Sheheryar Kaoosji: Oral Histories of Surveillance
Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Sheheryar Kaoosji, Founding Co-Executive Director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center. Note that the transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: Can you describe the work that you do?
Sheheryar Kaoosji: I’m the director of an organization that does work in support of warehouse workers who are organizing to improve their conditions and their workplaces. Education, advocacy, and action are the core activities and tenets of our work. We engage with non-union, mostly low-wage workers who work in the logistics sector in the Inland Empire just east of LA, one of the biggest clusters of warehousing in the country and a place where this is the dominant sector of the economy, and we work with folks to improve the working conditions. So that’s included workers who are in the Walmart supply chain, often subcontracted, that also now is including a lot of workers who are in Amazon, which is the biggest private employer in our region now. So we do community education, worker education about worker rights, we support people who have issues and work with them to develop campaigns to improve those conditions through direct action. Sometimes they’ll put together a petition, a delegation to their boss. Sometimes it’s more serious and becomes more of a full on campaign that might include workers going on strike. We also have a legal department so we support workers who are engaged in filing claims, filing lawsuits around wage theft, health and safety issues, more individuated issues. And then we do some policy work and some community organizing work as well, in terms of supporting broader kinds of policies to improve conditions in the sector and the region.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: Do you see a shift in that mix happening with how much of it is legal work or how much of it is organizing, or is it pretty consistent and even?
We try to balance it all, but it really kind of is centered in the organizing and everything else is in support of that. Foundation funding resources and the political economy in general makes it easier to focus on policy or other things, but if you’re doing that without being focused on organizing, you’re not actually making much of a difference. You know, in California, we have a pretty good legislature, plenty of bills have passed in recent years that ostensibly would improve the lives of working people, without enforcement—not even necessarily state enforcement—but without an engaged and organized workforce that’s really kind of holding employers accountable, none of that matters. That’s what we’ve found, but also we know deeply that it’s the way that you need to actually make change. So when those things are all working together, then you have something. Then it’s really working when you have a policy that is compelling, that makes sense to workers, that they can grasp and focus on, and you have an enforcement agency that’s focused on it as well as workers who are really developing claims and issues and then use those claims in lawsuits to really build up a public narrative about a company as a law breaker.
Press is much more likely to cover stuff that’s related to a legal complaint or claim in that you can really build a public campaign in the media and a consumer campaign to layer on to it and that’s where the pressure is. That’s where companies like Amazon and Walmart actually feel pressure; it’s from their consumers, not necessarily from a relatively small number of workers taking action in their workplaces. If we had more workers taking action, that would be great—and that’s that’s our goal—but that’s kind of where we’re at, where consumers are just as important in some ways as the legal complaint or something in terms of really getting people together to look at it.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: I know that your background is as a strategic researcher. How does that inform the way that you approach this work or how you key into the campaign work?
Well, our project is strategic. We’re here for several reasons but for a lot of reasons that we believe that the supply chain is a key part of the global economy and not just one workforce among others, it’s an important one. It’s an important group of workers beyond just their inherent worth—which is plenty enough to work with—but also just they’re part of this national global supply chain, they’re part of the system that is kind of the new generation of capitalism, so a lot of innovation and changes—not for the better, in terms of the way that workers and employees are treated and organized and dealt with—those innovations have come up in the logistics sector in the Inland Empire and it includes massive use of staffing agencies and subcontracting as a part of business, there are these warehouses where the 100% of the workers are employed through a staffing agency. So really maximizing that as a way to minimize your risk was really the Walmart model and now the misclassification of the independent contractor model that was really the innovation of the port trucking industry and the trucking industry in California, but also around the country. Misclassifying—especially truck drivers—as independent contractors, and that’s obviously something that’s spread to a bunch of other sectors, rideshare being the most obvious one.
So now we’re seeing this surveillance kind of capitalism based in Amazon and other companies and seeing, again, that this is starting here and that it’s not going to stay here, it’s going to spread to other sectors and already has. But this is where the industry feels like they have the most space to run and “innovate” the best ways to maximize profit without anyone getting in their way, whether it be a union, whether it be the state, etc., and we try to become one of those blocks to say there is a limit and start pushing back.
