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“They Don’t Think Our Lives Matter as Much as Theirs”

Terry Miller

On Monday night, workers at a Chicago Amazon warehouse joined a nationwide wave of walkouts over what they say is management’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic. One of the action’s organizers spoke to Jacobin about it.

Former injured Amazon employees join labor organizers and community activists to demonstrate and hold a press conference outside of an Amazon Go store on December 10, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty

Interview by
Alex N. Press

On Monday, workers at JFK8, an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, walked off the job over the company’s allegedly inadequate response to cases of coronavirus among the warehouse workers. “How many confirmed cases? Ten!” they chanted outside the facility.

That evening, workers at another Amazon warehouse, DCH1 in Chicago, walked out. According to DCH1 worker Terry Miller — a pseudonym we have granted them for the sake of being able to speak freely — the majority of night-shift workers stayed off the warehouse floor during the walkout. “This company makes so much money off the backs of us,” says one worker in a video of the Monday night action. “My life is not a means to an end,” she adds.

In the same video, another worker says management “waited for us to finish night shift before telling us” about a confirmed coronavirus case in the warehouse. “They didn’t call people until three more shifts [came in] the next day,” he says.

Yesterday, Miller spoke to Jacobin’s Alex N. Press about the lead-up to the walkout, DCH1 management’s response, and why Amazon executives are so threatened by worker organizing that the likes of senior vice-presidents and Jeff Bezos himself have gotten involved in firing Christian Smalls, an organizer of the Staten Island walkout. Despite the challenges, Miller is clear on how the organizing is going: “We are making advances.” The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


ANP

I saw a video taken Monday of you and coworkers outside DCH1, an Amazon warehouse in Chicago. Can you tell me what led to that walkout and management’s response?

TM

Over several months, we grew and escalated our organization. Each time we did a petition, we had more signatures. Each time we passed out newsletters, more people took them and read them. Our contact list of workers grew. We were doing weekly potlucks at lunch. We had social events outside before coronavirus lockdown. We had a variety of community-building events as well as organizing within the warehouse. In January and February, we were working on the paid time off (PTO) campaign. We went through a variety of actions that were successful from our perspective: we won a lot of coworkers over to the organization.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, we knew it was a matter of time until a case would pop up in our warehouse. The first one was in DBK1 in New York City — workers there reacted quickly to shut it down — but we knew we needed to be ready.

We had developed the organization and some of the infrastructure for that, but some of us are sheltering in place and not going to work, so it was kind of chaotic. The moment we got confirmation from management about a case, we needed to respond right away. We had an emergency call with our organizing committee — the group of us that are most engaged in the organizing work — the next day and said, “We have a case of coronavirus. So far management has been not only shady about it but trying to cover it up or waiting for multiple shifts to come through before even informing people, putting people at risk. This is a crisis. We need to respond. What should we do?”

That’s when we formulated our plan: we need to immediately start a petition, we need a set of demands, we have to be really clear about what we want to change in this warehouse to protect ourselves from coronavirus. We developed our demands on that call and made a petition so we could get these demands out in front of all our coworkers, get everyone on the same page so we have unity. Then we have to build from there to a strike, because that’s the only way we’re going to get this shut down.

The confirmed case came on Friday, March 27. Monday night was our strike. We had forty-eight hours from the time that coronavirus hit to when we were planning to strike. We needed to react fast because the longer this warehouse is open, the more our coworkers are at risk. I have coworkers that are over seventy years old and we know that that fatality rate for them is higher. Imagine being seventy-two years old and working at a fucking Amazon warehouse because you can’t afford to retire. So, it is a fucking crisis.

We distributed the petition mostly electronically because we were either sheltering in place or, if we’re going to the warehouse, they have rules that we can’t stand within six feet from each other, so you can’t walk around with a clipboard and a petition.

We texted and emailed and used social media and we got signatures. Then we printed it out and had it ready on Monday to talk about with our coworkers. People set up a picket line before the night shift started, talked to everyone who was walking up, and explained what we’re doing and why we’re trying to shut the warehouse down.

That’s how we ended up with a majority strike on the night shift. The warehouse was unable to move the vast majority of its volume.

It’s worth noting the sadness of subjugation under capitalism, especially for working-class people of color. When it came to the people walking in, “breaking the picket line,” we didn’t have any hard feelings. It was just like, “Hey, you want to stand with us? We’re trying to shut this warehouse down with pay,” and they’d say, “I need this paycheck.” People would say, “I support you. I signed your petition, but I’ve got to get these hours.”

And we were like, yeah, you gotta do what you gotta do. We would ask them, “Do you feel safe going in there?” They’d say no. “Do you think management is doing enough to protect us from coronavirus?” No. “What do you think needs to happen?” They would say, “I think they need to shut it down.” And we said that’s our first demand on our petition and why we’re on strike right now.” They’d say “Yeah, I agree with you, but I need these hours.”

That’s bondage under capitalism. Of the people who went inside the warehouse, most of them expressed support for our strike, but said they need the money.

