Amazon Transformed Seattle. Its Workers Are Poised to Take It Back


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Source: New York Times

Photo by Joe Tabacca/Shutterstock

 

Prime Day, Amazon’s annual summer shopping bonanza, lasted not one but two days this June. The company advertised it incessantly on social media and especially to subscribers of Amazon Prime, a group that includes close to half of the U.S. population. In the many warehouses in and around the company’s hometown, thousands of workers showed up to their packing and sorting stations for a mandatory, extra-long shift.

Among them was Andy, who began working at his fulfillment center last year. He had never expected to sign on with Amazon, least of all as a blue-collar worker. His first job out of college was as a support engineer for a company in downtown Seattle. He had hoped to challenge himself in a programming role, but the work was rote, and the office environment cold and dominated by “talk about market shares,” he said.

In the Trump years, Andy began to wonder why the city he lived in was so unequal and how the biggest, heaviest forces tended to squash everything small. He sought out the Tech Workers Coalition, a group of industry employees with a conscience, in search of answers.

One techie told him that she’d quit programming to work and organize in an Amazon warehouse. She was doing so with a group called Amazonians United, which believed that anyone who cared about poverty or workers’ rights or curbing corporate power should focus their energies on Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who steps down from his role as C.E.O. this week. Would Andy want to apply for a job and try to organize inside?

Andy applied through the online portal, submitted to a saliva-based drug test and got his photo taken for an ID. Within 48 hours, he was approved; a week and a half later, he was being trained as a packer on the vast, noisy floor of a fulfillment center. His goal was to do his job fast and well (currently, the expected packing rate is at least 200 scanned items per hour at his station) while getting to know his fellow workers. In time, perhaps, they could form an organizing committee and agitate for safer conditions and an increase in starting hourly wages to the $25 to $30 that unionized warehouse workers can earn, from $15 to $17.

Andy has had some success. While he and his co-workers do not have a legally recognized union, hundreds of them signed petitions for a reinstatement of hazard pay and an increase in paid time off. On smoke breaks and after work, they talk about wrist pain, nasty managers and their reasons for staying in the job: to buy a house, provide for their families or pay for college. “I can’t really do anything else,” one told him.

This year, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., once a thriving steel town, voted against unionizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The loss in Bessemer led some employees to feel powerless. “The result of that, for some of my co-workers, was, ‘You can’t fight Amazon. It’s impossible,’” an Amazonians United member in the New York area said.

The Bessemer defeat has led many major unions to grapple with the role of Amazon in the economy and their members’ lives. In June, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has organized the logistics industry since the early 20th century, voted to target Amazon’s operations. And a growing segment of the general population now recognizes the threat of “Amazon capitalism”: what scholars Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, Juliann Allison and Ellen Reese describe as reflecting “the larger global trend of the increasing influence of finance capitalism, neoliberal politics and policies, and corporate power.”

The challenge of organizing Amazon is “bigger than anything this country has ever faced,” Peter Olney, a former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, told me. He compared Amazon’s close to one million U.S. employees to the several hundred thousand organized by the United Auto Workers at Ford, Chrysler and General Motors in the 1930s and 1940s.

Part of the strategy will have to be shop-by-shop organizing, but no one knows how best to unionize a 5,000-person warehouse with extreme turnover and “union avoidance” consultants. Or how to prevent Amazon from simply closing a unionized fulfillment center or transferring its workers to another, nonunion facility.

What’s important now, Mr. Olney said, is that everyone in the labor movement recognize the threat and pitch in.

In the coming years, Amazon will most likely become the largest private employer in the United States, maybe even the world. In addition to its U.S. workers, it indirectly commands many more thousands of contracted drivers. This isn’t uncommon knowledge, but few Americans have confronted the stakes of Amazon’s economic and political dominance — except, perhaps, in the company’s hometown.

Workers in the fulfillment and sorting centers dotting Interstate 5 have pushed for improved conditions, especially during the pandemic. This is true in other parts of the country as well, especially where Amazonians United is active, but the Seattle area is also the site of activism at headquarters, which employs more than 75,000 tech workers and other employees who possess significant bargaining power but are still vulnerable to retaliation and replacement.

In recent years, white-collar workers have condemned the company’s environmental policies, alleged maltreatment of warehouse workers and business relationships with law enforcement agencies. In 2019, an estimated 3,000 Seattle tech workers staged a walkout in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike. Last year, Amazon fired two outspoken designers — a move the National Labor Relations Board found to be unlawful. (Amazon said it terminated these employees for “repeatedly violating internal policies.”)

Amazon’s home turf has also been the site of precedent-setting policy fights. In 2013, the national movement for a $15 minimum hourly wage — now the company’s starting wage — won its first citywide victory in SeaTac, Wash. Last year, Seattle passed a payroll tax that is expected to raise $214 million per year, though after the repeal of a more stringent measure. And this year, Washington State passed a 7 percent capital-gains tax on some profits earned from selling stocks and other investments. (Washington, home to two of the wealthiest men in the world, has no income tax and relies instead on a regressive sales tax.)

These organizing efforts, while spotty and provisional, offer two lessons. First, that small-scale efforts can have an effect; second, that it’s important to pursue both regulatory and shop-floor campaigns.

