Amazon workers strike back
Demand for Amazon’s products and services soared during the pandemic, enabling the company to pile on profits and making Amazon founder Jeff Bezos one of the world’s richest people. But attention is increasingly focusing on the rights of Amazon’s army of workers. On top of ongoing concerns about their labour rights, including working conditions and wages, Amazon workers have reported increased pressure and worry about their safety under the pandemic. In several workplaces, they have increased their efforts to unionise, but have typically faced a battery of anti-union actions. Amazon customers concerned about labour rights should support local efforts to organise and contribute to the crowdfunding enabling them.
Across Europe and North America, the pandemic experience of millions of people meant spending a lot more time at home. And when people stayed at home, they used delivery services much more than they’d ever done before. More than any other company, they used Amazon. In 2021, Amazon was estimated to account for 40 per cent of all online sales in the USA; the second-biggest online retailer, Walmart, had only seven per cent of the market.
Amazon’s ubiquity brought sensational profits. In May this year, it posted a staggering US$8.1 billion in profit in the first quarter, 220 per cent up on the previous year. The value of its shares almost doubled over the past two years. But the starting success of this behemoth of capitalism also brought greater awareness of the downsides to the company’s dominance.
For the growing ranks of Amazon workers, unable to work from home due to the very nature of their work, the pandemic threw the spotlight on their struggles for rights and recognition. These struggles preceded the pandemic but intensified during it, as did the company’s efforts to defeat them. This was a time when Amazon workers were busier than ever, while also concerned about their ability to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19. Many who had not previously organised now started to think they deserved better.
A thwarted attempt to unionise
Much of the battle in the USA – where 950,000 people are now estimated to work for Amazon – is over the ability of Amazon workers to unionise. The company is famously resistant to unionisation, insisting that pay and work conditions are good and collective bargaining gets in the way of innovation. But for many whose working experience sits at odds with Amazon’s sunny presentation, unionisation looks like the way to make their voices heard.
In early 2021 hopes focused on Amazon’s warehouse in the city of Bessemer, Alabama, where workers held a vote on whether to recognise a union. But the outcome, with 738 voting to unionise but 1,798 voting against, marked a victory for Amazon. The company applied a comprehensive set of anti-unionisation tactics. It set up an anti-union website, sent anti-union texts to workers, posted anti-union flyers even in staff washrooms and held mandatory workplace meetings to spread anti-union propaganda and hammer home its message about the financial cost of paying union dues. It hired a major law firm, Morgan Lewis, which specialises in union-busting and has defeated past Amazon unionisation efforts.
With the vote won, Amazon wheeled out anti-union staff in a media conference where they talked of vague promises that policies would be reviewed. When people spoke of their reasons for voting against, they tended to repeat Amazon’s anti-union talking points. But the story in Bessemer may not quite be over. In August a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) official recommended that voting be rerun, after the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union complained that Amazon had illegally pressured workers.
The union says that the location of a postal voting box, on Amazon premises and in view of cameras, created the impression that Amazon had voters under surveillance, while some workers feared Amazon had access to their ballots. Union organisers await the NLRB’s decision; Amazon says it will appeal if a rerun is ordered.
Targeted for speaking out
Bessemer is far from the only site of struggle. Workers in four warehouses in Staten Island, New York should soon be voting on unionisation after a months-long campaign, sustained by crowdfunded support. Under US laws, organisers must collect at least 30 per cent of employees’ signatures to hold a unionisation vote. A new independent union, the Amazon Labor Union, says it has cleared this hurdle and has applied to hold a vote; already Amazon is quibbling about whether enough signatures have been collected, and already it has circulated anti-union literature and confiscated pro-union flyers.
Staten Island warehouse workers, who are overwhelmingly Black, have reported unsafe working conditions – they have an injury record three-times higher than average – and pressure to meet rates and quotas. By starting a new, small union just for Amazon workers rather than joining a large union spanning multiple industries, the organisers hope to take the sting out of Amazon propaganda that positions unions as unaccountable and inappropriate outsiders getting in the way of staff-manager relations.
The Staten Island campaign is being organised by Chris Smalls, who was fired in 2020 after leading a walkout over COVID-19 safety. His experience is one of numerous examples of what looks like retaliation for organising or speaking out, although Amazon denies this. But it stretches the boundaries of coincidence how many times Amazon workers who try to organise colleagues get fired or disciplined on grounds such as intimidation, harassment, use of foul language and, most recently, breaches of COVID-19 rules.
