Only about 11 percent of U.S. workers are in unions — down from 20 percent just three decades ago. It's different in Germany, where most workers are covered by collective bargaining.
That cultural difference is causing a clash between Amazon, the Seattle-based online retail giant, and its German workers.
Bad Hersfeld is best known as a picturesque festival and spa town in central Germany. But it's also home to two Amazon fulfillment centers that employ more than 3,000 people.
One of those workers is Nancy Becker. She came to Germany as an exchange student from the United States, married a German man and stayed. Becker is now 61 and she has worked at the Amazon fulfillment center for 13 years.
"It wasn't that hard work," Becker says. "I was a picker at the time. And we didn't have that much stress. As Amazon grew in Germany, then the pressure on the people here ... yeah, do this do more, more, more kept growing year for year for year."
Along with more demands, Amazon did offer more. Workers in Bad Hersfeld get 28 days of paid vacation a year; that's four more paid vacation days than required by law.
But Becker is unhappy because she and the other workers are classified as logistic workers. They want to be classified as retail workers. That pays more. In Germany, virtually all salaries are determined by these job classifications.
According to Verdi, the service workers union, Amazon fulfillment center wages start at 1,631 euros per month [about $2,150] and go up to 2,348 euros [$3,100]. The union said the change would provide 7,000 more euros [$9,200] for the average worker each year.
Amazon officials declined to speak on the record. But in a written statement, the company said its German employees at fulfillment centers primarily load and unload trucks and stock shelves. The company says those tasks are vastly different from the jobs done within a retail store.
But there's a bigger issue here, according to Simon Habermaas from Verdi, the union. He says it can't even get a contract from Amazon.
"That's for us not acceptable," he says. "And because of that, the fight with Amazon is a big fight for the successful German way of industrial relations."
Since 2013, hundreds of the Amazon workers in Bad Hersfeld have conducted a series of short strikes, each lasting one to three days.
According to Amazon, these strikes don't have an impact on customers. Nancy Becker disputes this.
"Amazon claims that they don't. But people will say, 'Well I ordered something or another. Instead of being delivered the next day, all of a sudden it's delivered four days later. But Amazon claims it has no affect. But it does," Becker says.
So have the mini-strikes won anything for the Amazon workers?
"All of a sudden last year we received [a 400 euro Christmas bonus] which we had never received before, and which Amazon had always said there was never going to be Christmas money," Becker says. "And all of the sudden we got Christmas money."
Ralf Kleber, who runs Amazon operations in Germany, told the Reuters news service that Amazon is a fair employer and his workers are well compensated for unskilled labor.
Becker bristles at the suggestion. "I'd like to see them actually do the work that a regular employee does — physical work when you're walking 10, 12, 15 kilometers every day, day in a day out," she says.
Not all workers at Amazon's German fulfillment centers have participated in the strikes. Amazon says more than 1,000 of its workers signed a petition in support of the company.
So if she feels it's so unfair to work at Amazon, why does Becker stay?
"I'm 61 years old, I'm 60 percent disabled. Where am I going to get a job?" she says.
Becker says the strikes will continue at Amazon facilities in Germany.
One Friday night, 30 men and 30 women gathered at a hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C. Their goal was love, or maybe sex, or maybe some combination of the two. They were there for speed dating.
The women sat at separate numbered tables while the men moved down the line, and for two solid hours they did a rotation, making small talk with people they did not know, one after another, in three-minute increments.
I had gone to record the night, which was put on by a company called Professionals in the City, and what struck me was the noise in the room. The sound of words, of people talking over people talking over people talking. It was a roar.
What were these people saying?
And what can we learn from what they are saying?
That is why I called James Pennebaker, a psychologist interested in the secret life of pronouns.
About 20 years ago Pennebaker, who's at the University of Texas, Austin, got interested in looking more closely at the words that we use. Or rather, he got interested in looking more closely at a certain subset of the words that we use: Pennebaker was interested in function words.
For those of you like me — the grammatically challenged — function words are the smallish words that tie our sentences together.
