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BAmazon Union: Anticipating the Battle in Bessemer, Alabama

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Last Friday, representatives from the Retail Workers (RWDSU) went before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Region 10, seeking a quick union certification election.

The election is to determine whether a majority of the employees at the newly opened Amazon Fulfillment Center (BHM1) in Bessemer—a small of suburb of Birmingham, Alabama—want union representation.

Amazon was represented at the hearing by the law firm Morgan Lewis—a firm that specializes in “union avoidance” strategies. In dispute was the size of the bargaining unit.

The union had petitioned the Labor Board on November 20 with the support of at least 30 percent of a workforce that it calculated at 1,500. Obviously seeking to invalidate the union’s petition, the company countered that the appropriate bargaining unit was more than 5,700! The hearing took evidence from both parties and the hearing officer will decide who is right.

If the hearing officer rules in favor of the union, a quick certification election could be forthcoming. It is far more likely, however, that Amazon will spend its millions on legal actions to thwart a quick election. The company will argue that it is protecting the franchise of thousands of workers from a predatory outside organization.

UPRISINGS AT AMAZON

RWDSU’s filing for an election at Amazon caught the business press and many labor activists by complete surprise. But as Alex Press pointed out in Jacobin, “With pandemic-fueled growth has come an uptick in organizing at Amazon warehouses. The global health crisis and increased demand for Amazon’s services have led to widespread worker complaints about unsafe working conditions, including quotas that preclude safety measures they see as necessary to protect themselves from the virus.”

The Bessemer facility opened in March, at the onset of the pandemic. It is an 885,000-square-foot, four-story facility in one of Alabama’s poorest communities. The Bessemer City Council welcomed the opening with great fanfare, seeing these $15-per-hour jobs as particularly attractive in a state with only a $7.25 minimum wage.

Nevertheless the conditions at Amazon that have provoked nationwide actions against inhumane speed-up, pandemic-related and other health and safety issues, and callous disrespect have provoked a reaction here too.

Union drives in the South have often suffered from a perception that the union is a bunch of outside carpetbaggers from the North. However, this drive could have real local legs. RWDSU represents poultry processing facilities throughout the Southeast and has 7,500 poultry members in Alabama. Workers at nearby Koch Foods held a public protest on June 3 to force their employer to provide protective gear and safer conditions during the pandemic.

That kind of visible public fight no doubt was an appeal to friends and family working at Amazon who are suffering from some of the same conditions, without an organization to fight back.

RWDSU previously announced a union drive at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center in late 2018, during the battle over the company’s plans to open a new headquarters in New York City, though the union never filed for an NLRB election. In March, a small walkout at the same facility over the lack of protective gear resulted in a flurry of publicity, but management fired a key leader, Chris Smalls.

AMAZON WORKERS ORGANIZE

For two years now, a network organizing under the banner Amazonians United has waged high-profile battles with Amazon at delivery stations in Sacramento, Chicago, and Queens. Instead of filing petitions for union elections, these workers have focused on building workplace organizations to wage fights around the immediate needs and interests of employees.

For example, in 2019, Sandra, an employee at a Sacramento delivery station, was fired for exceeding her unpaid time off by one hour. For weeks the Human Resources department ignored her and strung her along without a paycheck. But Amazonians United Sacramentoswung into action—and within 24 hours of their submitting a petition, H.R. announced that Sandra would be rehired with back pay.

Victories like this are the reason that Amazonians United’s efforts have been celebrated worldwide. The group has also made links internationally with other rank-and-file Amazon workers, particularly in Europe.

Workers at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, have also won local demands. After public protests backed by the local labor movement, workers won Muslim prayer hours for a large group of Somali employees. In particular, their efforts have received crucial support from SEIU Local 26, which represents many Somali janitors in the Twin Cities area.

There is no better base for organizing than the commitment and grassroots support of existing unionized workers who have friends and family in non-union workplaces. Hopefully, the organizing taking place in Bessemer, Alabama, is similarly “organic.”

