For Sean Carlisle (a pseu¬≠do¬≠nym) a 32-year-old grad¬≠u¬≠ate stu¬≠dent and native of California‚Äôs Inland Empire, the last three years at his local Ama¬≠zon ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter have been an edu¬≠ca¬≠tion. As a stu¬≠dent of urban plan¬≠ning, he stud¬≠ies how built envi¬≠ron¬≠ments shape a community‚Äôs behav¬≠ior. As a pick¬≠er, he packs items at a break¬≠neck pace amid stacks of inven¬≠to¬≠ry and snaking con¬≠vey¬≠or belts while del¬≠i¬≠cate¬≠ly prac¬≠tic¬≠ing strate¬≠gies to raise his cowork¬≠ers‚Äô polit¬≠i¬≠cal consciousness.
Amazon‚Äôs logis¬≠ti¬≠cal infra¬≠struc¬≠ture is designed to make humans per¬≠form with machine-like effi¬≠cien¬≠cy, but Sean is try¬≠ing to make the work¬≠place a bit more human, advo¬≠cat¬≠ing for stronger work¬≠er pro¬≠tec¬≠tions and cor¬≠po¬≠rate account¬≠abil¬≠i¬≠ty in his community.
When he first start¬≠ed at Ama¬≠zon, Sean enjoyed what he calls a¬†‚Äúhon¬≠ey¬≠moon phase.‚ÄĚ He liked that work¬≠ers were pro¬≠mot¬≠ed read¬≠i¬≠ly to man¬≠age¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al posi¬≠tions, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly peo¬≠ple with a¬†col¬≠lege edu¬≠ca¬≠tion like him¬≠self.¬†‚ÄúThey ha[d] all these things that help their employ¬≠ees advance. They have these school pro¬≠grams,‚ÄĚ he says, refer¬≠ring to Ama¬≠zon‚Äôs¬†pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠al edu¬≠ca¬≠tion schemes. But about eight months in, he real¬≠ized¬†‚Äúthere was some stuff going on here that real¬≠ly could be improved. [I thought]¬†‚ÄėI don‚Äôt know if I¬†like this com¬≠pa¬≠ny as much as I¬†did before.‚Äô‚ÄĚ¬†
‚ÄúThe cat¬≠a¬≠lyst was see¬≠ing [so many] peo¬≠ple get hurt,‚ÄĚ he con¬≠tin¬≠ues. He says work¬≠ers would tell him, ‚Äú¬†‚ÄėI got hurt, and they gave me phys¬≠i¬≠cal ther¬≠a¬≠py, and I¬†got even more hurt because they didn‚Äôt real¬≠ly assess me right and now I¬†have this prob¬≠lem.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ It was around the hol¬≠i¬≠day sea¬≠son dur¬≠ing his sec¬≠ond year¬†‚Äúwhen things hit a¬†sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant decline in terms of safe¬≠ty, and there was more focus on pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty.‚ÄĚ He says that some¬≠times work¬≠ers would acci¬≠den¬≠tal¬≠ly strike the shelves as they nav¬≠i¬≠gat¬≠ed fork¬≠lifts through the center‚Äôs aisles, caus¬≠ing the vehi¬≠cles to tip¬†over.¬†
‚ÄúThe safe¬≠ty prob¬≠lems con¬≠tin¬≠ued to get worse, and my cowork¬≠ers and I¬†would say,¬†‚ÄėHey, [the man¬≠age¬≠ment has] got to do some¬≠thing about this,‚Äô‚ÄĚ he¬†recalls.
Sean believes the speed with which work¬≠ers must process orders‚ÄĒsome¬≠times hun¬≠dreds of items per hour‚ÄĒleads them to cut cor¬≠ners or ignore prob¬≠lems with their equip¬≠ment. He says that one byprod¬≠uct of the relent¬≠less pres¬≠sure to pack more items faster is a¬†high turnover among those who¬†‚Äúcouldn‚Äôt keep up.‚ÄĚ Burn¬≠ing through new hires cre¬≠ates a¬†con¬≠stant churn in the work¬≠force, as tem¬≠po¬≠rary work¬≠ers are cycled in and out dur¬≠ing peak¬†seasons.
