There is a delivery service that employs around half a million people in the United States. It delivers billions of packages per year to tens of millions of addresses. It has hundreds of warehouses and sorting facilities, and its packages travel on thousands of identical trucks and vans. The delivery service has the extraordinary ability to get a box from one side of the country to another in just a few days. Some politicians call it a monopoly, but it nevertheless enjoys high approval ratings among most of the American public. The delivery service is one of the most essential features of modern life, and indeed it makes modern life possible. In the year 2020, we relied on it more than ever.
I am talking, of course, about the United States Postal Service, but you would be forgiven for assuming I was describing Amazon. It would be an overstatement to say that the two entities do the same thing, but it is quite reasonable to say that they do many of the same things. Most notably, they both ship stuff from one place to another. Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, the world has not transcended stuff. It still runs on stuff, and stuff, to use a voguish word, is non-fungible. It cannot be changed or transmogrified. It can, however, be moved around.
Amazon and the Postal Service are often said to have some sort of “relationship” with one another, but there is much disagreement about how to characterize their bond. Those who defend public services argue that the USPS is good and Amazon is bad, while champions of private business respond that the USPS is bad and Amazon is good. The former argue that the USPS is in thrall to Amazon, which provides the service with a huge amount of revenue; the latter claim that Amazon is in thrall to the Postal Service’s monopolistic delivery network. The dynamic could be symbiotic. It could be parasitic. It could be mutualistic. It depends.
Essentially, Amazon is a website where people order goods. When you order stuff, Amazon has to get the stuff to your house. The company accomplishes this by loading the stuff on trucks and airplanes and shipping it to a huge warehouse near your neighborhood. Once the stuff gets to the warehouse, someone sorts through it. Someone else, perhaps several someones, is then paid to bring the stuff from the warehouse to your house. Sometimes those people are employed by a private company like UPS or FedEx, but just as often they are government employees who work for the United States Postal Service. What distinguishes the Postal Service from these other carriers, and what makes it useful for Amazon, is that it is required by law to deliver to every address in the United States.
The increasing isometry between the two entities can sometimes foster confusion in the customers they serve. You order an item from Amazon without checking whether it will be FedEx, UPS, the USPS, or Amazon itself that ferries the package to you. Without looking at your order history, do you feel that you could catalog with confidence which delivery services have dropped which items on your porch? Could you estimate offhand whether there are more USPS trucks or Amazon vans delivering packages in your neighborhood?
The functional overlap between Amazon and the USPS belies climacteric differences in how the two entities treat their workers. In recent years, the allegation that Amazon effectively requires its workers to piss in water bottles has taken on an almost talismanic centrality in any discussion of the company’s labor practices: in 2018, a former Amazon warehouse worker went viral for tweeting that when he had left the company in 2015, “there were bottles & bins full of piss at odd points, bc you were penalised for toilet breaks.” The anecdote was picked up by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who asked in 2019 “why Amazon workers have to urinate in bottles & work while on food stamps.” This past March, when Rep. Mark Pocan tweeted, “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” the Amazon PR team swiftly rejected the charge, only to apologize and backtrack, admitting that its initial denial had been “incorrect.”
Amazon’s inhumane treatment of its workers is not incidental — it’s an essential feature of how the company operates. Earlier this year, a group of workers at a company warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama filed to hold a unionization vote. As the election approached, Amazon deployed a bevy of union-busting strategies that were so desperate and creative as to seem almost personal. The company offered buyouts to current employees, blanketed the warehouse with anti-union propaganda, and — in a manner reminiscent of The Italian Job — even installed a USPS mailbox on the warehouse grounds in an apparent attempt to make workers think their bosses were monitoring the mail. The warehouse workers voted against the union by a margin of more than two to one. “I work hard for my money, and I don’t want any of it going to a union that maybe can get us more pay, or maybe can get us longer breaks,” one worker explained to a reporter.
A longshot union drive at a single site in Alabama did not constitute a material threat to the profits of a $1.8 trillion global conglomerate, but it did represent a kind of ideological threat to the Amazon way. Embedded in the genetics of the company is a thirst for what in the world of logistics are called “efficiencies” — minuscule operational tweaks that can save a marginal amount of labor, resources, time, or money somewhere in the supply chain. Amazon routes its packages through a massive and sui generis network of sorting facilities to avoid paying contractors and middlemen. It uses mountains of data to prestock and presort items. It tracks successful items sold by third-party vendors, and clones those items so it can sell them through its own private-label brands. Together these efficiencies are more than the sum of their parts — in other words, they have allowed Amazon to obtain a world-swallowing competitive edge through the marginal reduction of operational outlays. If workers suffer, pass out, and die as a result of those reductions, that is, in a literal sense, the cost of doing business.