OBSTACLES AHEAD

No matter how deep or wide the organizing is, the workers’ road to victory is mined with heavy obstacles. 

First, they face obstruction and delay. The company originally sought to delay the NLRB hearing until January, arguing that its supervisors were too busy with “peak” season to supply the information on employment necessary to determine the size of the unit. The NLRB agreed to delay the hearing only from December 11 to the 18th. 

But without a doubt, Morgan Lewis’s attorneys will take advantage of every legal loophole to obfuscate and delay. That’s a big part of what the current round of hearings on the size of the unit is about—delaying an election as long as possible to weaken any momentum the union has built up.

Next, they can expect aggressive management interference. If and when the NLRB finally sets an election date, the company’s anti-union “persuasion” campaign will swing into high gear, utilizing a combination of promises and threats, carrots and sticks.

Amazon undoubtedly will try to enlist some city councilors or other elected officials who raved about landing the warehouse in Bessemer to assist its campaign to throttle the union. Remember how Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the ex-mayor of Chattanooga, lambasted the UAW’s attempt in 2014 to organize the Volkswagen plant there. Corker threatened that the state would pull back on its tax breaks for VW if workers won their union. When the union tried again in 2019, VW brought the governor of Tennessee into the plant to lead mandatory all-employee anti-union meetings.

Under these conditions an election victory would be a moving and inspiring moment, a true David and Goliath story. But wait, there is more: If the company chooses not to make fraudulent claims to undermine election results, next the RWDSU must bargain with the company for a first contract. Amazon can be expected to thwart labor law by not bargaining in good faith. Here again Amazon will stall and try to demoralize the workers. 

SUPPORT FOR BAMAZON UNION

These are some of the grim caveats that confront this valiant and apparently community-rooted effort. However, as we recently wrote in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, workers in facilities like Bessemer are in a position to wield significant power. “Amazon’s vulnerability is its supply chain management… based on the sophisticated coordination of product inventory and transportation logistics. That makes it highly susceptible to strategic action by workers—whether in its vast warehouse and sortation centers, shipping its products, or on the technology side.”

The whole Amazon world, and especially its workforce, will be watching and rooting for success. A victory in Bessemer would be a victory for all Amazon workers and a credit to the RWDSU and its members. 

Bearing in mind the national and international reach of Amazon, its sophisticated logistics capacity, and its vast resources to oppose worker organization, building workers’ power and sustaining organization must ultimately be national and international in scope.

The flexibility built into the Amazon business model which enables same-day delivery and the efficiency of the last mile is also flexibility that can be used to thwart worker organization if it remains isolated at single facilities.

That is why ultimately the effort will require the dovetailing of internal worker organization at multiple facilities—like what Amazonians United is doing—with the power and resources of one or several national unions, like RWDSU or the Teamsters, for instance. There is no single model for success at Amazon. RWDSU has launched an important initiative in Bessemer.

Amazon’s business model fundamentally undermines wages and working conditions for the whole labor movement, including the more than 200,000 Teamsters employed at UPS and hundreds of thousands of grocery store members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. We all have a stake in supporting a victory for the workers in Bessemer and their new “BAmazon” union! Stay tuned to Labor Notes for updates on the NLRB election and further developments in organizing at Amazon.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.


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Building Its Own Delivery Network, Amazon Puts the Squeeze On Drivers

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While millions have lost their jobs and thousands of small businesses have shut their doors, at least one company has thrived during the pandemic: Amazon. The e-commerce behemoth controls 40 percent of online sales and has amassed record profits. The net worth of founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has jumped to $186 billion, up more than $70 billion since March. 

Amazon’s continued growth and dominance in online retailing are due to its mastery of logistics—including its investment in building the world’s largest contingent (that is, not made up of permanent employees) last-mile delivery network, with over 500,000 contracted drivers globally. 

Last-mile logistics workers complete the final steps of delivery to a consumer’s home (or a neighborhood Amazon locker). While most packages in the U.S. are still delivered by the big four—UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the Postal Service (USPS)—Amazon is increasingly building out its own delivery network, posing a major threat to these firms and to working conditions in the industry. 

