‘The Cost of Free Shipping?’ Living in the Age of Amazon Capitalism, by Mostafa Henaway

Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese, The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. London: Pluto Press, 2020. 320 pp. $33.73 CAD paper.

During this long Covid-19 pandemic, those of us who have purchased something online have most likely done so via Amazon. When that precious package with a smiley face arrives at our doorsteps, it summons feelings of awe, bewilderment and guilt. The package arrives as the epitome of consumer convenience, the head-spinning result of a vast system of marketing and logistics unprecedented on the planet, little of it visible to the consumer. But – at what cost does this convenience come?

That’s the leading question in this ground-breaking collection of essays, edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese, The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. They go beyond the standard narrative presented by Amazon and its proponents, one that salutes the company’s cutting-edge technology and its innovative commitment to customer satisfaction. (As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos constantly reminds the public and his investors, his world-beating wealth derives from consumers’ access to a vast selection of goods at the lowest price and the fastest speed). As one of the book’s strongest chapters, by labour writer Kim Moody, points out, the company’s global rise is in many ways just a repeat of “what robber barons have always done: raise, spend, and sometimes lose other people’s money, dodge taxes, swindle suppliers, and avoid unions” (21-2).

I write as a former Amazon associate. (One term sometimes applied to us: the “Amazonians”). The consequences of “Amazon capitalism” are vividly etched on my mind. In the summer of 2021, I worked night after night at the delivery station in Laval, Quebec – packing and stowing in 10-hour shifts. Like most workers, I tried to get through the shift safely, looking forward merely to going home and getting some sleep. There was not much time to reflect on how Amazon is changing the world. But every so often, alone in the aisles or along the conveyor belt, you could suddenly awaken to the scope and intensity of the changes this leviathan represents.

Amazon is at the forefront of the changing nature of work. Its vast warehouses, its precarious workforce, its rule-through-algorithm: in all these ways and more, Amazon is reshaping what kind of work most of us will be doing in the future. “Work hard, have fun, and make history”: many Amazon employees hear that mantra every day. But – what kind of history will that be?

As a labour organizer inside an Amazon facility, I would like that history to be one of working-class resistance, not corporate dominance. Amazon confronts those of us who imagine our economy and society might someday be organized to provide decent, stable jobs for all, with a stark working model of the dystopian opposite. And because it is being ruthlessly imposed by the one of the largest employers in the wealthiest country in the world, the US, Amazon capitalism, say the editors, “represents a significant shift in the global political economy” (1). The costs of free shipping – for workers, communities, and the environment – are exorbitant and growing.

Amazon has succeeded, as has no other firm in contemporary history, in revolutionizing logistics (i.e., the theory and practice of managing how resources are obtained, stored, and moved to their final destinations). Amazon now operates nearly 2,057 facilities globally ranging from fulfilment and sortation centres, delivery stations, and Airhubs.[1]

“Amazon Warehouse.” Image by Scott Lewis (CC BY 2.0).

For Amazon to achieve the capacity for fast and free shipping, requires an ever-expanding – and capital-intensive – network of distribution centres and internal supply chain. Such physical investments in warehouses locks Amazon (for all its futuristic atmosphere of dominating e-commerce to transform history) into particular spaces in particular countries.  It has created a vast logistics infrastructure, from the fulfillment centres, Amazon air hubs, and last-mile delivery networks – i.e., the final steps of good delivery, “ensuring Amazon Prime packages are delivered on time to a consumer’s place of residence (or increasingly a neighbourhood Amazon locker), through the Amazon Flex program and the Amazon Delivery Service Provider (DSP) program” (69). It wields incalculable power in the world of e-commerce.

Yet logistics are only a part of the pattern. Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s cash cow, have come to predominate in cloud computing. Untold levels of surveillance are another Amazon innovation. Its Ring system, acquired in 2018, offers consumers advanced security and the corporation potential access to vast troves of their data. Amazon’s facial-recognition software (Rekognition) is now favoured by police departments in the US, and of interest to Homeland Security and ICE. On the basis of the existing architecture of the global economy, Amazon has become a global retailer, with many thousands of suppliers subservient to its prices and deadlines. With the purchase of Whole Foods in the US, it has become that country’s fifth largest grocer. And Amazon’s political influence, bolstered by scores of lobbyists, was obvious in the competition it launched among cities to become the site of its second headquarters (HQ2), as well as in its impact on its home town, Seattle, where it occupies almost 20% of office real estate, turning the West Coast metropolis into a veritable company town.

