‘A Sink for Racist Capitalism’

‘A Sink for Racist Capitalism’
Photo/Daniel A. Anderson (Grist)

Frontline Observer recently sat down with Dr. Ellen Reese and Dr. Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, authors of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. Reese is Professor of Sociology and Chair of Labor Studies at the University of California, Riverside and Alimahomed-Wilson is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Long Beach State University. Their book focuses on the effects of Amazon, the e-commerce economy and how both have propelled a global shift in capitalism that is hurting BIPOC communities.

What were the reasons that drove you to write this book?

Ellen Reese: The inspiration for me started with the Labor Studies program at UC Riverside and we’ve got an internship program there and through that program we’ve worked with various labor and communication organizations including environmental justice organizations and worker centers and unions.

Jake Alimahomed-Wilson: I’ve been studying logistics and goods movements since I was a graduate student, so about 17 years. A few years ago I edited a book Chokepoints and there [were] chapters by workers, Amazon workers, organizers and activists. Ellen wrote a chapter in Chokepoints on the Inland Empire region. I would go around and give talks to groups of organizers and activists and kept getting questions about Amazon to be honest. Tons of questions about Amazon and initially I was studying Wal-mart with my mentor Professor Edna Bonacich and how Wal-mart was driving goods movements and was really the first kind of corporate presence in the Inland Empire. So much of what we worked on together for this project called Getting the Goods* [showed] that many of the things that Wal-mart did have been undone by Amazon and the corporate practices are both similar and very different.

How did work as organizers help you to gain insight to learn more about Amazon and its impacts on our community?

Reese: We started working with Warehouse Workers United campaign and with Warehouse Workers Resource Center but I’ve also worked with environmental justice workers as well and sort of got more interested in these issues in communication with the organizers, the student interns that were working them and I think it’s a huge industry and it’s hard to ignore. Anytime you’re driving in the Inland Empire you see trucks coming in you see those out in the community. It’s just a growing presence in our region. Many of our students at the University to either work for warehouses or their family members do.

Alimahomed-Wilson: Ellen and I, we both spoke about editing this book and we really wanted to make sure this book that, not only worker’s voices were integral to this project, but that community activists, organizers, journalists, labor strategists and it wasn’t just academics. We’re really proud of how it came out; we probably could have done a second volume. There’s a ton we missed but were pleased we could speak about it because the work that you all are doing is just key to the entire region, southern California and beyond.

What are some of the social and political challenges we face as Amazon continues to expand in our region?

Reese:There’s huge challenges we face in part because of the rising influence of Amazon but I think I know on the ground there’s the people and growing political will to change things. And I think the growth of the San Bernardino Airport Community’s Coalition among other groups in the region is a testament to that. But, yeah, I think the rise of Amazon presents many challenges for us; it presents challenges in terms of labor conditions, especially for the blue collar warehouse workers, delivery drivers who are just earning $15 an hour. Delivery drivers often lack benefits because they’re not directly employed by the company. They face very oppressive conditions at work. And for the community, it’s affecting the air we’re breathing. We’ve seen this growth of logistics in home deliveries, products especially on the rise these days especially with the pandemic. All these deliveries mean more air pollution for our communities, more traffic congestion; it takes a toll on the roads in our community. Just getting around sometimes is difficult. So it definitely has a lot of impact and the environmental cost is not just to the environment but to our health, our public health; it’s the air we breathe and asthma rates that are very, very high in our region and that makes us susceptible to other illnesses including Covid-19.

Alimahomed-Wilson: You know, personally my brother lives with his family in the Inland Empire--Fontana, specifically for about 16 years--and we’ve seen how their neighborhood has been impacted. My niece attends Kaiser High School and as a freshman, that Amazon facility wasn’t quite open yet and now as a senior, just getting to school is just, you know, they’re very close to the campus. It is just tons of traffic. She doesn’t know the work I do. I don’t really talk about my academic stuff. I’m just her uncle, but she’s constantly complaining to me about Amazon. The air that my nieces breathe, my brother and his wife… it’s an outcome of a global system; and that’s one of the other things that Ellen and I were interested in really kind of spotlighting was that this is a local impact that has global causes. These are local consequences that are being absorbed by global corporations. The Inland Empire has become basically a sink for racial capitalism. Jobs that are highly exploited and highly polluting. And the communities are resisting. One of the things we argue in the book is that Amazon presents, just because of its scale, opportunities to build new coalitions and movements to join forces and hold corporations accountable for the people.

