Media outlets routinely ignore illegal, unofficial, wildcat strikes. They are more newsworthy however, because they express genuine disillusionment amongst workers and their capability to organise themselves without union management.
Every time I tune in to Democracy Now! I'm amazed at how much labor action is entirely ignored by most of the media (including "leftist" NPR). I mean, it's that or DN is just making it up and faking all those interviews they do with people involved in it, but I don't think that's the case.
If you don't seek out explicitly pro-labor media like that, you'd think there are almost never any strikes or other actions by organized labor in the US at all. Maybe like one or two big pushes per year from one sector or another (like the railroad workers who got screwed recently).
[EDIT] Yet every press release by any halfway-important company makes the papers. At least we're honest about what and who matter in our system: CAPITAL-ism.
It’s shocking, that there are millions of people picking various objects from the boxes every day all over the world. I know, robotics is hard. But I would guess, that is couple orders of magnitude easier than self driving for example. Light is controlled, temperature above freezing point, size of the box known, shape and size with weight as well as weight distribution of the object are known. Why it is not happening?
I've heard tell that in some cities with low labor costs, it's cheaper for a disabled person to pay someone to carry them up and down stairs than to rent an apartment with an elevator. That particular robot has been around in more or less its modern form for at least 100 years.
I moved to singapore just as the covid measures were loosening last year. Most restaurants are still using QR code menus and web apps to make orders. Each time we get our food, the waiter has to guess which drink and meal belongs to who, or they just leave it on the table and expect you to take it. The apps also make it harder to ask for exceptions to the menu (no tomatoes, more hot sauce, etc). Of course, the restaurants also hire just one waiter, who now runs around like a headless chicken fulfilling orders, so it's not like automation is making the individual worker's life easier. But management gets to things to look nice on their spreadsheet with less labour costs so they keep the changes.
I really don't think consumers like automation. There are some cases where's it's convenient (vending machine) and times where it isn't (dining in). But it's being forced en mass because vendors can get away with it, not because there's demand but because suppliers like it.
I went to a restaurant recently that did the QR menu thing. It was a long list of terrible UX on my phone. I'll never do that again. If a place can't give me a menu, I'm walking out and finding another place to eat.
Correct, I rarely eat out now. I've seen the QR code menu's before, but the place still had regular menus as backup. This most recent place did not.
This should be illegal as it really discriminates against elderly. My 75 year old dad has an old shitty phone that he can barely use... what is he supposed to do? I could barely read the menu on my iphone 13 pro max...
Same here. Ordering is a hack, usually with some silicon valley schmuck trying to insert themselves between me and the business, the prices are outlandish, and the service and quality is usually abysmal (the Mexican restaurants here in Ohio are great..probably due to the workers all being from the same culture).
Every time I go out to eat now I have buyers remorse. Except the Mexican restaurants...they feel pre-pandemic still.
I recently ate at a Brix. Before the pandemic it was solid, great quality and reasonable prices (wood fired everything, craft beers). If I didn't feel so bad for the old decrepit workers I would have cussed them all and ran out. Cost a fortune. Never going back.
Funny enough, this was a Mexican restaurant that I used to go to as a kid that was amazing. I had such good memories of going there. It was eventually sold to another company that remodeled the whole place and changed the name.
In addition to the dumb menu thing, the food was terrible... to the point that the rice tasted like plastic. The prices were off the charts, but I'm used to that at this point. To add insult to the whole experience, tips were auto calculated on top of tax on the receipt (which was even noted on the receipt), just to boost it up higher.
So yea... lesson learned. I wonder if there are any statistics around post-covid return rates for restaurants. I bet it is terrible.
>I wonder if there are any statistics around post-covid return rates for restaurants. I bet it is terrible.
There's probably more takeout and you have to take into account the effect of inflation on dining as well. But the number of people dining out in the US is broadly back to pre-pandemic levels although people are eating out somewhat less frequently.