Such global patterns are encapsulated Amazon’s general profile with respect to capital and labour. Amazon’s market capitalization of $1.7 trillion (USD) is larger than the GDP registered by 92% of the world’s states – indeed, larger than that of Mexico, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, respectively.[2] By the end of 2021, Amazon globally employed 1.468 million full-time and part-time workers, with an additional 150,000 seasonal employees. And even those daunting statistics are underestimates, because they do not include the hundreds of thousands employed by Amazon’s suppliers, many of them dependent on the corporation to purchase their products, nor the estimated 260,000 (often racialized and brutally overworked) drivers who are key to getting packages through to that “last mile.”


The Cost of Free Shipping encourages us to see Amazon’s warehouses – in some ways the most tangible and most traditional-seeming of its tentacles  – as sites of something new, places reminiscent of Henry Ford’s assembly-lines, yet with ominous new implications for workers. As historian Kim Moody points out in an invaluable chapter, Amazon emerged in a particular time and place. The Dot Com boom was accompanied by widespread commercialization of the internet and far-reaching advances in information communications technology – two developments indispensable to Amazon’s growth. And Amazon’s emergence was greatly facilitated by the prior model of Wal-Mart, which, during the 1980s,  was considered revolutionary in its logistics model. “Cross Docking,” whereby products go into a warehouse and leave immediately, took just-in-time delivery to a new level. In this model, there is no actual cost of warehousing, and thus the role of the warehouse is simply distribution – not storage. This allows for lowering the costs of logistics operations. The package arriving so conveniently at your door is the result of these breakthroughs – in its own modest way, it demonstrates something epochal: the collapse of space through time intrinsic to capitalist modernity.

The Quebec delivery station where I worked exemplified this workplace revolution. In one sense, it seemed very different, both from Ford’s heartless assembly lines and other warehouses I’ve worked in.  It was well-organized and capital-intensive. Amazon professed to care about its workers, providing them with a training room (featuring trainers from other facilities), lunches, free coffee, vending machines, even extra boots (just in case).  

In other ways, though, Amazon has taken Ford’s assembly-line model and accentuated its alienating features. Its workers are subjected to inhumane pressure. In her chapter, Ellen Reese shows how Amazon’s use of technology for the management and organization of labour represents both continuity and change  within capitalism. The precise monitoring of workers’ actions has long been the goal of ‘scientific management,’ but Amazon has made that goal a reality – and then some. The editors point out Amazon’s unique use of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and robots, all to “further exploit, discipline, and control workers, increase labor efficiency, direct, evaluate, and discipline workers in Amazon facilities” (5). (Other scholars speak of “algocratic” – i.e., “rule by algorithm”– modes of organization (86)).

As a former Amazon worker, this rings true. Inside Amazon, technology is present at the center of your work. And it can also be sensed working quietly in the background. Through algocratic rule, the corporation is able to measure your efficiency and to discipline you if you fall short of its targets.

Technological management permeates every minute of an Amazon worker’s day. One comes into contact with it even before becoming an Amazon employee. Applying for a job at Amazon, at least in my experience, entailed no interview. You take an online test assessing your capacities for loyalty to the team. You are sent the contract (and even a voucher for safety boots.) Until you show up at the career office (to have your photo taken and ID double-checked), the process unfolds with no human interaction whatsoever. The in-person training that follows is focused not so much on health and safety but on the use of the technology – particularly your TCI (target-controlled infusion) device. This device, resembling a large smart-phone, is constantly connected to your finger scanner. It becomes your boss. It determines most every move of the stowers, pickers and packers at Amazon. It instructs you which box goes into which tote bag. It tells you on which rack an item you need to pick up is located. The device can then track the package. If a parcel is scanned and then labelled, it becomes part of the broader platform. The program records to which aisle a given package was sent. If I mistakenly put it in the wrong bag, the system was alerted. This level of efficiency allows managers to know which packages have gone missing, in warehouses routinely processing tens of thousands of packages per day.

Your supervisors monitor your rates from the other side of the warehouse in real time. Their agents stroll the aisles with laptops, performing three-minute audits that establish your rates. They themselves are under tremendous pressure. The top operational managers, supervisors, PAs (process assistants) and Assistant PAs – all of them have quotas, likely determined in Seattle and handed down via programming. They are glued to laptops and stroll about the facility as team leaders and supervisors. Those who are not on their level (like low-level warehouses workers) relate more to scanners and TCIs. But, everyone inside the warehouse is under intense, unrelenting pressure.

This is the crux of Amazon. If, as in Henry Ford’s day, the interests of workers and management are opposed, what is ominously original in Amazon’s case is that both are in turn regulated through abstractions – algorithms – endowed with far-from-abstract power over one’s working life.