The. This. Though. I. And. An. There. That.
"Function words are essentially the filler words," Pennebaker says. "These are the words that we don't pay attention to, and they're the ones that are so interesting."
According to the way that Pennebaker organizes language, the words that we more often focus on in conversation are content words, words like "school," "family," "live," "friends" — words that conjure up a specific image and relay more of the substance of what is being discussed.
"I speak bad Spanish," Pennebaker explains, "and if I'm in a conversation where I'm listening to the other person speak, I am just trying to find out what they are talking about. I am listening to 'what, where, when' — those big content-heavy words. All those little words in between, I don't listen to those because they're too complex to listen to."
In fact, says Pennebaker, even in our native language, these function words are basically invisible to us.
"You can't hear them," Pennebaker says. "Humans just aren't able to do it."
But computers can, which is why two decades ago Pennebaker and his graduate students sat down to build themselves a computer program.
The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program that Pennebaker and his students built in the early 1990s has, like any computer program, an ability to peer into massive data sets and discern patterns that no human could ever hope to match.
And so after Pennebaker and his crew built the program, they used it to ask all kinds of questions that had previously been too complicated or difficult for humans to ask.
Some of those questions included:
- Could you tell if someone was lying by carefully analyzing the way they used function words?
- Looking only at a transcript, could you tell from function words whether someone was male or female, rich or poor?
- What could you tell about relationships by looking at the way two people spoke to each other?
Which brings us back to speed dating.
One of the things that Pennebaker did was record and transcribe conversations that took place between people on speed dates. He fed these conversations into his program along with information about how the people themselves were perceiving the dates. What he found surprised him.
"We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves," he says.
Specifically, what Pennebaker found was that when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date.
"The more similar [they were] across all of these function words, the higher the probability that [they] would go on a date in a speed dating context," Pennebaker says. "And this is even cooler: We can even look at ... a young dating couple... [and] the more similar [they] are ... using this language style matching metric, the more likely [they] will still be dating three months from now."
This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It's that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.
"When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way," he says. "And it's one of these things that humans do automatically."
They aren't aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of "I," and "the," and "and," you can see it. It's right there.
Pennebaker has counted words to better understand lots of things. He's looked at lying, at leadership, at who will recover from trauma.
But some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.
"It's amazingly simple," Pennebaker says, "Listen to the relative use of the word "I."
What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word "I" less.
To demonstrate this, Pennebaker pointed to some of his own email, a batch written long before he began studying status.
First he shares an email written by one of his undergraduate students, a woman named Pam:
Dear Dr. Pennebaker:
I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I've learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?
Now consider Pennebaker's response:
Dear Pam -
This would be great. This week isn't good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.
Pam, the lowly undergraduate, used "I" many times, while Pennebaker didn't use it at all.
Now consider this email Pennebaker wrote to a famous professor.
Dear Famous Professor:
The reason I'm writing is that I'm helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come... I really hope you can make it.
And the return email from Famous Professor:
Dear Jamie -
Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one ... and the conference idea will provide us with a semiformal way of catching up with one another's current research.... Isn't there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?
With all best regards,
Pennebaker says that when he encountered these emails he was shocked to find that he himself obeyed this rule. He says he thought of himself as a very egalitarian person, and assumed he would never talk to people differently because of their status.
But in retrospect he says it makes sense. We use "I" more when we talk to someone with power because we're more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves — how we're coming across — and our language reflects that.
So could we use these insights to change ourselves? Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, could we bend our personalities by bending the words we use? Could we become stronger? More powerful? Healthier?
After 20 years of looking at this stuff, Pennebaker doubts it.
"The words reflect who we are more than [they] drive who we are," he says.
You can't, he believes, change who you are by changing your language; you can only change your language by changing who you are. He says that's what his research indicates.
Pennebaker has collected some of this research in a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, but he says he feels the practice of using computers to count and categorize language is really just a beginning.
It's like we just invented the telescope, he tells me, and there are a million new places to look.
