By Steven Hill, Hans Böckler Stiftung, February 27, 2020
This past holiday season, Amazon workers in the US, Germany and the EU gave CEO Jeff Bezos his worst Christmas present – a growing workers movement.
The Christmas holiday in the United States is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, a moment to honor values like sharing and charity. But for workers in Amazon’s delivery warehouses – known by their Orwellian term as “fulfillment centers” – it’s a time of maximum exploitation and danger.
As shoppers increase their buying and consumption, spurred on by irresistible holiday discounts and the convenience of online shopping, the Christmas elves at Amazon also must speed up. During the holiday rush in 2019, Amazon warehouse workers moved millions of packages as the assembly-lines filled orders at an inhuman pace.
But even during non-holiday periods they work frantically, since workers have to scan a new item every 11 seconds to hit their quota – that’s more than 300 items an hour, thousands of individual products per day.
And the workers’ performance is constantly tracked by Amazon’s AI-infused technology. Managers and computers monitor performance using high-tech surveillance. The “digital plantation overseer” effect is intensified by the fact that in many of the facilities a vast proportion of the workers are black and Latino, while most of the top managers are white.
“Warning: Working at Amazon is dangerous to your health”
An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting has found that the company’s obsession with speed, especially during the holidays, has turned its warehouses into dangerous sweatshops. The report revealed internal injury records from 23 of the company’s 110 fulfillment centers in the US. Amazon’s rate of serious injuries in 2018 was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry: 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers, compared with an industry average of 4. One warehouse in Southern California had an injury rate more than four times, and another in Oregon more than six times, the industry average.
Amazon is included on the 2019 ‘dirty dozen’ list of the most dangerous employers in the US
Interviewed workers speak with outrage about getting injured on the job, yet being sent back to work which resulted in further injury. In October 2019, one worker at a facility in Etna, Ohio went into cardiac arrest and was left lying on the floor of a warehouse for 20 minutes before anyone helped him. That worker died. According to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which included Amazon on its 2019 “Dirty Dozen” list of the most dangerous employers in the US, six Amazon workers died on the job between November 2018 and April 2019. At the Etna warehouse alone, 28 calls to 911 were made between January and March 2019. And at another fulfillment center in Indiana, an inadequately trained maintenance worker was crushed to death by a forklift.
Amazon’s unrelenting pace and workplace surveillance during normal times is bad enough. But during the holidays it reaches a feverish pitch. And for me, this has a personal angle because my niece works at an Amazon fulfillment center in Ohio. She is an extremely hard worker, and she also is deaf. Her life-partner, who also is deaf, works there as well. During the height of the holiday season, I received a frantic email from my niece saying, “This is a risky job to get injured! I have had to work 60 hours a week during the holiday peak time. It is very exhausting!”
My niece, her partner and co-workers were forced into mandatory 12-hour shifts, and warehouses were crammed with seasonal workers with no idea about the speed-up conditions.
Amazon workers starting to rise up
In response to these dangerous conditions, Amazon workers in the US, Germany, France and elsewhere are starting to band together and organize. Some Amazon workers had their own Christmas surprise for rabidly anti-union CEO Jeff Bezos.
At a warehouse in Sacramento, the capital of California, night shift workers celebrated Christmas in their own way – they walked off their jobs. On the night of December 23, after reading aloud their demands for a meeting with management, and delivering a petition with 4,015 signatures to management during their 2:30 a.m. rest break, 36 of the 100 night-shift workers clocked out at 2:45 a.m. and walked off the job mid-shift.
“A lot of people were scared, but it was encouraging to see how many people came through,” said one of the workers who walked out. “That was the best result from the action, showing ourselves and our co-workers we can all do this.”
This group of workers, calling themselves Amazonians United Sacramento, has pushed their rights in a number of ways. They demanded changes over the most blatant effects of Amazon’s strict time-off policies, which allow workers to take just 20 unpaid hours off per quarter. One worker was fired for going one hour over her allotted unpaid time off while her mother-in-law was dying in the hospital. The Sacramento group was able to pressure the company to reverse that firing.
Another issue is lack of healthcare. All of the warehouse workers in this Sacramento delivery center are part-timers, with their hours capped at 30 per week so that management does not have to pay its share for these employees’ health insurance. Around 100 workers in the facility have begun wearing buttons that say “Amazonians United,” increasing their shop floor presence.
Amazon received another holiday treat from employees of an enormous Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, outside of New York City. At the start of the Thanksgiving holiday, workers delivered their demands to management in a petition signed by over 600 employees. A new report showed that these workers faced greater risks of serious injury than coal miners or loggers – an injury rate roughly three times the national average. So one of their demands was an increase in rest breaks from 15 to 30 minutes. And with a number of workers commuting two to three hours to work, they demanded that Amazon provide free metro cards to all workers to defray commuting costs.
Workers have organized forums under the slogan ‘We are humans, not robots.’
