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This Amazon Grocery Runner Has Risked Her Job to Fight for Better Safety Measures

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This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Courte­nay Brown spends her day mak­ing gro­cery runs for oth­ers in a foot­ball-field-sized maze of nar­row aisles and refrig­er­at­ed enclaves. At the Ama­zon Fresh unit in a Newark, New Jer­sey ful­fill­ment cen­ter, she works on the out­bound ship dock, help­ing direct the load­ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv­ery routes. Brown says that after near­ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been “hell.”

“Imag­ine a real­ly intense work­out, like you just got off of the tread­mill, no cool down, no noth­ing,” she describes one espe­cial­ly gru­el­ing day with a resigned laugh. “That’s how my legs felt.”

Ama­zon Fresh employ­ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var­i­ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win­ter clothes to work. The stress and phys­i­cal exhaus­tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with­in their first few days. “You don’t have that many that have last­ed here,” she says. “It’s so hard.”

With the pan­dem­ic keep­ing con­sumers indoors, Ama­zon gro­cery sales have rough­ly tripled in the sec­ond quar­ter over last year. The num­ber of deliv­ery trucks mov­ing in and out of the Newark ful­fill­ment cen­ter has jumped accordingly.

“Every day I come in, it’s just more and more and more and more,” Brown says. “Lit­er­al­ly every day we break the pre­vi­ous day’s record for the total num­ber of routes that went out for the entire day.”

“Once we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show­er and dis­in­fect,” she con­tin­ues. “A lot of us [are] too exhaust­ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol­low­ing day.” Some cowork­ers have end­ed up over­sleep­ing, she adds, and “end up miss­ing the whole day.”

For its part, an Ama­zon spokesper­son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama­zon Fresh are phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing, work­ers can choose less stren­u­ous labor.

“Imag­ine your stan­dard nor­mal super­mar­ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,” she observes. “You’re expect­ed to go through that aisle with oth­er peo­ple stock­ing the shelves, or clean­ing… it’s real­ly, real­ly, real­ly cramped.”

Ama­zon boasts mak­ing 150 oper­a­tional changes dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that include dis­trib­ut­ing mil­lions of masks at work­sites, adding thou­sands of jan­i­to­r­i­al staff, and rede­ploy­ing some per­son­nel to help enforce social dis­tanc­ing rules. While it has imple­ment­ed social-dis­tanc­ing rules, and even pro­vides an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem to help keep work­ers sev­er­al feet apart on the ware­house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd­ed: “It’s pret­ty much a show…Where I work on the ship dock, we’re all mashed up together.”

The tense atmos­phere has “def­i­nite­ly changed the rela­tion­ship” among work­ers, she con­tends. Her fel­low employ­ees were friend­lier before, but now “a lot of peo­ple snap at each oth­er a bit more.”

The threat of COVID-19 has only added to the psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den. “When the pan­dem­ic first start­ed, I remem­ber a lot of us were watch­ing the news,” Brown reflects. “I was talk­ing to man­agers and try­ing to get them [to lis­ten]. ‘Hey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar­ing.’ And they [were] just [act­ing] like it [was] not that big of a deal. Peo­ple are dying, and it’s not that big of a deal?”

Although Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly enact­ed safe­ty mea­sures, Brown says she and her col­leagues spent “months com­plain­ing” about what they saw as sub­stan­dard pro­tec­tions, includ­ing inad­e­quate safe­ty gear and social-dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. An Ama­zon spokesper­son main­tains the com­pa­ny moved to pro­tect its work­ers at the out­set of the pan­dem­ic, and that masks were dis­trib­uted in ear­ly April.

But Brown bris­tles at the com­pa­ny’s claims, say­ing the response was slow and devoid of trans­paren­cy. Work­ers were espe­cial­ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec­tion at their site two weeks after the indi­vid­ual had report­ed­ly tak­en ill.

Even­tu­al­ly, Brown con­nect­ed with oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers through an online peti­tion cir­cu­lat­ed by the advo­ca­cy net­work Unit­ed for Respect. Ear­li­er this year, she began work­ing with the Athena coali­tion to pres­sure Ama­zon to rein­state some work­er pro­tec­tions that were insti­tut­ed ear­li­er on in the pan­dem­ic and then dis­con­tin­ued. The work­ers are demand­ing the restora­tion of “haz­ard pay” for ful­fill­ment-cen­ter work­ers, as well as unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for those who opt to stay home to pro­tect their health. (Over the objec­tions of its work­force, Ama­zon end­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2 hourly “incen­tive” bonus in May.) The coali­tion is also push­ing for more trans­paren­cy in the report­ing of new cas­es, so man­age­ment will “actu­al­ly tell us the truth about the num­bers of peo­ple that are sick.”

In April, Brown par­tic­i­pat­ed in a media con­fer­ence call with Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., to pro­mote an Essen­tial Work­ers Bill of Rights that would beef up health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, pro­vide child­care sup­port and uni­ver­sal paid leave poli­cies, and pro­tect whistle­blow­ers. More recent­ly, she was fea­tured in a New York Times video about the work­ing con­di­tions at Ama­zon. She claims her pub­lic cam­paign­ing has drawn the ire of management.

“I’m harassed every day, all day,” she says. One safe­ty super­vi­sor in par­tic­u­lar is “just watch­ing” to see if she vio­lates the company’s social-dis­tanc­ing rules.

Brown recalls a recent inci­dent in which she was speak­ing casu­al­ly with some co-work­ers about safe­ty issues when the super­vi­sor inter­vened, shout­ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main­tain­ing their dis­tance, she says, “he [yelled], ‘you’re in a group!’” They answered, “Yeah, but we’re all six feet apart from each oth­er with our masks on.” But she says the man­ag­er nonethe­less threat­ened to write them up and warned they could be terminated.

Ama­zon has stat­ed that it oppos­es retal­i­a­tion against employ­ees who voice their con­cerns about work­ing con­di­tions. But like oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers, Brown believes her treat­ment reflects a broad­er cam­paign aimed at dis­suad­ing employ­ees from organizing.

“What they’ll do is they’ll find an indi­vid­ual, and they’ll kind of make an exam­ple of you. And that scares every­body else,” she says. Her obser­va­tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar­kets Insti­tute report that finds that Ama­zon has used sophis­ti­cat­ed work­place sur­veil­lance tac­tics to intim­i­date and sup­press work­ers who seek to union­ize or chal­lenge the company’s labor practices.