The most obvious result of Amazon’s obsessive focus on cost efficiencies is that the company became really, really, really big. Amazon employs more people than live in Raleigh, Oakland, or Miami, and the combined area of its real estate has grown more than fiftyfold over the past twenty years to at least 300 million square feet. It accounts for more than half of all digital retail sales in the United States and around ten percent of all retail sales, period. The towering corporation has cast a long material shadow through the country, and earlier this year a new book from the political journalist Alec MacGillis offered the fullest portrait of its influence to date. Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America attempts to trace what economists might call the “negative externalities” of Amazon’s power. MacGillis follows black families priced out of gentrifying Seattle, homeless workers in Dayton riding the city’s corrugated cardboard boom, and suburban neighbors in Virginia trying to prevent the construction of an enormous Amazon data center. One of the most shocking chapters follows the company’s almost colonial invasion of the city of El Paso, Texas, where Amazon killed off local office supply businesses by bribing and bullying third-party competitors.
MacGillis links Amazon’s rise not just with the obliteration of individual families and towns, but also to a growing divide “between a handful of winner-take-all metropolises and a large number of left-behind rivals,” a dynamic that is “making large parts of the country incomprehensible to one another.” Indeed, Amazon has become so massive and so powerful as to serve as a kind of synecdoche for the modern economy. Its gravitational pull feels less like that of an individual firm than that of an entire market. First it took on independent bookstores, then retailers like Staples and Bed Bath & Beyond, then private carriers like FedEx and UPS — and now, through the Postal Service, the government itself.
MacGillis argues rightly that the company only got so big because it cut corners and exploited workers, but there is something else going on here, something so omnipresent that it’s hard to see. It’s the reason package volumes at FedEx, UPS, and the USPS have grown even as Amazon has eaten up more and more of the delivery market, the reason cargo freighters are getting larger and delivery trucks of all kinds are becoming more plentiful. Amazon, “the everything store,” is selling something that many people seem to want — stuff, all kinds of stuff, delivered fast and at low cost. Everyone buys stuff, and for many years they didn’t seem to care all that much about who got it to them, or how they got it to them, or who got hurt in the process.
“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election,” then-President Donald Trump tweeted in March 2018. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!” Trump’s specific quarrel was with the USPS and Amazon’s shipping agreement, which gave the online retailer a bulk discount on the millions of packages it shipped through the Postal Service. Amazon relied on the Postal Service for around 40 percent of all parcel deliveries that year, according to one estimate, and the Postal Service was trying to retain the company’s business with lower rates.
That same year, my father began working for the Postal Service as a mail carrier in a non-union position at an understaffed station in Virginia. He soon found that most of his job was delivering packages for Amazon. As the company’s business boomed in the mid-2010s, it inundated the Postal Service with so many packages that its mail sorters and carriers could not keep up. An average mail carrier like my father often found himself forced to lift anywhere from dozens to hundreds of heavy packages every day, often returning to the station for a second delivery run if the day’s deliveries could not fit in a single truck; during the holiday season, management worked employees for 70 or 80 hours a week. The biggest client was Amazon, but it wasn’t the only source of the deluge. The Postal Service could not afford to hire additional workers to match the surge in packages — its labor force was shrinking every year — which meant fewer employees than ever were doing more work than before.
Things have not always been so bleak. For much of the twentieth century, the Postal Service had been a veritable bastion of labor power, the mirror image of a union-busting conglomerate like Amazon. Postal workers were among the first federal government employees to unionize, tangling with Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson for collective bargaining rights. As the scholar and former postal worker Philip Rubio recounts in his 2010 book, There’s Always Work at the Post Office, the mid-1900s saw a long series of postal strikes and sick-outs to protest unsafe working conditions and high mail volumes. These actions secured wage and overtime concessions, which made the Postal Service an attractive employer for many black workers who found themselves unable to get jobs in the private sector.
