Workers take on the mighty Amazon
By John Moore
Amazon delivery drivers and warehouse workers are routinely reduced to urinating into bottles and defecating into bags so as not to have to take a toilet break. It’s the only way they can stick to Amazon’s punishing work schedules, which are constantly speeding up. 74% of Amazon workers avoid using the toilet for fear of missing their targets, according to a survey by online campaigning platform Organise: “I do not drink water because I do not have time to go to the toilet,” said one respondent to the survey. Amazon warehouse workers in the US get minimum daily breaks – two 15 minute paid breaks and one 30 minute unpaid break, per 10 hour day. Even these are eroded by the long distances workers have to walk to the rest area.
Workers are forced to keep up to speed by Time-Off-Task electronic tracking system that measures their pace to the second. The number of items to be processed has risen from 100 an hour to 300 to 400 items an hour since the introduction of robots that roam the aisles and bring items to the workstations. The frantic speed means workers frequently sustain injuries. If that happens, they are often sacked without compensation. There is constant surveillance in the workplace. Sunglasses and hoodies are forbidden in case they disguise the worker’s face, and mobile phones are also prohibited lest they record what’s going on. Security is tight; workers are searched on entry and exit, according to journalist James Bloodworth who worked undercover for Amazon to research a book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. Now 75,000 delivery drivers in the US are being forced to sign a consent form to allow their biometric data to be used to monitor their work – or be sacked if they refuse. No wonder 55% of workers report having suffered depression since working for Amazon.
Amazon executive Dave Clark said on Amazon News, the official company news account: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.” Since Clark’s denial, evidence has forced the company to admit that workers do indeed have to use bottles and bags. A leaked internal memo published by The Intercept website showed that the company knew all along, with many communications about it: “This is the 3rd occasion in the last 2 months when bags have been returned to station with poop inside… DA’s [driver associates] cannot, MUST NOT, return bags to station with poop inside.” Amazon has since had to apologise for its earlier denial and promised to improve working conditions, claiming that it provides an “inclusive” environment. Yet such inclusivity doesn’t extend to union members. None of Amazon’s 950,000 US employees is unionised, and the company has fiercely resisted all attempts at unionisation.
FIGHT TO UNIONISE
Since Chris Smalls began campaigning against Amazon’s lax Covid safety and was sacked for leading a walk-out in New York last year, 6,000 workers in Bessemer, Alabama have been trying to form a union. But their efforts have been met by aggressive anti-union campaigning. Regular management-run meetings pushed the company lies, telling workers, for example, that unionisation would mean a compulsory fee of $500 fees a year for all employees, in or out of the union. The company also texted and emailed workers several times a day with messages such as: “The union can't promise you anything”; "Don't let outsiders divide our winning team!” Amazon even got local traffic lights timing changed to prevent pro-union workers from approaching others in their cars. Management also threatened to close down the warehouse.
Meanwhile, job adverts for "intelligence analysts", spying on union organisers, have appeared. One advert read: “Analysts must be capable of engaging and informing...stakeholders on sensitive topics that are highly confidential, including labour organising threats against the company.” It was looking for applicants with previous experience in the intelligence community, military or police. The ads were quickly removed after negative publicity. Yet anti-union espionage continues, including snooping on workers’ closed Facebook groups, in particular those of drivers “planning for any strike or protest against Amazon.” Company reports include the full names and posts of drivers across the US.
Despite such intimidation, union organisation has been growing. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) union, active in the Alabama unionisation drive, has recruited 2,000 members at Bessemer. It also forced a ballot on union recognition there. In early April, despite a very well-supported campaign by the union, Amazon’s bullying and intimidation won out. It challenged over 500 votes which it claimed were ineligible and lied to workers about the deadline for the ballot so they would vote early, before union organizers had time to reach them. Professor Rebecca Givan of Rutgers University explained: “Employers have a huge advantage in these situations. They have almost unlimited money and almost unlimited access to the workers to bombard them with messages of anxiety and uncertainty and we see the result of that here.” But it’s not the end of the story. The RWDSU is challenging the result, accusing Amazon of illegal interference. “They lied to game the system," said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum, who also pointed to biased labour laws that inevitably worked in Amazon’s favour. He said: “If Amazon considers this a victory, they may want to reconsider because at best it is a pyrrhic victory.”
