Solidarity, logistics, and infrastructure on Prime Day

July 15 and 16th are “Prime Day,” Amazon’s attempt to drive up sales and artificial demand around things we don’t need at prices they’ve convinced us that we can afford. Thanks to Mar Hicks, many of us heard that workers at a Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center are holding a six-hour work stoppage on one of the busiest days of the year. Alongside, many have called for a boycott on Amazon and its subsidiaries (Whole Foods, Goodreads, Twitch, etc.), and others have called for a general strike to protest Amazon’s collaboration with Palantir in aiding ICE. With all of this in mind, I’ve been reflecting on what larger scale industrial actions could look like when we look at Amazon’s simultaneous leveraging of centralization and unreliability of single resources to provide critical infrastructure for the IT sector and its own operations.

It is important to look at Amazon as an entity that has woven itself our lives - not merely as an agent of platform capitalism, but as one extending its grasp through the realm of logistics. Amazon not only owns fulfillment centers, but also has subsidiaries focused on shipping, such as Amazon Maritime, Amazon Prime Air, and Beijing Century Joyo Courier Service). Amazon Web Services as a subsidiary focuses on delivery of a cloud computing platform originally envisioned as “completely standardized [and] completely automated”. We can read infrastructure as provided by AWS itself as an effort in logistical delivery, given how they are used and made available.

The metaphor of IT infrastructure of logistics extends further. Looking at Docker and other containerization technology here is worthy of further analysis, from the use of terminology of neatly setting boundaries at the level of the container and the visual metaphor of container ships treating our applications and their components as interchangeable things packaged up in a consistent way to be shipped from place to place. However, these parallels also bring to mind the rich history of unions and labor organizing by dock workers, and how the adoption of standardized shipping containers in the mid-20th century impacted workers in the shipping industry through deskilling and the changing nature of work.1

With deskilling and worker conditions on mind, the question of solidarity and enacting serious change arises. As mentioned earlier, much of the tenor of the solidarity actions has focused on boycotts, and unions and groups like Amazon Employees for Climate Justice have both sent folks to Minnesota and statements of solidarity for those who can’t be there in person. Of course, I can’t help but wonder what a larger scale industrial action could look like - and which lessons we can take from the radical unionism of workers and organizers in the logistics industry both through history and into the future. What would a large scale action that impacts an AWS availability zone look like? How do you successfully organize a boycott that avoids as much as possible that which uses AWS for its infrastructure - meaning not just Amazon and Whole Foods, but other commercial parties like Netflix, and nonprofits like DPLA as well? What would it mean to have such a profound outage where the impact would be akin to spoilage of agricultural products? And how do we organize this both bravely and safely to positively impact all workers?

  1. For example, see Helen Sampson and Bin Wu, “Compressing Time and Constraining Space: The Contradictory Effects of ICT and Containerization on International Shipping Labour,” International Review of Social History 48 (2003). doi:10.1017/S0020859003001299