Amazon Expects Its Employees to Operate Like Fast-Moving Machines. This Amazon Picker Is Fighting Back.

Inspired by his father and grandfather, Sean Carlisle is organizing to win stronger safety measures for his fellow workers.

Michelle Chen and Molly Crabapple

Amazon Worker Sean Carlisle Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

For Sean Carlisle (a pseu­do­nym) a 32-year-old grad­u­ate stu­dent and native of California’s Inland Empire, the last three years at his local Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter have been an edu­ca­tion. As a stu­dent of urban plan­ning, he stud­ies how built envi­ron­ments shape a community’s behav­ior. As a pick­er, he packs items at a break­neck pace amid stacks of inven­to­ry and snaking con­vey­or belts while del­i­cate­ly prac­tic­ing strate­gies to raise his cowork­ers’ polit­i­cal consciousness. 

Amazon’s logis­ti­cal infra­struc­ture is designed to make humans per­form with machine-like effi­cien­cy, but Sean is try­ing to make the work­place a bit more human, advo­cat­ing for stronger work­er pro­tec­tions and cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty in his community.

When he first start­ed at Ama­zon, Sean enjoyed what he calls a hon­ey­moon phase.” He liked that work­ers were pro­mot­ed read­i­ly to man­age­r­i­al posi­tions, espe­cial­ly peo­ple with a col­lege edu­ca­tion like him­self. They ha[d] all these things that help their employ­ees advance. They have these school pro­grams,” he says, refer­ring to Ama­zon’s pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion schemes. But about eight months in, he real­ized there was some stuff going on here that real­ly could be improved. [I thought] I don’t know if I like this com­pa­ny as much as I did before.’” 

The cat­a­lyst was see­ing [so many] peo­ple get hurt,” he con­tin­ues. He says work­ers would tell him, “ I got hurt, and they gave me phys­i­cal ther­a­py, and I got even more hurt because they didn’t real­ly assess me right and now I have this prob­lem.’ ” It was around the hol­i­day sea­son dur­ing his sec­ond year when things hit a sig­nif­i­cant decline in terms of safe­ty, and there was more focus on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.” He says that some­times work­ers would acci­den­tal­ly strike the shelves as they nav­i­gat­ed fork­lifts through the center’s aisles, caus­ing the vehi­cles to tip over. 

The safe­ty prob­lems con­tin­ued to get worse, and my cowork­ers and I would say, Hey, [the man­age­ment has] got to do some­thing about this,’” he recalls.

Sean believes the speed with which work­ers must process orders — some­times hun­dreds of items per hour — leads them to cut cor­ners or ignore prob­lems with their equip­ment. He says that one byprod­uct of the relent­less pres­sure to pack more items faster is a high turnover among those who couldn’t keep up.” Burn­ing through new hires cre­ates a con­stant churn in the work­force, as tem­po­rary work­ers are cycled in and out dur­ing peak seasons.

Amazon’s offi­cial data on work­place injuries sug­gest that many of its ful­fill­ment cen­ters have rates that far exceed the aver­age ware­house. Yet the com­pa­ny claims these sta­tis­tics are pri­mar­i­ly a tes­ta­ment to its metic­u­lous report­ing rather than a reflec­tion of its shod­dy safe­ty stan­dards. We ensure we are sup­port­ing the peo­ple who work at our sites by hav­ing first aid trained and cer­ti­fied pro­fes­sion­als onsite 247, and we pro­vide indus­try lead­ing health ben­e­fits on day one,” a spokesper­son said in an email.

Ama­zon also claims to have spent over $1 bil­lion [on] new invest­ments in oper­a­tions safe­ty mea­sures” that include pro­tec­tive tech­nol­o­gy, san­i­ti­za­tion pro­ce­dures, and train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­grams for work­ers. The com­pa­ny main­tains that it is con­tin­u­ous­ly learn­ing and improv­ing our pro­grams to pre­vent future inci­dents. Sean con­tends that some man­agers have sim­ply failed to take work­place haz­ards seri­ous­ly. He recalled his sur­prise when a man­ag­er told him, “‘if peo­ple didn’t feel safe, they wouldn’t go to work.’” 