Since the result came through, Amazon workers in Chicago have gone on strike against being forced onto ‘megacycle’ nightshifts of 11 hours. The RWDSU has also received over a thousand inquiries from Amazon workers across the US, and has held rallies in Alabama. The widespread media coverage has raised the profile of the unionisation campaign across the US and internationally. While the 80% black workforce at Bessemer may not have won a breakthrough this time round, their pro-union campaign nevertheless marks an advance, both in terms of worker organisation and the civil rights struggle – making the connection between the two visible. As one pro-union worker, Emmit Ashford, said: “Things will not stay the same after this point. It's not over. It's only a matter of time before things change.”
LESSONS FROM STRUGGLE
A ‘yes’ vote would have bucked a long downward trend in US private-sector union membership since the 1960s. The ‘no’ result shows there are lessons to be learned. According to veteran union organisers Rand Wilson and Peter Olney (Portside, 10/4/21), unions need to combine forces to challenge an adversary as powerful as Amazon, which means logistics unions and transport unions such as the Teamsters working together. Closer co-operation is also needed between unions and the informal networks of Amazon worker committees like Amazonians United, and with groups such as the Southern Workers Assembly, founded a decade ago by union and Black Workers for Justice organisers. Thirdly, campaigning against anti-worker laws is vital, including challenging the ‘right-to-work’ laws which are particularly prevalent across the South. Finally, Amazon’s global reach means unions need to work more closely across countries to defeat the company’s international whack-a-mole strategy – in evidence last year when French workers went on strike and Amazon temporarily shut down all its French warehouses, re-routing orders through Italy (Politico, 19/10/20).
There are signs that Amazon workers in Europe have begun to move. Apart from French workers’ action last year, which led to partial unionisation, and a small pay rise, in March this year, Italian Amazon workers went on strike for better conditions – their first action ever against the company. This was followed a week later by German workers who stopped work for four days over Easter. The German Verdi trade union is calling for a 4.5% pay rise. Workers in Spain and Poland have also taken action. In India, strikes by delivery workers are planned in the cities of Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi.
In the UK, where Amazon employs 40,000 people, Unite has launched a whistle-blowing hotline for workers, beginning in Bolton and Exeter, as part of its ‘Action on Amazon’ campaign for a ‘new deal’, including the right to unionise. Unite’s Sharon Graham said: “Amazon attacks all attempts by workers to gain a collective voice of their own... It is prime time Amazon gave workers the right to be in a union and to do so without interference, bullying and intimidation.” The GMB is also campaigning for unionisation – at Amazon’s Rugeley facility near Birmingham, and at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry.
Covid has accelerated all the processes of modern capitalism, concentrating power and wealth in the biggest companies, particularly the tech and e-commerce giants. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’s wealth has risen by $70 billion during the pandemic and now stands at $184 billion – making him the world’s richest man, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire’s Index. Bernie Sanders, who supported the Alabama campaign, called Bezos the emblem of “unfettered capitalism”. Against such power, advance will not be easy or straightforward. Nevertheless, as Marcus Courtney, an organiser who attempted an earlier unionisation drive at Amazon’s Seattle call centre in 2000, put it: “The conversation has really been cracked open this time. Amazon has been trying to find a way to snuff this out. It’s trying to say to other warehouses, look at what happened to the workers here, this would also happen to you. But I think it will be very hard to stop it now.” (Daily Telegraph, 11/4/21).
“RWDSU’s effort at Bessemer was unexpected,” said Wilson and Olney, pointing to the fact that even its parent union the United Food and Commercial Workers was unaware of the unionisation drive until late last year. As Business Insider noted: “The US labor movement is gaining more steam than it has in decades” (10/4/21). Financial analyst Tom Forte expressed the fear this has induced: “There is a real risk that Amazon exits the pandemic unionized.” (Forbes, 1/4/21).
This is the kind of risk we like.
None of Amazon's 950,000 US employees is unionised, and the company has fiercely resisted all attempts at unionisation