Brown, mean­while, is ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing her work­place. This is not the first time she has faced hos­tile cir­cum­stances, both inside the Ama­zon ware­house and out. For a stretch in 2018, she had to live in a motel with her sis­ter, who also works at Ama­zon, because the two could not secure a rental apart­ment with the wages they were earn­ing deliv­er­ing food for the cor­po­rate behe­moth. “We were lit­er­al­ly starv­ing,” she says. “We weren’t mak­ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from work.”

Ama­zon has denied charges of employ­ee sur­veil­lance, dis­miss­ing the Open Mar­kets Insti­tute as “a peren­ni­al crit­ic that will­ful­ly ignores” the com­pa­ny’s record of cre­at­ing jobs with “indus­try lead­ing wages and ben­e­fits.” The com­pa­ny claims that it does eval­u­ate work­ers’ per­for­mance “over a long peri­od of time,” and pro­vides under-per­form­ing work­ers with “ded­i­cat­ed coach­ing to help them improve.”

Giv­en the dan­gers of speak­ing out, Brown some­times won­ders if she might end up home­less again. But she’s less fear­ful about los­ing her job than she is about the health haz­ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ­er account­able. “It’s real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing,” she says, “but if I don’t do this, then I could poten­tial­ly get sick and die.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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Amazon Expects Its Employees to Operate Like Fast-Moving Machines. This Amazon Picker Is Fighting Back.

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For Sean Carlisle (a pseu­do­nym) a 32-year-old grad­u­ate stu­dent and native of California’s Inland Empire, the last three years at his local Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter have been an edu­ca­tion. As a stu­dent of urban plan­ning, he stud­ies how built envi­ron­ments shape a community’s behav­ior. As a pick­er, he packs items at a break­neck pace amid stacks of inven­to­ry and snaking con­vey­or belts while del­i­cate­ly prac­tic­ing strate­gies to raise his cowork­ers’ polit­i­cal consciousness. 

Amazon’s logis­ti­cal infra­struc­ture is designed to make humans per­form with machine-like effi­cien­cy, but Sean is try­ing to make the work­place a bit more human, advo­cat­ing for stronger work­er pro­tec­tions and cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty in his community.

When he first start­ed at Ama­zon, Sean enjoyed what he calls a “hon­ey­moon phase.” He liked that work­ers were pro­mot­ed read­i­ly to man­age­r­i­al posi­tions, espe­cial­ly peo­ple with a col­lege edu­ca­tion like him­self. “They ha[d] all these things that help their employ­ees advance. They have these school pro­grams,” he says, refer­ring to Ama­zon’s pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion schemes. But about eight months in, he real­ized “there was some stuff going on here that real­ly could be improved. [I thought] ‘I don’t know if I like this com­pa­ny as much as I did before.’” 

“The cat­a­lyst was see­ing [so many] peo­ple get hurt,” he con­tin­ues. He says work­ers would tell him, “ ‘I got hurt, and they gave me phys­i­cal ther­a­py, and I got even more hurt because they didn’t real­ly assess me right and now I have this prob­lem.’ ” It was around the hol­i­day sea­son dur­ing his sec­ond year “when things hit a sig­nif­i­cant decline in terms of safe­ty, and there was more focus on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.” He says that some­times work­ers would acci­den­tal­ly strike the shelves as they nav­i­gat­ed fork­lifts through the center’s aisles, caus­ing the vehi­cles to tip over. 

“The safe­ty prob­lems con­tin­ued to get worse, and my cowork­ers and I would say, ‘Hey, [the man­age­ment has] got to do some­thing about this,’” he recalls.

Sean believes the speed with which work­ers must process orders—some­times hun­dreds of items per hour—leads them to cut cor­ners or ignore prob­lems with their equip­ment. He says that one byprod­uct of the relent­less pres­sure to pack more items faster is a high turnover among those who “couldn’t keep up.” Burn­ing through new hires cre­ates a con­stant churn in the work­force, as tem­po­rary work­ers are cycled in and out dur­ing peak seasons.

Amazon’s offi­cial data on work­place injuries sug­gest that many of its ful­fill­ment cen­ters have rates that far exceed the aver­age ware­house. Yet the com­pa­ny claims these sta­tis­tics are pri­mar­i­ly a tes­ta­ment to its metic­u­lous report­ing rather than a reflec­tion of its shod­dy safe­ty stan­dards. “We ensure we are sup­port­ing the peo­ple who work at our sites by hav­ing first aid trained and cer­ti­fied pro­fes­sion­als onsite 24/7, and we pro­vide indus­try lead­ing health ben­e­fits on day one,” a spokesper­son said in an email.

Ama­zon also claims to have spent “over $1 bil­lion [on] new invest­ments in oper­a­tions safe­ty mea­sures” that include pro­tec­tive tech­nol­o­gy, san­i­ti­za­tion pro­ce­dures, and train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­grams for work­ers. The com­pa­ny main­tains that it is “con­tin­u­ous­ly learn­ing and improv­ing our pro­grams to pre­vent future inci­dents. ”Sean con­tends that some man­agers have sim­ply failed to take work­place haz­ards seri­ous­ly. He recalled his sur­prise when a man­ag­er told him, “‘if peo­ple didn’t feel safe, they wouldn’t go to work.’” 

“That’s not how that works, dude,” he mus­es. “Peo­ple go to work because they need a pay­check, not because they feel safe.”

While work­ing as a pick­er, Sean’s aca­d­e­m­ic work led him to a cam­paign against the planned con­struc­tion of a huge car­go facil­i­ty for San Bernardi­no Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. Var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ty groups, includ­ing Team­sters local 1932 and envi­ron­men­tal activists, formed the San Bernardi­no Air­port Com­mu­ni­ties Coali­tion to oppose the project, which they warn will deep­en the eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal exploita­tion of the region by cor­po­ra­tions like Ama­zon—the area’s largest pri­vate employ­er. Despite a legal chal­lenge brought by the coali­tion’s lead­ing groups ear­li­er this year, the facility’s con­struc­tion is mov­ing for­ward, and Sean has now shift­ed his focus to help­ing pro­tect his cowork­ers from the pandemic.

One prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit that Sean and the oth­er orga­niz­ers aim to secure for work­ers in the short term is paid leave so that those affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic can stay home with­out sac­ri­fic­ing wages. The com­pa­ny ini­tial­ly pro­vid­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for work­ers who self-iso­lat­ed due to COVID-19-relat­ed health con­cerns but end­ed the pol­i­cy in May. Now Sean is encour­ag­ing cowork­ers to seek ben­e­fits under a new state law for food-indus­try work­ers that pro­vides up to two weeks paid leave for work­ers who have been advised by a med­ical pro­fes­sion­al to self-iso­late or ordered not to work.