That’s kind of our goal. So to answer your question, that’s where the analytical part of it comes in; as a researcher saying: here’s why we’re here, here’s how we’re approaching this, this isn’t just about winning one campaign but it’s about having that kind of maximizing effect. We’re not a very big organization, we don’t have a ton of members, we don’t have contacts in all 400 major warehouses in the region but we do know how to develop a campaign that will have impacts beyond just the one or two places where we’re engaged in any given day. So that’s how we’ve landed at this point, that’s because of what my engagement in the organization has been. I think, at this point, it’s actually kind of brought on its own kind of logic, because there’s a lot more about how we’re engaged with the local community, which is not necessarily part of that and that’s really kind of much more about how the region develops itself and how it becomes independent and not dependent on this the sector in the same way it has been. I think there are a lot of people who are local—I’m not originally from the Inland Empire—who feel like it really does have settler-colonial roots, the way that the region developed, where LA is the center and this is the hinterlands. That kind of concept.
That was how LA and the Inland Empire kind of developed; LA was the center and then this is where the dumps were, this is where all the toxic uses were. That has kind of continued but under this logistics sector model, which is a little bit different. So those analytical frameworks really help us. We have a couple academics on our board, like Juan De Lara, a geographer at USC, and Ellen Reese, who’s a professor at UC Riverside, and they’ve been involved and have helped us over the years to engage with those theories in a real way so it’s not just, like, they’re just writing about us but they’re actually helping us think about questions like how did we get here? Who’s investing in the region? What does that look like? 10 years ago there was a lot of Chinese capital coming out of the recession, moving out of housing and going into logistics. Now, it’s a bunch of private equity companies like Blackstone that are really getting into industrial real estate, so how does that play out and what does that mean for the way that warehouses are developed in our region, and for the incentives of the employers? That all helps us understand how best to approach the sector.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: What has the community response been to that messaging?
I’d say the last 10 years has been kind of a process for the region. The first Amazon warehouses appeared in the region in 2010, 2011—that’s when we kind of showed up on the scene as well. That was obviously the bottom of the recession but also the time when the city of San Bernardino was in bankruptcy, so in that context, there was very much a ‘give us any job you can give us’, right? That was definitely the narrative. There was kind of a moderate Democrat political infrastructure that was very much of that mindset and then Amazon really filled that space. Amazon was the company that grew over the last 10 years, and they went from 0 to 40,000 or whatever many employees they have now in the region very quickly. And what happened was in those first couple of years, Amazon really had a different culture in their warehouses and were really trying to push a lot of, like, “We’re gonna be here for a long time, you’re gonna be here for a long time.” They’d do a lot of Kaizen kind of calisthenics before work and those kinds of things and really saying, “We’re gonna invest in you.”
And then a couple years in, they just said, “You know what, this isn’t working. You’re going to be here for six months and then we’re going to get the next group because there’s 4 million people in this region where it’s going to burn through you.” So once that happened, like 2013, 2014, people’s perspective on Amazon started to change and I don’t think it was because of us because we weren’t really focused on them at the time, but people started seeing it really as a place that was burning through people. And even though they paid a dollar or two more than the average employer or above minimum wage and they provide benefits—which was even then pretty far above the worst places—everyone knew somebody who’d worked there, everyone knew someone who’d gotten hurt there. It started to get this reputation as a sector that was getting worse, not just at Amazon, but across the industry.
[B]y 2017, 2018, we started seeing reports, including a report by Brookings that actually affirmed what we’d been saying the whole time, that the job creation was massive but the actual economic impact was that wages were going down and the poverty rate was going up. So we’d been affirming that and then the data started really coming through and we’d put out reports to that effect, but Brookings puts it out then it’s different because it’s coming from the institution that is supposed to be protecting these companies. And they acknowledged, “Yes, job creation has been massive in the region because growth has been massive, but the poverty rate has gone up and the unemployment rate is still about where it’s been, so logistics hasn’t been the game changer for the region that people expected.”
That was in people’s minds as workers, and now it’s finally entered into the mindset of the politicians or the economic development people and now they’re saying, “We need to diversify. We need to bring in tech,” and the whole time we’ve been saying these warehouses aren’t going anywhere, they’re here. You’ve put a couple trillion dollars worth of infrastructure into making sure they stay here but let’s make sure they’re good jobs because we have to deal with this. So that’s kind of been our message the whole time. It’s not just our work, but I think the conditions have made it clear that’s where we’re at.