ANP

A lot of people see the working conditions at Amazon and say, “That place is impossible to organize; it’s too hard.” What would you say to people who might admire the organizing but feel that the warehouses can’t be organized?

TM

That difficulty is always going to be part of our reality, but look how much we’ve accomplished thus far. Last May was our first organized action. Management was taking away the water in the warehouse. There are more details to this, but bottles of water were no longer there, and the water stations were empty or just too dirty to use. People were pissed.

So, we started a petition, delivered it, and within an hour management drove to the grocery store. They had never seen workers standing up to them. They brought cases of water back, and two weeks later, installed water lines throughout the warehouse.

Then, we were able to get the warehouse shutdown on the hottest day of the year, on July 19, Amazon Prime week. We did a bunch of actions. We did a petition, we marched on our boss, making him really nervous. We got a story in the news. And we got our warehouse shut down with pay for workers, we got that win for about two hundred people in the warehouse, and they each got a $100 that they never would’ve seen without organizing. We reclaimed around $20,000 from Amazon that day.

Then, most recently, was the PTO campaign. We won all part-time workers in the country get PTO, whereas previously tens of thousands were left out.

We’ve won many things that have improved our conditions and pay, and all within a year’s time. None of us have gotten fired for organizing-related activities. I can’t predict the future, but what we’re doing is working: we’re growing our organization and the movement is spreading — there are now at least three public groups of workers organizing in the country under the Amazonians United name. There was the strike on Monday. All these things have been successful. So yeah, we’re in shit conditions because this is what capitalism does to us, but we are making advances.

ANP

Back to Monday night. What was management’s reaction to this strike?

TM

It was fear and nervousness at first. These managers are not used to workers standing up to them, they think we’re stupid, that we’re poor and desperate, and they fully expect us to obey their every word. But suddenly they have all these workers gathering outside. One of the first things [a manager] did was come outside and say, “there’s a social distancing rule in place, everyone has to stand six feet apart for your safety.” [But] the look on his face was just “Oh, shit.”

So we’re talking to people as they’re walking up and our numbers are growing. The manager comes back out and looks like he was about to cry. Just, “This could be bad for me. If I don’t deal with this well, I could get fired.” I’m sure he had called his boss, standard corporate policy: tell him what’s going on, get Amazon’s union-busting team to do a conference call.

But the response was basic surveillance and intimidation, continual reminders about the six-feet-apart policy. Now, as we’ve seen with that Staten Island worker [Christian Smalls] who got fired, they obviously fired him for organizing, but one of the excuses Amazon provided was that he broke quarantine — he was violating the six-foot rule. On Monday night, someone from corporate was there and pulled out a phone to take a picture of us. We started to put it together that they were building their case for writing us up or firing us for violating the so-called CDC-recommended rule.

Never mind the fact that every single job function in our warehouse requires you being within six feet of each other. Everyone knows that including management. When we were turning in the petition towards the end of the Monday night action, we were inside the break room and management came in and told us we had to be six feet apart.

But they said it while literally standing shoulder to shoulder. I was just like, “the two of you are not six feet apart.” They look at each other and uncomfortably shuffle a couple of feet away.

On Monday night, we had our livestream, some photographers. The actual petition delivery is a formality at this point — Amazon’s policy that we pieced together is they refuse to accept any form or legitimacy of organizing, so they always refuse petitions. That’s just their policy. So we knew that we would present it and they’d refuse it and then we would continue to build our case with our coworkers about how much management is disrespecting us.

But Monday night surprised them. They weren’t prepared at all; they were emergency calling each other to get on a conference call to talk about how to deal with this.

Tuesday morning we had a strike force out front again. But the site lead was there and didn’t need his lackeys to do his dirty work. He was threatening people, reminding them of the six-foot policy and we knew he was gearing up to use that write up or fire us at some point.

The workers are in the break room and he says, “If you’re not going to clock in, you have to leave.” So they go stand outside. And he comes outside and says, If you’re not going to work, then you have to leave the premises.” He said he was going to write people up. He came out to talk to them anywhere between six and eight times, and one time he said, “If you’re not leaving, you’re going to be terminated.”

He threatened to fire them for standing outside. We’re already in the process of filing a ULP [unfair labor practice complaint] and informing coworkers and everything, but management had escalated their threats by that morning. Meanwhile, several of us got phone calls from HR to ask questions.

ANP

To clarify, there was a confirmed case of coronavirus in the warehouse and they waited to tell people, and people are still in the warehouse?

TM

Yeah. Friday night, March 27, is when management claimed that they first got the confirmation of a case — supposedly they got that information after that shift had already moved most of the product for that night. The way that they told us was two managers slinked around the warehouse and individually talked to workers and said, “I want to inform you there has been a confirmed case of coronavirus. Don’t tell anyone else because we want to be the ones to share this information.” They whispered this around the warehouse.

Our coworkers in there texted our group immediately. We’re like, “Number one, we know more vulnerable folks Friday nights, so you have to tell her immediately. You have to talk to her and then talk to everyone in the warehouse and let them know what’s going on.” Managers slinking around whispering this to individuals is not how you inform people about coronavirus where everyone could be at risk, at least if you have any respect.