In fact, since this article first ran, Pennebaker has used his big data computer analysis to look at a wide range of new questions.
He's become a kind of literary detective, using the program to determine if a lost play was written by Shakespeare. (Results of that search should be published soon.)
He's also trying to figure out if function words can predict students' performance in college through an analysis of 25,000 admissions essays.
And he published an entire paper on the use of the filler words — um, like, uh, I mean and you know. One of the things that he found was that the use of these words — in addition to their function of annoying older people — was associated with conscientiousness.
Pennebaker has several other projects underway as well — using our simplest words as a window into our souls.
An earlier version of this story ran on NPR in 2012.
White egrets swoop down on the Agbogbloshie Canal and stoop to pick at mounds of filth and trash in search of food. The clogged and stinky waterway dominates Agbogbloshie, the main shantytown in Accra, Ghana's capital city. You wonder how the birds manage to maintain white feathers as they wade in the putrid, muddy water.
The stench of that water puts off Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, the protagonist of writer Kwei Quartey's murder mysteries set in Ghana. In 2011's Children of the Street, Quartey's second Dawson mystery, Dawson gags as he investigates the apparent murder of a young man whose body was dumped near the canal with a stab wound in his back.
A day shy of his 17th birthday, the book's prologue tells us, street boy Musa was penniless, blameless, lonely and about to die as his short life flashed before him:
"He had only wanted his life to get better. ... As Musa's eyelids fluttered closed, he must have wondered if this is what his father had meant. ... If you go to Accra, you will become nothing but a street child and you will pay a terrible price for it."
Musa hails from an impoverished family in dry, dusty northern Ghana. He moved down south to the lush, green capital city in search of work and to be able to send money home to his mother. Once there, he pushed open-top carts around the streets, ferrying heaving loads as a "truck pusher," a job that left him exhausted at the end of the long working day.
A Preference For 'Sad And Poignant' Crime Scenes
D.I. Dawson is a 6-foot-something good-looker with a heart of gold when it comes to his family and a dogged determination to hunt down miscreants and murderers, especially looking out for society's castoffs, such as street kids.
His seniors consider him demanding, pushy, over-confident and sometimes arrogant.
His Achilles' heel is a penchant for marijuana, or "wee," as it's called in Ghana. Dawson is desperately trying to kick the habit, but he can't resist puffing on a spliff when he finds himself unable to solve the riddle of the serial murders of Accra's homeless children. Like Musa, all the victims, including a young woman, end up in abject misery even after their deaths, tossed into dumpsters, sitting upright in public latrines and worse.
Quartey says he prefers "sad and poignant" crime scenes. From a crime fiction writer's standpoint, he says, you can say more that way. "Besides the awful fate that you [the victim] have come to, as you've been either butchered to death, or shot or what have you, that you should die in a place that is so filthy, it's almost as though you've been further humiliated."
An Easy Place To Be Murdered
Born to a Ghanaian father and an African-American mother, Quartey was raised in Accra before heading to medical school in the U.S. Both urban and rural Ghana serve as the backdrop to his crime stories.
The first in the D.I. Dawson series was 2009's Wife of the Gods and Murder at Cape Three Points, the third Dawson mystery, was published last spring.
Children of the Street, Quartey's second Dawson book, concentrates on the neighborhoods of Old Accra, on the coastal curve of the Atlantic Ocean. Ghana was the first of Britain's West African colonial conquests to gain independence in 1957. Quartey makes it a point to personally research his murder locations during trips to Ghana from the U.S., where he remains a practicing physician.
As loud car and truck horns blast through the air, Quartey explains his fascination with Accra, which he describes as a high-energy, rules-meant-to-be-broken kind of place in some areas, that he — and Dawson — both find entertaining, yet exhausting.
"Sensory overload! The sounds, the smells and the sights — sometimes so much that your brain gets tired," says Quartey. "But it is a perfect location for murders of all kinds because, in many ways, for example at nighttime the city becomes very quiet and deserted and certainly very dark."