That’s where we were a year ago and then COVID’s kind of flipped it again and now we’re kind of like, okay, where are we at? Because Amazon has obviously grown massively, people are kind of saying, “Well, these are the jobs that are here.” And I think the desperation level among workers has obviously gone up to the point where a year ago, people were like, “I don’t need to work at Amazon, I can go to this other warehouse across the street,” and that’s not really true anymore. So I think that’s flipped it and I’m still not quite sure where people are at in terms of that. I think people are coming into this kind of recovery—presumably, there will be one—and are going to say, “Okay, what’s next?” And it’ll either be more of the same or can we provide some sort of alternative? And that’s the question for the region.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: Can you talk a little bit about surveillance in the community?
So, the Action Center for Race and Economy has a police budget tracker that you can look up online and it shows what percentage of a city’s budget goes to police. It shows the top 300 cities in the country, and if you look up the city of San Bernardino, it’s number one. 64%, I think, of the city’s budget goes to policing. And so between that and the Sheriff’s Department, there’s a dominance of law enforcement. There are several ICE facilities. There are several federal and state prisons in the region. So the police and surveillance infrastructure in the region is very strong inherently and has been for a long time.
Part of the metropole hinterland thing is that people who are from LA are also incarcerated in this region as well as people from all around the state. There’s a bunch of subcontracted ICE private facilities in Adelanto as well. So, that’s all kind of there, all of those agencies have been coordinating for a long time. Ten years ago we were doing a lot of organizing around 287G and sheriff coordination with ICE and under Obama, there were a ton of workplace warehouse raids in 2009, 2010, and that was right when I was starting to work in this region. So that was the culture that we saw; a really heavily surveilled, heavily policed in traditional methods, basically a ‘the police run this town.’ There’s very little effort to have any kind of accountability for those kinds of agencies. They’re stacked on top of each other and, as I’ve learned more and more, the way that the fusion centers work and the way that information sharing works has been really innovated not just here, but across California.
So yeah, the police run most of the cities, a lot of city councils and mayors are pretty dependent on that in terms of that’s what they base their economies on. It’s between that and warehousing, they’re basically like, “We want to maintain and make clear that I’m for public safety and I brought warehouses into the city.” That’s pretty much every politician’s campaign, and so as long as they’re doing that and they get the police unions on board, they’re set. So it’s not because that’s where the population is; that’s where the voters are at and it is a very small percentage of the population. So that’s where we’re at. I mean, the region is majority people of color, probably 70%, at this point. Maybe 10 or 12% Black and then majority Latino, a mix of US-born and immigrant Latinos and that dynamic is also mixed with the fact that everybody’s kind of new to the region. Like, there’s a huge amount of influx of people coming into the region from LA, from other parts of the country, from other parts of the world, and so the power structure is such that those who are in charge have held onto their power while this newer population is kind of slotted in without really engaging in the civic culture or getting to vote. They’re kind of just like, “I’m just new here, I don’t know what’s going on.” So that’s kind of the divide.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: What kind of surveillance apparatus is going on internally? What are the folks that you work with reporting that they are encountering as far as the surveillance apparatus inside their workplaces?
The first we started hearing about this was in Walmart warehouses 10 years ago. It was facilities that were basically starting to regulate the picking process, so you’d be wearing headphones or have a scanner in your hand and it would tell you what to pick and what aisle to pick it from, and it would give you a little clock and it would count down how long before you had to get it, like you’d have 45 seconds to get this product from this aisle and if you didn’t get it and you took longer than that, it would be a demerit or it knocked down your percentage.
So that was at Inland Cold Storage, which is a food warehouse for Walmart that is pretty high tech, and this was about 10 years ago, we were like, what?! This is crazy, right? [laughs] And so we saw that it was a way to track productivity in a much more precise way. What we saw in Walmart was just like a cornucopia of varieties of operation because they subcontracted their warehousing to a bunch of different companies at the time and our task was to really organize across those companies and try to bring together a group of Walmart workers, which we did but it was weird because in one place, it was like that; it was super high tech and they paid a little bit better and it was kind of a higher class operation, but then some other places, the cross-dock was 100% temp workers and more of a free for all, a lot of formerly incarcerated folks, very much that kind of warehouse prison vibe; chain link fences and a lot of just barking orders at people. So, very old school, but it was all the same system. They were still packing products for Walmart but it was just yelling, “High and tight, 300 boxes per hour!” Just yelling at workers rather than tracking or surveillance. So there were a variety of methods, and you could see them adding on their technology as time went on, but they were clearly figuring it out as they went, not moving as quickly as you think Walmart would have in terms of setting all that up. They didn’t really have super complex camera systems in most of their operations at the time and I think at that point even if they did, they weren’t really monitoring them.