Amazon‚Äôs offi¬≠cial data on work¬≠place injuries¬†sug¬≠gest that many of its ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ters have rates that far exceed the aver¬≠age ware¬≠house. Yet the com¬≠pa¬≠ny claims these sta¬≠tis¬≠tics are pri¬≠mar¬≠i¬≠ly a¬†tes¬≠ta¬≠ment to its metic¬≠u¬≠lous report¬≠ing rather than a¬†reflec¬≠tion of its shod¬≠dy safe¬≠ty stan¬≠dards.¬†‚ÄúWe ensure we are sup¬≠port¬≠ing the peo¬≠ple who work at our sites by hav¬≠ing first aid trained and cer¬≠ti¬≠fied pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠als onsite¬†24/7, and we pro¬≠vide indus¬≠try lead¬≠ing health ben¬≠e¬≠fits on day one,‚ÄĚ a¬†spokesper¬≠son said in an¬†email.
Ama¬≠zon also claims to have spent¬†‚Äúover $1¬†bil¬≠lion [on] new invest¬≠ments in oper¬≠a¬≠tions safe¬≠ty mea¬≠sures‚ÄĚ that include pro¬≠tec¬≠tive tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy, san¬≠i¬≠ti¬≠za¬≠tion pro¬≠ce¬≠dures, and train¬≠ing and edu¬≠ca¬≠tion pro¬≠grams for work¬≠ers. The com¬≠pa¬≠ny main¬≠tains that it is¬†‚Äúcon¬≠tin¬≠u¬≠ous¬≠ly learn¬≠ing and improv¬≠ing our pro¬≠grams to pre¬≠vent future inci¬≠dents.¬†‚ÄĚSean con¬≠tends that some man¬≠agers have sim¬≠ply failed to take work¬≠place haz¬≠ards seri¬≠ous¬≠ly. He recalled his sur¬≠prise when a¬†man¬≠ag¬≠er told him, ‚Äú‚Äėif peo¬≠ple didn‚Äôt feel safe, they wouldn‚Äôt go to¬†work.‚Äô‚ÄĚ¬†
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not how that works, dude,‚ÄĚ he mus¬≠es.¬†‚ÄúPeo¬≠ple go to work because they need a¬†pay¬≠check, not because they feel¬†safe.‚ÄĚ
While work¬≠ing as a pick¬≠er, Sean‚Äôs aca¬≠d¬≠e¬≠m¬≠ic work led him to a cam¬≠paign against the planned con¬≠struc¬≠tion of a huge car¬≠go facil¬≠i¬≠ty for San Bernardi¬≠no Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al Air¬≠port. Var¬≠i¬≠ous com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty groups, includ¬≠ing Team¬≠sters local 1932 and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal activists, formed the San Bernardi¬≠no Air¬≠port Com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties Coali¬≠tion to oppose the project, which they warn will deep¬≠en the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal exploita¬≠tion of the region by cor¬≠po¬≠ra¬≠tions like Ama¬≠zon‚ÄĒthe area‚Äôs largest pri¬≠vate employ¬≠er. Despite a legal chal¬≠lenge brought by the coali¬≠tion‚Äôs lead¬≠ing groups ear¬≠li¬≠er this year, the facility‚Äôs con¬≠struc¬≠tion is mov¬≠ing for¬≠ward, and Sean has now shift¬≠ed his focus to help¬≠ing pro¬≠tect his cowork¬≠ers from the pandemic.
One prac¬≠ti¬≠cal ben¬≠e¬≠fit that Sean and the oth¬≠er orga¬≠niz¬≠ers aim to secure for work¬≠ers in the short term is paid leave so that those affect¬≠ed by the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic can stay home with¬≠out sac¬≠ri¬≠fic¬≠ing wages. The com¬≠pa¬≠ny ini¬≠tial¬≠ly pro¬≠vid¬≠ed unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid leave for work¬≠ers who self-iso¬≠lat¬≠ed due to COVID-19-relat¬≠ed health con¬≠cerns but end¬≠ed the pol¬≠i¬≠cy in May. Now Sean is encour¬≠ag¬≠ing cowork¬≠ers to seek ben¬≠e¬≠fits under a new state law for food-indus¬≠try work¬≠ers that pro¬≠vides up to two weeks paid leave for work¬≠ers who have been advised by a med¬≠ical pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠al to self-iso¬≠late or ordered not to work.
Ama¬≠zon ini¬≠tial¬≠ly argued that it was exempt from the man¬≠date. But as Vice report¬≠ed in July, com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty groups and labor activists, along with the state labor commissioner‚Äôs office, pres¬≠sured the com¬≠pa¬≠ny to com¬≠ply on the grounds that its ware¬≠hous¬≠es serve as major retail food dis¬≠trib¬≠u¬≠tors. In June, approx¬≠i¬≠mate¬≠ly two months after the order was enact¬≠ed, Ama¬≠zon final¬≠ly agreed to fol¬≠low the law.