Ama­zon ini­tial­ly argued that it was exempt from the man­date. But as Vice report­ed in July, com­mu­ni­ty groups and labor activists, along with the state labor commissioner’s office, pres­sured the com­pa­ny to com­ply on the grounds that its ware­hous­es serve as major retail food dis­trib­u­tors. In June, approx­i­mate­ly two months after the order was enact­ed, Ama­zon final­ly agreed to fol­low the law.

With a poster detail­ing the state’s new paid-leave pol­i­cy now on dis­play in the break­room, Sean says he is advis­ing his cowork­ers to take advan­tage of what he calls a legal “loop­hole” that allows Ama­zon employ­ees to take paid time off out­side of the com­pa­ny’s more restric­tive allot­ment. The work­ers who qual­i­fy have man­aged to use the law “just to take a break, or reeval­u­ate their situation.”

Sean says that despite his advo­ca­cy on behalf of Ama­zon employ­ees, he has avoid­ed the kind of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment that oth­er work­er-activists have reported.

At the same time, he acknowl­edges, “I’m also not try­ing to [pro­voke] them direct­ly.” When it comes to engag­ing with his col­leagues on work­place jus­tice issues, he says, “Usu­al­ly, I’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion where it just kind of unfolds like, ‘Man, some­one in my fam­i­ly just recent­ly passed, and I can’t take time off work.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, you should check out the law that was just recent­ly passed and I think you can get time off for it.”

Sean is build­ing a safer work­place with­in Amazon’s e-commerce leviathan one con­ver­sa­tion at a time. The son of an iron­work­er and grand­son of a team­ster, his sense of mis­sion is informed by the fam­i­ly sto­ries he heard as a child about strikes and pick­et lines.

Ama­zon, which has man­aged to keep unions at bay for years, bears lit­tle resem­blance to the union shops of past gen­er­a­tions. But today’s Ama­zon ware­house work­ers and dri­vers are just as crit­i­cal to California’s econ­o­my as the long­shore­men, truck dri­vers and iron work­ers were a cen­tu­ry ago. “I see Ama­zon as some­thing that’s prob­a­bly here to stay and like­ly going to shape our future and our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism and con­sump­tion,” he says.

Though yes­ter­day’s mil­i­tant shop-floor strug­gles have long fad­ed from Cal­i­for­ni­a’s indus­tri­al land­scape, the chal­lenges fac­ing the labor move­ment remain basi­cal­ly the same. When work­ers orga­nize, Sean says, they can “hold the com­pa­ny account­able and shape it to be the com­pa­ny it is. With­out the work­ers, the com­pa­ny would not be what it is.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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Meet the Warehouse Worker Who Took On Amazon Over Inhumane Conditions and Harassment

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Hibaq Mohamed has worked for Ama­zon near­ly as long as she’s been in the Unit­ed States. In 2016, the twen­ty-some­thing Soma­li immi­grant land­ed in Min­neso­ta by way of a refugee camp, join­ing one of the largest East African com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try. She soon joined the legion of work­ers who fuel the state’s main Ama­zon facil­i­ty, the MSP1 ful­fill­ment cen­ter in Shakopee, near the Twin Cities.

“This was my first job,” Mohamed says. “They were hir­ing work­ers … East African and peo­ple like me. [These work­ers] didn’t have a lot of expe­ri­ence, they don’t know a lot.” 

The Shakopee facil­i­ty employs rough­ly 1,000 work­ers to exe­cute Amazon’s high­ly mech­a­nized work reg­i­men every day, pack­ing orders at a fren­zied rate of around 250 units per hour. While items zip down a con­vey­or belt, the work­ers are mon­i­tored, through an auto­mat­ed sys­tem, to track their speed and any errors that might dam­age their per­for­mance ratings.

On top of the pres­sure to meet quo­tas, Mohamed says man­age­ment decid­ed to “fire a crazy num­ber of work­ers” short­ly after she start­ed work­ing there. “And they are not telling us what they fired them for,” she recalls. She says the work­ers were immi­grants who did not speak Eng­lish fluently.

Though Ama­zon says these were sea­son­al hires—and were there­fore dis­missed once their tem­po­rary stints end­ed, the seem­ing lack of trans­paren­cy trou­bled Mohamed. “I feel like this was unfair,” she says.

Around 2017, Mohamed and oth­er East African immi­grant work­ers start­ed meet­ing with the Awood Cen­ter, a Min­neapo­lis work­er cen­ter. As fledg­ling com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, Mohamed says, “We have to be smart, we have to have the train­ing to do this.” Over the past two years, East African work­ers have spear­head­ed a num­ber of walk­outs and protests at Ama­zon against what they per­ceive as incom­pe­tence, inhu­mane pro­duc­tiv­i­ty stan­dards and a lack of diver­si­ty among the man­age­ment. Images of hijabis walk­ing the pick­et line and ban­ners pro­claim­ing that work­ers are “not robots” gar­nered nation­al headlines. 

Fol­low­ing ini­tial protests in 2018, Ama­zon man­age­ment sat down with MSP1’s East African work­ers to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions—high­ly unusu­al for Ama­zon, which had pre­vi­ous­ly avoid­ed such direct talks with workers.

Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly agreed to make some accom­mo­da­tions at the facil­i­ty, such as com­mit­ting man­agers to meet quar­ter­ly with work­ers and respond to com­plaints with­in five days, accord­ing to the New York Times. But work­ers have con­tin­ued to com­plain about the intense pro­duc­tiv­i­ty pres­sure, which often leaves them with­out time for dai­ly prayers and bath­room breaks, despite Ama­zon claim­ing that work­ers can pray at any time. MSP1 also has one of the high­est injury rates among Amazon’s ful­fill­ment centers.

Awood has become a hub for the East African work­er com­mu­ni­ty, teach­ing orga­niz­ing tac­tics and build­ing mutu­al sup­port. Awood oper­ates as a grass­roots group and not a for­mal union, but oth­er unions—includ­ing the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union and the Team­sters—have been sup­port­ing Ama­zon work­ers at MSP1 and oth­er facilities.