So that was our vibe, it was kind of janky, workers would kind of laugh at it. I mean, that one place where they called it ‘The Brain,’—where they’d get the message and be told to go get the product—that place was a lot more ahead, but that was kind of a case study. It was one weird place that was like that, most places weren’t. And then, basically Amazon came in and said let’s take that and let’s start with that. They opened up brand new warehouses with a ton of capital ahead of time and said this is what we’re going to do, and at that point, they started with cameras everywhere, they started with a tracking and data system where they can get information on every single worker in a given time and start creating these leaderboards of who’s the most productive, who’s the least productive. And so I remember, as I said at the beginning, when Amazon first came in, they were different, right? They were trying to be like, “You’re gonna be the managers one day,” that was the message to the workers, like, “If you stay here, you can have a career, this can make your life, we’re the big company in town now and you want to be with us.” And part of that message was saying, if you can be extremely productive, you can be one of those people; they got a lot of prizes and stuff like that for being the most productive and you’d get celebrated for it. So there was a kind of cultural component to the surveillance and the data tracking as in we’re kind of celebrating how good we are at this stuff.
Then, at some point, it just turned and they were like, “You know what? Fuck it, we need to move the stuff through and we don’t really need you to be here next year, we’ll find someone else.” That was 2014, 2015 where they were expanding really quickly and at that point those productivity standards were already kind of out of control, but 2014-2015 was a point where workers started saying, “Nobody can keep up with these. It’s just set up in a way to break everybody psychologically, and you’re just, like, ‘Nobody’s ever going to make it, let’s just keep going.'”
In terms of the way that the surveillance was increasing, I think the app became more of a thing around then, too; the way that information was collected and sent to workers through the app and became more like a dashboard for you to track how you’re doing with the company. But workers started really monitoring their own status with the company around that point and just being like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to last,’ because you could kind of tell from either how much discipline you’d gotten or how your rate was. There was no one saying, “You’re at 47% so you’re gonna get fired,” but everybody kind of talks to each other and people could always tell. So that was how it started going; the surveillance was always there, but the way that it feeds back to workers was really interesting and how that affects people’s psychology. And that’s when we started hearing workers saying, “I can’t sleep at night. I’m always waiting for the message from Amazon that I should come in because I want to make sure that I don’t miss a shift.” Because at that point—I don’t know if that’s still true—workers were still getting calls on their phones or getting texts saying, “Come in at 6am tomorrow and if you don’t make it, you’re less likely to get called again.”
So that’s when we really started hearing about how it affected workers and really started messing with people psychologically, because they felt like they always had to kind of be on the clock even if they weren’t working and be ready to work. And then once they were working, they always felt like they were being watched and being tracked, so we started hearing about workers who were flooding into these mental health support facility facilities and really feeling like they’re always being watched and always being tracked. And it’s because they are.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: Is the cohort that you largely work with based in the fulfillment centers or are they also in other parts of the supply chain?
Sheheryar Kaoosji: We talked to some delivery drivers and some people at the delivery stations, which are in the cities, but mostly fulfillment centers.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: Can you talk a little bit about injury rates and your work around that?
Sheheryar Kaoosji: We’ve always known that the pace of work is the name of the game; all they care about is how fast they move stuff, and we know this because that’s what they tell us and it’s what they tell the workers. That’s all that really matters and that’s what they’re really tracking at the end of the day. So what they’re focused on is trying to get as many people moving as quickly as possible, and so we see the power hours where workers are told, “Work as fast as you can for an hour and whoever wins gets a $25 gift card,” and people do it because they’re bored like, okay, let’s see what happens, let’s just try it. So those kinds of things—which are kind of a new version of the old incentives that OSHA made illegal, the lotteries and stuff like that—those kinds of things are really endemic, the gamification.