I'm more referring to the concept of buying food at a restaurant multiple times. Takeout and/or in-dining, not about the frequency of doing such things.
Interestingly, the place I went to last, was packed full in the late afternoon (~3pm), on a monday. The large bar seating was full.
My experience so far is that the quality of nearly every dish I've eaten has gone down significantly to the point that I keep trying new places and almost never repeating.
It could be that now that I cook more at home, I'm just not used to the amount of butter/salt that is being (ab)used in restaurants, as well as the quality of the ingredients (I mostly buy/eat "organic", whatever that is worth...).
That said, we do have laws in the US around accessibility for handicapped and disabled people and this could easily be added as an extension to that.
Had this been a place where there were no servers and you could only order and pay by phone (which also exists), then that brings up the question of exclusion of people who don't embrace technology or can't afford a phone. I've seen this one come up a lot on HN in the past too.
Not sure how much I agree with this, but a buddy of mine for years talked about how problematic it was for warehouse workers to fight for higher wages and more support because their jobs would likely be automated away in the near-ish future. His argument was that these jobs are not intended to be long-term career jobs and that by pretending they are, you run the risk of doing people a disservice as they stay longer and they become less employable over time.
> Yet, their number of warehouse employees is still growing like an exponential curve. Compare the number of items shipped per 1,000 warehouse employees in 2012 vs 2022 and no it’s not wildly different.
No idea where this data is coming from. But there are a lot of factors at play and this is pretty high-level data on what could be going on. It doesn't account for changes in how the company operates, the number of warehouses that are spinning up, how packaging and shipping has evolved (moving between warehouses to consolidate multiple orders into single shipments, etc), the massive spike in orders during the pandemic...
But really, What's your goal here? It seems like you just want someone to say you are right instead of discuss? If you wanted to discuss, I'd expect that numbers thrown out would have some sort of backing behind them and displaying curiosity as to why things may be operating a certain way as opposed to already deciding how things work.
Even alone making grippers that reliably can pick up arbitrary objects is surprisingly hard (I believe Amazon did have some prizes offered to anyone who comes up with improvements there). So for now it's cheaper overall to have humans do the tricky part of actually picking stuff up and putting it in boxes, and where possible move other things to/from them. E.g. various "self-driving" shelving systems etc.
And Amazon ships all kinds of stuff in various packaging formats etc, so is kind of the worst case here. I could see a company that produces and packages its own stuff choose differently here, and design packaging specifically with its logistics robot capabilities in mind. (For larger packaging sizes, that tend to be large-ish plain boxes, that's already what is happening)
> But I would guess, that is couple orders of magnitude easier than self driving for example.
The more I think about this, the more I believe you to be incorrect! Identifying the correct item in the bin is hard - things are in random arrangements and orientations. They may be buried under other stuff. Packaging continually changes. Things will be in the wrong bin. Things will be packaged by the manufacturer incorrectly! Things expire but you can't rely on expiration dates, which you'd have to be able to read and parse in the first place. Anything in the bin could be extremely fragile. Some things are both fragile and heavy.
The act of picking stuff up is hard. Grip too hard, you break it. Grip too soft, you drop it and break it or something else. Grip it the wrong way, you break it. Crush stuff around it rummaging, you break that. Some things must be pinched, others grasped, cradled or supported at multiple points. You break something, then what? You've contaminated who knows what around it roomba style - you can't send stuff out to customers thats covered in shards of glass or unknown liquids.
How do you identify when something is broken or defective in the first place? Packaging may be damaged while the item is OK, or the item may be broken while the packaging is intact. Humans can do this because they have a model of the world with interactive feedback. Things with broken glass may sound wrong or just feel wrong when moved.
The stakes are lower on average, but putting the wrong item in a cart will eventually kill someone. Consider allergies, medical supplies, the blind or illiterate. All the while, you have to do this for less than $15/hour? I can only see robots currently succeeding for hyper specific items - perhaps those that are low value and heavy for instance.
