Some Amazon warehouse workers are planning to strike on Prime Day

Amazon warehouse employees in Shakopee, Minnesota, protest working conditions during a rally on December 14, 2018.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

A group of Amazon warehouse workers are planning to strike next week, during one of the company’s largest sales events of the year.

Workers who package and ship items for Amazon in Shakopee, Minnesota, are planning a six-hour work stoppage during two shifts on July 15, the first day of Prime Day, Bloomberg reports.

Warehouse employees, who have long complained about punishing work conditions at Amazon’s fulfillment centers, are upset about the company’s recent decision to offer one-day shipping to Prime customers — putting unrealistic pressure on warehouse workers.

“Amazon is going to be telling one story about itself, which is they can ship a Kindle to your house in one day, isn’t that wonderful,” William Stolz, one of the Shakopee employees organizing the strike, told Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson and Spencer Soper. “We want to take the opportunity to talk about what it takes to make that work happen and put pressure on Amazon to protect us and provide safe, reliable jobs.”

Several Amazon engineers who have protested the company’s inaction on climate change are planning to fly to Minnesota to support the striking warehouse employees.

A spokesperson for Amazon told me that productivity measures at the Minnesota warehouse haven’t changed in since November.

“Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour,” the company spokesperson said in a statement to Vox. “Our policy is that more than 75 percent of associates are already exceeding rate expectations before any changes are considered.”

The planned strike is a bold move for US warehouse workers, who — unlike their colleagues in Europe — have never organized a work stoppage during a major shopping event. In November, on Black Friday, workers at Amazon warehouses in Spain, Germany, and France organized strikes, and protests were held in Italy and the United Kingdom. (The company’s warehouse employees in Europe are largely unionized.) A strike in the US, where Amazon workers are not yet unionized, shows just how frustrated and desperate some employees have become.

Amazon employees are starting to speak up

The planned strike comes at a crucial moment for Amazon. The $800 billion online retailer launched one-day shipping in May, as part of an effort to get an upper hand on competitors like Walmart and Target. But the plan outraged some warehouse employees. Such a quick turnaround, they say, will take a toll on their health and put their safety at risk.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is helping Amazon workers unionize in New York City, put it this way in a statement about the change:

With two-day Prime shipping, Amazon fulfillment workers currently face speeds of 200-300 orders per hour in 12-hour shifts. They struggle already to maintain that pace. If Amazon plans to effectively double the speed, it must also address existing workforce needs and ensure its workers are safe. Increasing fulfillment speeds means they need to hire more workers, under more sustainable speeds that don’t put worker’s lives in jeopardy.

Amazon is already dealing with serious complaints from employees, who describe harrowing work conditions at Amazon’s warehouses in the United States and across the world. In July, Amazon workers in Europe went on strike to protest what they describe as hot, windowless, soul-crushing work environments. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has repeatedly attacked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for paying warehouse employees so little that US taxpayers end up bearing the cost of their welfare benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid.

In October, the company announced that it would set minimum pay for all warehouse workers in the US to $15 an hour (a move that cut company stock grants and bonuses). But the increase apparently did little to tamp down on the brewing rebellions.

In April, The Verge reported details about how the company automatically fires warehouse workers who fail to meet productivity quotas. For example, the company fired 300 workers at its Baltimore warehouse between August 2017 and September 2018 who did not meet efficiency standards. Workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, according to The Verge, claiming that many of the firings were meant to punish those who spoke out against the strict productivity quotas (Amazon has denied that claim).

Staten Island warehouse workers are organizing for the first time

Next week’s strike comes at a time when Amazon warehouse workers in the US are trying harder than ever to unionize. Amazon, on the other hand, is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Several workers at the company’s warehouse in Staten Island announced their plan to unionize with organizers from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. That union is also working with employees at Whole Foods, a grocery chain now owned by Amazon.

Workers said that negotiating a labor contract with Amazon is the only way to force the company to improve their pay, benefits, and working conditions. At a press conference outside New York City Hall in December, employees shared a list of complaints. Rashad Long, who started working there in October, said managers make employees work long, brutal shifts, with little time to rest.

“It takes me four hours every day to get to and from work. Between my work schedule and my commute, I haven’t seen my daughter in weeks,” Long said in a statement one of his colleagues read during the conference.

Long’s coworkers nodded as he described feeling unsafe at work. He specifically mentioned that the warehouse’s sprinkler system and smoke detectors are broken — a hazard that could endanger their lives if a fire breaks out.

But the most disheartening part of his complaint was the suggestion that employees feel less valued than the robots nearby.

“The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my shirts even when it’s freezing cold outside,” Long said. “We have asked the company to provide air conditioning, but the company told us that the robots inside cannot work in the cold weather.”

A spokesperson for Amazon, Rachael Lighty, disputed Long’s allegations at the time. She told me that the Staten Island warehouse has a fire director on site to make sure the sprinkler system and smoke detectors are working as required by law, and that employees are not allowed to work more than 60 hours a week. She added that the warehouse temperatures are regularly monitored to make sure they remain around 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then, two months after the union announcement, Long, one of the union organizers, was fired.

Long, who worked the overnight shift, was fired in February for a safety violation, according to a complaint he filed in March with the NLRB. In his complaint, Long said that firing him for a safety violation was just a cover for the real reason: Supervisors were punishing him for speaking out about working conditions at the warehouse, which is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.

Lighty, the Amazon spokesperson, denied those claims. She told me at the time that the company respects its workers’ decision to join a labor union, or not. But the company has come under fire for its aggressive efforts to discourage labor organizing, such as making workers watch videos suggesting layoffs would follow if they voted to join a labor union.

But labor unions and workers haven’t given up. Local unions affiliated with the Teamsters union and Service Employees International Union are helping the Amazon workers in Minnesota who plan to strike next week. Under federal law, it’s illegal for companies to fire or otherwise punish workers who advocate for better working conditions, whether or not they are unionized. But retaliation often happens anyway, and unions often take legal action on behalf of their members. At a time of record US job growth and low unemployment, Amazon workers seem prepared to take that risk.

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