I may be the only person who’s worked for both Columbia University and Columbia House. The former, you ought to know. As for the latter, if you’re under the age of 30, you may not know that your parents did some wacky stuff to buy music. Long before streaming, they may have responded to a magazine ad offering 12 CDs (or DVDs) for a penny. The leader in this music (or video) “club” business was Columbia House, and in my first job out of college, I spent nearly a year trying to figure out how to save the company millions of dollars in postage.
I was a consultant based at Columbia House’s pick-pack-and-ship warehouse in Terre Haute, IN. If you’ve never been to Terre Haute, imagine a slice of Alabama in Western Indiana with a dollop of hometown hero Larry Bird. Columbia House put me up at the best hotel in town, Larry Bird’s Boston Connection, where the gift shop sold Larry Bird playing cards, chocolates, and doll outfits, and the walls, bedspreads, shower curtains, soaps, and mouthwash were festooned with Larry Bird’s face.
When I wasn’t marveling at Larry’s handsome visage or having dinner in the Boston Garden dining room, I lived and breathed direct mail. I learned more about postage that year than anyone should reasonably know including playing zip code guessing games (60543? That’s Oswego, IL) and learning to read bar codes (ample free time in the evenings). Fortunately, there were plenty of opportunities for savings. The Columbia House offer was a bait-and-switch that raised the ire of many “club members.” After receiving 12 CDs for a penny, they were on the hook for 6 CDs at full price plus $6.99 “shipping and handling” (a shipping and handling bill that more than paid for the cost of duplicating and shipping 12 “free” CDs – musicians were paid nothing because they were free). One day as I was exploring a corner of the cavernous warehouse, I came across a big pile of heavy objects – bricks, boxes of keys and rocks. Turns out there was a connection to my task. Angry club members would affix return envelope postal indicia to the heaviest items they could find and mail them back at Columbia House’s expense.
Columbia House warehouse workers didn’t have a union (i.e., Indiana in the 1990s). But from what I observed, they sure could have used one. These were repetitive, hard jobs. And while the Internet killed Columbia House, it did the opposite for pick-pack-and-ship; 1.5M Americans now work in these jobs requiring 10-hour shifts and where tracking employee churn would make your head spin faster than a Columbia House CD. So pick-pack-and-ship unionization efforts should be of interest to everyone who shops online, starting with Amazon.
The New York Times recently ran a report contrasting organizing challenges at Amazon with successes at another frontline worker giant: Starbucks. While workers at about 25 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize (and over 250 other stores have filed), only one Amazon warehouse has declared solidarity forever while unions have lost three votes at two other warehouses. The Times chalked it up to difficulties securing votes from 50%+ of all workers at huge facilities and – in stark contrast to latté bonhomie – lack of contact with other warehouse workers while on the job.
What the Times didn’t do was ask whether Starbucks and Amazon have different employee profiles. Urban and suburban Starbucks stores appeal to younger, liberal workers more likely to order cappuccino and attend college. In contrast, exurban Amazon warehouses attract somewhat older workers who drink McDonald’s coffee and either never went to college or dropped out. Notably, at the one Amazon warehouse that voted to unionize (in New York City), union leadership was chock full o’ college graduates, including one with a Ph.D.
I’m less worried about Starbucks workers than Amazon workers. Not because unions will have their backs, and not because it looks like President Biden – against the better judgement of pretty much everyone (here, here, here, here, and here) – is going to forgive their loans. But because Starbucks workers continue to trust institutions like unions. And even though many tried college and dropped out, and others graduated into Starbizzle underemployment, they still believe in higher education institutions; nearly 900 graduated earlier this month from ASU’s Starbucks program. Not surprisingly, there’s a correlation between trust in college and trust in unions. About 70% of college graduates support unions, up from 55% a generation ago.
Amazon workers are breaking the hearts of union leaders because – unlike their coffee-loving comrades – they don’t trust unions or universities. When Amazon looked to establish an upskilling program a decade ago, it didn’t offer tuition reimbursement for off-the-shelf online degrees. Instead, Amazon set up its own program, Career Choice: custom-designed in-warehouse training programs to address local labor market needs. (It was only earlier this year – in the throes of a labor shortage and under pressure to keep up with the Joneses (and Chipotles) – that Amazon caved and began offering the same old tuition benefit for off-the-shelf online degrees.)
Thinking about the Columbia House warehouse, I get it. When you add decades of difficulties for communities like Terre Haute to decades of condescending Fox News lectures about how the government, the media – pretty much everyone you used to look up to – is looking down on you, it’s hard to trust any institution.
