A decade ago, the US tech giants — Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook — were seen as the very symbols of human progress. Now, the companies — especially Amazon — are seen as the very symbols of inequality, tyranny, and exploitation.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, is not only the richest man in the world but in modern history, with an estimated worth of $110 billion. Meanwhile, Bezos’s warehouse workers toil in horrendous conditions for poverty wages, despite the much-publicized pay raise that some received last year. In March, the Daily Beast reported that “between October 2013 and October 2018, emergency workers were summoned to Amazon warehouses at least 189 times for suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental-health episodes.” It’s not a stretch to compare Bezos’s ill-gotten wealth with that of Gilded Age robber barons like John D. Rockefeller.
Fortunately, after years of unending praise — they were going to save the world, remember? — Bezos’s company is finally getting some pushback. Media coverage has largely moved away from the fawning adulation of a decade ago. John Oliver’s recent examination of the company’s culture and working conditions was so stinging that it struck a nerve at Amazon HQ.
And there’s a growing chorus of labor, environmental, and community groups treating the company as a crook that’s stealing their future. Amazon was run out of town in New York City earlier this year, and in April, Environmental Leader reported that “more than 6,000 Amazon employees have signed a letter urging the company to release a company-wide climate plan based on six specific principles.” Led by Amazon worker Emily Cunningham, the group took their campaign public and confronted Bezos and the company’s board of directors at a stockholders meeting. Though their resolution was defeated, it demonstrated that fewer young workers are living in fear of the boss.
Yet the most significant struggle against Amazon has been in the Minneapolis suburb of Shakopee, where Somali workers walked off the job last December, joined by Rep. Ilhan Omar, and again in March, protesting working conditions. “The pace of work is inhumane,” said Mohamed Hassan, one of the strikers. “Everyone feels continuously threatened by the system.”
Amazon was forced to negotiate with the workers, who are mostly Muslim, over the right to pray on the job, and the company granted some concessions. It tried desperately to portray the talks as “community engagement” rather than proto–union negotiations, fearing the example would spread beyond Shakopee. Workers claim Amazon has also retaliated against strike leaders.
But in spite of the mega-company’s best efforts, the Somali workers’ job actions proved to be the beginning rather than the end. Today, on the first day of Amazon’s “Prime Day” — the forty-eighty-hour bonanza that’s surpassed Black Friday as the company’s biggest shopping event — one hundred workers are planning a six-hour strike to demand safer working conditions and more secure jobs.
Guled Mohamad, one of the strike organizers, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “We need change. We need something.” Mohamad has worked at the Shakopee warehouse for one year and eight months, and he spoke of the low wages, grueling work pace, and management pressure to fill quotas.
Meg Brady, an Amazon warehouse worker currently on short-term disability due to a job-related stress fracture in her foot, said in an interview with a local news channel that she’ll being joining the picket line despite the threat of losing her job. “It’s always a risk when you take this kind of action,” she said. For Brady, the pace of work is grueling and dangerous, with a high turnover rate among employees. She started working at Amazon one year and seven months ago with seventy people; only five are left. The company expects her to pick and pack a mind-boggling six hundred items per hour, leading to repetitive stress injuries.
The 885,000-square-foot warehouse in Shakopee has 1,500 employees, nearly one-third of whom are East African. Crucial to the organizing has been the Awood Center, whose slogan is “Building East African Worker Power” and which formed through a partnership between the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Service Employees International Union Local 26.
Abdi Muse, the Awood Center’s executive director, told the Star Tribune:
As Amazon continues to speed up work and demand more from warehouse workers, it is hard for everyone. People are getting hurt or quitting because they are afraid . . . The biggest concern is over the production rate. [They] have to produce at such a rate each hour that is so intense. They have to work faster and faster. And if they go [to take] a break their production history goes down.
Amazon captures the imagination of union activists around the globe because of its size and reach. The logistics industry in the United States is largely non-union except for the United Parcel Service (UPS), and if a beachhead broke through at Amazon, it could crack a vital but non-union industry — doing what workers did in the 1930s for auto and steel.
Founded as an online bookstore in 1994 in Seattle, Amazon has exploded in every direction. Not only has it become the online “everything store,” but it produces feature films and a variety of cultural products for its Prime streaming service, which has surpassed one hundred million subscribers in the United States.
Amazon is now one of the largest private employers in the world, boasting some six hundred thousand employees, and it is one of the largest non-union employers in the United States. By comparison, it took the heavily unionized UPS one hundred years from its founding in 1907 to reach its present-day workforce of 440,000. So how did Amazon get so big so quickly?
The short answer is that Jeff Bezos built upon a model pioneered by Walmart founder Sam Walton while adding his own touch. He combined an online sales operation with a brick-and-mortar presence (while using, and learning from, established logistics firms like the US Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS). He then put both under one roof. Over the last decade, Amazon has grown at a breakneck speed, building a network of regional and local distribution centers (“fulfillment centers”), stitched together with a vast trucking and air network (“Prime Air”) and a huge home delivery workforce.
Walmart may be the premiere logistics corporation, but Amazon has surpassed it, at least for the moment, by transforming into a retailer and a delivery company. And it is here that the secret to organizing Amazon lies.
“Amazon,” Mark Meinster, the director of the Chicago-based Warehouse Workers for Justice, told me two years ago, “builds in or close to major cities . . . In bigger labor markets [like] Chicago, they have fulfillment centers on Goose Island, 28th and Western, Lisle, Joliet, and Morton Grove [both inside the city and in several surrounding suburbs]. Amazon has reversed the model of warehousing pioneered by Walmart.”
This “reversed model” of putting Amazon warehouses closer to the traditional bases of trade unions appears to have provided the workers at Amazon’s Shakopee facility the opportunity to organize with the support of the Awood Center. They are now preparing to launch their third job action in eight months.
“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,” William Stolz, an Amazon worker and strike organizer, explained to Bloomberg.
Clearly, this is a new development in the fight at Amazon. Top management is worried. And if the Shakopee workers succeed, their actions could ignite similar walkouts across the country — reverberating through the industry like the teacher strike wave of the past year. The stakes are high. Let’s help them win.