The growth of labor power at the service culminated in the Great Postal Strike of 1970, the largest wildcat strike in U.S. history. The New York-based action halted post office functions across the country and led President Richard Nixon to deploy more than 18,000 military service members to New York. The soldiers tried to deliver the mail themselves, but they couldn’t figure it out. Afterward, Congress reconstituted the Postal Service as an independent agency outside the Cabinet and extended collective bargaining rights to the entire workforce, which led to further gains for hundreds of thousands of postal workers. When Rubio started work at a Postal Service station in North Carolina in the 1980s, one of his coworkers told him that once he became a full-time employee, “they can’t get you out of here with a crowbar!’’
That was no longer the case by 2018. Even before the onslaught of Amazon packages, the Postal Service was on thin ice. Its struggles began in the early 2000s, when a Republican-controlled Congress mandated that the then-healthy agency pre-fund decades of employee retirement benefits, which cost the service billions of dollars a year. Then the one-two punch of the internet and the Great Recession caused a precipitous drop in mail volume, as companies stopped sending out as many hard-copy advertisements and magazines. The resultant decline in revenue made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Postal Service to sustain its retirement payments; soon officials stopped making them altogether. The service entered a kind of austerity limbo, trimming costs wherever it could even as it pleaded with Congress for relief from a debt it could not pay.
With the USPS in the red, the protections its union obtained eroded over a period of close to two decades: more than twenty percent of USPS workers are now temporary “non-career” employees without full benefits, up from thirteen percent in 2000. Hundreds of postal stations around the country face endemic staffing shortages; the most severe cases are often found in the rural areas where people rely on the Postal Service not only for routine deliveries but also for welfare checks, access to financial services, and letters from loved ones behind bars. Amazon has further strained this labor situation, forcing workers like my father to heave dozens more packages per day than they might have done twenty years earlier.
If Amazon and the Postal Service have a symbiotic relationship, there can be little doubt which occupies the dominant role. Amazon is one of the world’s most profitable companies; the Postal Service is a struggling public agency that is billions of dollars in debt. Amazon created half a million new jobs last year and also leased twelve new delivery jets, bringing its air fleet to 80 planes; the Postal Service has cut down its workforce by a quarter over the past decade and maintains an aging fleet of rusted mail trucks that often catch fire. Almost half of all people in the United States have subscriptions to Amazon Prime; USPS letter volumes have steadily declined since an early-2000s peak, dropping from 103 billion mailpieces to around 50 billion in twenty years.
By the time Trump began complaining about Amazon, the company was already working behind the scenes to free itself of the Postal Service. That year, Amazon hired several thousand of its own non-union delivery drivers and contracted millions of deliveries out to at least two other low-cost couriers. By late 2019, when its skeleton workforce had reached a suitable scale, the company began to redirect many urban package deliveries away from the unionized Postal Service and toward these contractors, with whom it could command even lower prices and more flexible labor standards. The Postal Service was already giving Amazon a discount, yes, but its workforce was unionized and labor costs were high, and the demand for stuff was greater than ever.
This was the sorry state of affairs in the spring of 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which dealt a body blow to the already beleaguered Postal Service: viral infections raged through the agency’s workforce, causing thousands of workers to miss their shifts even as a locked-down population ordered more and more packages over the internet. Two months into the lockdown, the Trump administration tapped GOP fundraiser Louis DeJoy to the position of Postmaster General. Almost at once, the previously unknown logistics executive announced a series of operational changes that he claimed would reduce excess overtime hours and shave labor costs. These tweaks further slowed the already halting pace of delivery, with the result that mail in places like Ohio and Michigan arrived days or weeks late.
These twin crises were only the latest chapters in a long saga of austerity, but the terror of the pandemic and DeJoy’s second-degree connections to Trump drew an unprecedented amount of attention to the plight of the agency. It also made the Postal Service a new object of political sympathy. The pandemic meant millions more mail-in ballots than in years past, and many liberals interpreted DeJoy’s meddling as an attempt to rig the election for Trump; meanwhile, an upsurge in appreciation for essential workers drew attention to the “boys in blue.” Memes and infographics spread across social media, valorizing the Postal Service first as a kind of Atlas figure for American democracy, and later as a sick patient appealing to GoFundMe to finance life-saving surgery. We all needed to chip in, setting out snacks for postal workers or helping the USPS by buying stamps and merchandise like the dog mail carrier costume that sold for $17.99. None of this did anything to help postal workers get the mail out: the Postal Service’s debt load stems from misguided Congressional management, not a decline in stamp sales.