So it’s not just sticks, but there are carrots, too. Gamification and trying to see how we can get people to feel like there’s something interesting to moving faster. But everyone knows that that’s the name of the game. That’s no different from any other workplace or any other warehouse, it’s just that they do have that feedback loop where that information comes back to the workers, to the workforce. That’s the difference and that’s made public or semi-public and then you feel like there’s that extra layer of either you know that they’re watching, you know that they’re checking, you know they can go back and look at you on the tape from three days ago if you take a break or whatever, but also that you’re in competition with other people, you know where you stand relative to others. And so I think that’s what makes people just work faster when they’re in these facilities, and the injury rate is the output.
So only last year did we, along with others—Athena—put together with the folks from the Center for Investigative Reporting the 300 logs that actually showed the injury rates that were well above what the average warehouse has—and that’s what’s reported. We know that there’s a ton of injuries that are not reported at this warehouse and at all warehouses, but only Amazon has an AmCare facility at every site that’s basically designed to deter workers from filing claims. So whatever they are providing on the 300 logs has got to be a fraction of what’s really happening, and that’s what we see; just a flood of disabled 22 year-olds, a bunch of really young people who are injured and possibly permanently because they hire very young and those people are getting hurt very quickly.
And so what happens is you work hurt and then you either try to keep working and it gets worse, or that leads to an additional kind of catastrophic injury or you just quit. So that’s the process that we’ve identified, it’s just what you usually see but exacerbated, and in terms of responding, our focus is on responding by telling workers we need to slow down, we need to take care of ourselves, you know? Doing a lot of workplace health and safety trainings around kind of the limits of the human body, around kind of how to listen to your body, about how to listen to the pain, not just like, “Here’s how to pick up a box,” but really understanding what the limits are and then that leads to saying, what do we do about it? Like, that’s fine if you know that but how are we actually gonna fix that? You have to take collective action to actually do something about that and that there are potentially policies that we could move that could improve those conditions. That’s not going to fix everything but there’s a long history of organizing around production standards, pace of work, especially like in food processing and meatpacking and stuff where that’s all been dismantled the last few decades, but that’s worked and it’s proven, it’s not something new.
So that’s what we’re starting to raise right now, the concept of can we work with CalOSHA to establish a standard of monitoring and information. And I think the key for us is that Amazon has done this research. They’re not producing these production standards out of nowhere. They’re putting them into an algorithm and they’re tracking it. So they both develop that pace somehow, like at the Walmart warehouse, you could just claim, “Oh, the manager is just yelling at everyone to work faster,” but if you have a specific metric and you’re holding people to it, that must have come from somewhere, so that’s potentially discoverable. And then the actual outcomes as well, like, what are the actual data on how that productivity went and what’s the injury rate among that workforce. That’s all there because they’re a data company. We know it’s all collected. We know they don’t let anything slide. We know that the data is all there and we know every injury is on camera—it’s impossible to get, we’re probably never going to get it unless some crazy Attorney General figures out how to crack into it and really get that data.
But that’s the difference. It’s all tracked, and it’s all there. So there is kind of a fact pattern that you can track legally where you can make an argument that this is what is leading to this massive injury rate. And if we can make an argument that this injury rate is kind of a public health issue—which I think, at this point, given the scale of the company, is pretty evident—then we can bring in public policy and say, what are we going to do about this? And our solution is to slow down. Our solution is give workers time to take care of themselves and rest, but also that gives workers more chances to take a breather. It also leads to workers lasting longer; it reduces the turnover rate, which is now about a year. People last about a year, on average, which, for us, is not long enough for people to really be organizable. So that leads to the workforce being more stable, people being in a place where they’re more amenable to building organization in their workplace because they’re like, ‘I’m going to be here for more than six months.’ So that’s kind of the fundamental concept and that’s what we’ve seen in other workplaces. I should have started with that, like, other warehouses where we’ve organized that don’t necessarily have these kinds of standards, this has been an issue and workers have organized to slow things down and that has led to what I just said; the workforce stabilizing, temps staying longer, people getting hired on, and people saying, “I’m going to be here for a while, I’m gonna invest and actually organize to improve things in other ways.” That’s kind of our virtuous circle concept, and it starts with just stabilizing people’s workplace lives, which kind of stabilize their lives in general.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: It sounds like you’re in the earlier stages of forming what will become some sort of coalition around this particular aspect of the organizing campaign. Who do you foresee being part of that?