Just over a month after Min­neso­ta issued stay-at-home orders, Ama­zon elim­i­nat­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid time off for those who opt­ed to stay home for health con­cerns, which trig­gered a walk­out by more than 50 MSP1 work­ers. The work­ers also protest­ed what they said was the retal­ia­to­ry fir­ing of two work­er activists, Faiza Osman (who Awood claims was ter­mi­nat­ed after stay­ing home with her chil­dren to avoid infec­tion, but was lat­er rein­stat­ed) and Bashir Mohamed (who appar­ent­ly was dis­ci­plined for vio­lat­ing social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines, which work­ers say are selec­tive­ly enforced).

Work­ers’ fears about the virus were con­firmed in June, when about 90 ware­house employ­ees test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19. Bloomberg report­ed that Ama­zon had care­ful­ly tracked the Covid-19 infec­tion rate at MSP1, but did not dis­close details on the num­ber of cas­es to workers.

Man­age­ment “want[ed] to hide it,” Mohamed says. But while the high­er-ups were not exposed like the front­line work­ers on the ware­house floor, “We are the ones who are going togeth­er to the bath­room, to the break room. We are the ones get­ting the virus.”

Ama­zon has boast­ed about its Covid-19 response, claim­ing it has tak­en exten­sive mea­sures to keep work­ers safe while eas­ing up on quo­tas. But Mohamed says Amazon’s lead­ers “focus more for the mon­ey than the work­ers and people.”

Last week, work­ers’ fears about their risk of infec­tion were real­ized when the com­pa­ny report­ed that more than 19,000 of its 1,372,000 employ­ees at Ama­zon and Whole Foods had test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19. Though it claims that the infec­tion rate at its facil­i­ties was about 40 per­cent low­er on aver­age than in sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties, labor advo­cates denounced the com­pa­ny for need­less­ly putting work­ers’ health at risk.

The man­age­ment seems focused on Mohamed, how­ev­er. Amid ris­ing fears of Covid-19 risks at work, Mohamed was writ­ten up in July for tak­ing too much “time off task,” Amazon’s term for inter­mit­tent breaks. But she con­tends she had rarely received any dis­ci­pli­nary write-ups until the man­age­ment “clear­ly made me a tar­get” after she had protest­ed work­ing conditions. 

She wrote to Min­neso­ta Attor­ney Gen­er­al Kei­th Elli­son seek­ing pro­tec­tion under an exec­u­tive order shield­ing whistle­blow­ers from retaliation. 

“Ama­zon man­agers have tar­get­ed me and open­ly harassed me before,” Mohamed wrote, “but increas­ing­ly dur­ing the pandemic.”

Ama­zon denies Mohamed and her cowork­ers’ claims of retal­i­a­tion. Ama­zon spokesper­son Jen Crow­croft states via email, “We do not tol­er­ate any kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place and we sup­port every employee’s right to crit­i­cize their employ­er, but that doesn’t come with blan­ket immu­ni­ty to ignore inter­nal poli­cies.” Sim­i­lar­ly, Ama­zon attrib­ut­es Bashir’s dis­missal to vio­la­tions of work­place rules. It also states Osman still works at Ama­zon and was not fired.

Mohamed’s alle­ga­tions reflect a broad­er pat­tern of fir­ings and pun­ish­ment of work­er-orga­niz­ers dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, which has prompt­ed law­mak­ers to inves­ti­gate Amazon’s labor prac­tices.. Last week, 35 work­ers at MSP1 staged yet anoth­er walk­out to protest the alleged fir­ing of one of Mohamed’s cowork­ers, Farhiyo Warsame, for “time off task” vio­la­tions, after she had voiced con­cerns about safe­ty pro­tec­tions at work.

For now, how­ev­er, Mohamed’s out­spo­ken­ness might pro­tect her, as the work­ers’ upris­ings have put Amazon’s labor prac­tices in the pub­lic spotlight. 

Ama­zon esti­mates about 30% of its Shakopee work­ers are East African, many of whom live in the Twin Cities Soma­li refugee com­mu­ni­ty, which has his­tor­i­cal­ly strug­gled with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and socioe­co­nom­ic hard­ship. Now, these bonds have trans­formed into orga­niz­ing pow­er against a cor­po­rate empire. Hav­ing built a diverse com­mu­ni­ty of mil­i­tant work­ers at MSP1—Soma­li, Span­ish and Eng­lish speak­ers alike—Mohamed knows there is safe­ty in numbers.

“We have one goal, and we can under­stand each oth­er,” Mohamed says. “We have the pow­er to change pol­i­cy. … We have the right to exer­cise that in the Unit­ed States.” Although the com­pa­ny “give[s] us a lot of fear,” she adds. “[we] still have the courage to fight back and work for the change we want.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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Amazon’s Unlimited Unpaid Time Off Ends May 1, and Workers Say That Could Be Deadly

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Amazon warehouse workers across the country today decried the company’s decision to end a policy of unlimited unpaid time off, and said that working conditions inside Amazon fulfillment centers are putting their lives at risk.

Employees from New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, working with Athena Coalition, said on a call today that a policy change announced late last week—which will replace the unlimited paid time off offered to workers as a response to the coronavirus crisis with a more restrictive policy at the end of this month—is “outrageous” in light of the very real level of danger that still persists for those forced to work in close quarters. “People have to choose, do I stay home and risk losing my job, or go to work and risk getting sick?” said Hafsa Hassan, who walked out of work yesterday in protest, along with about 50 colleagues at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota.

Amazon’s announcement that it will roll back unlimited unpaid time off at the end of April means that employees will soon be required to apply to be granted leaves of absence if they must be away from work for health reasons, or to take care of children who are out of school, or to protect vulnerable family members. But employees say that system is confusing and broken, even for those who should qualify. Rachel Belz, an Amazon warehouse worker in New Jersey who also works with the activist group United for Respect, has not been at work since mid-March because of fears of infecting her family, especially her son. Her attempts to apply for a leave of absence, though, have resulted in multiple dropped calls, unanswered emails, and no response from the company. “H.R. is overloaded. You can open a case, and they won’t get back to you,” she said. “If you’re expecting people at a high volume to apply to these things, you need to work out the kinks in the system.”

Belz, who is in contact daily with other workers at the facility, said that the company’s attempts to keep the warehouse free of coronavirus are inadequate. Among the problems, she said: No soap in the bathrooms, cleaning supplies that are kept locked in cages that can only be opened by managers, and temperature screenings for workers that are being conducted using only a thermal camera—and workers who appear too warm are encouraged to go outside for a few minutes, cool down, and try again.

Amazon spokesperson Rachel Lighty said that “we are providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures.” She also called Amazon employees “heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis.” The company had its first confirmed Covid death two weeks ago, when an operations manager at a California Amazon warehouse died.

