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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Amazon Warehouse Walkout Is Just the Latest Push

In the predawn hours of Wednesday morning, workers at three Amazon warehouses walked off the job. More than 60 employees at two delivery stations in Queens, New York, and one in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC coordinated the first multistate walkout at US Amazon warehouses and demanded a $3 hourly raise.

As high-profile union elections in Bessemer, Alabama, and Staten Island, New York, have captured the world’s attention, an informal union named Amazonians United (AU) has been staging actions at facilities across the country—and winning.

The worker-led organization began when a handful of Chicago warehouse workers got together in 2019 to protest the company limiting their water access, according to an interview in Jacobin. “We are not a leaderless movement,” says Ira Pollock, an AU member who walked out of one of the Queens warehouses on Wednesday. “We are a leaderful movement.” The group has public chapters in Chicago, New York, Maryland, Sacramento, North Carolina, and other locations, while others prefer to operate underground. Rather than seek certification through the National Labor Relations Board, which would require Amazon to bargain with the group over wages and other conditions, the workers are exercising their rights to engage in protected concerted activity: They’re raising issues as they arise and waging campaigns to improve their working conditions.

Over the past couple of years, AU members say they’ve won pay raises, paid sick time that they had previously been denied, paid time off for part-timers, and Covid-19 safety measures, among other victories. Some are small yet impactful, like the installation of anti-fatigue mats to cover the hard warehouse floor and improve the working conditions of people standing for long periods of time. Earlier this year, workers in Chicago said they won an hourly raise of between $1.45 and $2.30 after they walked off multiple sites in December, demanding higher pay. Amazon says the pay raises were part of a regular wage review process that impacted employees at more than two dozen facilities around Chicago. Inspired by their colleagues, workers at six warehouses, including those in Queens and Maryland, submitted a petition to Amazon in December with several demands, including a five-minute break extension, an end to understaffing, an inclement weather policy, and a $3 raise. In Maryland, workers say the current minimum pay is $15.90, and in Queens it’s $15.75.

“We’re proud to offer industry-leading pay, competitive benefits, and the opportunity for all to grow within the company. While there are many established ways of ensuring we hear the opinions of our employees inside our business, we also respect the right for some to make their opinions known externally,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel wrote in a statement.

Workers say in January the company issued a rule barring phones from the warehouse floor, and they delivered a petition demanding that it reverse that order. “We won that demand almost immediately,” says Linda, who works in package sorting at the DMD9 facility in Maryland. The company had recently come under fire for reinstating a cell phone ban after six Illinois employees died inside the warehouse during a string of tornadoes.

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As of Wednesday, Amazon had not acknowledged the petitioners’ central demand: the $3 raise. “So we decided to speak the language that Amazon understands and walk out,” says Ira Pollock, a package handler in Queens. They filed out of the building, one warehouse at 2:45 am, the next at 4 am, and the last, in Maryland, at 6:30 am. Organizers say those who walked out represented between about 45 and 75 percent of the staff, depending on the facility. They rallied outside the delivery stations in the early hours, giving speeches and sharing food, supported by community members. “There was a lot of anxiety around who was going to walk out with us,” says Michael Carter, who works in the problem-solving department at DMD9. “But we were all ready to do it. When we all got together, it was like a football team.”

Carter, who is blind, says a raise would help him pay for the transportation he needs to get to the shuttle bus he takes to work. The cost of living in the DC suburbs is high, and he says he and his colleagues work themselves to mental and physical exhaustion. Financial worries only compound the stress. With a raise, “we would be not only financially stable, but we could be a little more settled with ourselves, without being so on edge. Like, how am I going to buy lunch today?”

Some AU workers who followed the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union election campaign in Bessemer were dismayed by the process. They saw news of consultants being shipped in to hold round-the-clock anti-union meetings and saw how Amazon bombarded workers with texts and fliers urging them to vote against union representation. The union lost 1,798 to 738 last March, but the election is being rerun this month because Amazon was found to have violated labor law during the first run. US labor law allows employers to hold anti-union meetings during work hours and lets them bar union organizers from the premises, heavily tilting the power balance in employers’ favor. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO), which passed the House of Representatives last year, would ban these meetings, but it is currently stalled in Congress.

“It just seemed to us that it was not a very empowering process,” says Linda, “whereas directly confronting your managers and making them have to appreciate you and be like, ‘Please, can you work? Because I can't make money otherwise?’ That's real power. You really feel that.”

“You had 700 people saying they wanted a union,” says Pollock, referencing the Bessemer workers who voted yes. “But at the end of the day, the government said, 'that's not enough. You can't have a union.' Our stance is we're not going to let the government tell us we can't have a union. Those 700 people in Bessemer, if they want a union, they can start acting like a union and have a union. And they can win a lot by doing that.”

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When the labor movement’s hopes were dashed by the Bessemer loss last year, many argued that new approaches were needed to take on Amazon. The company, they note, can seem purpose-built to avoid unions. The turnover rate is astronomical. Workers complain they are heavily surveilled. The company’s pockets seem bottomless. Its logistics network is massive enough to absorb disruptions.

The Teamsters labor union, which passed a resolution to unionize Amazon last year, has argued that a multi-facility strategy is necessary to win, although NLRB elections still happen one facility at a time. Many organizers see a legally enforceable collective bargaining agreement as the gold standard of worker power. But Amazonians United isn’t planning on waiting for labor law to catch up to the 21st-century workplace. Labor actions outside NLRB-certified unions have always gone on, with campaigns such as the Fight for 15 winning significant wage increases for fast-food workers.

Despite past victories, Amazonians United is not immune to retaliation from the company, with The Intercept reporting that Chicago workers suffered intimidation and disciplinary write-ups following one of their walkouts. (The company later settled the complaints with the board, according to the Chicago Tribune, but did not admit to wrongdoing.) In December, the day after the Chicago walkout, Amazon reached a settlement with the NLRB that was intended to make it easier for its employees to organize. The company agreed to allow organizing in nonwork areas of its facilities and send notices informing workers of their rights.

If Amazon doesn’t grant the New York and Maryland workers a raise, more escalations are in the works. The Amazonians United members see these demonstrations as the beginning of a growing movement within the company.

“Working-class people are very powerful,” says Pollock. “It’s just that, for the most part, they don't realize it yet.” More than fixing any single problem, he’s interested in changing the balance of power inside the warehouse. “The point is, we identify [a problem]. We’ve got the power to change it.”


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