In May 2020 an Amazon vice president resigned in protest at the firing of warehouse workers who protested over safety issues. Since the start of the pandemic at least 37 complaints have been filed with the NLRB of retaliation from Amazon in response to workplace organising. And some of these have been won.
In September, Amazon settled with two former employees, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, who were fired in 2020 after campaigning for the company to improve conditions for warehouse workers and act on climate change. They set up an organisation, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, that won support from over 8,700 Amazon staff. The settlement they reached saw Amazon agree to provide back pay and commit to posting a notice to its workers telling them they can’t be fired for organising and exercising rights. By reaching a settlement Amazon avoided a public hearing that might have generated more bad publicity.
The company had to post a similar notice on workplace rights in March when the NLRB found in favour of Jonathan Bailey, who still works for Amazon and co-founded Amazonians United, a network of workers campaigning for better pay and work conditions. He organised a walkout at a warehouse in Queens, New York in March 2020 over workplace COVID-19 concerns. He reported being intimidated by a manager and was subsequently formally disciplined for ‘harassment’.
Several people involved in similar protests over workplace safety in Chicago in April 2020 also faced disciplinary retaliation, the NLRB found.
BEYOND THE USA
Actions are of course not limited to the USA. In Italy this March, Amazon workers held their first-ever large-scale 24-hour strike. The three unions organising the strike said there were around 40,000 people working for Amazon in Italy, with 9,500 directly employed but more working as drivers and suppliers. The unions claimed that 75 per cent of these workers supported the strike, although Amazon disputed this. The unions pointed to Amazon’s pandemic boom and the increased pressure on drivers, and asked why workers shouldn’t benefit from this, calling for lower work burdens, higher pay, union rights and protection for workers if they catch COVID-19.
May saw coordinated protests across 12 countries under the slogan ‘Make Amazon Pay’. The protests, organised by several civil society organisations, called attention to Amazon’s tax avoidance, environmental impacts, anti-union activities and workplace safety issues.
On global Prime Day in June, German union Verdi called a three-day strike across Amazon facilities in six locations. Verdi has organised strikes for several years in Germany, Amazon’s second-biggest market. Warehouse workers across seven locations organised a second walkout in November.
In September, paperwork was filed for a unionisation vote at an Amazon warehouse in Nisku, Alberta in Canada. If successful, this would be the first unionised Amazon warehouse in Canada. Workers complain of heavy workload, inadequate wages and discrimination against ethnic minority and migrant workers. Already Amazon is reported to be mobilising its machinery of anti-union propaganda. Canadian delivery drivers who tried to organise have reportedly faced reprisals, including several dismissals.
These actions aren’t confined to global north countries either. In March, Amazon delivery drivers held a 24-hour strike across four cities in India, demanding an increase in delivery commissions and better benefits.
Unionising, clearly a difficult process, isn’t the sole available strategy to win greater rights for Amazon’s legions of workers. Given the difficulties of holding fair and successful unionisation votes, in June the Teamsters, one of the USA’s largest unions, adopted a new strategy that includes strikes, protests and boycotts to push for local negotiations to try to win concessions.
Engagement with local law-makers is also part of the strategy. Legislators have responded to campaigns organised by the Teamsters by rejecting warehouse plans and turning down Amazon’s applications for tax breaks. A new law passed in California, coming into effect next January, requires warehouse companies to publish productivity quotas, bans productivity metrics that don’t comply with Californian health and safety laws, prohibits algorithms that can cause workers to skip breaks or not use washrooms and protects workers from being fired or facing retaliation if they don’t meet unsafe quotas. It’s clear which particular company that operates many large warehouses this was aimed at.
Alongside these strategies, initiatives providing crowdfunding for Amazon workplace organisation have mushroomed, supporting not only unionisation campaigns but also activities such as labour rights awareness training, walkouts and legal actions. One such initiative, the Coworker Solidarity Fund, was set up by tech sector workers to give small grants to support local organising. It has distributed over US$100,000 in grants, around half of it to Amazon workers.
