 an hour when the federal minimum wage is $7.25 and so we’re making more than that, we’re getting health care.’ And, you know - unions of course there’s a place for them, but we have so many federal protections for the employee now as far as health and safety that what were they unionizing for?”
She also said, “unions have become a business that Amazon workers rejected in Alabama.”
Cavuto warned that while “it’s a little harder there to get that union push in Alabama,” unions may try again at other Amazon warehouses in other states. “Is Amazon over this or does it put pressure on them to be extra generous with those workers?” Cavuto asked. As if $15 an hour and health insurance puts workers in the lap of luxury. (The Economic Policy Institute says $15/hour provides merely a “a modest but adequate standard of living.”)
Walser thought there will be further pressure on Amazon to do more for its workforce. But, she added, “Unionization would be really a loss for the end consumer.” She said it would bring “higher prices for you and I and every American that buys on Amazon, pretty much almost every day.”
She also seemed totally ignorant of the working conditions at the Amazon warehouse.
“Now, if you have legitimate grievances, that aren’t worked out between federal law and actually going to management, then maybe unionization makes sense,” Walser said. “But I don’t see it in Amazon, Neil. I mean, the worst thing I saw in the complaint of the workers was that they weren’t getting enough bathroom breaks.”
Apparently, Walser never looked at the March 17 U.S. Senate testimony of Jennifer Bates, an employee at that Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The conditions are a lot worse than too few bathroom breaks:
BATES: At Amazon, you are on your feet walking all the time and climbing stairs to get to your station and move products. We have two 30-minute breaks during a 10-hour shift which is not long enough to give you time to rest. The place is huge – the size of sixteen football fields. Just walking the long way to the bathroom and back eats up precious break time.
My co-workers and I—older, younger, middle-aged people— limp from climbing up and down the stairs in the four-floor building. When I first came in to work, I noticed there was one elevator for human use. When I tried to use it, a co-worker stopped me, and told me were weren’t allowed to use it. Then I noticed that around the facility there were plenty of elevators, but the signs say, “material only, no riders.” I couldn’t believe that they built a facility with so many elevators for materials and make the employees take the stairs on a huge four-flight facility.
The work itself is also grueling. We have to keep up with the pace. My workday feels like a 9-hour intense workout every day. And they track our every move – if your computer isn’t scanning, you get charged with being time-off-task. From the onset, I learned that if I worked too slow or had too much time off task I could be disciplined or even fired. Like a lot of workers, it was too much for my sister and she ended up quitting.
You can watch Fox “cover” the Amazon union vote by deceptively presenting the working conditions below, from the April 9, 2021 Your World.
“I thought there was a lot about the film that was very beautiful but it left more than a bitter taste in my mouth,” says Tim Shadix, legal director of the California-based nonprofit advocacy organization Warehouse Worker Resource Center, who points to a 2019 study that found that the injury rate at Amazon warehouses was more than twice as high as in the general warehousing industry. “I felt like the portrayal of all of the work in the film, but particularly the Amazon work, paints a very misleading picture of what our economy is like. It shows Amazon as a place to make money and enable someone’s personal journey, not really dealing with how dark it is that you have companies that are taking advantage of often senior people who should be retired but, because of economic circumstances, are working in horrifically dangerous jobs.”
Bob Wells, an advocate for the nomadic community and co-founder of Home on Wheels Alliance, argues that the criticism of the depiction of Amazon in “Nomadland,” while understandable, is ultimately misplaced. Though Wells, who plays himself in the film, has personally never worked at Amazon, over the years he has spoken to many nomads who have. While he has heard first-hand accounts of how physically difficult the work can be, particularly for older workers, he says the CamperForce program — which launched in 2008 and operates at more than 25 Amazon facilities across North America — is in high demand as a way to make good money relatively quickly.
“I think people are conflating the regular Amazon employees that are there year-round, year after year, with the CamperForce, and I’m not sure that is a fair comparison,” Wells says. “The truth is that I think the CamperForce is treated reasonably well. I think people are taking their massive hatred for the corporate world, which is in my mind 100% valid, and they’re trying to shoehorn the CamperForce in there as evidence to back up their argument. Corporations do need to be controlled. But the CamperForce isn’t a prime example of the fault. I think if you’re basically healthy, the CamperForce is a very good thing.”
That is very disappointing to hear the director distorted the situation. As I recall Charlene Swankie went to live with some of her family or was offered a place to live with some of her family and she may have even said she preferred van life. But I think the clear implication in the book was not that she had chosen to be nomadic so much as she had no other good options and she was trying to make the best of it.
I think another point of the book is that today’s nomads are yesterday’s everyday people – your neighbor, your coworker, etc. – and that almost any one of us are one layoff, one major illness, etc. away from being in their predicament. If the director missed that or overlooked it, that’s a big deal.
