December 24th, 2011 / 11:09 am
Power Quote

Was our need to be understood more important than a living wage?

“Amazon’s success didn’t just come from predatory buying and selling practices.  Nor did it come from of simple ingenuity. It was a combination of these elements and deals struck by one generation with itself regarding personal identity, worker’s rights, and the value of stock speculation. Was the right to have green hair and torn t-shirts worth it? Was our need to be understood more important than a living wage? Were these even the choices we faced? . . . Bezos once bragged in a Wall Street Journal interview that he told temp agencies to hire the “freaks.” The assumption at the time was that Bezos wanted creativity. But his creative staff wasn’t coming out of the temp agencies, the warehouse recruits were. And I never met a “freak” who wouldn’t throw over a decent wage to work somewhere lousy if they felt they belonged. These were people who wanted to be a part of something. They wanted to be valued for who they were, rather than what they produced. I often wondered if what Bezos really figured out was that if you gave freaks a home, they would give you everything they had-their best ideas, their longest days, and their rights on the job.” — Vanessa Veselka, on attempting to unionize Amazon


  1. Deadgodfan1

      freak have good ideas?

  2. John Dowland

       Sir: “But his creative staff wasn’t coming out of the temp agencies, the warehouse recruits were.”

  3. alex crowley

      thanks for posting this, Mike!

  4. Sam Ligon

      Thanks for the link. Great piece.

  5. deadgod

      His suggestions had led to a redesign of the conveyor-belt side of the packing lines, resulting in substantial increases in production speed.  And while Amazon’s sales were growing at an annual rate of 300 percent, he was trying to raise his kids on $9.50 an hour — and he’d been there for four years.

      From the perspective of ‘Corporate’, need makes useful “freaks” of everybody.

      “Green hair”?  –bah.  Maybe Bezos himself can’t get Tender Buttons out of his head, like Jobs was a Buddhist or daoist or whatever.  The essence of late capitalism is that the content of a lifestyle or world view is irrelevant – in the sense of being harmless – to accumulation, even in the cases of heartfelt perspectives unambiguously (though not unambivalently) opposed to the rationalizations for and material facts of accumulation–if enough people import accessorization and luxury into that lifestyle or world view in the course of its becoming-familiar.

  6. deadgod


      Were these even the choices we faced?

      Look at the use of language to disable self-determination:

      I did not work in a warehouse [but rather] in a fulfillment center.

      And look at the definition of “fulfillment” Veselka–and all the “associates”–can sense from the ‘home’ of their livelihoods:

      The persistent whisper of escalating productivity was everywhere.

      Making just enough ‘to live’ is irrelevant to understanding the politics of economic relationships–the question is:  where do the fruits of “productivity” (of any quantity) go?

  7. Anonymous

  8. Cole

      I  don’t get why your comment is framed as a demystification of Veselka’s article. She led a unionization campaign and wrote about it. What about that suggests that she needs to be schooled?  

      You end on a note of deriding the wish for a living wage; you lecture that it’s important to   _understand the politics of economic relationships_ . Why this, in response to an article that’s all about understanding the politics and the affective snares of economic relationships? 
      The question, “Was our need to be understood more important than a living wage?” has a subtext of: What illusory emotional ties were proffered to us, what did we think we were getting in exchange for enslaving ourselves? It’s not a stupid question: Why do people fight for their subjugation as if it were their freedom?True, many employers now tolerate green hair; Veselka is pointing to an employer who temporarily found a way to exploit an affective bond that formed among some soi-disant cultural rebels. (And then that employer shifted to bleaker, cheaper labor markets.)Where do the fruits of productivity go? To the owners of the means of production. Why should this be clear to you but obscure to Veselka? 

  9. deadgod

      It is not a “demystification of Veselka’s article”, but rather, in support of what I take to be both her demystifying gist and the impetus she intends to impart.

      I took out a couple of the sentences that seemed most successful – as isolated sentences – in an article quite successful at exposing the corporate strategy of Anaesthetic Subjugation. 

      ‘Making a living wage’ is management’s excuse for “associates” to eat political-economic shit, not Veselka’s–or at least not one that she might turn to revolutionary effect.  I think the question that titles this blogicle is a false dilemma, and Veselka’s ‘answer’ to it is the leading question that I quoted as an “Answer”.  The ‘right’ question, to me, is the one I italicized.

      If you want rationalizations of ‘success stories’ (like those of Bezos and Jobs), read the comment thread after Veselka’s article (!).

      What caused you to read my remarks so diametrically opposite to their (to me) plain direction?

  10. wackomet

      I worked at one of those warehouses (very briefly, fortunately). It sucked!

  11. Amber

      Thanks for posting this, Mike. I hate how easily we’ll sell our souls and sell out workers when it’s something we want or identify with (ie: Whole Foods. Sure it’s run by a libertarian asshole who’s hell-bent on opposing workers’ unionizing and opposes pretty much every liberal viewpoint including universal health care but hey! They sell organic food! And the people who shop here have dreds! But fuck that Walmart place. I’d never shop THERE.) As someone who works for a union, it depresses me endlessly how small the selling price is for most people (free shipping!) and how little we honestly care about our fellow man.

  12. Mike Meginnis

      I appreciate your thoughts here, but let me bounce something off you: to me, purity through consumerism seems like a dead-end in liberal thinking. That is to say that while it might be marginally more ethical to buy our books at other retailers that are potentially less exploitative than Amazon, this is ultimately a doomed strategy because only those with the privilege of a strong income can afford to do it — a privilege that is vanishing precisely because the increasingly exploitative relationship between employers and labor makes shopping at Walmart and Amazon the only reasonable solution for labor, even as it further impoverishes them. That is to say that while we may personally feel good about shopping elsewhere when we can afford to do so (and given that I’m currently unemployed, I certainly do my shopping at Walmart, Amazon, etc.), most people can’t afford that privilege, and the benefits are usually extremely marginal anyway. That money would be better spent in politics, I think, attempting to curb exploitation, strengthen labor, and ensure a healthy retirement benefit, etc.

      Legitimately curious what people would say to this argument. I’m not married to it, but it’s pretty clear to me that simply refusing to shop at a given outlet when the structure of the situation is such that the vast majority of the population will more or less *have to* shop at that outlet is an ineffective mode of “activism” that feels good but accomplishes basically nothing.

  13. John Dowland

      Right, I don’t dispute any of that at all.

      In my first post I assumed that Deadgodfan1 was defending Amazon (although I’m not so sure now). I think (it was awhile ago) I was implying that Bezos wanted “freaks” less for their ideas than because he assumed he could better control them, that they would consider themselves “exempt from class struggle.” But in your post you have pointed out that the “freak” is nevertheless exploited as a kind of auxiliary creative. I wonder if we can tell, empirically, whether his strategy was more about control or poorly remunerated ideas.

  14. Hank

      Socialism is the answer.  Being pro-union without being pro-socialism isn’t coherent.  The types of things that unions typically advocate for — better pay, better hours, more safety, etc. — is necessarily going to cut into a corporations profits, which naturally entices the corporation to send operations into placaes where unions don’t have power.  The only solution is to put industry directly in the hands of workers.