Even the supervisors have no control over the algorithm. In my experience, supervisors would sometimes beg workers to respect the rules, because they too were subject to the discipline of daily reports. AI-facilitated “Amazonification” means close-to-total control over the work process – and, thanks to the Amazon Business Analytics platform, now offered to other companies, this disciplinary framework is likely to become a widespread feature of capitalist production more generally. It holds out the promise of dizzying new levels of control, efficiency and profits.

Amazon has extended its philosophy of near-total control to its own vans, where cameras provide, every six minutes, reports and analyses of drivers’ behaviour – ­ostensibly on the grounds of safety, in reality to tighten the corporation’s grip on work processes. Similarly, during Covid-19, the corporation used safety-based arguments to intensify the intense disciplinary regime in its warehouses.  

Amazon has created a lethally efficient logistics model. It places inhumane pressure on its employees.


“Demonstrations in over 50 Cities in the U.S. to support the Alabama Amazon Union.” Image by Joe Piette (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

A predictable consequence of Amazon’s algocracy has been the fragmentation of its labour force, with vast implications for workers’ health and safety. In his chapter in The Cost of Free Shipping, “A Struggle for Bodies and Souls: Amazon Management and Union Strategies in France and Italy,” sociologist Francesco Massimo, for years a dedicated researcher into Amazon, offers a particularly striking portrait of the corporation’s strategy of divide-and-conquer. (For me, this was one of the most chilling chapters in this book.) Massimo  points to how Amazon’s division of labour “is so intense that a few hours are usually enough to train workers to perform these tasks. This allows management to allocate the workforce in terms of organizational needs and in an arbitrary way, favouring some workers instead of others, thus dividing the workforce” (130). Management’s strategy is not based solely on coercion. It also entails the workers’ buy-in, a key factor in their resisting unionization.

Particularly effective are the corporation’s promises to workers of promotions within the ranks. The lure of promotion tempts some workers to placate their bosses. Those disappointed in their quest of a higher rung on the ladder are sometimes resentful of those who climbed higher than they did. As Massimo remarks, “Another way in which workers and managers are under the same pressure involves careers. Workers cannot expect to radically improve their career in Amazon in terms of wage and position. A few of the ‘associates’ become team leaders; becoming a manager is a rare exception” (137). Still, the possibility of advancement exists. Alternatively, one might contemplate less ambitious “horizontal” moves within the workplace that might solve at least a few of the problems a given worker confronts. These, too, often depend on currying favour.

This chapter rang true for me. I was constantly reminded how grateful I should be that I started out wearing a blue badge, not a white badge. Blue badges signify permanence and some benefits; those with white badges lack both. Many workers, even supervisors, told me stories about how hard they had worked to move from white-badge to blue-badge status. The dangling of promises of permanence, of promotions, of more prestigious job titles is a critical aspect of Amazon’s management process.

Amazon has thus skillfully elicited many workers’ consent to a model that exploits them. Workers are encouraged to suggest changes to the workplace. It even provides “MyVoice,” a board where workers can express their thoughts. Amazon enables workers to organize carpooling. Workers were encouraged through games and prizes to feel like part of the Amazon family. Those who were religious could access a multi-faith sanctuary.

And above and beyond such tactics is the harsh fact, especially during the pandemic, of working-class precarity. Many inside Amazon may not like their jobs and find them physically taxing. But they are “real jobs,” offering at least some health benefits and pensions. Unlike Dollarama and other giant retail corporations, Amazon has eschewed being dominated by temporary workers.

As always, such “benefits” come with strings attached. As detailed in the book, and confirmed by own experience, many workers quit well before they can access many of them. The turnover rate at Amazon is 150%, meaning the corporation changes its entire workforce every eight months. It is a highly fragmenting pattern, inimical to the formation of a labour tradition. The same can be said of the punishing daily scheduling of work. People work on “super cycles,” now standard across Amazon, meaning they can work either night or day (in the former case, starting at 1 a.m. and going until noon the next day, four days in a row). This leaves many of them unable to talk with each other, let alone organize.

Amazon also benefits from racialized and gendered divisions. In “Gender, Race, and Amazon Warehouse Labor in the United States,” Reese focuses on Inland California, one of the largest hubs of Amazon employees. Many Amazon workers here are racialized immigrants. The division of labour is stark. White males predominate in management, racialized workers at the lowest levels. “It was mainly black and brown bodies, and the only white people were managers,” says one worker of her warehouse (104). And although some women wanted to be forklift drivers, they were (implicitly) discouraged from entertaining any such idea in a male-dominated sphere.

