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  • Author or Editor: Sarrah Kassem x
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The COVID-19 pandemic has only further magnified the already growing political-economic and societal power of platforms. This article delves into the different realities of platform workers by juxtaposing two cases: location-based Amazon warehouse workers and web-based Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. Informed by a historical materialist approach that accounts both for the contextual conditions and the agency of workers, this article asks: how does the organisation of workers (location-based vs. web-based) relate differently to their labour organisation and mobilisation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? By investigating agency through analysing the structural power of workers (that is, marketplace and workplace), this article argues that both Amazon warehouse workers and MTurk workers experienced a further dwindling of their already weak marketplace power as a result of larger co-evolving political-economic conditions. The former workforce did experience, however, an increase in their workplace power given the growth of Amazon during the pandemic. The fact that they are location-based plays a crucial role in framing their struggle vis-à-vis the direct health risks and their ability to mobilise to disrupt the circulation line. MTurk workers, on the other hand, experienced a further weakening of their workplace power. Given the challenges in disrupting web-based gig labour, workers continue to express their agency through more alternative forms by instrumentalising digital spaces to foster solidarity and support each other for better working conditions. These contrasting case studies shed light therefore on the wider repercussions of the nature of the platform and its relation to the political-economic conditions for labour’s agency.

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Amazon and the Power of Organization
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Once hidden behind the veils of entrepreneurship, it is now clear that platforms are reshaping the world of work, and Amazon has been a forerunner in setting the trend.

This book examines two key and contrasting Amazon platforms that differ in how they organize workers: its e-commerce platform and digital labor platform (Mechanical Turk). With access to the people who are working at the heart of these platforms, it explores how different working conditions alienate workers, and how, despite these conditions, workers organize within their political-economic contexts to express their agency in traditional and alternative ways.

Written for social scientists, studying and researching the platform economy, this is a timely and important analysis of work and workers on the (digital) shop floor.

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This chapter focuses on the perspective of capital, which is crucial to grasp the world of labor, as capital–labor relations operate in relation to the wider co-evolving context. It traces and analyzes the organic development of the platform economy in relation to the political–economic, social and technological conditions. Grounded within the neoliberal context, in which venture capital (VC) and Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) fueled the growth of the platform economy, this chapter identifies three specific generations of platforms. The first one is traced back to the dot-com era in the 1990s, evolving from the creation and wider dissemination of the Internet. After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, technological conditions resulted in a more user-friendly Internet while political–economic conditions pushed second-generation platforms to search for a new source of financial capital. As changes in the wider conditions also bring about changes in the platform economy, I finally look at the third-generation platforms that erupted after the economic crisis of 2006–8. This chapter ultimately demonstrates that each kind of platform, with its own way of organizing workers, has organically developed in relation to the wider conditions within capitalist temporality. The platform economy is not separate from, but part of, the larger economy.

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As this book seeks to move away from a deterministic analysis, its analytical framework includes not just how workers are organized but also how they organize themselves. This chapter thus provides the second part of its analytical framework to investigate the agency of workers. While this does not constitute the focus of the book, it refers to the importance of class consciousness and subjectivity, in order to bridge the relations of alienation within the larger analysis of agency. It then focuses on sketching out the Power Resources Approach (PRA), inspired primarily, but not exclusively, by the works of Beverly Silver and Erik Olin Wright. It presents four different power resources that workers mobilize while navigating (counteracting) political–economic conditions. Understanding these power resources as co-evolving with one another and bound to their larger context, this chapter first presents the structural power of workers (marketplace and workplace), tying the latter to different forms of resistance. It then moves on to discuss associational power, institutional power and societal power (coalitional and discursive power). The analysis of these power resources is integral to examining the case studies, highlighting labor’s different efforts in organizing and fostering solidarity given the implications but to an extent also possibilities of the differing nature of the platform and of the work.

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This chapter sets out its theoretical foundation before delving into the first part of its analytical framework based on examining alienation. Understanding the development of material production, and thereby social life, as the guiding force of history, its theoretical foundation is informed by an understanding of historical materialism, dialectics and labor theory of value based primarily on Volume I of Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. In doing so, it centers the workers within capitalist class relations and focuses on the systematic analysis of the relations of alienation based on Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. These relations are fourfold: alienation to the labor activity, labor’s product, species-being and fellow humans. When regarded holistically, these relations underline the different dimensions by which workers are estranged and fragmented through their organization and working conditions within capital’s larger circuit of accumulation. The relations of alienations are crucial for the later analysis of the case studies, where their appearance can differ depending on the organization of the platform, demonstrating how these foster atomization and individualization, and, in part, explaining why workers may not organize.