THE LAST-MILE PROBLEM

In contrast to big-box retailers that rely heavily on warehouse workers hired through temp agencies, Amazon directly employs hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers around the world (though it still regularly hires temps during peak periods). 

However, in the last-mile delivery sector, Amazon has taken a different approach: expanding its network of contingent and subcontracted drivers.

The last mile is one of most labor-intensive components of the e-commerce supply chain. Nearly one-third of the total cost of shipping goods occurs here. Logistics experts have described the challenges facing e-commerce firms as “the last-mile problem,” since the final leg of delivery usually involves multiple stops with small packages.

To decrease its dependence on the big four (including the unionized UPS and USPS), Amazon has invested in parcel delivery. By 2019, around half of Amazon Prime packages in the U.S. were delivered by subcontractors or contingent workers.

AN UBER FOR PACKAGES

Amazon Flex drivers are gig workers treated as independent contractors, similar to Uber drivers. They are paid per completion of a delivery route, not by the hour. Flex drivers must provide their own vehicles or rent delivery vans.

Independent contractors lack the legal rights of employees to unionize and enforce minimum wage protections. In 2019, a group of Amazon Flex Drivers based in California sued Amazon, claiming that the company had intentionally misclassified Flex drivers as independent contractors to avoid paying overtime and employee benefits.

In addition to Flex, the company is increasingly relying on its Delivery Service Partners program, rolled out in 2018. DSPs are small subcontracted parcel delivery firms with 20–40 delivery vans apiece—considered “independent” of Amazon, though they exclusively deliver packages for Amazon Prime customers.

SUBCONTRACTED DRIVERS

DSP fleets are limited to 40 vans to complicate unionization efforts and to increase Amazon’s flexibility and power over the price paid per delivery. Limiting their size makes it difficult for these small firms to gain leverage against Amazon. Each DSP manages between 40 and 100 employees.

I live in Southern California, one of Amazon’s largest markets in the world. For years, it was most common here to see white unmarked delivery vans with workers wearing reflective vests hustling Amazon Prime packages through the streets. Today, however, most DSPs lease grey-blue Amazon-branded delivery vans and Amazon uniforms for their drivers. And yet, despite their appearance, these subcontracted delivery drivers do not formally work for Amazon.

The majority of these drivers in Southern California work eight- to 10-hour shifts and earn about $15 per hour. Many do not receive health insurance benefits. 

These workers face extreme pressure to meet the demands of Amazon’s tight delivery terms. During peak holiday periods, the number of deliveries can reach as high as 400 per shift. Drivers complain of unpaid overtime, poor working conditions, and unrealistic expectations and pressures set by Amazon.

Between Flex and the DSPs, Amazon’s expanding market power has introduced new levels of exploitation for thousands of delivery drivers, many of them workers of color and immigrants. 

SPEED-UP AND SURVEILLANCE

Walmart became the world’s largest corporation by developing a sophisticated logistics management program, which reduced inefficiencies in the movement of consumer goods across thousands of miles.

However, the supply-chain management approach that Walmart perfected in the big-box era has not adapted well to the rapid changes brought on by the growth of e-commerce.

Big-box retailers have struggled to compete because their infrastructure was built to accommodate long-distance shipping. E-commerce depends upon a more localized and fragmented distribution and delivery system. 

Consumers demand increasingly fast delivery to their homes; the Amazon Prime program has driven further consumer demand for expedited free shipping. All this creates pressure on workers in both warehousing and last-mile delivery to speed up.

Connected to this speed-up are technologies that track workers’ movements and speed in real time. Amazon is the industry leader in worker surveillance across the global supply chain.

Amazon’s logistics infrastructure relies upon this exploitation and hyper-surveillance of both warehouse workers and contracted delivery drivers. In global labor organizing, joining these two groups together will be critical to worker power.