I do need to point out that the movie by Chloe Zhao is not a romantic one, and it does not present this life as anything but bleak and depressing. And it presents many of the real nomads interviewed by Jessica Bruder in the film and allows them to tell their own stories. And all of that is a good thing. The problem is that the central narrative of the film is about the depressing life led by Frances McDormand’s character (and it’s bleak beyond bleak) – but that life is shown to be her choice and not a situation she cannot escape. She’s repeatedly shown to have the option to live with family who want to give her a home and a new start. She turns all that down to live in her van. One can argue that she’s fiercely independent or unable to engage with others – and that may be true. But the reality for the very real nomads interviewed by Jessica Bruder is that they don’t have a sister or a son or a daughter who wants to take them in. They don’t have any family. They don’t have anyone from their former lives who would do more than shrug at their situation. So they’re stuck in this existence and there is no escape for them.
I think there’s a larger point that Jessica Bruder was trying to examine – about the fact that we tried to establish a safety net for Americans in programs like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, etc. We tried to make sure that nobody wound up completely destitute if we as a society could do something about it. Starting with the rise of Ronald Reagan, that safety net was shredded by angry Right Wingers who felt it should never have existed in the first place. So we’ve arrived at a place, about 30 years post Reagan, where multiple Right Wing objectives have been accomplished. The existence of tens of thousands of nomads living in this situation is a sign of the success of the Right Wing.
FWIW, I thought the point of the book was larger than Amazon but that society had abandoned these middle class people during the Great Recession, even though they played by the rules, and were left with nothing when they needed security the most – while corporations rebounded to new heights.
The point of the book is that companies like Amazon prey upon and take advantage of an increasing population of older homeless people who are effectively forced into working these jobs. And that our society shamefully allows Amazon to get away with it and does nothing to help these people, who now number at least in the tens of thousands. These are people who worked much of their lives and wound up with nothing to show for it, and the Right Wing view of them is to say that it’s their own fault. That they should just lie in their bed and not bother anyone else, or maybe go beg a church for help.
One of the biggest myths about homeless people is that they are on the street because they choose to be there. That it’s nobody’s fault but their own and that nobody else has any obligation to them. This is a truly pernicious idea, and it’s what allows many Right Wing and even some liberals to dismiss what is a serious deficiency in America.
The problem I have with the movie, without getting into any details of the plot, is that it creates central characters who actually do have a lifeline out of the nomadic van existence, but CHOOSE to stay in it. And that completely takes the movie down a path that the book’s author would find bizarre. And it allows those Right Wingers and some liberals to dismiss the story as just another example of why the homeless situation is depressing but nothing we can really address.
I honestly believe “Nomadland” should have been adapted as a simple documentary, to allow the actual point to be maintained. If the filmmakers wanted to tell a different story, they should have titled it something else.
I, too, thought of Nomadland when I edited this post and watched the video.
The book is one of my all-time favorites but I have not seen the movie yet.
In reality, unions have been necessary because industries have regularly refused to recognize basic human needs in their treatment of their employees. If industries could get away with paying their employees pennies and not covering anything other than those pennies, they would do so. We know this because industries did exactly this for hundreds of years when they could get away with it.
Perhaps the most notorious example of this would be the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where the employers locked the workers inside and abandoned the employees when a fire broke out, leading to 146 employees dying in a single night, many of them jumping to their deaths from the windows of the 8th-10th floors of the building. No union would have ever permitted such a situation to happen, and those people would have survived. But for the fact that the employers felt that their clothing products were more valuable than the lives of their employees. It’s really that simple. I note that the owners of the factory, who had the keys and made sure that they themselves could escape the fire, were unrepentant, and continued their practice of locking their workers inside when they resumed business.
In the current situation, Amazon has a terrible record of how it treats its employees, potentially one nearly as bad as Triangle Shirtwaist. The employees are essentially cattle, as the various accounts have demonstrated. Amazon hires them and drops them at will, and they are essentially ground down to nothing. The book “Nomadland” (not the movie) is a good primer for how Amazon takes advantage of and abuses older Americans – hiring them for tiny wages during the peak season near the holidays and allowing them to keep their vans and mini-RVs (the employees’ homes since they cannot afford rent or mortgage) in a nearby lot. Amazon is delighted to be able to keep treating its employees in this fashion, and they’re delighted that Alabama’s anti-union sentiment won out here. But this is a tremendous loss for those workers.
The fact that Rebecca Walser thinks she can get away with saying something as vicious and anti-employee as she did is an unfortunate testament to how Fox News and Right Wing media have tried to shove the terms of basic debate far away from any recognizable norms. This was not a discussion about wanting another bathroom break. It was a discussion about basic human decency. Fox News may think that the centerline is somewhere to the Right of Ted Cruz, but that’s not a reality. It’s just what Fox News wants its viewers to believe.