The same belief in consumer activism has guided efforts to boycott Amazon — most recently around the Bessemer union vote — and, notably, the union itself disavowed the boycott. But the idea that everyday consumers have the power to intervene in the struggle between Amazon and the Postal Service is misguided because the structure of the delivery industry is dictated by something grander than individual demand. We cannot hurt Amazon by boycotting it for the same reason that we cannot improve factory conditions in China by refusing to buy Nike shoes: the macroscopic muscle of global demand will always trump the marginal sales hit that might result from “voting with one’s wallet.”
Despite the gulf between them, both Amazon and the Postal Service function as part of a much larger and much more insidious global supply chain. We can imagine the entities’ two respective workforces as different sectors of the same organization, an organization responsible for bringing everything, everywhere, to everyone. They are all “Delivery Boys,” as Trump put it, running errands for a gluttonous trade ecosystem that funnels billions of manufactured items from the third world to the first. That chain encompasses overseas shipping, transnational freight, package distribution, and parcel drop-off, all of which we can categorize under the heading of “logistics.”
The global trade system seems hegemonic and all-encompassing, but in fact it is only a few decades old. Not so long ago, a company created an item in a factory and shipped it to a store, then a consumer drove up to the store, bought the item, and took it home. It was prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to ship an item all the way around the world, so a great many goods originated in the same general area where they were sold. There was no such thing as “direct-to-consumer” commerce because individual consumers would not have been willing to pay the high prices such product deliveries would have required.
Seventy years later, none of those things are true. Leapfrog advances in marine shipping capacity led to the rise of “containerization,” the practice of shipping manufactured goods in metal containers that can be transferred easily from freighters to trains to trucks; the practice eliminated the need to sort through arriving product shipments and drastically reduced the cost of international shipping, which caused a surge in maritime traffic. Meanwhile, the formation of the World Trade Organization, the subsequent accession of China to the same, and the inking of NAFTA all incentivized American companies to offshore their manufacturing, recouping the cost of global shipping with the money they saved on labor. Even as companies outsourced the manufacture of their products from the United States, they insourced the delivery of their products through the creation of proprietary “distribution centers” where goods arriving from overseas could be sorted and shipped. The advent of the personal computer and the modern internet allowed consumers to bypass the physical store and cut in on this delicate logistical dance, opening the floodgates for what we now call e-commerce.
By now there can be no doubt that we live in a world that has been molded by logistics: a central premise of life in a developed nation like the United States is that you can order almost anything you need on the internet, whenever you need it, at low cost. More than 800 million shipping containers left a port in the year 2019, along with more than 103 billion parcels, well over a dozen for every person living on earth. By what seems to be an iron law of psychology, the infinite availability of goods has fostered even greater demand. Now, many people cannot imagine living without a surfeit of packages that once would have been impossible.
It is difficult to overstate our present reliance on the logistics industry. Around 80 percent of all retail goods travel by sea, and most of those travel in shipping containers. The number of warehouses in the United States has grown by almost 50 percent over the last decade, and the number of large warehouses has grown even faster. This year alone the United States added almost 250 million square feet of occupied warehouse space, almost one square foot for every adult in the country. E-commerce transactions now account for around ten percent of all retail sales, having more than doubled in size over the last ten years; that might not sound like a lot, but consider that another 40 percent of all sales consist of food, cars, and gasoline, all of which are tricky to send through the mail. This “industry” of delivery and storage is so entrenched that it’s hard to even think about opting out of it. Indeed, because Amazon has killed off so many local businesses, many people in rural areas now rely on e-commerce to deliver them items they can no longer go out and buy. The movement of stuff has become part and parcel, if you’ll excuse the pun, of ordinary life.
None of this changes the fact that the present delivery regime is not a net good or even a neutral feature of the modern economy. For one thing, it is bad for the climate. The maritime shipping industry generates about three percent of all global emissions; diesel trucks account for close to another ten percent; and single-use plastic, millions of tons of which are used in parcel shipments every year, is made from either petroleum or natural gas.
Beside its environmental costs, the system also depends on the exploitation of myriad workers, millions of them here in the United States and untold millions more overseas. Despite recent advancements in shipping capacity, moving stuff around the world is still very expensive, and the companies involved in this global trade need to protect their bottom lines. Even before the advent of e-commerce, protecting the bottom line almost always meant paying manufacturing and textile workers as little as humanly possible, and conditions are scarcely better today than they were when the WTO came into existence. The average factory worker in China still makes less than three dollars an hour, while the minimum wage for a worker in Cambodia is still below $200 a month; these workers are the backbone of the clothing and electronics industries, which have been fertile growth sectors for online retailers. The rise of containerization resulted in the laying off of thousands of longshoremen who had once sorted through arriving shipments. The creation of more than 600,000 new warehouse jobs over the past decade has more than made up the difference, but it also occasioned an enormous shift from union to non-union labor. One in every hundred American workers is employed by either Amazon, UPS, FedEx, or the Postal Service; meanwhile, Amazon and its Chinese counterpart Alibaba together employ more than a million people outside the U.S., a significant portion of whom work on a temporary basis. The overarching telos of this global exploitation, of course, is the sale and delivery of goods to first-world consumers.