We are fascinated by intelligence/reasoning but if you think about evolution - motion/sensory response were optimized for billions of years, human reasoning is a more recent development - I'm not surprised these things are harder to solve than generating text that appears to be written by another human.
Human hands are an amazing technology that we haven’t been able to artificially replicate.
I expect that in the (near?) future when AI has replaced software engineers, lawyers, writers, and bloggers that humans will still be needed to be warehouse workers, fruit pickers, plumbers, and surgeons.
I think the issue is that there are some tasks that might seem easy for a robot to do but they are not, either too expensive vs human capital or the failure rate is not tolerable. The human body is a pretty amazing machine.
If a robot cost £1mil (including install) and lasts for 10 years with zero maintenance or other costs, then it's cheaper to employ 4 people on 25k a year to do the same job. And that's without things like seasonal demand changes or government grants for hiring people.
1mil for a robot isn't that much. Does anyone make a robot that can work (at least) as fast as 4 people and never need maintaining etc?
It's the same economics that made slavery not viable. Sure you don't have to pay labor costs with a slave but if they break their arm you have to call a doctor, otherwise you are out the money you paid for the slave (and that is many years of a typical man's wages), and either way you aren't getting any work until they are healed. It's much more economical to work humans that you've paid a wage, to the bone, and once they are broken, fire them for lack of performance and hire another. No upfront capital outlay, no ongoing costs when they are injured and can't work for you, hell you don't even need to pay them enough to survive, wage slaves beat actual slaves every time.
Amazon's problem is they hit such a scale they are starting to run out of wage slaves. They either broke them already or the potential worker has friends or family broken by them so they are wise to the deal. If this wasn't the case they would have little interest in automation.
After the post Civil War recession, economic growth rates increased dramatically. While slavery made individual southerners wealthy, it's abolition resulted in a broader more dynamic economy that took millions out of poverty.
> While slavery made individual southerners wealthy, it's abolition [...] took millions out of poverty.
But your original argument was about the economics for the enslaver, not for the population.
> It's the same economics that made slavery not viable. Sure you don't have to pay labor costs with a slave but if they break their arm you have to call a doctor [...] It's much more economical to work humans that you've paid a wage to the bone [...] wage slaves beat actual slaves every time.
You're trying to make a point about capital vs operational expenses, but your example of US slavery's economic viability is both poor and distracting. Enslaving people is generally a financial boon for the enslaver. Focusing on the economic costs of owning your laborers and discounting the lack of wages sounds a lot like the "Positive Good" arguments from the mid 1800s:
> Slavery is said to be an evil... But is no evil. On the contrary, I believe it to be the greatest of all the great blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our glorious region... As a class, I say it boldly; there is not a happier, more contented race upon the face of the earth... Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world, ... their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care....
You also don't need to heal your slaves - you can just dispose of them whenever you want. Possibly by blaming them for breaking their hand intentionally to evade work. Possibly by telling all of the other slaves that so that they would hate on the one that thinks they are better than others.
Great, now you have a slave with a broken hand and a new one costs multiple decades of man's wages. If you just paid wages in the first place, you'd pay less upfront and not have a worker with a broken hand.
Economically viable but not economically competitive. The populace of North Korea are basically slaves yet their economy is in the shitters. Workers competing for most productive use of their labor leads to better outcome for the rich capital owners.
tl;dr: Robotic picking requires higher shipping costs, and shipping costs are much higher than the labour costs to pick the item.
I spent years in Amazon Fulfillment Tech, a lot of in the Picking software space. It's all about tradeoffs, and shipping costs.
Amazon will spend far more money getting the item from the warehouse to your front door than they will on labour costs getting the item into the box, ready to ship to you. Shipping is expensive, labour is relatively cheap when each item is touched by maybe 2-4 people for a few seconds each.
Robotics are getting better, but the typical storage bin in an Amazon warehouse is optimized for density, not for easy picking. Humans do a great job of picking items despite the storage density. We fish it out, feel around, use our incredible vision powers. We're great at it! Robots suck at that sort of thing (today).