Though Amazon is highly centralized, pay, hours and other conditions vary from warehouse to warehouse, and managers are known to respond to regional pressure. In 2019, activists angered by the lavish government incentives thrown at Amazon successfully campaigned against the construction of its secondary headquarters in New York City. And community and labor organizers in San Bernardino, Calif., an area choked by diesel truck emissions, continue to pressure local politicians to limit the expansion of warehouses and airports used by Amazon and other logistics companies.

The current alignment of late-pandemic, social-justice-oriented, early-Biden administration politics could help create the conditions for an empowered, well-organized work force capable of challenging Amazon. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have backed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would make it easier to form a union, and several pieces of ambitious antitrust legislation. President Biden has installed Lina Khan, an Amazon skeptic, to lead the Federal Trade Commission. The Department of Labor has promised to investigate employers that retaliate against workers for raising safety concerns and is expected to scrutinize the misclassification of independent contractors.

The new Teamsters campaign, which promises to establish a department to specifically “aid Amazon workers and defend” industry standards, will include a mix of workplace organizing and local, state and federal advocacy. “I talked to thousands of Amazon workers in 2020. We haven’t filed for a union election, have we? There’s a reason for that,” Randy Korgan, the Teamsters’ national director for Amazon, told me. “We have to break Amazon down into fulfillment center, supply chain, their [contracted drivers] and delivery model.” (This fall, the Teamsters will hold an internal election, and both slates of candidates have promised to prioritize Amazon.) Staff members from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (whose affiliated Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union led the Bessemer campaign) are also supporting various Amazon-related efforts.

“The labor movement still has 14 million workers. It’s going to take a mass mobilization of union workers to engage Amazon workers,” Todd Crosby, the U.F.C.W.’s organizing director, told me. “What if at least 5 percent, 700,000 people, were mobilized to go out and be organizers to contact people in their community?”

In May, Dan, a former programmer at Amazon, took me on a long walk through Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, also known as Amazonia. Those of us with history in the region all say the same thing about the area — still shocked to see its transformation from a low-rent, industrial scar to a manicured stretch of lakefront paths and high-rise buildings.

Dan grew up in a working-class, immigrant household in the South and moved to Seattle to put his computer science degree to lucrative use. He worked at Amazon for several years but never quite took to the culture of competition and merciless evaluation or the oft-cited 14 Amazon leadership principles, which read like a party oath. During one round of what he described as “leveling,” in which each supervisor ranks his employees, he found himself marked down. He quit and joined a friendlier database start-up.

Like Andy, the coder-turned-warehouse worker, Dan is ambivalent about the role of tech in the region and the world. He explained that he arrived in a Seattle already fractured by widespread gentrification and displacement and saw the city continue to split along class lines. His politics slowly veered left — he was roused by Black Lives Matter and was furious about Amazon’s increased use of gig economy labor in logistics — but it felt nearly impossible to talk about any of this with his co-workers, let alone sign a petition or attend a protest. “I think a lot of tech workers have this aspirational, ‘I want to be Elon Musk’ kind of thing,” he said. Others feared getting fired or blacklisted in what can be an insular industry.

The week we spoke, 640 tech workers employed by Amazon signed a petition calling on the company to “commit to zero emissions by 2030” and prioritize stopping polluting in the Black and brown communities near its warehouses. It was the latest action by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice to address the downstream effects of the tech-retail behemoth. As Andrea Vidaurre of the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice told me, it seems nearly all working-age people in San Bernardino have “cycled through the Amazon warehouse complex.” Their families, meanwhile, have suffered high rates of asthma and cancer.

In more and more areas of the United States, Amazon structures the life of entire communities. The geographer and organizer Spencer Cox argues that Amazon’s warehouse zones are now “the major working-class space of suburban and exurban socialization. So even if you’re building a tenant union or a political party, this is a major social space. It has a broader importance.” Or, put more pointedly: “If you look at the consciousness of Amazon workers, it’s a guide to where the working class is as a whole,” Kshama Sawant, a socialist member of the Seattle City Council, said.

On the second Prime Day in June, I met Andy and one of his co-workers at the end of an 11-hour shift outside their gargantuan warehouse. Workers of every race, gender, age and body shape streamed out of the main entrance. The hourly associates wore athletic clothes or fluorescent yellow vests and carried their belongings in see-through bags the texture of a clear shower curtain. The managers were distinguished by dark-blue vests and the privacy of opaque backpacks. (Amazon said there was no special bag policy for managers.)

Over Chinese food, Andy’s friend later told me that she liked the work but that “there are things that should be improved.” She found the warehouse sweltering and the equipment dangerously worn out. The manager of their department was quick to penalize workers for packing or rebinning too slowly. They heard that another manager in the region had been flown out to Bessemer, just before the union vote, in an emergency effort to quell employee discontent.

The prospect of organizing workers in any significant number felt daunting to Andy’s friend, but “if we want to make a change as a group, in a warehouse, Washington would be very ideal,” she said. “If headquarters was like, ‘Oh, God, if we can’t even keep our warehouse workers in control, how do you think we’ll look in front of the rest of the country?’ ”

“We can make a strong impact to show that it is possible. Just because headquarters is here, that doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t take power away from us.”

 

E. Tammy Kim is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and a co-author and co-editor of Punk Ethnography, a book about the politics of contemporary world music. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Yorker and many other outlets.

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