Multiple workers said that their facilities lacked cleaning supplies, and that hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes are being kept in one location away from work stations, making it impossible to regularly sanitize your individual work area throughout a shift. They said that Amazon’s current hiring boom is making break rooms and common areas even more crowded, making proper social distancing impossible. They expressed doubt that the single mask being issued per person per shift is enough to keep them safe. And they described the unnerving experience of seeing fully protected cleaning crews descend on their job sites after a coworker reported testing positive for Covid.

Jordan Flowers, who works at the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island that has been the target of protests and walkouts in recent weeks, said that he knows coworkers who are now choosing to sleep in their cars, rather than going home and risking getting their families sick. “It’s frightening,” he said. Billie Jo Ramey, an Amazon worker in Michigan who has been taking unpaid leave since March after getting ill with Covid-like symptoms, fears what the policy change will mean for her, and for those around her. “I’m in no shape to go back. I’m at high risk,” she said.

Several workers noted the wealth of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos—who’s gotten tens of billions of dollars richer since the beginning of this crisis, thanks to Amazon’s booming stock price—and contrasted his resources with the lack of resources they feel they’re being given on the job. “That’s not just terrifying,” said Rachel Belz, “it’s pathetic that we can’t trust a trillion-dollar company to do the most basic thing, which is to clean.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Postal Workers Face the Pandemic as the Service Struggles Financially; Amazon Workers Protest

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Here’s a little riddle: What has 157 million daily delivery points, 35,000 offices and 500,000 workers? It’s your U.S. Postal Service, that would be the service that really is a democratic, small “d”, institution—it’s there for everyone at a reasonable cost, no matter where you live or who you are.

Putting it mildly, postal workers are frontline workers—and to pile the safety and health dangers on top of everything else, the service is facing a massive budget hole because of the collapse of the economy because, obviously, less commerce means a lot less stuff being sent via the postal service which relies on fees. I go in-depth on what’s happening to postal workers with the Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

And Jeff Bezos is up to his usual despicable behavior—the wealthiest human on the planet is piling up more money but at the expense of the safety and health of Amazon’s warehouse workers who are getting sick from COVID-19. Hundreds of Amazon workers stayed away from work yesterday to protest the dangerous conditions. Rachel Belz, an Amazon worker, joins me to discuss the uprising.

This article was originally published at WorkingLife on April 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jonathan Bernard Yoav Tasini is an American political strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, primarily focusing his energies on the topics of work, labor and the economy.


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Amazon Will Not Change Without a Union

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Jeff Bezos has gotten $24 billion richer. Amazon’s stock price has risen more than 40% since mid-March. This explosive creation of corporate wealth has coincided with an unprecedented level of labor activism against Amazon, including multiple well-publicized workplace walkouts, protests, and a growing drumbeat of negative PR about the company’s handling of the pandemic, particularly regarding the workplace safety of warehouse workers. There has never been as much coordinated labor action against Amazon. And Amazon has never been more successful. If the goal is to truly change Amazon, it’s time to make the strategy sharper.

Yes, Amazon is a behemoth. It is not just a trillion-dollar company run by the world’s richest man; it is a machine that is slowly eradicating the traditional retail industry in America and changing the entire landscape of work. It is the engine that will eliminate millions of service industry jobs and reconstitute them as warehouse jobs. For this reason, Amazon warehouse workers are the most strategically important workers in America for the labor movement. If unions aspire to the fundamental goal of ensuring that working people get a fair share of the proceeds of the economy they create, then unions must be able to exert serious influence in the strongest parts of the economy. It’s that simple. If unions are relegated to economic niches, they will not be able to transform the economy in favor of workers in the way they should. And for decades, with the decline of manufacturing and the rise of anti-labor law, this is exactly what has been happening. If Amazon is America’s most powerful company, the influence of organized labor must be strong inside Amazon. Otherwise, organized labor cannot accomplish its mission on a national scale. The efforts of labor campaigns should be evaluated with this reality in mind.

These facts have been clear for years. The covid pandemic has provided an opportunity for a host of labor groups, many operating under the Athena Coalition, to crank up pressure on the company with walkouts and a media campaign—and the company has responded by firing both warehouse workers and tech workers who protested, exhibiting a bold industrial shamelessness that would make Henry Frick proud.

Because labor organizing is so difficult, and the odds are stacked so high against regular working people, we often tend to focus exclusively on what workers have won, emphasizing and celebrating every sign of hope or victory, no matter how small. This is important for the sake of morale. But it is equally important to look at our campaigns in the cold economic light of the corporate view. From the perspective of Amazon, here is what has happened lately: Their stock price is through the roof; the are rapidly capturing market share from wounded and dying competitors; they are hiring tens of thousands of new employees to meet exploding demand; and all signs indicate that they will come out on the other side of this crisis stronger than ever before. Shareholders and executives are fat, happy, and rich. A few minor flare-ups of labor unrest here and there is an exceeding small price to pay for what the bottom line is telling them right now.

I am sorry to say that there is only one thing that organized labor can do that will have any real lasting impact on Amazon, and that is: unionizing it. Neither a media campaign nor a PR campaign nor a political campaign is going to cut it. I say this not to denigrate any of the activists doing that work now, nor any of the brave Amazon employees who have agitated and spoken out at the risk of losing their jobs and being demonized by corporate spokespeople. All of that work is valuable. But it is valuable instrumentally, in that it lays the groundwork for a successful union campaign. A union can exercise power directly in a way that none of these other tactics can. Amazon warehouse workers who are unionized can win better pay and better benefits and a safer workplace directly, through collective bargaining, rather than indirectly through public pressure that may well simply be ignored by their staggeringly rich and powerful employer. The primary goal of all of the Amazon-related work that is being done by political and labor activists must be to unionize as much of the company as can possibly be unionized. That is the path to power. Realistically, the only path.

Will it be easy? No. It will be very hard. Walmart was the Amazon of a previous generation. It got much of the same sort of attention from organized labor. Are there any unionized Walmarts? To make a very long story short: no. A year and a half ago, the Retail Workers union announced with great fanfare that they were organizing an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Has that warehouse been unionized? No. The Fight For 15 is an example of a labor campaign that has, in fact, won widespread concrete wage gains for fast food workers without creating any unions. But the fast food industry is different from Amazon. It includes many different employers, who can be played off against one another; unlike Amazon, it is a public-facing retail business with physical locations that open it up to a much greater variety of public actions; and huge portions of its work force can reap substantial increases in pay from minimum wage increases that can be imposed on the local or state level, which is less true for Amazon, where hourly pay is somewhat higher.