With a¬†poster detail¬≠ing the state‚Äôs new paid-leave pol¬≠i¬≠cy now on dis¬≠play in the break¬≠room, Sean says he is advis¬≠ing his cowork¬≠ers to take advan¬≠tage of what he calls a¬†legal¬†‚Äúloop¬≠hole‚ÄĚ that allows Ama¬≠zon employ¬≠ees to take paid time off out¬≠side of the com¬≠pa¬≠ny‚Äôs more restric¬≠tive allot¬≠ment. The work¬≠ers who qual¬≠i¬≠fy have man¬≠aged to use the law¬†‚Äújust to take a¬†break, or reeval¬≠u¬≠ate their¬†situation.‚ÄĚ
Sean says that despite his advo¬≠ca¬≠cy on behalf of Ama¬≠zon employ¬≠ees, he has avoid¬≠ed the kind of retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion from man¬≠age¬≠ment that oth¬≠er work¬≠er-activists have reported.
At the same time, he acknowl¬≠edges,¬†‚ÄúI‚Äôm also not try¬≠ing to [pro¬≠voke] them direct¬≠ly.‚ÄĚ When it comes to engag¬≠ing with his col¬≠leagues on work¬≠place jus¬≠tice issues, he says,¬†‚ÄúUsu¬≠al¬≠ly, I‚Äôll have a¬†con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion where it just kind of unfolds like,¬†‚ÄėMan, some¬≠one in my fam¬≠i¬≠ly just recent¬≠ly passed, and I¬†can‚Äôt take time off work.‚Äô And I‚Äôm like,¬†‚ÄėOh, you should check out the law that was just recent¬≠ly passed and I¬†think you can get time off for¬†it.‚ÄĚ
Sean is build¬≠ing a¬†safer work¬≠place with¬≠in Amazon‚Äôs e-commerce leviathan one con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion at a¬†time. The son of an iron¬≠work¬≠er and grand¬≠son of a¬†team¬≠ster, his sense of mis¬≠sion is informed by the fam¬≠i¬≠ly sto¬≠ries he heard as a¬†child about strikes and pick¬≠et¬†lines.
Ama¬≠zon, which has man¬≠aged to keep unions at bay for years, bears lit¬≠tle resem¬≠blance to the union shops of past gen¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tions. But today‚Äôs Ama¬≠zon ware¬≠house work¬≠ers and dri¬≠vers are just as crit¬≠i¬≠cal to California‚Äôs econ¬≠o¬≠my as the long¬≠shore¬≠men, truck dri¬≠vers and iron work¬≠ers were a¬†cen¬≠tu¬≠ry ago.¬†‚ÄúI see Ama¬≠zon as some¬≠thing that‚Äôs prob¬≠a¬≠bly here to stay and like¬≠ly going to shape our future and our under¬≠stand¬≠ing of Amer¬≠i¬≠can cap¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ism and con¬≠sump¬≠tion,‚ÄĚ he¬†says.
Though yes¬≠ter¬≠day‚Äôs mil¬≠i¬≠tant shop-floor strug¬≠gles have long fad¬≠ed from Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠ni¬≠a‚Äôs indus¬≠tri¬≠al land¬≠scape, the chal¬≠lenges fac¬≠ing the labor move¬≠ment remain basi¬≠cal¬≠ly the same. When work¬≠ers orga¬≠nize, Sean says, they can¬†‚Äúhold the com¬≠pa¬≠ny account¬≠able and shape it to be the com¬≠pa¬≠ny it is. With¬≠out the work¬≠ers, the com¬≠pa¬≠ny would not be what it¬†is.‚ÄĚ
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission
About the Author: Michelle Chen is a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing writer at¬†In These Times¬†and¬†The Nation, a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing edi¬≠tor at¬†Dis¬≠sent¬†and a¬†co-pro¬≠duc¬≠er of the¬†‚ÄúBela¬≠bored‚ÄĚ pod¬≠cast. She stud¬≠ies his¬≠to¬≠ry at the CUNY Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Cen¬≠ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent¬≠ly, Draw¬≠ing Blood and Broth¬≠ers of the Gun, (with Mar¬≠wan Hisham). Her art is in the per¬≠ma¬≠nent col¬≠lec¬≠tions of the Muse¬≠um of Mod¬≠ern Art. Her ani¬≠mat¬≠ed short, A Mes¬≠sage from the Future with Alexan¬≠dria Oca¬≠sio-Cortez, has been nom¬≠i¬≠nat¬≠ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out¬≠stand¬≠ing News Analy¬≠sis: Edi¬≠to¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al and Opinion.