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Moving on from the larger historical development of the platform economy, this chapter focuses on contextualizing Amazon’s expansion and platforms within this larger trajectory. Amazon spreads its roots across the platform economy, becoming foundational to it and making it increasingly difficult not to encounter Amazon in one way or another while using the Internet. This chapter traces its development within the larger platform economy from its establishment in the 1990s to the monopoly it has grown into today. Focusing mainly on the perspective of capital, this chapter underlines the dimensions of Amazon’s growing and expanding ecosystem. It highlights how Amazon has organically created platforms across all three generations in relation to the wider context in which these are situated. It especially focuses on its e-commerce platform and digital labor platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk, as these constitute the focus for the later investigation of the world of workers. Amazon is increasingly regarded as a trendsetter for other platforms and industries, holding repercussions and implications within and possibly beyond the platform economy.

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As the two Amazon case studies have been isolated from one another to grasp their complexity, this chapter contrasts these and contextualizes them within the larger platform economy. It highlights how the case of Amazon warehouse workers illustrates, on the one hand, the historical continuation of traditional time-wage laboring where workers are assembled in the same physical space within the platform economy, sharing similarities with platforms such as Google. MTurk, on the other hand, sheds light on a different historical continuation, namely of piece-laboring, adopted by capital into the new dimension of the digital. Although even other time-wage laboring platforms are known to contract labor and depend on the ghost work of laborers like that of MTurk, the MTurk case is meant to give insights into the significance of laboring remotely through the web and that of piecework. The gig economy is founded precisely on the latter, constituting an essential part of the platform economy (see also location-based gig platforms). This chapter ultimately highlights how the platform economy may contain some peculiarities, but ultimately (re)produces current capitalist trends towards algorithmic management of labor processes, hypertaylorization of work, fragmentation of the workforce and precarization of the labor market.

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This chapter focuses on humanizing the backbone of Amazon – the manual labor that circulates commodities sold via the platform in the warehouses. This chapter dives, therefore, into the first of the two case studies as an example of a location-based traditional time-wage platform. It examines this manual labor on the shop floor, reminiscent of factories in the industrial era yet brought into the 21st century, and analyzes the four relations of alienation: from the labor activity, from the product of labor, from species-being and from fellow humans. The organization of these warehouses reflects Taylorist techniques of scientific management that monitor and control every step of the labor process. Although workers have a set hourly wage, and are not paid piece rate, the pace of their labor is dictated by an enforced Units Per Hour (UPH) regime of productivity rates. The possibility of both social and technological surveillance, as a result of being within a single physical location, ensures a docile and (also algorithmically) disciplined workforce to keep up with the ever-increasing demand and expansions of the corporation. As Amazon reproduces many trends on the labor market from Taylorization common in production lines to the work culture similar in many platforms, it pushes these to new dimensions.

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As the second half of the analysis of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, this chapter looks at their agency to focus on the new challenges and different possibilities created by the organization of the platform and wider political–economic, social and technological conditions. It engages with their structural, associational, institutional and societal power resources in relation to the platform’s web-based gig nature. Despite a weak marketplace and workplace power and having their hands tied on MTurk, workers navigate and, in varying ways, reclaim and instrumentalize the very infrastructure of the Internet for their interests. In doing so, they form solidarity, interact and provide support for one another through alternative spaces of online associations and collectivities beyond traditional unions. This potential of an associational power is not accompanied, however, by any institutional power for MTurk workers, as their precarious status leaves them outside of any governing legal and industrial relations framework. This may be changing, in view efforts to reclassify workers and improve their conditions, thereby also strengthening their societal power. Studying the case of the MTurk workers can shed light on the repercussions of web-based labor and precarization for their agency within and beyond the platform economy, as well as potentialities for collective organization.

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This chapter provides the second half of the analysis of the Amazon warehouse case study by focusing on how such a platform provides both challenges and possibilities for these workers to express their agency. It examines their four power resources in relation to the organization of the platform: structural power, associational power, institutional power and societal power. It integrates in its analysis the larger political–economic context, the larger (trans)national context and Amazon’s union-busting, which can prove to be additional obstacles to the organization of workers, as Amazon continuously attempts to disrupt, undermine and diminish their efforts. Despite weak marketplace power workers may navigate their material obstacles and Amazon’s counterstrategies to instrumentalize their workplace and disruptive power derived from their assembly within warehouses. While labor organizations, from traditional and grassroots unions to transnational and digital movements, support associational and institutional powers to improve their working conditions and fight back against the various facets of alienation, workers are increasingly gaining momentum in organizing themselves and making their movement intrinsic to the wider public debate. In doing so, they are claiming their agency and conceiving of it more holistically in terms of a possible transnational, inter-platform and inter-sectoral movement.

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