Sheheryar Kaoosji: We’ve been engaged in this workplace-by-workplace organizing for a while and most of the time, we start with health and safety in the workplace in terms of campaign issues, because wages kind of come and go but we see this as something that people hook on to longer-term. Like, sometimes we’ll get into a wage fight and then we win it and people are like, “Okay, great. Bye.” But this is the kind of thing that’s a little more long term, a little more serious in that you tend to get older, more serious workers engaged around this issue, more women. We’re kind of like, this is more about your life, not just about getting a little bit more money, and so you can light up a campaign with stuff around wages but you need to have that longer term motor and this is more of a motor about people who are invested more in being there longer and then the people who are more about wages tend to be more like, “I’ll be here for a little while and I’ll get a little more money.” So you need that mix.
In terms of who we’ve worked with, WorkSafe is a health and safety group statewide and we work really closely with them and have done for almost 10 years. They’re a legal aid and advocacy group and they do a lot of strategic litigation. We also work with Southern California Occupational Safety and Health Coalition, which is a group in Southern California that’s focused on these issues and especially advocacy at CalOSHA, and they also do a lot of education. And then UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health, again, another group we’ve worked with forever and Deogracia Cornelio is on our board. She’s one of their main leaders, and she comes out of popular education in Latin America and has really helped us develop our education programs in that context. She also comes out of organizing and supporting domestic violence survivors, so looking at violence and injury in the context of workplaces, which is really interesting. So that’s who’s really been our go-to core group.
And then Eric Frumin who’s a workplace health and safety expert out of UNITE, the trade union, originally and now he’s with SEIU / Change to Win. He has been working with us for a long time as well as more of a traditional kind of labor and workplace health and safety expert. He really knows all the policies, helping develop a lot of the language around policies, but also helps us understand how these things can be fought in a union context. So we’ve got a great bench around that stuff. I think the key has been how do we understand the surveillance piece, how do we understand how the new innovations are changing things? Because that’s really the moving target. You can apply all those concepts around workplace health and safety, but understanding what’s actually going on inside, that’s where we’ve been trying to engage more with the Athena groups, the groups that are more looking at surveillance and trying to learn more about what has been done and what’s coming.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: What do you feel like you need more of, other than the technological piece?
Sheheryar Kaoosji: We need more of everything, right? [laughs] It’s not like we have an answer, I think that our answer is a very big one, like, we need to organize and regulate pace of work. What we need is to build solidarity across industries as well around this issue and understand that there are unions that are dealing with this issue, there are other non-union workers that are dealing with this issue and start going across so that we’re not just like, “Oh, this is just Amazon.” This is stuff that’s getting adopted by other sectors and other workplaces everywhere, of which I’m not sure we even know the extent.
I think if we can start really building this up as a broader policy issue, because I think there’s a general acceptance that you can do things to people at work that you can’t do to people in the public so reversing that and saying, what happens at work is going to be happening to you in the public two years later, like, this is where they’re testing this stuff out. Amazon tests this stuff out and then they sell it to the police department. So I think as anti-surveillance organizing expands, bringing the workplace into those conversations and not just making it a separate thing that only labor health and safety people think about, those are the bridges that we need to build because we need to make sure people understand it’s the same fight, and also that a lot of this innovation is happening in the workplace and it’s because these are the same people being surveilled in the workplace and in their communities, it’s not an accident. And if we can build resistance in both contexts, we’re more likely to succeed in both.
So those are some of the things that we’re probably going to need to do, just basic information, really. Like I said, my theory is that some state Attorney General can just get discovery on a ton of information around this stuff if we can make a case that there’s enough injuries, so we’ll see who the new Attorney General in California is. The previous one, I thought, was on a path to actually do something like this because he’s been going hard at Amazon all year. But if we can get somebody at the state level who is really willing to go after the algorithm, really go after that data and at least get them for the state—if not for the public—that kind of information will help us understand what we’re dealing with, because I think at this point it’s a lot of individual stories. It’s kind of what we can get here and there. Maybe I’m missing something, but there’s no clear picture of exactly what the whole surveillance structure inside of Amazon is. Maybe some of the tech workers could share that with us but I know they’re all on NDAs, so that’s kind of my dream; to get some tech workers to lay it all out and be like, “This is what we’re doing with this stuff.” I think that’s the other piece.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: You mentioned earlier that what you really need is enforcement. Like, you can pass all these great laws and that’s all well and good but you really need a structure that enforces these laws in a way that is consistent and transparent. Do you have a sense of what looks like in this context?