The amount of money that Jeff Bezos made in the past month is many times greater than the combined budgets of every labor union in America. The labor movement cannot hire more PR consultants, lobbyists, or advertising firms than Amazon, nor can the company’s economic influence over politicians and regulators be matched. Jeff Bezos could personally fund ten anti-labor campaigns the size of the entire Fight For 15 out of his own pocket and not even miss the money.

Yes, it will be hard. But it is necessary if we want to prevent the future of work in America from being ground up in a vast algorithmic machine in service of a lone mega-billionaire. So it has to be done. The one thing that all of Amazon’s spending cannot change is the fact that, if 50% plus one of the employees in an Amazon warehouse decide that they want to stop being exploited, they will have a union, by law. And once they have a union, they will collectively bargain, by law. And once they collectively bargain, they become a serious force to be reckoned with, something that Amazon has never yet had to deal with. There is a reason why companies like Amazon have such sophisticated internal anti-union surveillance systems. It is because they understand that a union gives employees a type of power that they will never otherwise have. Not a power that depends on influencing others, but an inherent structural power of their own.

Is Amazon willing to close down sophisticated fulfillment centers to stop union campaigns, costing themselves hundreds of millions of dollars? Perhaps. Are they willing to fire and retaliate against any worker they think might be an organizer? Perhaps. But those are the stakes. This is a long war. The alternative is allowing Jeff Bezos, a man who said that he could not think of any way to spend his fortune except space travel even after his employees had been complaining of horrific workplace exploitation for decades, to set the agenda for working conditions in America. The alternative is unacceptable. The alternative is death to organized labor, and it is doom and poverty to working people. So we fight it. We have to fight it with the strongest weapon we have. That’s a union. Everything else must be a step in that direction. Otherwise, we will look back in 20 years, wondering why we lost.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Amazon Says It’s Giving Part-Time Workers PTO—But There May Be a Catch

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has rolled out a new policy that extends paid time off to thousands of part-time operations employees.

The change follows a months-long campaign by workers in Amazon’s last-mile delivery stations to demand PTO, touted in the company’s public communications as an “essential” benefit offered to all its workers. After being told that a special classification made them ineligible, workers at Sacramento’s DSM1 delivery station launched a petition demanding the same benefits as other part-time employees and staged a walkout in December. Workers at delivery stations in Chicago and Queens took up the call earlier this year, and more than 4,300 Amazon employees nationwide signed on.

On March 20, delivery workers celebrated after receiving a “manager’s update” that reads, “We are excited to announce that Amazon will offer paid-time off benefits to all our regular part-time and seasonal employees in the United States working in the [Operations] network.

But employees still have questions.

It’s still unclear how the policy will apply in localities that already require paid sick leave. Chicago-area Amazon workers who say they previously caught the company breaking local sick-leave law suspect the company is now trying to pull a bait-and-switch.

Workers at Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station say they currently accrue 15 minutes of paid sick time per 8 hours worked, a rate slightly above what’s required by local law. Over the weekend, members of the group DCH1 Amazonians United asked an area manager to confirm whether they would receive PTO on top of existing sick leave. They say they were told that they would accrue both, separately, until June 1. At that point, sick time would “disappear,” and they would continue racking up PTO: at the same rate they do now.

An internal announcement at the facility, provided to In These Times, reads: “PTO and sick time will continue to accrue. In June it will combine and sick time bucket on HUB will disappear.” (HUB refers to the online system where employees can track their available paid and unpaid time off.)

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the new PTO policy.

According to Ted Miin, a Chicago Amazon employee and member of DCH1 Amazonians United, “Amazon is making a few concessions to motivate workers who are desperate and poor to keep coming into the warehouse and putting themselves at risk. But once we get this, we’re not going to let them take it away.”

To meet soaring demand from home-bound consumers, Amazon last week announced plans to hire 100,000 additional warehouse employees. The online-retail giant is also raising workers’ pay by $2 an hour through April, creating a $25 million hardship fund and granting two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Those changes fall short of demands outlined in a petition for coronavirus protections from Amazon, including time-and-a-half pay, childcare pay and subsidies for workers impacted by school and daycare closures, paid sick leave without a requirement for positive diagnosis, and complete facility shutdowns in order to sanitize warehouses where workers test positive for COVID-19.

Last week, a Queens delivery hub reopened the day after an employee tested positive, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at a U.S. Amazon facility.

Workers say that the standard precautions—stand at least six-feet apart, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces that might be contaminated—are almost impossible to follow inside crowded facilities. The volume of packages they’re handling has peaked, and the goods they’re moving are heavier.

“At the same time that they’ve been telling us to work more safely and sanitize our stations, they’ve raised productivity quotas,” said a worker at the Queens facility station who asked to remain anonymous. “Some people still have trouble hitting them even if they’re not washing their hands, and they’re not giving us extra time to wash our hands.”

Chicago Amazon employees have set up a mutual aid fund to support workers who they say are struggling to make ends meet during the crisis.

“While Amazon has publicly announced a policy to give workers sick/quarantine pay, several of our coworkers under CDC-advised self-quarantine due to medical status or recent travel are still getting the run-around by Amazon and have thus far not been able to get that pay,” they write on the page. “We will fight until we get it, but in the meantime funds are running low for medicine, food, baby supplies, and rent.”

Last week, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos, urging him to grant workers sick leave and hazard pay. The letter also poses questions about precautions Amazon is taking, with a March 26 deadline to respond.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Americans who are taking every precaution … might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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Amazon Worker: Why We’re Bringing the Climate Strike to Jeff Bezos

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Two months after Amazon warehouse workers across the globe staged a one-day strike, the great “disruptor” is facing another workplace disruption—this time by tech workers at its Seattle headquarters.

The group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice announced this week that it would join the September 20 Global Climate Strike led by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. The employees are calling on Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030, cancel the company’s custom contracts that accelerate gas and oil extraction, and cease funding climate denying lobbyists and politicians.

The last year has seen rank-and-file tech workers walk out over sexual harassment at Google and sales to migrant detention centers by the online retailer Wayfair. Tech workers have also organized a wider movement called #TechWontBuildIt to oppose contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

But according to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, next week’s walkout will be the first one by workers at the company’s corporate offices, as well as the first walkout in the tech industry over the climate crisis. More than 1,000 employees have currently pledged to participate via an online form.