Tapping into public concern
Crowdfunding activities tap into growing public concern. People know that Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos is one of the richest people in the world – perhaps the richest. In 2021, his space tourism jaunt put him on every front page as well as earning him a fair amount of social media ridicule. He commanded further headlines by pledging US$2 billion of his fortune to environmental causes at the COP26 climate change summit, a sum that sounds significant but amounts to around one per cent of his estimated wealth. Many are convinced Amazon could do much more, for the planet and for its workers’ rights.
Many people are concerned about workers’ rights and working conditions in Amazon, and there remains no shortage of evidence to support those worries. An investigation in the USA revealed that in 2020, accidents happened at almost double the rate in Amazon warehouses compared to non-Amazon warehouses; staff and unions blame relentless pressure to meet productivity quotas.
Many people are concerned about workers’ rights and working conditions in Amazon, and there remains no shortage of evidence to support those worries.
Workers’ concerns about workplace infection under the pandemic, which motivated many recent protests, have also been borne out by infection spikes: in February, a pro-union protest was held outside a warehouse in Troutdale, Oregon that has had 217 COVID-19 cases.
As well as warehouse workers, awareness has grown under the pandemic of the immense strain that increased demand has placed on delivery drivers – including the many drivers classed by Amazon as self-employed gig economy workers and denied the most basic of labour rights as a result.
Social media has been awash with reports of delivery drivers having to urinate in bottles because their packed and closely monitored schedules do not allow for breaks. Embarrassingly, in April Amazon was forced to apologise to US congressional representative Mark Pocan after it replied to his tweet by say Amazon drivers didn’t have to urinate in bottles; the apology came after numerous people spoke up to say that this was in fact the case, and evidence emerged that Amazon managers are aware of this.
In July, two delivery companies used by Amazon in Portland, Oregon, terminated their contacts with Amazon, and since it was their sole customer, closed themselves down. This came when Amazon refused to accept proposals to improve driver safety and increase what it pays the companies. The companies alleged a catalogue of Amazon abuses, including Amazon lowering driver payments and terminating drivers’ contracts without consulting the delivery companies, unevenly distributing workloads and accessing the delivery companies’ employee records and personal data.
The trouble with boycotts
Concern has often prompted social media calls for Amazon boycotts, but these need to be deployed carefully. There have been instances of groups calling boycotts to support workplace organising without consulting those directly involved. People who work for Amazon don’t want to put the company out of business: they want to work in safe conditions, receive fair pay and be able to air their grievances without fear of being disciplined or fired. It is important to listen to what is being asked by those on the frontline and align calls for Amazon to become a better employer and more responsible business to their demands.
The other problem with consumer boycotts is that they struggle to attract mass buy-in. Amazon’s success rests on its ubiquity, the way it’s seamlessly inserted itself into people’s daily lives and rewritten our expectations about what we can get hold of, for what price, and when. Its sheer convenience and range can’t be denied, and more ethical alternatives tend to be more expensive and less accessible to many, remaining niche offers. Amazon isn’t just a retail company: it’s the biggest cloud computing player, number one in the virtual assistant market and has a growing role in producing films, TV shows and podcasts; now it’s trying to claim a large slice of the potentially lucrative satellite internet business too. In the USA and many other countries it’s impossible to avoid. Even people who dislike Amazon use Amazon.
But despite decades of vilification by the heads of huge corporations and leaders of major neoliberal economies, there are indications of sustained public support for unions. Polls in the USA show an approval rate of around 65 per cent for unions. In the UK this June a poll showed that most people regard Amazon staff as ‘key workers’ and appreciation of the role of Amazon workers has increased during the pandemic; 76 per cent of those polled believe Amazon workers should be free to join a union if they want, without interference from the company.
Amazon’s need to have a physical presence close to our homes provides the opportunity. While manufacturing jobs can be shifted offshore to lower-wage, lower-rights economies – and many Amazon own-branded products are manufactured in such contexts – warehousing and delivery jobs can’t. Amazon needs its workforce. This is where unionisation has an opportunity to make a difference, and precisely why Amazon is so resistant to it.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Amazon must stop its anti-union activities and allow its workers to hold free and fair unionisation votes.
Civil society should continue to pressure Amazon to uphold workplace rights and cease retaliation against workers who protest and organise.
Amazon customers should support local workplace organising activities, and the crowdfunding efforts that enable them.
Cover photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images