One of the most heartbreaking discussions in The Cost of Free Shipping addresses the consequences of Amazonification on families. The corporation’s scheduling drives families apart. Ten-hour shifts make it virtually impossible for parents to care for their children. In an interview with one worker, Reese highlights how Amazon forces mothers and families to make a stark choice between Amazon or poverty. “Clara, a single mother, who typically worked more than 40 hours per week. and as many as 70 hours per week during peak season as a process assistant, would pick her young son up when he was already asleep from her sister’s house. As she described, ‘So I would just watch him sleep. That was the only time I would get to see him’” (111-2). As a parent myself, I could appreciate her comment. When I worked at Amazon, I left my house at 11:30 p.m. to reach the warehouse at 1 a.m. I returned home at 2 p.m. the next day. This left 30 minutes a day to interact with my child.

Once again, Amazon is not doing something brand new in seeking to squeeze as much labour out of workers, with scant regard for their personal needs. Such has been capitalism’s longstanding pattern. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ideal of “8 hours work, 8 hours leisure, 8 hours rest” became part of organized labour’s program for reforming the workplaces dominated by ten- or even twelve-hour days. Now, thanks to the round-the-clock, just-in-time working philosophy of corporations like Amazon, that motto seems to come from an idyllic past. Jeff Bezos champions “work-life harmony,” not work-life balance: you should be so compelled by your work that what you do in your leisure time shrinks to insignificance.


Yet, although it offers us grim documentation of the power of Amazon’s vast empire, The Cost of Free Shipping also offers us an insight into the leviathan’s acute weaknesses.

The key to Amazon’s vulnerability is its heavy reliance on human labour at every critical point across its vast logistics network. And some of those workers are stationed at “choke-points,” strategically decisive places in production whose indispensability creates at least the possibility of their empowerment.

“Philly Solidarity with Starbucks, Amazon & all workers organizing!” Image by Joe Piette (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

As Nantina Vgontzas remarks in her chapter, “A New Industrial Working Class? Challenges in Disrupting Amazon’s Fulfillment Process in Germany,” for all that deindustrialization and the service economy has weakened organized labour throughout the Global North, the rise of Amazon effectively provides it with an opportunity for re-emergence. If Amazon workers were organized across the global supply chains they facilitate, coordinating their efforts “within fulfillment centers, across regions, and between nodes in Amazon’s networks, from fulfillment centers to the tech offices that optimize fulfillment work” (126),  they could disrupt not just the production of goods (as in previous periods) but also their circulation throughout the economy. Amazon workers might represent a “new industrial working class,” with a collective capacity to operate globally and nationally and to challenge the socio-economic system under which we all live.  

The irony is this: Amazonification, with its capital-intensive facilities and tight supply chains and promise of near-instant consumer gratification, also entails acute vulnerability to disruption. And any such disruption can have an immediate effect on the corporation’s bottom line.

In my experience, this vulnerability was evident every day on the shop floor.  Because I was part of the last-mile delivery system, I developed a sharp insight into how vulnerable just-in-time scheduling rendered Amazon. To ensure overnight and next-day delivery, we had to work zealously to prevent any stoppage or bottleneck. Late trucks spelled trouble. At least potentially, the workers in the “last mile” possessed significant leverage.  

A second source of vulnerability, as Moody points out, is provided by some competition in the US from the likes of Wal-Mart and Target, and, further afield, even more strenuous competition. In much of the world outside the US, Amazon is not the dominant player. (In India, for example, local firms still hold a larger market share). For Moody, this means Amazon is driven even further to invest in productivity, and this entails more fixed capital. As he tells us, “Amazon’s  annual investment in property and equipment rose from $979 million in 2010 to $13.4 billion in 2018,” and almost all of it was focused in logistic facilities (22).  

Such high fixed costs and capital come with vulnerabilities. Any strike or slowdown means higher costs and lost prestige for Amazon.[3]

Many workers have grasped that the same “just-in-time” philosophy that makes their work lives so stressful and often dangerous provides many grounds for effective organization. Amazon in Europe (where it confronts a partially unionized workforces in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain) has been hit with many workers’ struggles. In Germany, Amazon faced one of the most prolonged of them. It moved facilities to Poland to secure cheaper labour and allow it to reroute its fulfillment process.