In Shakopee, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, Amazon warehouse workers have been organizing in the local East African community around inhumane production quotas which contribute to high accident rates. The fulfillment center has been the site of some of the most confrontational and successful organizing so far. Twice in 2019, these warehouse workers walked off the job to protest management’s ever-increasing productivity goals and discrimination against Muslim workers. Workers have organized forums under the slogan “We Are Humans, Not Robots.” They pushed Amazon to expand the warehouse’s safety committee to include more workers. When Amazon didn’t agree to their demand that the committee be elected by the workers, the organizers decided to hold their own elections.
Encouraged by the Minnesota example, workers in a delivery center in Chicago launched their own direct action. They surveyed co-workers to develop demands, and settled on three: health insurance, an $18 per hour wage (up from $15) during busy periods, and air conditioning (their warehouse can get intensely hot, since its walls and roof are metal). Thirty workers on the night shift packed the shift manager’s office during a 2:30 a.m. break to deliver the demands. Through petitions and marches, they eventually won some of their demands.
One of Amazon’s biggest shopping days in 2019 — called “Prime Days,” July 15-16 — saw walkouts and protests by workers in many US locations. The protests were semi-coordinated, targeting Amazon when its warehouses were running at full clip. Workers and community supporters marched and rallied at two warehouses in Portland, Oregon, and protests popped up outside an Amazon Warehouse in San Bernardino, California. Workers at a delivery center in Eagan, Minnesota, also walked off the job in August.
Athena rises: a labor and community coalition comes together in the US
With increasing levels of labor agitation spreading across the country, a new nationwide coalition has come together to try and spearhead more activity and unify the resistance to Amazon. The coalition, called Athena, is composed of three dozen grass-roots groups focused on not only working conditions inside warehouses, but also other Amazon atrocities such as digital surveillance and antitrust violations. The coalition has raised $15 million, with a chunk of seed money coming from George Soros’s Open Society.
Labor and immigrant rights organizations at the forefront of battling Amazon have won several recent victories. These include pushing Amazon to pay a $15 per hour minimum wage nationwide, and abandoning its plans to establish a new headquarters in New York after opponents mobilized against it. In last November’s elections in Seattle, Washington (the company’s hometown), a coalition defeated Amazon’s high campaign spending that was trying to stack the City Council with elected officials more acceptable to Amazon.
For every $1 in wages, Amazon workers need 24 cents in public assistance to get by
Many of these groups, which have been fighting their own separate battles, are uniting under the Athena umbrella. As a coalition, they intend to push back against a whole host of Amazon-related issues, including the reality uncovered by an Economic Roundtable report, that a little over half of Amazon warehouse workers live in substandard housing; for every $1 in wages, those workers need 24 cents in public assistance to get by, just like fast food workers at McDonald’s or minimum-wage workers at Walmart.
Battles in Germany and the EU with Amazon
It is not just in the US where Amazon workers are fighting back. On Black Friday 2019, workers at a distribution center in Berlin, Germany, protested Amazon’s working conditions and low pay by walking out of work. Other walkouts occurred among 2,300 workers from seven distribution centers across the country, with some actions lasting several days. Germany is Amazon’s second-biggest market after the US, and ver.di, the large services union, has been trying to organize the Amazon workers.
In France, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos received another Christmas surprise – on the night of Dec. 22, workers at the Blanc-Mesnil site, close to Paris, unexpectedly got the overnight shift off when a mysterious pre-holiday electrical blackout occurred. The facility was left without power, and the workers idled. The local branch of the General Confederation of Labor union (CGT) claimed responsibility for the act. “It is in support of the workers who walked out last week to denounce their working conditions and to mark our opposition to pension reforms,” said Marc Fréville, secretary of the local CGT.
Also on Black Friday, in Italy employees of two Amazon delivery services stopped working, and in France several shipping centers were blocked. Workers in the UK united under the banner “We are not robots” and protested at a dozen shipping centers. Amazon workers in other EU locations have gone on strike, with recurring labor actions in Poland, Spain, and Germany.
German political authorities let Amazon get away with such dangerous levels of exploitation.
This battle will be a hard and complicated one. This is a company worth nearly $1 trillion, employing hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who delivered approximately 3.5 billion packages in 2019. Indeed, the first strike in Germany occurred in May 2013 in Amazon shipping centers in Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig. Supported by ver.di, the workers demanded that Amazon sign the industry sectoral collective bargaining agreement for retail and mail order companies in that region. Jeff Bezos still refuses to sign it, or to recognize ver.di as a negotiating partner. But even worse, German political authorities let Amazon get away with such dangerous levels of exploitation.
The growing labor and community coalitions will continue to highlight the many downsides to the Amazon business model, as increasing numbers of workers continue to agitate for better wages and conditions. But Amazon’s economic monopoly and political power will remain toxic until it is reined in by government regulations and enforcement, whether in Germany, the US or the EU.
German language version