A day after visiting Edwardsville, Ill., where an Amazon warehouse collapsed Friday from a tornado that killed six people, Gov J.B. Pritzker ascended the podium of the Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin.
During his brief Sunday address, the governor acknowledged what he said are “some dark and difficult times,” before connecting the tragedy of deadly weather in Edwardsville to the concurrent pandemics of COVID-19 and gun violence disproportionately touching the West Side, and to the Republican Party’s slow, roiling authoritarian coup.
“They want to take away that sacred right from you, because they know you’re not going to vote for them,” the governor told the predominantly Black churchgoers, among them longtime Congressman Danny K. Davis and Chicago Ald. Chris Taliaferro, an active member of the Greater St. John congregation.
“I’ve never seen it like this in America,” Pritzker said. “It is awful what they are trying to do. They say their goal is voter integrity, but you know that’s not what they mean. They want to keep Black people away from the polls. They want to take away your right to vote, because they know that you can make positive change.”
I was also in the congregation on Sunday, seated near the back of the sanctuary and hoping to hear the governor offer a more robust condemnation of the conditions that made the Amazon warehouse collapse much more tragic than it had to be.
The truth is that a tornado is only partially to blame for the loss of those six people. Pritzker, an enlightened billionaire and scion of the Hyatt hotel empire, omitted from his otherwise pitch-perfect oration as the state’s consoler-in-chief the name of another dark cloud hovering ominously over the country — that of workplace authoritarianism.
“It cares about profits,” one Amazon employee told People magazine after the Edwardsville tragedy. “It’s a business. They’re not a church. They’re not a government. They’re a business in business to make money, which they are very good at. But they exert so much authority over people who work here, to our detriment.”
I was waiting for Pritzker to address his fellow billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who was too busy sending people to the edge of space to attend to the earthly matter in Edwardsville (Bezos eventually tweeted out his condolences on Saturday, after posting a photo to Instagram of his six-person Blue Origins human spaceflight team, Business Insider reported).
The governor did not mention Amazon’s policy of prohibiting its employees from having their phones on warehouse floors, a measure that employees who spoke to Bloomberg worried would affect them during emergencies like the tornado in Edwardsville.
Amazon officials told Reuters that there was no such policy in preventing employees or contractors from having cellphones. The dissonance reminds me of Amazon stridently denying and, after being disproven on Twitter, begrudgingly admitting that rushed and surveilled contract delivery drivers regularly relieve themselves in bottles.
In an effort to consolidate control over its workers while offloading responsibility for their wellbeing, Amazon relies on third-party contractor companies and contract employees — a reality that “complicated the rescue effort in Edwardsville,” the New York Times reported.
“On Saturday, Mike Fillback, the police chief in Edwardsville, said the authorities had ‘challenges’ in knowing ‘how many people we actually had at that facility at the time because it’s not a set staff.’ Only seven people at Amazon’s site were full-time employees, said a Madison County commissioner who declined to give his name. He said most were delivery drivers in their 20s who work as contractors.”
During his remarks at Greater St. John on Sunday, Pritzker talked about some of the glints of light in the darkness. One example he gave was that of “a 7-year-old girl, Olivia Drew, who is making masks and giving them out to homeless people.” Later in his remarks, Pritzker quoted scripture, the book of Deuteronomy, in which “God commands us — Justice, Justice shall you pursue.”
And then the Democratic governor offered the morally degenerate Republican Party and its attacks on voting rights as a prime example of obstruction. But I was hoping the governor, during his speech about an Amazon warehouse collapse, would also mention a much more immediate example of obstruction of justice — Amazon.
He could have mentioned one of the victims, Larry Virden, 46, of Collinsville, Ill., whose daughter, aptly named Justice, described her father as a “fun loving, outdoors person” who would help anybody in need.
Virden’s last text, minutes before the tornado leveled his workplace, was “Amazon won’t let us leave.”
“They told us that they couldn’t leave. My dad wanted to leave at 8:20. That tornado didn’t touch down till almost 20 minutes later. He could’ve been home,” Justice told KMOV 4 News. “My biggest question for Amazon in general is why didn’t they make sure the building was safer than what it was. There should be no reason a concrete building should be lifting off the ground. There’s no reason that 11-inch-thick concrete should be falling onto people.”
Those are all valid questions that the governor should have amplified. On Sunday, Pritzker connected the tornado with the pandemics of COVID-19 and gun violence, describing them all as tragedies darkening the American landscape. The governor called out the GOP’s efforts at “voter integrity” for what they really are. He could just as easily have washed the mascara off Bezos’s performative empathy (“We’re heartbroken over the loss of our teammates there,” the billionaire boss tweeted).
Pritzker could have blasted Amazon’s notorious pattern of surveilling its workers, placing efficiency and profits over personal privacy. Why, for instance, would Larry Virden feel such pressure to continue working as a storm gathered? The bad pay notwithstanding, imagine the pressure he must have felt, pressure that was likely compounded by the company’s highly sophisticated method of monitoring its employees.
Earlier this year, Business Insider reported, Amazon drivers learned that “their vans would start to feature a four-part camera with biometric feedback indicators … the system monitors if drivers look away from the road, speed, or even yawn, and then can send a live feed of the recording to managers.”
In 2019, Business Insider reported that Amazon “was instituting a system tracking warehouse workers’ ‘time off task,’ or the amount of time they are not directly working. The system … can result in a warehouse worker’s termination without directly involving a human supervisor or manager.”
I’ve interviewed current Amazon employees afraid to speak on record, if at all, about their workplace mistreatment, for fear of retaliation (one worker was an Amazon driver who admitted that he would sometimes relieve himself in plastic bottles in order to make his delivery quota). The fear is palpable. The control is real.
Let’s talk about election tampering. Pritzker could have connected the GOP’s authoritarian election tampering with Amazon’s similarly authoritarian actions during the union vote at its Bessemer, Ala. site earlier this year.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union (RWDSU), which organized the drive culminating in the February election, contested the results (1,798 workers voted for unionization while 738 voted against it). In November, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of RWDSU officials who contested the vote, arguing that “Amazon interfered with the election by — among other things — installing its own mailbox to collect ballots,” the Verge reported.
“Amazon security guards had access to the mailbox, giving some workers the impression that Amazon controlled the results,” the publication added.
How can we effectively talk about the very conspicuous rise of fascism and authoritarianism in our politics, and the attendant weakness of American democracy, without pointing out just how pervasive those threats are in workplaces across the country — starting with Amazon?
“Under the employment-at-will baseline, workers, in effect, cede all of their rights to their employers, except those specifically guaranteed to them by law, for the duration of the employment relationship,” Elizabeth S. Anderson writes in her 2017 book, How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It).
Employers’ authority over workers, “outside of collective bargaining and a few other contexts … is sweeping, arbitrary, and unaccountable — not subject to notice, process or appeal,” and workplace governance, she adds, “is a form of private government,” which state and federal governments underwrite.
Perhaps Pritzker was silent about Amazon’s authoritarianism, because talk of “private government” pushes up against the boundaries of his enlightenment, which is progressive to the point of raising the minimum wage and spending more on education and focusing on police reform. Does that enlightenment stop, however, at the point of allowing workers more control about how they work, how they’re compensated (and, dare I say, how the profits generated by their work are distributed)?
I’d like to know the reasons for Pritzker’s glaring omissions during his Sunday sermon, because the silence is deafening and, at this point in American history, dangerous. To paraphrase a tweet I saw last year: Authoritarianism in the workplace is making it easier to accept authoritarianism in civic life.