In Democracy at Work, labor law professor Ruth Dukes and sociologist Wolfgang Streeck describe how the dehumanizing and demanding conditions of an Amazon “fulfillment center” maximize the isolation of workers and impede the formation of any kind of community in the warehouse. Handheld devices, in addition to monitoring every minute of activity (including breaks) against target speeds, “direct workers to take routes through the warehouse designed to minimize opportunities to interact with co-workers.” The newest warehouses require workers to stand still in small, phone-booth-like boxes as conveyor belts deliver packages to be sorted; each “workstation is set up so that the worker cannot talk to, or even make eye contact with, any co-worker.” Off-duty workers are banned from break rooms. Legal strategy undergirds these physical design choices; whenever possible, Amazon employs “manipulation of the workers’ legal status” to classify workers as independent contractors to whom they owe little, rather than employees. Full-time employee status—the coveted “blue badge”—is dangled as a potential reward for good work.
Modern, neoliberal analysis of such a workplace tends to focus on two questions: is it freely chosen, and does it deliver? So long as each individual worker has decided that laboring in such conditions for the offered wage is superior to alternative options, the job opportunity purportedly maximizes his or her own welfare. And so long as organizing work in this manner delivers the greatest efficiency to the corporation and highest return on investment to its shareholders, the system purportedly maximizes consumer welfare, and thus the society’s as well.
The inadequacy of that analysis is increasingly apparent to a growing number of people, but critiques tend either to take the form of instinctual moral disgust, or else to criticize neoliberal economics from within its own framework, attempting to identify the “market failures” that might possibly lead a market to deliver something other than a wonderful result. In Democracy at Work, by contrast, Dukes and Streeck offer valuable legal, historical, and sociological lenses to help readers understand how the evolution of social concepts has given rise to the modern labor market’s pathologies, and what alternatives might be available.
Democracy at Work is an unapologetically theoretical work, written by academics, for academics, and in dense academic style. As the authors say quite openly in the preface, the book is not “a collection of recipes, a catalogue from which to pick ‘solutions’ to ‘problems,’ such as how to set up an effective collective bargaining regime. . . . [i]ndeed . . . our main concern in the book is with concepts.” As is so often true for each of us, the book’s strengths are also its weaknesses—in this case, its conceptual nature and academic posture. This review therefore discusses both the valuable intellectual narrative Dukes and Streeck offer, which ultimately sketches the contours of better possibilities in the future, and also the limitations of this sort of academic work.