Amazon Is at War With Its Workers

A surge of protests has demanded safer conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. But will they make a difference?

Photo illustration. Photo Source: Getty / Oscar Del Pozo / Jason Redmond

SStories about working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses — and efforts by Amazon’s warehouse workers to change those conditions — stretch back nearly a decade. But like other systemic crises, Amazon workers’ fight for dignity and safer jobs has been greatly amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. With a rising count of warehouse workers confirmed infected with the coronavirus—at least 153 cases across 65 warehouses worldwide—and nine walkouts and shutdowns around the world, the urgency of this fight has become far more evident.

The activism of Amazon workers in recent weeks feels different than previous organizing efforts. Workers seem to be more coordinated and widespread. Previously reticent white-collar tech workers are starting to speak out more publicly about the treatment of Amazon workers.

And these actions are producing results: After efforts by part-time workers in Detroit and Sacramento to ensure paid time off accelerated because of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon granted PTO to warehouse workers nationwide. When Amazonians United NYC, a logistics workers’ group, launched a petition for basic protections and resources, the company agreed within days to provide paid sick leave to all workers who test positive or are quarantined. The company also pledged $25 million for a hardship fund to support workers.

Following recent walkouts at several Amazon warehouses, the company announced that it will be handing out masks and taking workers’ temperature when they arrive at a warehouse. That’s a far cry from meeting all the demands that Amazon workers sought, but it’s a sign the company is aware that it needs to respond to the unfolding public health and public relations crisis.

Does this mark a fundamental shift in the dynamics between Amazon’s workers and company management?

To get a proper sense of the scale of Amazon worker actions right now, it’s important to take a global perspective. Amazon runs almost 1,100 warehouses around the world, with about 600 of those outside the United States. Some of these workers are more organized and active than others, but nearly all of them have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is a culture of fear. It has always been like that at Amazon.”

Since March 15, Amazon fulfillment centers in Italy, Spain, and France have seen strikes, walkouts, and protests demanding greater safety precautions for workers. Some of these actions are generating results: In Italy, an 11-day strike at a warehouse in Castel San Giovanni sparked by the discovery of a coronavirus case and poor prevention measures at the facility led to the adoption of such measures as maintaining two-meter separations between workstations and longer break times to accommodate rigorous hand-washing. In Spain, safety complaints led the Ministry of Labor to install an independent safety commission at the San Fernando de Henares facility in Madrid.

Eugenio Villasante, senior communications manager of UNI Global Union (formerly Union Network International), an international labor federation, says his organization is hearing from a lot of Amazon workers. “From Poland to Czech Republic to Slovakia, the U.K., the U.S., we hear very similar stories. People are [so close that they’re] rubbing each other’s shoulders in the locker room. They are putting [people on] microbuses to take them to warehouses where they don’t feel they are protected.”

Although there haven’t been explicit, formal gestures toward widespread U.S.-Europe work stoppages, it has happened in the past, most recently in July 2019 on Prime Day. There are some informal indicators of international warehouse worker solidarity. As of April 3, around one-fifth of the 5,000-plus signatures on the Amazonians United NYC’s petition for worker protections are actually from warehouse workers in Poland.

There’s also evidence to suggest a greater sense of solidarity among Amazon workers across subsidiaries and ranks. Another one-fifth of those signatures of the Amazonians United’s petition came from white-collar workers like software engineers, film producers, and executives. Signatories included Amazon Air staff, customer service representatives, and even one third-party seller.

Apparently, it’s not just Amazon’s warehouse workers worried about their health and safety on the job. Whole Foods employees recently staged sick-outs, and organizers are maintaining a public inventory of coronavirus cases among workers (currently 149 cases at 100 stores). In the Philippines, subcontractor employees at an Amazon Ring call center were made to choose between sleeping in their office in “subhuman” working conditions and forgoing pay. They instead wrote a scathing letter to their employer and worked with BIEN, a local organizing network for call center workers, to demand the option to work from home.