We sent an email to our list of coworkers who have signed a previous petition or said they want to hear about our group. We posted on our coworker Facebook page. To try to keep people from being upset, management said, “I have kids too.” Never mind that as managers they get paid ten times more than we do and get health insurance. They can go see a doctor. We’re not in the same situation.

It’s a 24/7 warehouse. We have four or five shift per day, every day of the week. Night shift is from around 8 PM to 5 AM, morning shift is from 5 AM to 9 AM, we have a shift from around 6 AM to 11 AM, an afternoon shift from 9 AM to 2 PM, and then an evening shift from 4 PM to 6 PM usually. There are always workers in the warehouse.

Supposedly the knowledge of the confirmed case was received by management Friday night, and they sat on it. So morning shift came after night shift, then the 6 AM to 11 AM shift came, then afternoon shift, and evening shift was basically arriving before I got a robo-call at just past 4 PM on Saturday afternoon. Four shifts of people had gone in and this was the first point of communication they were making to the employees.

ANP

So they told some people in person on Friday night, and then decided to stop telling people until 4 PM the next day?

TM

I think some of them told people when they showed up, but not everyone heard about it. And everyone that went in obviously only found out once they had commuted all the way there. The reason it’s so egregious is because Amazon has all of the tools already to inform us of things immediately, and they use them all the time — we have text message alerts, we have the Amazon app, we have email, we have their employee portal, online hub, all tools that they use for communicating with us if there are extra shifts, if we want a voluntary furlough day, etc. These are tools that they use to communicate with all the workers on a daily basis, but when there is confirmed coronavirus, they chose to use the robo-call ten hours later, after four shifts of people had no choice but to show up to a potential coronavirus warehouse.

That’s the extreme injustice. We have immunocompromised workers, we have coworkers with asthma and other medical conditions, coworkers with disabilities — all of these people that are at much higher risk of fatality from coronavirus. They were subjected to this without knowledge or consent of what was going on.

Part of our message Monday night was: This is how management has responded. These are the ways that has been wrong. These are the ways that they’re putting us at risk. These are the measures that we need to take.

We need to shut down for two weeks with a thorough cleaning. You can’t have enhanced cleaning while workers are in there, cross contaminating all the time. Anyone who takes eighth-grade science has seen the cartoon videos about how viruses spread — you can’t clean with a hundred workers running around the warehouse.

You need to shut it down for two weeks, not only to clean it, but so we can find out if were carriers — we wouldn’t necessarily show symptoms before that. We need to be able to assess whether we have gotten coronavirus and choose to stay home or seek medical attention rather than spread the virus through the warehouse.

Based on their response over the weekend, they don’t think our lives matter as much as theirs. That’s what it is. They think we’re stupid, as if us workers made bad decisions and that’s why we have to work a lot harder than they do to make a lot less. That’s how they think; that we are here for them to exploitat — there might be a virus that has a chance of killing you but hey, we’re wiping things down a bit more. You keep working. That’s how they treat us. That’s how they see us.

ANP

Speaking of how the higher-ups at Amazon see their workers, you mentioned the organizer Chris Smalls who got fired in New York. You must have seen this memo that got leaked to Vice where they called Smalls not smart and inarticulate. Why are senior vice-presidents and Jeff Bezos himself going after this worker? Why are they so threatened by this organizing?

TM

The managers think that we can’t even read our own employee handbook. In our PTO campaign, we pointed out the words that read, “all workers get PTO” and they just came up with words to supposedly explain something that would only be communicable if we literally could not read.

But I think they’re threatened because of their own management experience. They’re saying, “These are signs of organizing. You never know with coronavirus going on now you know, people are really desperate so people might be walking out not only because of these issues, but because there could have been existing anger from this and that and it’s what really pushes them to take action.”

They do understand and know the history of organizing, the signs of it, how I break it up. They do understand those power dynamics. There are a few warehouses now that are walking out. This is more than we’ve ever seen before. And Amazon is trying to get ahead of this. They’re thinking, “The workers are challenging our power. They’re taking over media narrative, they’re threatening our brand. They’re creating their own organization and we need to squash it at the start because if we let them continue, they’re going to build their confidence. We have to keep beating them down so that they never build a movement, and organize within our empire.” That’s how they think about it.

They definitely feel a threat to their power. We have elected officials like Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker who boosted our Amazonians United petition for coronavirus protections. And the executives are like, “maybe we should stop underestimating them”

As for the memo that was leaked: well, that’s the way they talk about us and what they think about us. Now that they’re more aware of what’s going on, we have to be more careful, we have to be smarter about some things. But what we’re doing is working. We need to keep doing it, and more, and faster.

ANP

What’s the message you’d like people reading this to take away from you and your coworkers’ organizing?

TM

Talk to your coworkers, figure out the issues that you care about, start a petition, walk out, do whatever it takes to fight for what you want and need and know is right. Our first meeting was six people at a Krispy Kreme; that’s where we started. We’re bootstrap just like everyone else. Yet we won PTO for tens of thousands of people. But other Amazon workers need to be doing this too. We need every warehouse to become organized enough to shut it down.