Sheheryar Kaoosji: I mean, it looks like a union. It looks like a bunch of workers having an ability to negotiate this kind of stuff in real time. And that’s what you see at places like UPS. It’s not like UPS doesn’t have a heavy regime of surveillance, like, nothing’s perfect, but I think it’s a place where they negotiate those things, and if a worker or a group of workers have a concern around something, they can have a grievance process, they can bargain. I think there are situations where they don’t have surveillance, they don’t have a pace of work regulation, they’re told to just work as hard as you need to to get the work done today and that’s basically it. They don’t have numbers and metrics around how fast they move, and they’re still competitive with Amazon. They do work for Amazon all the time.
So it’s doable, but I think the key is it’s not going to come from CalOSHA, it’s not going to come from a state agency, that kind of third party. It has to come from workers, whether they’re organized in a formal bargaining unit in a collective bargaining agreement, or if they’re just organized in a way that they can push back in real time and with a delegation or other kinds of direct action to force the employer to take a pause and talk to them. I think at this point, the latter is much more likely to be something we can build now and then, for us, we’re not a union, but we basically tell people, ‘You are the union. You as a worker are the union. You’re the one who you and your co workers can collectivize your actions anytime, for any reason, you don’t have to have a contract. And if there’s enough of you, you’ll win. If there’s not, you won’t.’ That’s what it’s gonna look like for the foreseeable future but there’s a lot you can do in that context. And I think if you do that, in the context of a public campaign, in the context of some policy fights, in the context of maybe some litigation, you can push back against some of the worst things and clean some of that up. And our goal is at that point, the workers see that it’s possible, they see that it’s a path for them to do, and then they replicate that the next time around and everybody sees, “Oh, I wasn’t involved last time, but look what they won us this time, so I’m going to get involved this time around.”
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: Do you have a lot of engagement with the kinds of unions that typically operate in warehouse spaces?
Sheheryar Kaoosji: Yeah. We work a lot with the Teamsters, we work with ILWU, we work with the SEIU / Workers United who have some warehouses in the region. We work with all of them—and especially the Teamsters—pretty closely and talk to them about what’s going on. I think they’re really pretty serious about Amazon. I think it’s going in the right direction. They’re being smart about it and not trying to run elections at the same time they’re trying to build long term connections between their members and their future members—hopefully—at Amazon. But I think it’s a big project. It has to be people who are taking a long term perspective. What I tell people is, in terms of organizing at scale, we are basically where we were 100 years ago. It’s 1920, right? And in 1920, there were very big industrialized workplaces in Detroit and other places that were non-union.
There were Pinkertons everywhere shooting people, there were leftists organizing and the state coming after them. But people were experimenting. People were coming up with new models, people were coming up with new options and then 10, 12 years later that turned into mass organizing at a scale that people in 1920 couldn’t have imagined, but they got the crap beaten out of them for 20 years. And, realistically, that’s where we’re at with Amazon, with Tesla and with most of these other 21st century employers. People are experimenting, people are trying to figure out what’s possible and, you know, in 1920, some old AFL unions were trying to figure it out and then some brand new institutions were trying to figure it out and in 1933 it was a combination of them that was able to win.
So I think that’s kind of where we’re at; some unions are going to figure out what to do and how to approach this or other sectors, and some new institutions like ours are going to hopefully do the same. And we have to learn from each other, communicate with each other, try not to get in each other’s way, just really to understand what’s possible. I think we’re all communicating now about where people are getting small victories that can be compounded into building organization and I think that’s what it’s going to take. From our perspective it’s going to take deep community organizing and that’s because we’re in a region that is dominated by the sector. We feel like that’s an opportunity to kind of take advantage of the fact that everyone does feel like they’re affected by Amazon, not just the workers. And really bring together a company town kind of concept, like, okay, we’re all in this together, let’s hold this company accountable and raise standards.