Something that I find interesting in this book [are] Amazon’s similarities of the monopolies of the past. There is a mention of how this industry mimics the industries of the past like the Gilded Age. Do you think it is difficult for organizers like those folks that are part of the Coalition to achieve gains especially while Amazon is so strong? And I know you’ve touched on this already, but would you expand on that more?

Reese: Well, I think it’s a huge task, a huge challenge. It’s an enormous company, it’s transnational. So certainly the challenges are huge but at the same time that corporation cannot operate without people. Without people working in it and people consuming its products so it cannot continue if we do not participate or if workers go on strike or there’s consumer boycotts the corporation cannot continue to grow, grow, grow. So I think there are vulnerabilities of this enormous giant.

Alimahomed-Wilson: One of the things we touch on in the book actually multiple times, multiple contributors, organizers, academics touch on is that one of the key things, one vulnerability of Amazon and E-commerce firms that are logistics-heavy, corporations-reliant corporations is time. Time is of the essence when you are Amazon. Their brand is built on being efficient, fast, and convenient. And that is a leveraging point. This ‘just-in-time’ kind of model is one thing that is another potential vulnerability. You have lots of workers that are experiencing really appalling conditions, when they start talking to each other and many of the workers live in the communities where these facilities are and not only experience some of the toxicity from being in one of these warehouses but driving or going to the park and seeing all the trucks pass with their kids, their  families, their grandmothers--there’s a lot of potential for resistance there. One of the things kind of panning out in the region is that we’re seeing folks all over the world, in India, in France, Poland, Germany, the U.K., all over the U.S. really mobilizing. This is something that we expect to see more coming out of this pandemic.

Reese: I think we see this in the climate strike, EJ activists, labor activists, were participating in drawing attention to Amazon and its participation in the climate crisis and the enormous carbon footprint it has and we saw that in various parts of our nation, including in the Inland Empire. And I think another way in which we see this growing resistance movement and coalitions building is through the push back against Amazon’s collaboration with law enforcement. I think we should acknowledge that Amazon is providing surveillance technology that’s used by ICE, is used by local police and there is resistance to that among the immigrant rights movement and even high-tech workers too which are talked about in the book in one of the chapters. We’re really beginning to question: What is it they are producing? What is it that they’re doing and beginning to build coalitions and resist themselves? So we see growing resistance not only among blue-collar workers but also high-tech workers.

Alimahomed-Wilson: Yeah that’s key and I think leveraging those tech workers who have already organized specifically about the environmental impact, but to Ellen’s point about the impact to surveillance technology and the Ring doorbell system which Amazon already owns is already part of this larger, racist system where you have now the surveillance of communities through Ring that Amazon already owns to make it more efficient to deliver products and people of color being criminalized in white neighborhoods because of this ‘white hysteria’ that Ring and some of these neighborhood apps are really driving. So these are struggles that can be easily connected to this large, tech company called Amazon.

There’s a new generation of organizers and activists in this region. Do you see this region--San Bernardino and the Inland Empire--being a part of this global fight against Amazon and being essentially the epicenter of it?

Reese: We are at the epicenter of this and there is growing resistance right here in the Inland Empire. This is a global movement and we’re at the epicenter of it and there is growing resistance and I think that it is really inspiring to see this new, younger generation of activists that really take it on.

Alimahomed-Wilson: I think absolutely you know as a region the impact has been disproportionate but the flipside has been I think the resistance has also been disproportionate, the organizing, the creativity, and emerging coalitions that are being built and the intersectionality of just what you described in bringing all of these forces together--whether it’s racist police violence, environmental racism, exploitation, repression, xenophobia and targeting the immigrant communities; the military industrial complex that Amazon is a part of as well. These are all parts that impact the Inland Empire region and the world. And I think the communities that are being most impacted are going to lead the efforts in solving this and I think that’s one of the things that we set out as a goal for this book and we very much believe that the Inland Empire is going to be a leading force.

*Published in 2008 by Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.