Amazon could build a warehouse that is optimized for robotic picking. But if you built it with today's robots, you would have a fraction of the item storage density. That means you'd either need many times more warehouses or you'd need to reduce your selection. When you reduce selection, that means a different warehouse is handling those other orders, and it's probably further away from the customer.
Further away from the customer => higher shipping costs.
Do you think in the future some form of standardized shipping packages will become the norm? Much like the standard metal shipping container became the norm in the trucking industry. That way more automation can be incorporated across the whole shipping chain.
Also if you only need labor part of the year like for Christmas for Amazon, if you fully automated Amazon would have to have a bunch of expensive idle robots for the rest of the year. With people you can hire them as seasonal temps for just when you need them.
I would think that goes the other way, as a benefit to automation. People are a lot more volatile than machines, so scaling up and down in periods of high and low demand is more predictable with machines.
Machines are a capital expenditure. You basically can't scale them down below their initial investment cost to acquire.
Order picking is, in the grand scheme of human employment, essentially unskilled labor. It takes a bit of practice to get efficient, and a certain level of perseverance and endurance to operate at top efficiency, but it doesn't take any form of higher study, credentialing or apprenticeship to become qualified at. Scaling seasonal workers in this role is relatively trivial in terms of expense compared to purchasing robots.
Final note: humans take years to become obsolete and replaced by newer generations. The same isn't true with robots. If you can get full use out of one year round, it is much easier to justify investing now rather than 5 years from now than if you only get two months a year use out of it.
That sounds a lot like the worst of both worlds. Massive capital outlay to manage peak capacity, and your employees need to be a bit more specialized- they need a solid internet connection at home, and sufficiently skilled with technology to remotely operate a robot. Not only that, but now your robots aren't autonomous and are controlled by someone outside of the building. Operations security becomes significantly more complex, as does managing what happens when a robot gets stuck and your remote operator is interfering with the people onsite trying to fix the problem.
It also has a relatively high minimum wage (compared to the US) and high employment tax and lots of pro-employee regulations. Hiring people is very expensive for employers here, even if _average_ salaries are low.
The cost of living is not just related to salary but also energy being 3x more expensive than usual, house prices, food prices going up 30%, Brexit, etc.
The solution will eventually be similar to shipping containers. Every producer will have to use one of several hundreds (because of different sizes) standard ways to package something, if they want to sell with Amazon.
Putting things into specific for Amazon containers for automation is going to be a cost to the manufacturers to modify their production lines to accommodate and may be more labor versus what they do today. Plus no matter what, it might be that Amazon has one package, Walmart wants a different one so you end up having a bunch of different packages that are all the same thing, which becomes harder to manage because you can't ship excess of the Amazon SKU to Walmart without repackaging.
How would a country (in the absence of egregious levels of regulatory capture) benefit from that? It would strike me as both ridiculous overreach, and something for which the only benefit would be some megacorp having the ability to cut jobs, while adding to waste (not all things need packaging!), reducing the capacity for manufacturers to innovate, market and reduce their own costs, and creating a system that would wind up rivaling the tariff code for complexity, all so that Amazon can sort and fill packages with fewer humans.
That's not what I mean. Picking a box isn't so hard (although box packing algorithms for non-uniform objects is still tricky).
The robotics part is more like "how do I make a robot that can pick up a pen, a 50kg weight, and a silk blouse, and make it put all three in the same package without messing up?" In a factory that would be three distinct robots because that variability in weight, size, surface friction, malleability, etc makes it a hard problem. In a warehouse it would need to be one robot. Even if you compromise and accept additional packaging like putting soft items in boxes or bags it's still quite difficult.
Though, frankly, Amazon often seems to do a terrible job of optimizing packing--both over and under. I'm guessing that within some range of the right size and some range of not having too much breakage, it's cheaper for them to half-ass it to some degree.
