“Bezos, Our Backs Are Tired”: Amazon Workers Strike on Prime Day

Sarah Lahm July 15, 2019

(Sarah Lahm)

On Mon­day after­noon, in the blis­ter­ing heat of a 95-degree day, approx­i­mate­ly 50 Ama­zon work­ers and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ers ral­lied out­side of a sub­ur­ban Min­neso­ta Ama­zon ware­house chant­i­ng, We work, We sweat, Ama­zon work­ers need a rest!” That chant was fol­lowed by, Hey Jeff Bezos! Our backs are tired and our funds are low!”

The crowd was pick­et­ing to sup­port work­ers at the Shakopee, Min­neso­ta ware­house (or ful­fill­ment cen­ter”) who timed their strike to coin­cide with Prime Day,” one of the company’s key online sales events. Prime Day is being pro­mot­ed on Amazon’s web­site as a two-day parade of epic deals,” when month­ly sub­scribers to the company’s Prime ser­vice can shop for dis­count­ed items and expect fast home delivery. 

Work­ers say these deals are tak­ing a toll on those tasked with ful­fill­ing cus­tomer orders at a break­neck pace. From 2:00 p.m. to at least 8:00 p.m. on July 15, approx­i­mate­ly 100 ware­house employ­ees at the Ama­zon facil­i­ty in Min­neso­ta are expect­ed to walk off the job in hopes of call­ing atten­tion to what they say are unfair work­ing con­di­tions, as well as the company’s reliance on tem­po­rary employees. 

They are joined by work­ers at Ama­zon facil­i­ties across Europe who are also be walk­ing off the job, accord­ing to Mike Mur­phy of Quartz, to call atten­tion to labor issues such as stag­nant pay and unre­al­is­tic work quotas. 

The major­i­ty of work­ers at the ware­house are East African immi­grants, accord­ing to an event announce­ment for the July 15 strike. There are more than 100 such cen­ters in the Unit­ed States, but this is the only known facil­i­ty par­tic­i­pat­ing in the walk­out. These work­ers are being assist­ed by a Min­neapo­lis-based labor rights group called the Awood Cen­ter, whose stat­ed mis­sion is to build eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er amongst work­ers in the East African com­mu­ni­ty of Minnesota.”

Meg Brady has worked at the Shakopee ful­fill­ment cen­ter for near­ly 18 months, although she says she is cur­rent­ly off the job due to a work­place injury. She joined cowork­ers and local labor activists on the pick­et line out­side the Ama­zon facil­i­ty. As a hot, blus­tery wind took hold, Brady described the stress frac­ture in her foot that is keep­ing her from her work as a rebin­ner,” or some­one tasked with grab­bing items off a con­vey­or belt and putting them in a cubbyhole.

I group items for orders,” she said, not­ing that she has to pull 600 prod­ucts off the con­vey­or belt per hour. A big screen mount­ed in front of her keeps tabs of her work speed. There is pres­sure to keep up, Brady insist­ed, as she has seen fel­low ware­house work­ers get writ­ten up and some­times fired for being unable to meet Amazon’s require­ments. All of this has led to a repet­i­tive stress injury — one she says she had to fight to get rec­og­nized as job-related.

She joined the walk­out in sol­i­dar­i­ty, hop­ing the work­ers’ actions will lead to reduced work rates, as well as an invest­ment from Ama­zon in ergonom­ics. Right now, we have poor­ly designed work­sta­tions,” Brady said.

Bryan Mene­gus of Giz­mo­do notes that work­ers at this infa­mous” Ama­zon facil­i­ty have spent the past year engag­ing in walk-outs and oth­er actions on behalf of reli­gious free­dom and oth­er labor con­cerns. Thus far, work­ers have won some con­ces­sions, includ­ing the right, in 2018, to hon­or the Mus­lim hol­i­day of Ramadan dur­ing that year’s Prime Day event.

William Stolz also works in the Shakopee ful­fill­ment cen­ter and helped orga­nize the strike. In a July 9 inter­view with Nation­al Pub­lic Radio, Stolz described his work as a pick­er” — some­one who works in tan­dem with robots to put cus­tomer orders togeth­er, at a rapid pace dic­tat­ed by Amazon. 

Work­ers want to be treat­ed like human beings, not machines,” Stolz told NPR, before cit­ing oth­er labor con­cerns — such as Amazon’s use of tem­po­rary work­ers — as rea­sons for the planned walk-out. Cur­rent­ly, around 1,500 employ­ees work at the Shakopee facility.

As the strike got under­way at 2:00 p.m., a small but grow­ing group of work­ers and labor activists began to hold pick­et signs demand­ing work­place con­ces­sions from Ama­zon, includ­ing reduced work rates and allow­ing more tem­po­rary employ­ees to become per­ma­nent work­ers with access to ben­e­fits. In response to news of the planned action, Ama­zon has insist­ed that it pro­vides com­pet­i­tive wages and ben­e­fits in Minnesota.

Still, the July 15 strike comes amid a year of increas­ing pres­sure on Ama­zon to alter its busi­ness prac­tices and put labor, cli­mate and human rights first. In 2018, thou­sands of Ama­zon work­ers in Europe mount­ed their own Prime Day strike, cit­ing such con­cerns as unfair labor prac­tices and union-bust­ing. Sim­i­lar­ly, the com­pa­ny backed off plans for a pro­posed sec­ond head­quar­ters in New York City, thanks in part to union-led pres­sure.

Ama­zon began doing busi­ness in 1994 and has grown to become a glob­al com­pa­ny with bil­lions in annu­al earn­ings. In 2018, the com­pa­ny raked in over $232 bil­lion in rev­enue and paid zero dol­lars in fed­er­al income tax­es, accord­ing to sources such as CNBC. First-quar­ter earn­ings for 2019 have come in at close to $60 bil­lion, putting Ama­zon on track to sur­pass last year’s rev­enue totals.

One of the company’s cen­tral income-boost­ing strate­gies has been increas­ing speed of its prod­uct-deliv­ery rate, espe­cial­ly through its fee-based Prime ser­vice. The com­pa­ny recent­ly announced plans to pour $800 mil­lion into mak­ing one-day deliv­ery the stan­dard for Prime mem­bers, who pay a month­ly fee in exchange for free ship­ping on mil­lions of products.

Ama­zon has said that its quick order-turn­around sys­tem is accom­plished not just by human labor but also by tech­no­log­i­cal advances, includ­ing its own Ama­zon Robot­ics design.

While Amazon’s earn­ings con­tin­ue to grow, how­ev­er, work­ers charged with fill­ing orders at faster speeds are work­ing under end­less­ly bru­tal and pun­ish­ing con­di­tions,” as reporter Ravie Lak­sh­manan put it. The Guardian has described ware­house work­ers being injured on the job and then denied ben­e­fits or help. In anoth­er case, a for­mer Ama­zon employ­ee said he was fired for sup­port­ing union­iza­tion efforts.

These con­di­tions led Ama­zon work­ers across Europe to go on strike on Prime Day in 2018. This year, Ama­zon work­ers at the Shakopee ful­fill­ment cen­ter will take up the man­tle and engage in a six-hour work stoppage.

So far, this is the only known action planned by Ama­zon employ­ees in the Unit­ed States. The strik­ing Min­neso­ta work­ers were joined, how­ev­er, by a hand­ful of engi­neers from Amazon’s Seat­tle head­quar­ters, who report­ed­ly flew to Min­neso­ta to join the protest and pres­sure the retail behe­moth to take a more active role in address­ing cli­mate jus­tice concerns.

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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