The action grew out of a push by Amazon employees earlier this year to pass a shareholder resolution asking Jeff Bezos to create a comprehensive climate change plan. After a group of workers announced their intention to introduce this resolution, Amazon responded by announcing a “Shipment Zero” program to make 50% of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030. More than 8,000 Amazon employees signed an open letter in April deriding this plan as inadequate and calling on the company to do more.

In May, shareholders voted down the climate resolution, but the group continued organizing as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ).

In These Times spoke to Catherine Han, a software developer at Amazon, about the historic walkout and what it’s like to organize tech workers.

Have you been a part of workplace organizing or actions before?

No, this is the first time I’ve been involved in something like this.

How did you get involved in Amazon Employees for Climate Justice?

Environmental stewardship has always been something I was really passionate about. But my involvement had mostly been volunteer work—with different conservancy groups, trail work, things like that. Nothing super formal.

At work, a lot of my coworkers are very environmentally conscious. We would have a lot of conversations about climate change and what we could do, but it was always from a personal standpoint. Joining a group at work hadn’t really occurred to me.

I heard about this group after the shareholders letter announcement last year, and getting involved has been a really eye-opening experience for me. We are bringing a voice to this huge problem that had previously felt like a lot of individual concerns.

Why did the group decide to go on strike?

The call to action for the climate strike really came from the youth who were organizing it. They put out a call to action for a global movement, and we wanted to show solidarity and respond to that call, and also to push Amazon to show climate leadership.

Has it been difficult to get co-workers on board?

There have been a lot of very positive responses and a lot of easy conversations.

I think some of the more negative or hesitant reactions are often from people who are inexperienced with organized action. So it’s just discomfort with the unknown.

I think there’s broad agreement that being a tech worker at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world is an opportunity to raise the visibility of the climate crisis and show what we expect from our leadership.

If we can come together and have a company-wide commitment to get to zero emissions by 2030, that will empower workers to actually come up with the specifics we need to meet that.

What do you think of Amazon’s response to the climate crisis so far? Your group has pointed out some of the problems with the “Shipment Zero” plan Amazon announced earlier this year. While the company has pledged to make half of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030, for example, this could still mean a net increase in emissions if shipments continue to grow.

For us, just given the science and the time we have left to make a substantial impact on the trajectory of the climate crisis, Shipment Zero isn’t anywhere near aggressive enough.

The important thing was that this came as a response to the shareholder letter. So one of the biggest takeaways for me was that organized action does work. As the result of the shareholder letter, we saw a positive response from Amazon. For me, that was really empowering to see, and it makes me optimistic about the walkout and the power of that.

Was that the first time you’ve seen the success of collective action?

I really saw the power of organized action a few years ago during the women’s march. I went to the Seattle march and it was one of the first organized actions that I had participated in. Seeing power in numbers was really eye-opening for me.

My experience with the climate change movement within Amazon has been similar. For a lot of people, this is their first time being involved in an organization like this. I think that finding a voice together has been a very transformational experience for a lot of people who have been involved.

Earlier this year, workers across Europe, as well as Minnesota and Chicago, staged coordinated walkouts and other actions on Prime Day. Working conditions in Amazon warehouses are often very bad, and there are a lot of environmental justice issues associated with them—warehouses are more likely to be located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, and cause air pollution, noise, traffic safety and other issues in the surrounding area.

Do you see the climate organizing you’re doing as related to organizing by warehouse workers?

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice was definitely in support of the strikes. We’re focused on climate justice, and part of the climate crisis is that there is a disproportionate impact on impoverished communities.

We released a solidarity statement that articulates this:

Lending our support to our coworkers in Minnesota is a natural part of our climate justice priorities. We cannot create a sustainable, long-term approach to addressing the climate crisis without addressing structural racial and economic inequities that are part of our system of extraction — of energy, material, and human labor — that have caused the crisis.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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Breaking Up Amazon Doesn’t Go Far Enough—We Must Put It Under Public Control

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What should be done with Amazon? While some parts of the company should indeed be broken up, its sprawling scale is not its only problem. Much of what Amazon does is harmful for reasons inherent to the logic of private ownership, and would remain so at any scale. While the public probably does not need to own, say, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, much of Amazon can and should be nationalized and put to use to build a democratic economy.

David and others suggest that breaking up Amazon would restore some semblance of market fairness and that regulatory action could keep the power of its remnants in check. But historically, breakups of monopolies have been relatively inefficient. The Bell System, led by AT&T, was broken apart in 1984 and is today on track to be even larger, as the AT&T-Time Warner merger proceeds. Antitrust mechanisms can temporarily roll back monopolies, but the preference to dominate, rather than compete, survives.

Even should antitrust action succeed, it’s not clear that restoring competition would be better for society at large in the case of Amazon’s primary application—connecting buyers with sellers. Online platforms attain a natural monopoly when a certain level of market share is achieved and competition becomes next to impossible. What little competition among platforms remains doesn’t produce better outcomes, but instead creates a race-to-the-bottom to cut costs. Take Amazon’s new promise of one-day delivery; Walmart quickly followed suit. While it might appear convenient, neither entity has to account for the intensifying extraction from workers and the environment; both can continue to externalize these costs. Profit-driven private ownership of the Amazon marketplace will continue to create “innovation” at the expense of public good.

While David does suggest that the Amazon marketplace could operate under public ownership, he doesn’t seem to see the significance of such a “nationalized digital mall.” Amazon’s ownership of this digital mall is what allows its success, using its primacy to extort and manipulate the market in its own interests. It is Amazon’s profit imperative, not an inevitable function of a marketplace platform, that drives it to pressure third-party sellers, squeeze workers, and recommend products that fail consumers. By becoming the market, Amazon has effectively become the market’s regulator. Such powers should belong to the public.

Democratic public ownership of the marketplace platform could retool this infrastructure for public good. The People’s Amazon—call it Ourmazon—could guarantee access to the marketplace for smaller producers rather than driving down the cost of their goods and services. As a public distribution network, Ourmazon could stabilize prices at a point that ensures viability and competitiveness for small businesses at a cost that benefits consumers.

Critics of nationalization contend that the government would be forced to adopt Amazon’s extractive practices to operate at an enterprise scale. But if those practices are indeed necessary for efficiency, why would new regulations produce different outcomes? A nationalized platform could shift the definition of efficiency to include metrics beyond shareholder value.