Because there's nothing easy about those things, and nothing cheap about building and maintaining a robot that would do them? When you ask the robot to move to another position on the line because they're caught up and the other positions have a backlog, they don't move, and they don't explain why. Also, when they break, you can't yell or threaten them into operating normally again.
There are many "lights off" warehouses and subsets of warehouses. Lots of stuff that ships direct from a manufacturer's warehouse is like this. The orders amazon picks and packages are far too diverse for that to be economical and current levels of technological progress.
Strike always fascinate me. I wonde if there is any material that examine the dynamics of striking? E.g. The impact of striking, short term and long term, and its competitiveness relative to region without striking. One aspect I find intriguing is that the "trigger" of strike is often salary falls behind inflation. On the other hand, some portion of inflation is caused by increased labour cost. So by the time the strike demand is fulfilled, the next strike is in theory in the brewing. What material would you suggest to read upon?
This is something I thought about recently. Say you are managing a fast food restaurant that pays employees $15 / hour. If you are selling $10 of food every 5 minutes, then that's $120 of food per hour.
If you give your cashier a 10% raise, then you have to recover another $1.50 / hour so you have to sell $121.50 / hour or $10.13 every 5 minutes. So a 10% wage increase for one employee translates to raising prices by 1.3%.
I don't know what the economics look like for a warehouse worker, but Amazon can afford it and the community Amazon is a part of will be better off.
It's incredibly naive of you to forget important business expenses that NEEDS to follow any price raise: exec bonuses, stock buybacks, etc. After all of that is done, maybe there is room for a 1% infreas in the cashier wage? Obviously, if the cashier isn't happy with that, that's because the new generations don't want to work and just want to TikTok all day. /s
You're looking at it backwards
I'll pay exactly what the market will bear, or I'll risk going out of business. My sales is irrelevant to the question of how much I need to pay workers. It's the same reason why iPhone costs $200 to build and sold for $1000. Because the market is willing to bear that price, everything considered.
Raising prices by 1.3% also has some impact on sales. In theory it should be greater than 1.3% (or else why hasn't the restaurant greedily raised its prices already). To get higher wages for the workers you need one of two things.
1. Go upmarket in some way, either sell nicer food with a better margin or higher more oroductive employees.
2. Through collective action of some kind get all competitors to raise their prices and pass the cartel profits to the worker (for instance a minimum wage law could accomplish this).
> some portion of inflation is caused by increased labour cost. So by the time the strike demand is fulfilled, the next strike is in theory in the brewing
The word 'some' is doing heavy lifting. If they get a 10% rise, and that causes a 1% increase in inflation (assuming labour costs are not necessarily the biggest proportion of the cost of goods, and assuming companies eat some of the increased labour costs via less money to shareholders rather than raising prices for consumers), then there is not necessarily a reason for a second strike. I've pulled these numbers for illustrative purposes.
A vicious cycle can happen, but it also theoretically doesn't need to happen.
> E.g. The impact of striking, short term and long term, and its competitiveness relative to region without striking.
That one is simple. The US for example has at-will employment, no mandatory paid time off, not even a right for mothers for paid time off post-birth . In contrast, the entire EU has minimum four weeks paid time off, mandatory minimum time advance before a firing (exceptions apply for cases of gross misconduct), and plans to have a mandatory minimum of six weeks PTO post-birth and 20 weeks in total for the parents.
Additionally, even in Europe one can clearly see the difference between riot-happy nations such as France, which has a pension age of 62, and Germany which has 65-67 (depending on how old you are). France's Macron is trying to reform this and raise the limit, he has already tried once and got burned by a massive strike and riot wave and right now is on his second attempt, and again massive strikes.
> On the other hand, some portion of inflation is caused by increased labour cost.
Only minimally. The worst contributor to inflation is simply corporate and CEO greed - wages in Europe have stagnated over the last decades .
> That one is simple. The US for example has at-will employment, no mandatory paid time off...