Last year I wrote about the Academy Award-winning film Nomadland and how the protagonist, an Amazon warehouse worker, didn’t even consider community college. It never came up. Nor did free community college or student loan forgiveness or unions. Dislocated, disaffected Amazon warehouse workers who drive an hour each way (paying for gas) to work for $15-18 per hour have been kicked around so long, their reflex is that anyone who wants to give them a hand is probably trying to screw them (and is almost certainly looking down at them). This is hardly a new phenomenon: see candidate Barack Obama calling white working class Americans “bitter” (2008), What’s the Matter with Kansas (2004), and pretty much the entire state of West Virginia (2000 to present). But it’s for this reason that the immediate answer for Amazon workers and their frontline confrères doesn’t lie with colleges, unions, or government programs. It’s not realistic to expect Amazon workers to welcome into their lives a new institution liable to be viewed as looking down from on high or trying to cheat them.
But zero confidence in all institutions, including unions and colleges, raises a sobering question. If Amazon workers won’t accept government help or charity, what options are there for socioeconomic mobility?
You know who doesn’t look down on Amazon workers? Amazon. Same with other employers who depend on their labor to stay in business. That’s a big reason why companies – for all their many flaws, and contrary to the instincts of progressive politicians who view profits as inherently predatory – remain America’s most trusted institution. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, 61% of Americans trust business, ahead of nonprofits at 59%, government at 52%, and media at 50%. Critically, when that business is your employer, trust goes way up. “The relationship between employer and employee [is] incredibly important,” says Edelman, because “ 77% trust their employer.” And while that number could be quite a bit lower for Amazon warehouse workers, it's likely their employer is the trust equivalent of the tallest midget; Amazon is primed to help its workers.
Because trust is out-of-stock, we’d all be better off if unions and colleges began assuming they’re not trusted by the Amazon workers they want to help. Colleges should stop trying to foist off-the-shelf online degrees and unions should stop enabling colleges that are (I’m talking to you AFSCME, IAMAW, OPEIU, and UFCW). So press pause on trying to sell wares that require trust and instead prioritize helping frontline workers regain trust in institutions. The best way to do this is to leverage the one they still (mostly) trust and help employers design and deploy intra-enterprise pathways taking workers from frontline job A to backoffice job B, where job B clearly benefits both employee and employer.
Amazon needs help building these pathways. If it didn’t, it would have already built them. Because Amazon hasn’t figured out how to bridge the chasm between its warehouse jobs and good jobs, Career Choice isn’t training warehouse workers for the tens of thousands of unfilled entry-level admin and developer positions at Amazon, but rather for outplacement. And even though Career Choice benefits Amazon (lowering unsustainably high churn), it still smells fishily like philanthropy. What Amazon workers need are employer-run mobility programs that seem like a square deal because clearly in Amazon’s interest.
Although education-as-a-benefit providers like Guild and education platform companies like Coursera have a head start on enterprise pathways, it’s a massive opportunity with tens of millions of frustrated frontline trust-shorn workers. But whether too staid, timid, or simply because it's too hard, colleges haven't yet ventured to properly serve Americans who need them most. Not one is approaching employers and offering to assess skill needs of high-volume positions or proposing to deconstruct off-the-shelf undergraduate and graduate/professional courses and incorporate industry-recognized certifications in order to develop bespoke enterprise curricula. And for the same reason that Amazon started Career Choice in warehouse classrooms, it’s a fair bet that the most successful enterprise pathways won’t be entirely online. Completion will require onground engagement that local colleges can organize and deliver.
I think we’ve all lost a bit of trust. I trusted Larry Bird to preserve his Terre Haute shrine. But like a good deal of Middle America in the past generation, the hotel closed and was converted to a “Quality” Inn, prompting this review: “I was extremely disappointed in this hotel that was formerly Larry Bird's Boston Connection hotel… The hotel was filthy from the dirty/stained carpets, stained mattresses, filthy windows, stained/dirty furniture, to the missing peep hole in the door…. I needed to switch rooms 3 times to find a working TV.”
With their various baits-and-switches, my former employers – Columbias House, University – haven’t helped matters. But we are where we are. And where we are is a trust gap that is not only diminishing productivity and happiness, but also costing lives. In a New York Times analysis comparing Covid deaths in the U.S. and Australia, America’s trust deficit was deemed the ultimate cause of our 10x death rate (not to mention susceptibility to lies about a grab bag of topics politicized by opportunistic elites and/or the insane, including child trafficking, elections, and baby formula).
If colleges can help Amazon build enterprise pathways for pickers-packers-shippers, workers will begin to see the system isn’t biased against them (no conspiracies!), but rather than it can work. They’ll see that, starting with employers, institutions aren’t necessarily looking down on them or trying to cheat them. Once frontline workers are on the trust track, unions and colleges can recommence selling that dream they like to sell.
Frontline workers want work, but not dead-end work. They want work with real opportunity for advancement. There may be no other way to reach dislocated and disaffected Americans who don’t want a handout.