One of Amazon’s key (and controversial, due to real privacy concerns) features is the massive amount of data it harvests and leverages to maximize its profits. In its current position, Amazon picks winners and losers for its own ends, with algorithms that impact prices, order search results and collate recommendations. That data could instead be optimized for a wide array of economic priorities, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to hobbling products with labor abuses in their supply chains. A nationalized entity, managed along democratic priorities, could advantage small businesses, unionized businesses, or worker-owned businesses.

There are still more clear benefits to the public ownership of Amazon’s distribution and logistics infrastructure. The promise of one-day shipping, unchecked, poses a logistics nightmare, creating precarious work conditionsand significant environmental impact. Democratic public ownership could ensure that the flow of goods meets labor and environmental standards. Amazon’s HQ2 fiasco epitomizes race-to-the-bottom urban planning, while democratically decided plans could incorporate considerations like resiliency to natural disasters or areas needing an economic revival.

Amazon is dominating its way to becoming the backbone of the U.S. economy. A nationalized company could play the backbone of a more equitable system. As Amazon expands into activities like providing easier-to-access credit cards, it is creating new markets out of sectors that would be better served with social provisions. Similarly, look at Amazon’s move into online pharmacy. We can imagine how powerful a publicly owned pharmacy could be, expanding access to affordable medication, driven by care rather than profit.

The flaw of antitrust is that the problem of power is reduced to a matter of scale, when power should be rooted in democratic control and ownership. Who owns the data? Who programs the algorithm? Who governs the platform? Breaking up Amazon may be necessary, but some of its pieces would inevitably become natural monopolies that would be better served as publicly owned platforms operated for public benefit. Public ownership of Amazon would enable a redesign to maximize public benefit over profit.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Katie Parker is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher focused on regional planning and community economic development. Adam Simpson is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher and writer as well as a co-host of the podcast Future Left.


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Angry About Low Pay and Sweltering Heat, These Amazon Warehouse Workers Are Organizing

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Thousands of Amazon workers struck on “Prime Day” this week in what was perhaps the largest multinational action to date against the online behemoth. European Amazon employees have been waging coordinated strikes against the company since 2013, but this time they were joined by U.S. counterparts at a Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center, where workers staged a first-of-its-kind six-hour work stoppage. To date, Amazon has successfully fended off all attempts at unionization in the United States since the company’s founding in 1994.

Meanwhile, at another U.S. Amazon facility in Chicago, a new organizing effort is underway. Early Tuesday morning, a group of 30 workers at the company’s DCH1 delivery station on the city’s South Side staged a “walk-in” to the facility’s management during a 2:30 a.m. break on the overnight shift.

The group delivered a list of demands to site management that included a pay bump, health insurance and functioning air conditioning in the facility, where workers say they are laboring in sweltering heat.

The DCH1 delivery station is the last place that Amazon parcels arrive before reaching the doorsteps of Chicago-area customers. Workers scan and sort at a grueling pace inside a building with a metal roof and walls, and towers of packages often block ventilation from overhead fans. The workforce includes seniors and people with medical conditions such as diabetes, and dehydration and heat stroke are frequent problems, according to four employees at the facility who spoke to In These Times on condition of anonymity.

Last month, when a small fire broke out in the facility, managers told workers not to leave their stations, according to one of the employees. No one was injured, but the incident stoked anger.

DCH1 Amazonians United, which has launched a public Facebook page, says workers decided to take action on Prime Day in part after hearing about Minnesota workers’ plans to strike. At present, the workers are not affiliated with any union or community organization.

They’re also building off a successful action this spring, when about 140 employees—roughly a quarter of the workforce—signed a petition demanding adequate access to drinking water at the facility. Managers had stopped providing workers with water bottles, and five-gallon water jugs weren’t being replaced throughout the day, says Terry Miller (a pseudonym), who has worked at the facility for four and a half months.

During his second week on the job, he remembers, a coworker passed out from dehydration.

But as soon as workers delivered the petition in May, a manager went out and bought water bottles, says Miller. Shortly after that, water stations were installed.

“Ever since then, people saw that if we move, if we demand our rights, we can win,” says Fred Brown (a pseudonym), another Amazon employee who began working at the facility in 2017.

After circulating a survey to determine which issues fellow employees cared most about, workers decided to stage another action for Amazon’s highly publicized July Prime day. Apparently short-handed during this peak week, the facility has been offering employees a pay bump to come in an hour before their regular shift is scheduled to start—they receive $18, rather than the usual $15, but only for the extra hour.

DCH1 Amazonians United is demanding “prime pay for Prime days,” or $18 an hour throughout “blackout periods” when workers aren’t permitted to schedule time off and are handling a high volume of packages as a result of the company’s promotions.

Employees received a pay bump as part of a much-touted decision by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to raise the starting wage to $15 an hour. The announcement came after years of criticism from labor, as well the “Stop Bezos Act” introduced by Bernie Sanders that would have penalized large employers that pay low wages.

But employees at the DCH1 facility typically have their hours capped at 28 a week, and many still struggle to pay their bills, says J.R. (a pseudonym). After working a homecare job during the week, on the weekends he pulls three overnight shifts at the Amazon facility and then reports for a childcare job with just a few hours of sleep in between.

“Jeff Bezos’ net worth is about $160 billion,” he says. “Thank you for the $15, but you can’t expect us to stay there forever. The way I see it, $15 is the new minimum wage.”

In a statement e-mailed to In These Times, an Amazon spokesperson said that the company is “proud to offer great employment opportunities with excellent pay, benefits, and a safe workplace for our people.”

The spokesperson did not respond to In These Times’ questions about the facility.

Employees who spoke with In These Times say that in addition to low pay, workers are dissatisfied with the lack of health benefits. According to the workers, they receive some vision and dental benefits, but in lieu of health insurance they are encouraged to call a health hotline number.

In the past year, Amazon has more than doubled the rate at which workers are expected to scan packages at the facility, say the employees, who also complain of seemingly arbitrary write-ups and firings. One of the workers says he was written up after a manager accused him of scanning a package incorrectly two months after the fact.

An investigation by the Verge this spring revealed that Amazon automatically tracks its employees’ productivity and may fire as much as 10 percent of its workforce annually for failing to meet internal targets.

After presenting their list of demands on Tuesday, the DCH1 workers say they were promised a meeting with the site manager that has yet to occur. They are circulating a public petition to demand the meeting.

In the meantime, Brown says that news of Tuesday’s action is reaching more coworkers. “You can feel the shift in power,” he says.

Amazon opened the DCH1 facility in Chicago in 2015. “I always say, they came to the wrong city,” says J.R. “Chicago is known for unions, so you can only get away with it for so long.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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