I think they were more talking about the impact on strikes in terms of foreign direct investment - where there is definetly a link (albeit i'm not sure how strong).
If you are choosing where to locate an international manufacturing plant within Europe for instance, the strength of unions in each country is 100% a factor which will be considered in determining where to locate the factory (not the sole factor - but it's absolutely a consideration).
Germany has the strongest unions there are (at least in automotive), and yet Tesla set up shop here. France has a sizable amount of industry as well, as does Italy. When setting up plants in Europe, unions aren't much of a factor - wage costs and infrastructure are more.
Agree that it's not the strongest factor, but disagree that it can be discounted as much as you are saying.
I've personally worked on projects for two completely different companies (as a consulting role) where the client has discounted the option to locate in France outright because of industrial relations strength (my day job is supply chain & logistics consulting).
> On the other hand, some portion of inflation is caused by increased labour cost. So by the time the strike demand is fulfilled, the next strike is in theory in the brewing.
I think the strikes at Amazon have more to do with working conditions than pay. That being said, at already organized unions I'd say it's the opposite. No one was looking for big pay raises when inflation was low, they look for it when inflation is stripping away their salary.
"On the other hand, some portion of inflation is caused by increased labour cost. So by the time the strike demand is fulfilled, the next strike is in theory in the brewing."
It depends on both "technology" (the inputs required to produce each output in the consumption bundle for workers) and purely distributive variables (how revenues are split between labor and capital). Generally speaking, widespread strike activity will tend to shift revenue from capital to labor.
Countries where labor is organized and thus has a credible strike threat generally have a much more equal distribution of income, and most workers work fewer hours per year.
In my experience, the worker treatment is generally as much a trigger of strikes as the salary. Here too: [...] long working hours, high injury rates, and the unrelenting pace of work, as well as aggressive, tech-enhanced monitoring of employees.
Me too. I think too the unions work best when its just a small part of the population that has the power to get what they want. Its like a prisoners dilemma, yhe wider economy can support this group being relatively overpaid to keep them quiet. However not everyone can be overpaid, and when everyone is striking the economy just falls apart.
So you're saying the only thing keeping the economy together is the fact that not too many people have decided to strike? Considering that strikes are acts of desperation, I guess that means we should hope, for the sake of the system, that we don't come across too much desperation any time soon.
Speaking of prisoner"s dilemmas, I wonder how employers manage to agree on how much employee desperation they can get away with...
No strike acts are not acts of desperation. I understand right now there are some workplaces where wages are low and not keeping up with inflation, but in general the people who strike belong to powerful unions and earn good wages. People on minimum wage rarely strike.
Korpi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Korpi) is one of the big figures of Scandinavian social democracy, and a researcher that studied for years the connections between social class, welfare, strikes, etc.
But again, I just pick one text, among a tsunami of them.
Job mobility is not easy for low income earners. Not having a paycheck is really difficult if you're living paycheck to paycheck. And it's difficult to interview and job hunt if all of your free time is spent working, commuting, and caring for your family.
Why don't employers just treat workers with basic dignity and a level of pay that isn't poverty-level?
I think Amazon sees unionization activity as a critical risk for them. With a headcount of a million, any increase in cost for them is huge. I suspect they are extremely active in looking for ways to quash these efforts.
That will probably mostly involve legal corporate messaging, illegal corporate intimidation , and just shutting down any facility that unionizes.
But if the demands are cheap and easy, I could definitely see Amazon quietly (extremely quietly!) caving if that would weaken the union.
> I think Amazon sees unionization activity as a critical risk for them.
Not necessarily Amazon as a company, quite often to improve working conditions also improve productivity. But there is a risk for upper management that prefers obedient employees that accept anything that goes down whatever reasonable or not. Lazy management loves employees that work extra hard to fill up gaps created by management failures. Many managers also think that any feedback from employees will look bad on them, even if it just to improve productivity. Finally many shareholders just cannot stand the working class and giving them even demands that will improve productivity seems scary.