This strategy has only partially worked, as Amazon is not monolithic across the world. In their chapter, Jörn Boewe and Johannes Schulten look at “Amazon strikes in Europe: Seven Years of Industrial Action, Challenges, and Strategies.” If German workers, long working within an industrial relations system offering union safeguards, launched in 2013 the first major strike in the corporation’s history, feature prominently in their account, they also note rebellions in Poland, which suggest “how international networking can help to counter Amazon’s attempts to play different locations off against each other” (213). They reveal that workers at the Polish Amazon FC (Fulfillment Centre) in Poznán launched spontaneous protests when told their shifts were going to be extended by an hour. They acted in solidarity with workers in Germany. In Poland, about 400 Amazon workers have joined a grassroots union, OZZ (inicjatywa Pracownicza, Workers’ Initiative), with ties to Ver.di, the German-based United Trade Service Union. Workers’ actions can bloody the nose of the giant, especially if they are strategized with a realistic sense of its global vulnerabilities and their own potential strengths.   


Amazon, then, is not all-powerful. True, at the end of a ten-hour overnight shift, stepping into the noon-day light from the vast warehouse with its robots and forklifts, the question arises: “Who will resist this?” From the global labour movement, some interesting answers are emerging. The Cost of Free Shipping details many of the organizations fighting Amazon and their struggles against it.

The rank-and-file workers’ organization inside Amazon have won significant battles over the issues of clean drinking water, paid time off for part-time workers in the US, and Covid-19 safety measures (although masks and cleaning supplies were not adequate to the situation). They made significant gains by building genuine relationships and a community of Amazon workers uniting on common issues.

The book also offer us hope by detailing the successful fight in New York City by a broad coalition to block HQ2 made up of local trade unions, community organizations, workers’ centres, and immigrant justice groups.  As discussed by Steve Lang and Filip Stabrowski in their chapter, “Lessons from New York City’s Struggle Against Amazon HQ2 in Long Island City,” after staging its contest to see which North American city would offer it the lushest incentive package, Amazon focused on greater New York. It was offered $3 billion (USD) in public subsidies from the city and state governments, in exchange for its “building 4–8 million square feet of office space on the East River waterfront and creating 25,000 jobs averaging $150,000 per year (over ten years)” (161).

Critics perceived the Long Island City scheme as an affront to local democracy, to workers, and to racialized New Yorkers, who were bound to experience (as had Seattle residents earlier) the full “Amazon Effect” of gentrification. A powerful grassroots campaign, uniting organized labour and social movements, blocked the project.

In “The CEO Has No Clothes: Worker Leadership and Amazon’s Failures During COVID-19,” Dania Rajendra focuses on Athena, “a coalition of worker, community policy, and other non-governmental organizations” that was launched in November 2019, months ahead of the pandemic (238). Bringing together over 40 organizations from immigrant justice, trade unions, environmental organizations, and local communities to demand the overall accountability of Amazon to workers, communities, and the environment, Athena has played a significant role in rousing the public to the desperate plight of Amazonians in their confrontations with an employer reluctant to compromise its just-in-time philosophy in the interests of workers’ safety, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Despite its immense power in our economy and society, it is clear that Amazon is vulnerable to workers’ actions and community organizing. As Sheheryar Kaoosji – he is the founder and executive director of the Warehouse Workers Resource Centre, focusing on Southern California’s Amazon-dependent Inland Empire – remarks in his chapter, “Worker and Community Organizing to Challenge Amazon’s Algorithmic Threat,” there have been many challenges in the region to the corporation’s hegemony, which “represent a community coming to terms with the domination that Amazon has established in the region and drawing a line in terms of much a community is willing to take” (205).

Challenging Amazon – through workplace struggles and community engagement –  is about much more than Amazon. It is a struggle for our democracy and a better vision based on equality, not a system that produces the Jeff Bezoses of the world. Those in quest of a non-dystopian vision of a conceivable future will find many ideas, inspiring figures, and rewarding insights in The Cost of Free Shipping.

Mostafa Henaway is a community organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre and a PhD candidate at Concordia University, whose research focuses on the economic geography of Amazons logistics infrastructure. He is also a former Amazonian.

[1] For insights, see “Amazon Global Supply Chain and Fulfillment Center Network,” on the web-page of Montreal-based MWPVL, specialists in International, Global Supply Chain and Logistics Consulting, https://www.mwpvl.com/html/amazon_com.html. In Canada, by the end of 1921, it had expanded from 28 to 42 facilities.

[2] See Omri Wallach, “The World’s Tech Giants, Compared to the Size of Economies,” Visual Capitalist, 7 July 2021, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/the-tech-giants-worth-compared-economies-countries/.

[3] See Todd Bishop, “Amazon: Labor now ‘primary capacity constraint’ even as workforce approaches 1.5 million,” Geekwire, 28 October 2021, https://www.geekwire.com/2021/amazon-labor-become-primary-capacity-constraint-even-workforce-approaches-1-5-million/.