That's when the hustle and bustle, traders and street vendors — selling everything from mangoes to carpets and cutlery — have disappeared for the day. In the dead of night, Quartey says, "in some ways it's easy to get murdered in Accra — and you might be ignored for a while. The police may not find you for a little while."
But Dawson's innate sixth sense sometimes leads the detective off track. He agonizes when he hauls in the wrong suspect and has to release them. That's when his loving family steps in to calm Dawson down. His two sons — an adopted former street boy named Sly and the plucky but ailing Hosiah, or "Champ" — and his wife are supportive.
"Christine is a smart, attractive woman who is a teacher, and she provides a lot of insight for him," Quartey says. "Although she is not a cop, she's a stabilizing force for him since he can sometimes go off the rails."
Quartey says when Dawson gets depressed, "it's sometimes Christine who gets him out of it. She's a quiet backbone."
More And More Ghanaian
In the end, D.I. Dawson and his sidekick, Philip Chikata, get their killer in Children of the Street — and go on to new challenges.
Quartey, who's learning Ghana's lingua franca, Twi, tells NPR that Ghanaian customs, values and language will feature more prominently in his next crime novel, in which D.I. Dawson investigates a dead body and the murky world of illegal gold mining.
"With gold, it seems almost a crazy, craven rush for wealth from that famous glinting yellow metal," Quartey says. "Yes, it's a totally different world for him."
Gold of the Fathers is due out next spring.
Rich families sustain American politics. Some produce candidates; others supply money. And in rare instances, a family will do both.
Meet Nebraska billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of Ending Spending, an independent political organization that's among the top 10 spenders this election cycle. Three of his four children are politically active, including one who's running for governor.
A Billionaire With Political Punch
The gubernatorial hopeful is Pete Ricketts, a conservative Republican. He spoke earlier this month at a forum of Nebraska chambers of commerce, at the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Omaha.
With chamber members sitting in front of a 1940s-vintage B-29 bomber named "Lucky Lady," Ricketts pledged to "unite Nebraska east and west, urban and rural."
Omaha is where Joe and Marlene Ricketts raised Pete, his sister Laura, and brothers Todd and Tom. It's also where Joe founded one of the first discount stock brokerage firms, now known as TD Ameritrade.
Joe Ricketts became a billionaire and a Republican. He started putting money into politics and along the way, he concluded that both Republicans and Democrats spend too much of the taxpayers' money.
"So I am now a registered independent, and will probably be that for the rest of my life," he said in a video made for his political action committee. The PAC was first called Taxpayers Against Earmarks. By the 2010 election, it had morphed into a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, Ending Spending, and a superPAC, the Ending Spending Action Fund.
Despite Joe's independent voter registration, Ending Spending has always backed Republicans. The superPAC's biggest donors are Joe and Marlene Ricketts; the 501(c)(4) isn't required to disclose its donors.
Joe Ricketts declined to comment for this story, as did the president of Ending Spending. Todd Ricketts, who succeeded Joe as CEO of Ending Spending, didn't respond to interview requests.
Neither did Laura Ricketts, who has taken her own path in politics.
A Family Spanning The Political Divide
Last spring, CBS' 60 Minutes Sports did a segment on the Ricketts family's ownership of the Chicago Cubs. (Tom Ricketts has run the ball club since the family bought it in 2009.)
In the TV segment, Laura Ricketts said of herself and her siblings, "We all had different perspectives on the world. I'm a woman, I live in Chicago, I'm gay."
While Joe and Todd are staunch conservatives, Laura Ricketts raised money for President Obama's reelection. She's on the board of the liberal group EMILY's List and she chairs LPAC, a political committee focused on issues important to lesbians.
Laura has given Pete's campaign $5,000 — a generous contribution, but Todd and Tom have given $27,000 each.
In the 60 Minutes segment, Laura said of the family, "We've had some very candid conversations and quite honestly, for me at times, painful."
In the same segment, Pete Ricketts said, "We disagree on the issues but we're still family. We love each other."