SQUEEZING THE COMPETITION

To compete with Amazon, FedEx has begun to tap into the e-commerce market by working with hybrid retailers (big-box stores that combine offline and online sales) that offer in-store pickup.

According to FedEx, approximately half of all online purchases occur after 4 p.m. This prompted the company to roll out a new late-night shipping option, giving retailers the opportunity to offer next-day shipping on orders placed as late as midnight. 

FedEx Express drivers pick up the packages from retailers as late as 2 a.m. and take them to sorting hubs. Deliveries can occur as soon as the next day within the local market, and two days for destinations farther away.

The late-night shipping program began in 2017 as a pilot in Los Angeles. Since then it has entered 100 local markets. Using the physical infrastructure of big-box retail outlets as a point of competitive advantage, FedEx has increased the speed from fulfillment centers to delivery to less than 24 hours. 

Competition between Amazon and hybrid retail firms has fueled a race to capture the last-mile market in other ways, too. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, at a price of $13.7 billion, had less to do with groceries and more to do with increasing its last-mile market share.

By acquiring Whole Foods, Amazon instantly added to its delivery network 440 refrigerated warehouses within 10 miles of 80 percent of the population. Since the acquisition, Amazon Flex drivers routinely use Whole Foods stores to drop off and pick up packages at Amazon lockers. The acquisition also improved Amazon’s last-mile market position in relation to its hybrid retail competitors Walmart and Target.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is a sociology professor at Cal State-Long Beach. He is the co-editor, with Ellen Reese, of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2020). This piece is an edited excerpt from the book. Read a review here.


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Dear Mackenzie: There’s One More Donation You Owe to the World

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Dear Macken­zie Scott, 

This week, you announced that you’ve made $4.2 bil­lion in char­i­ta­ble dona­tions in the past four months. For that you deserve an extreme­ly mod­est amount of con­grat­u­la­tions! You are, no doubt, besieged at all times by peo­ple who come to kiss your ass and beg for mon­ey. We come to you today with some­thing dif­fer­ent: moral con­dem­na­tion leav­ened with only the faintest sense of praise?—?com­bined with an idea that offers redemp­tion for you and for the belea­guered reg­u­lar peo­ple of Amer­i­ca at the same time.

Your net worth, accord­ing to reports, stands at some­thing like $60 bil­lion. How did you get so rich? You got so rich by being mar­ried to Ama­zon CEO Jeff Bezos for 25 years. More specif­i­cal­ly, you got so rich by divorc­ing Jeff Bezos last year, and get­ting 4% of Amazon’s stock in the process. That stake in the com­pa­ny was worth $38 bil­lion when you got it. You have there­fore made more than $20 bil­lion in the past year, thanks to the company’s boom dur­ing the pandemic. 

Here is where we will say some­thing mild­ly nice about you: You seem to be on the good end of the bil­lion­aire class. Many of your wealthy peers view char­i­ta­ble giv­ing as a chance to see their name adorn­ing fan­cy build­ings, or to attend lav­ish social events while being insu­lat­ed from crit­i­cism for their lav­ish­ness. Oth­ers, like your ex-hus­band, view char­i­ty as an unim­por­tant after­thought, donat­ing an inde­fen­si­bly pal­try por­tion of their wealth to the needy, or leav­ing the task to a foun­da­tion after they’re dead. By giv­ing away bil­lions this year alone, you have demon­strat­ed that you grasp, to some extent, the moral urgency of help­ing peo­ple soon­er rather than lat­er. You have pledged to give away the major­i­ty of your wealth in your own life­time?—?not much of an eth­i­cal achieve­ment by Peter Singer stan­dards, but in the con­text of Amer­i­can bil­lion­aires, not bad. 

Fur­ther­more, your choic­es of where to give seem to show that you do care about impact, and not just grandeur and flash. You sought out small orga­ni­za­tions, from his­tor­i­cal­ly Black col­leges to local food banks, that can do a lot with your mon­ey, rather than lazi­ly writ­ing checks to big nation­al groups that will show­er you with good P.R. and then blow a lot of your mon­ey on mid­dle man­age­ment. You exhib­it a very basic sense of human decen­cy, and that alone puts you ahead of most of your peers. 