That’s not how that works, dude,” he mus­es. Peo­ple go to work because they need a pay­check, not because they feel safe.”

While work­ing as a pick­er, Sean’s aca­d­e­m­ic work led him to a cam­paign against the planned con­struc­tion of a huge car­go facil­i­ty for San Bernardi­no Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. Var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ty groups, includ­ing Team­sters local 1932 and envi­ron­men­tal activists, formed the San Bernardi­no Air­port Com­mu­ni­ties Coali­tion to oppose the project, which they warn will deep­en the eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal exploita­tion of the region by cor­po­ra­tions like Ama­zon—the area’s largest pri­vate employ­er. Despite a legal chal­lenge brought by the coali­tion’s lead­ing groups ear­li­er this year, the facility’s con­struc­tion is mov­ing for­ward, and Sean has now shift­ed his focus to help­ing pro­tect his cowork­ers from the pandemic.

One prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit that Sean and the oth­er orga­niz­ers aim to secure for work­ers in the short term is paid leave so that those affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic can stay home with­out sac­ri­fic­ing wages. The com­pa­ny ini­tial­ly pro­vid­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for work­ers who self-iso­lat­ed due to COVID-19-relat­ed health con­cerns but end­ed the pol­i­cy in May. Now Sean is encour­ag­ing cowork­ers to seek ben­e­fits under a new state law for food-indus­try work­ers that pro­vides up to two weeks paid leave for work­ers who have been advised by a med­ical pro­fes­sion­al to self-iso­late or ordered not to work.

Ama­zon ini­tial­ly argued that it was exempt from the man­date. But as Vice report­ed in July, com­mu­ni­ty groups and labor activists, along with the state labor commissioner’s office, pres­sured the com­pa­ny to com­ply on the grounds that its ware­hous­es serve as major retail food dis­trib­u­tors. In June, approx­i­mate­ly two months after the order was enact­ed, Ama­zon final­ly agreed to fol­low the law.

With a poster detail­ing the state’s new paid-leave pol­i­cy now on dis­play in the break­room, Sean says he is advis­ing his cowork­ers to take advan­tage of what he calls a legal loop­hole” that allows Ama­zon employ­ees to take paid time off out­side of the com­pa­ny’s more restric­tive allot­ment. The work­ers who qual­i­fy have man­aged to use the law just to take a break, or reeval­u­ate their situation.”

Sean says that despite his advo­ca­cy on behalf of Ama­zon employ­ees, he has avoid­ed the kind of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment that oth­er work­er-activists have reported.

At the same time, he acknowl­edges, I’m also not try­ing to [pro­voke] them direct­ly.” When it comes to engag­ing with his col­leagues on work­place jus­tice issues, he says, Usu­al­ly, I’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion where it just kind of unfolds like, Man, some­one in my fam­i­ly just recent­ly passed, and I can’t take time off work.’ And I’m like, Oh, you should check out the law that was just recent­ly passed and I think you can get time off for it.”

Sean is build­ing a safer work­place with­in Amazon’s e‑commerce leviathan one con­ver­sa­tion at a time. The son of an iron­work­er and grand­son of a team­ster, his sense of mis­sion is informed by the fam­i­ly sto­ries he heard as a child about strikes and pick­et lines.

Ama­zon, which has man­aged to keep unions at bay for years, bears lit­tle resem­blance to the union shops of past gen­er­a­tions. But today’s Ama­zon ware­house work­ers and dri­vers are just as crit­i­cal to California’s econ­o­my as the long­shore­men, truck dri­vers and iron work­ers were a cen­tu­ry ago. I see Ama­zon as some­thing that’s prob­a­bly here to stay and like­ly going to shape our future and our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism and con­sump­tion,” he says.

Though yes­ter­day’s mil­i­tant shop-floor strug­gles have long fad­ed from Cal­i­for­ni­a’s indus­tri­al land­scape, the chal­lenges fac­ing the labor move­ment remain basi­cal­ly the same. When work­ers orga­nize, Sean says, they can hold the com­pa­ny account­able and shape it to be the com­pa­ny it is. With­out the work­ers, the com­pa­ny would not be what it is.”

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Mol­ly Crabap­ple, an artist and writer in New York, is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.

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