I think that’s kind of something that is unique to our region but I think the point is every place needs to think about it. You know, where you are in Utah, that’s having a specific impact that is specific to the culture and the community there and it needs to be somebody who’s thinking about that and saying, “Okay, what does that have to do with this region?” And it might be like, “Oh, this is the only big workplace in town, we need to figure out what we’re doing about that.” Like Bessemer, Alabama, where the workers file for union election. That place has a specific history, a specific kind of culture with regard to the steel industry, with regard to racial justice, etc. There needs to be an organizing campaign that is rooted in that and if that can get figured out, that makes sense, but it also has to be part of a national or regional strategy so that it’s not just happening on its own. So that’s what needs to happen down the road. I think at this point, again, we’re all just in laboratories trying to see what sticks.
I think there’s a huge opportunity for there to be a public kind of campaign, like a major public conversation around this. And whether it’s the workplace specifically or more broadly, just having a conversation around what level of surveillance people are comfortable with and what that information is used for. I feel like that’s something that people don’t just accept. People aren’t okay with it but they just don’t know what to do about it, and I think there’s the space to have that conversation and say there’s got to be a limit. And so I think it can go beyond just a small or medium sized group of workers and broaden out and say this is about everyone. Everyone’s got an Amazon account, everyone has Amazon collecting data on them. The Amazon workers will have a lot more data collected on them, but everyone’s got this data set about their consumer product practices, about their web surfing practices, about possibly other things if they have an Alexa or a Ring, and that gets merged with all the government data that is collected at the fusion center. When we share that with people and let them know that’s what’s going on and share reports from Athena and others, people are blown away and they’re kind of like, “Oh, what do I do about this?” Nobody knows what to do about it but people know that it’s a problem, and so I think having that conversation and raising that as a national campaign could have a huge impact and it could be a way for this issue to become something people actually feel like is actionable.
With a lot of stuff with Amazon, people understand there are problems but they don’t see anyone providing a clear path of what to do about it, they think that’s just how it is. So it’s kind of on us to provide that winnable path and say at least we can do this. We might not do it all tomorrow but here’s what we can do to push back against this one piece of information, or one piece of data collection. I think that’s how I see this being effective. I don’t see us being able to win if we’re just saying this is just about these Amazon workers, because, again, people have kind of given up on people having any rights at work, independent of what they can fight for. But if you talk about it in terms of a public policy issue that affects all of us, then it’s a different conversation.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: The way that you described the attrition rate at Amazon as being a function of their anti-organizing, anti-union approach, you don’t necessarily think that’s the thing that’s going to prevent an organizing campaign from taking hold but it 100% sounds calculated.
Sheheryar Kaoosji: It’s even more explicit, like, there’s actually a buy out system after three years where they basically offer it to almost everyone, I think—even people who are highly productive. And our analysis is that it’s the workers comp; that they just imagine, at that point, it’s only a matter of time before you get hurt so they’re just going to cut the cord at three years, or at least offer it. It’s still kind of insane to me that they do that, but they do it and they’ll probably start doing it next week with this crew. It probably depends on the region, too. Like, we have 4 million people here. If you have a facility in Bessemer, Alabama, or where you are, it might not be as advantageous for them to burn through people quite as quickly. I actually think right before COVID, they were about to burn through the region. People at that point were like, “You know what, I’m not gonna stay here,” and I think they were having a lot of trouble keeping people. That’s why they keep raising their wages in California, because people are already kind of done with them. Now, they’re the only game in town again, but that was what we were seeing.
The firm we’re working with did a wage theft claim, a lawsuit against a Walmart facility and eventually got to discovery against Walmart because Walmart was claiming they weren’t responsible for their subcontractors. And the information we got from that about the way that they collected information and tracked operations of their subcontractors was hugely revelatory and when we got that, it was really helpful for us even beyond just that lawsuit to understand how they operated. I think with Amazon, it’s a whole other level of information collection but that’s kind of the dream is to figure out how to get into that information and actually get that out for either public policy use or for organizing use because there’s probably a lot of evidence in there that they know exactly what they’re doing, which is what it’s hard to find with employers usually.
Lexi Spencer-Notabartolo: Thank you so much for your time, Sheheryar.