That puts consumers in a morally compromised position. For as long as the current arrangement stays in place, manufacturing and delivery workers the world over will remain yoked together in poverty so that people in the first world can have unfettered access to whatever stuff they want. That system is so comprehensive that individuals cannot work against it by directing their money elsewhere. Although demand for stuff is the alpha and omega of the logistics economy, we cannot dismantle that economy by demanding less stuff one person at a time.
If we wanted to change the way the logistics economy functions, we would have to attack the strange and vulnerable terrain of logistics itself — not the goods, but the network that moves them. What matters is not so much where we spend our money on stuff or even whether we spend our money on stuff, but how we undermine the total global dominance of a system premised on exploitation and pollution. In order to do so, we would need to engage in a political action that transcends the consumer logic of a boycott.
I had a friend in college who used to fantasize about a particular kind of worldwide political action: organizing workers to shut down one of the logistics chokepoints through which almost all shipping containers and parcels must pass on their way to your house and mine. We lived in Chicago at the time, less than 50 miles away from Elwood, Illinois, the site of an intermodal freight terminal that serves as a central hub for mega-companies like Amazon and Walmart. Thousands of shipping containers arrive by train every day at the so-called “inland port” and are stored for a short time in the hundreds of warehouses nearby. Workers in these facilities sort the stuff, load it onto trucks, and spirit goods away to retail stores for companies like Home Depot and Target, but also Amazon fulfillment centers, and then post offices, and then doorsteps. From above the complex resembles a vast parking lot, except instead of cars there are shipping containers full of stuff.
The enormity of a place like this, my friend liked to argue, was also its vulnerability — the bigger they are, the harder they fall. If a few hundred people managed to block the exits to that terminal, they could hold the entire national supply chain hostage, damming the flow of both e-commerce and traditional retail. Packages would cease to show up at post offices and warehouses, and then fail to show up at people’s doors. Store shelves would start to empty; prices would rise; industries would spasm.
If this sounds implausible, recall for a second the lodging of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, which stopped transcontinental trade for days on end, precipitated price hikes, and delayed shipments for months afterward. The past year has provided myriad examples of how a snarl in the supply chain can have drastic consequences. Virus outbreaks at poultry plants, for instance, caused sudden chicken wing shortages. A brief ransomware hack of an oil pipeline sent gas prices soaring across the southeast United States. The shortage in semiconductors, meanwhile, has jacked up the price of new cars.
It’s not hard to imagine bringing about a crisis like the Ever Given crash on purpose. All you would have to do is surround a freight terminal, jam an interstate, block the exits to a warehouse, and you would hold the reins of the modern economy. The supply shock that resulted from such a disruption would be a far more effective political cudgel than any attempt at crowdfunding or boycotting, any attempt to vote with one’s wallet. The effect of an action like the one I am describing would be the same as that of the 1970 postal wildcat strike or, to choose a more contemporary example, the oil pipeline destruction advocated by the climate saboteur Andreas Malm. By restricting the flow of stuff, we reveal the extent of our reliance on it. By revealing that reliance, we also reveal our reliance on the exploitation that enables its existence. By revealing our reliance on exploitation, we invite consideration of alternatives — and, just maybe, we force consumers to think outside the cardboard box, to step outside the economic structure that hurls iPhones and yoga mats at them from the far reaches of the world.
Of course such an action would not cause the existing structure to collapse. It would screw over many people and inconvenience a great many more; it would be branded as terrorism, decried by most of the political spectrum, and responded to with savage force. But it would also represent a preliminary step in the long process of building a fairer and more sustainable world. To engage in such an action would be to take to its logical conclusion an essential premise of the modern world: stuff stops moving not when we close our wallets and our web browsers, but when we throw a spanner in the works.
Jake Bittle is a staff writer for Grist covering climate impacts and adaptation. His book The Great Displacement is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in February 2023.