Of course, that is not enough to give you a pass. The very exis­tence of a $60bil­lion for­tune in the hands of one per­son is a crime, proof of the way that human soci­ety has evolved away from jus­tice. And your for­tune, in par­tic­u­lar, is not clean. Your mon­ey was earned on the backs of hun­dreds of thou­sands of reg­u­lar peo­ple who have done the work that makes Ama­zon run, and suf­fered as a result. They have suf­fered phys­i­cal­ly. They have suf­fered finan­cial­ly. And they have suf­fered exis­ten­tial­ly, by being treat­ed at every turn as cogs in a machine, rather than as human beings whose own hopes and dreams and auton­o­my should be allowed to flour­ish. Every Ama­zon ware­house work­er forced to pee in a bot­tle because they didn’t have suf­fi­cient breaks; every Ama­zon office work­er who slept in their car in order to keep their job; every Ama­zon deliv­ery dri­ver denied a chance at an actu­al career with a liv­ing wage and ben­e­fits because the com­pa­ny has seen to it they will nev­er be a full time employ­ee; all of these peo­ple put a dol­lar into your pock­et, Macken­zie Scott. Your for­tune came from them. Your mon­ey was earned by squeez­ing them into pover­ty. That is the plain truth. No mat­ter how nice of a per­son you may con­sid­er your­self to be, the fact is that you have a pro­found debt to all those people. 

You could, I guess, just write a check and give every Ama­zon work­er a few thou­sand bucks. That would be nice for a pass­ing moment, but noth­ing would real­ly change. You can­not fix a struc­tur­al debt with a trin­ket. In order to start cor­rect­ing the fun­da­men­tal injus­tices that have made you so rich, you must do some­thing that can give those work­ing peo­ple their own pow­er to take back con­trol of their lives. 

Ama­zon needs a union. And I am hap­py to say: Macken­zie Scott, you can help with that. It’s hard to orga­nize a com­pa­ny like Ama­zon, both because it is a larg­er beast than any indi­vid­ual union has resources for, and because it will spend a great deal of mon­ey on lies and intim­i­da­tion to pre­vent its work­ers from exer­cis­ing their fun­da­men­tal right to orga­nize. But mon­ey can help to even the play­ing field. For a small frac­tion of the mon­ey you just gave out?—?say, $100 mil­lion?—?it would be pos­si­ble to hire orga­niz­ers nation­wide with the express pur­pose of union­iz­ing Ama­zon. The com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly fight­ing against one sin­gle union dri­ve at a ware­house in Alaba­ma; we need to have them fight­ing against par­al­lel union dri­ves at hun­dreds of ware­hous­es across the coun­try all at once. The labor move­ment knows how to orga­nize work­ing peo­ple, but its resources are sim­ply no match for a $1.6 tril­lion com­pa­ny that can stamp out iso­lat­ed dri­ves like a giant crush­ing an ant. To give Amazon’s work­ers a chance at real jus­tice, the com­pa­ny must be orga­nized. And to orga­nize a com­pa­ny like this, there must be ded­i­cat­ed nation­al infra­struc­ture work­ing on this, and only this. No labor union in the Unit­ed States has enough mon­ey to build this on the scale that’s nec­es­sary. But you do, Macken­zie Scott. 

With one check, you can make it pos­si­ble to start union­iz­ing the com­pa­ny that made you a mega-bil­lion­aire. This is the sin­gle best way to start pay­ing your moral debt to those whose lives have been treat­ed as dis­pos­able in ser­vice to Amazon’s growth. And, it will real­ly piss off Jeff Bezos. I think we would both like to see that, no? 

We’re going to have to con­fis­cate the rest of your mon­ey when the rev­o­lu­tion comes any­how. Might as well set your kar­ma right before then. 

Sin­cere­ly,

The unwashed masses

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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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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Image result for Hamilton Nolan

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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