While the majority of workers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters are now working from home, hourly contractors like receptionists, janitors, and security staff have had to show up to the empty HQ, putting themselves and their families at risk of exposure. An anonymous online petition demanding the HQ close so contractors can stay home has gathered more than 200 signatures. While not as attention-grabbing as a walkout, such petitions speak to the fact that Amazon workers are articulating their demands and organizing themselves with the resources they have. A quick search of Change.org and Coworker.org show workers articulating demands — everything from an appeals process for termination to shutting down and cleaning facilities with Covid-19 cases.

The many anonymous signatories of these petitions are also a reminder of the risk workers take when speaking out. Amazon workers seeking to organize also have to face the prospect of losing their jobs in the midst of a major economic depression. Although Amazon denied that the firing of Staten Island warehouse worker and walkout organizer Christian Smalls was an act of retaliation, a leaked memo in which senior leadership planned to smear Smalls somewhat undermined their claims. In mid-April, Amazon fired an additional two white-collar employees who had been critical of working conditions within the company’s warehouses.

“There is a culture of fear. It has always been like that at Amazon,” says Sarah Fields, a returns center associate at an Amazon warehouse in northern Kentucky. “Especially with unemployment as high as it is, people aren’t trying to risk their jobs, their health insurance.”

After learning about a potential coronavirus case at her warehouse, Fields tried contacting state agencies about the company’s failure to inform workers about the potential case. Then she began encouraging co-workers to do the same. Frustrated by state inaction, she contacted Smalls, who suggested she walk out. It was an action Fields didn’t know how to do on her own, let alone convince her colleagues to do.

Smalls tells OneZero that he’s been receiving messages from Amazon workers across the country and around the world who are eager to organize. The derogatory memo apparently drew outrage from some white-collar employees within Amazon, and Staten Island workers held a second walkout a week after Smalls’ termination. This week, Gizmodo reported on Tech Speaks Out, a campaign organized by workers at tech companies, including Google, Amazon, and Facebook, to voice their support for Amazon’s warehouse workers.

Amazon workers are realizing their own power at a moment when Amazon’s influence on the economy has never been larger.

Smalls says he’s been involved in the development of a still-nascent national strike fund to financially support Amazon workers who may lose their jobs over protesting — which, alongside efforts like a recently established Amazon Whistleblower Support Fund, could soften the blow of potential retaliation.

Amazon workers are realizing their own power at a moment when Amazon’s influence on the economy has never been larger. Last year, Amazon made up 37% of all retail sales in the United States — 4% of all retail spending in the United States. To keep up with a spike in customer demand during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, the company hired 100,000 employees in the last month alone and wants to hire 75,000 more. Most of the videoconferencing, chat services, and binge-watching that’s maintaining some semblance of a status quo right now depend on Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud platform and the most profitable arm of the company. If workers at Amazon really did engage in a cross-company shut down, it would cripple much of the commerce that still exists and bring most of the internet to a grinding halt.

With every new action, questions about the role Amazon plays in our economy and the conditions of its workers are coming to the fore. When asked about the recent actions by workers, Dania Rajendra, director of anti-Amazon coalition Athena, said, “Amazon’s failure to consider the needs of the people who make the corporation function is not new. There already was a worker health crisis at Amazon before the pandemic.” The coronavirus may be the most high-stakes manifestation of why Amazon’s labor policies need to change, but it’s far from the first.

Turning those high stakes into a moment for worker unity — across borders, across class lines, with public support — is a challenge, but not an impossible one. And it’s not entirely unprecedented. As Villasante of UNI Global Union points out, “This is how the labor movement was built: on the backs of workers who made very difficult decisions on factory floors, in supermarkets.” He believes we are approaching a tipping point where “workers [are] more afraid of a virus than their boss.”

For its part, Amazon is trying to reclaim the narrative, pointing to small improvements in working conditions and to the company’s plans to build coronavirus testing facilities. For now, workers seem to be saying those efforts are too little, too late.

Fields is impassioned about improving the conditions in her facility. In reiterating the call for paid sick leave, she got to the heart of the workers’ struggle: “Bezos’ money is our money. Give us our money now. That is our money. It’s all ours.”

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