The siblings have an explanation for their political activism: their upbringing.
"Part of it comes back to how our parents raised us," Pete Ricketts says. "That we're all supposed to give back to our communities."
He reached back for a small example: "Helping out a gentleman down the street who was going to be elderly and had a lot of pine needles dropping on his driveway — so sweeping off the driveway without taking any pay for it, and that sort of thing."
'This Is New'
Even with so many well-heeled political players these days, the Ricketts family is unusual: A father and three children in politics; one liberal and three conservatives; one candidate and three activists heading up independent political organizations.
"This is new," says Robert Mutch, author of a recently published history of political money, Buying The Vote. From the Gilded Age of the late 1800s until the modern era of deregulation, he says, the political system didn't have a place for independent operators.
"The party provided the candidates, the party made the expenditures," Mutch says. "The people who had the money might give, they might raise money, but that's really all they did."
He says the Ricketts exemplify recent changes in the political money system.
"In some ways they're following in the tradition of rich families in the past. What's different is that they're not only raising money but they're spending it," he says.
LPAC is just getting off the ground this cycle, with less than a million dollars raised as of June 30. Of that, $315,000 came from Laura Ricketts.
Ending Spending has reported spending about $5.6 million. At least $1.6 million came from Joe, Marlene and Todd Ricketts.
Some of us are lucky enough to stumble into a job that we love. That was the case for Gabrielle Nuki. The 16-year-old had never heard of standardized patients until her advisor at school told her she should check it out.
"I was kind of shocked, and I was kind of like, 'Oh, is there actually something like this in the world?' "
Since Nuki wants to be a doctor, the chance to earn $15 to $20 an hour training medical students as a pretend patient was kind of a dream come true. Every six weeks or so, Nuki comes to Maine Medical Center in her home town of Portland, Maine, slips on a johnny, sits in an exam room and takes on a new persona.
Third-year medical student Allie Tetreault knows Nuki by her fictional patient name, Emma. A lot of teens avoid the doctor, so it's important for Tetreault to learn how to make them feel comfortable.
"What kinds of things do you like to do outside of school?" Tetreault asks.
"Um, I play soccer, so preseason is coming up soon."
Nuki preps weeks ahead of time for her patient roles. She memorizes a case history of family details, lifestyle habits and the tone she should present. "I've had one case where I was concerned about being pregnant. That was kind of like the most harsh one, I guess."
As Emma, Nuki's playing just a shy, healthy teen.
"How did school finish up for you this year?" Tetreault asks.
"Um, it was good. Yeah, school's been good. Um, yeah."
Emma's an easy role, Nuki says, but she ups the shyness factor because it poses a classic challenge to the medical student: how to get a teen to open up?
"Each case kind of has what's on paper, but then you can come in and kind of add another level," Nuki says. "Depending on how complex it is, you can add your own twist to it."
After asking Emma about her personal history, Tetreault moves on to the physical exam and listens as Emma takes deep breaths.
Tetreault gives Emma a clean bill of health and the practice appointment is over. But the most important part of Gabrielle Nuki's job is about to begin.
The 16-year old now has to evaluate the adult professional. She's smooth and tactful after lots of training on how to deliver feedback. Nuki tells Tetreault she did a good job making her feel comfortable.
"I also liked how you mentioned confidentiality, because for my age group, that's important to touch on," Nuki says. "And I think that maybe you could have had a couple more times where you asked me if I had any questions, but other than that I think you did a really great job."
It's communication skills versus acting skills that really qualify someone to be a standardized patient, says Dr. Pat Patterson, the director of pediatric training at Maine Medical Center.
"A lot of patients want to please their physician," Patterson says. "It's not easy for a patient to say 'That didn't feel right', or 'The way you asked that made me feel bad.' "
Gabrielle Nuki says working with medical students and being forthright about their performance has given her more confidence. In the future, she hopes to take on more complex roles — maybe someone with depression.
But she knows no matter what kind of patient she portrays, this job will prepare her well for when she reverses roles and one day becomes a doctor.