by Karyn Pomerantz, July 19, 2019
On July 15, 2019 during Amazon’s Prime Day sale, Amazon warehouse workers around the world walked off the job to protest grueling working conditions and poor wages. US workers also demanded that Amazon cut its collaboration with ICE and implement climate control practices. Strikers hit Amazon sites in the US and 50 locations in Europe, including France, Germany where 2000 participated, and the UK. French employees blocked trucks from leaving distribution centers, and European unions coordinated their efforts across borders. Unions in Spain and Poland also planned protests during the week.
Amazon represents the worst of modern day capitalism, extracting as much profit as it can by increasing productivity among its workforce, contracting out many delivery services, and automating many functions that reduce expenses. It has attacked the unions, claiming safe working conditions and adequate pay and benefits, and accusing unions of using strikes to recruit more members to increase revenue. Yet Amazon earned $5.8 billion over the two days. In 2018, Amazon made $232 billion in sales with CEO Jeff Bezos earning $110 billion, generating the strike slogan, No more discounts on our incomes!
Brutal working conditions include holding workers to the rate, the time it takes to retrieve, box, or process merchandise, an average of 6-8 seconds per task. Workers are docked time to use the bathroom and threatened with firing if they fall below the rate 4 times. Workers report that they limit drinking fluids to avoid bathroom times. While robots deliver products to workers, many report they walk 10 miles a day to retrieve them. Amazon invests heavily in robotics to reduce their payroll, threatening jobs. Constant surveillance of worker movements adds to the stress. Over a 5 year period, Amazon called emergency services in the US 189 times for workers experiencing severe mental health problems. While these problems may have occurred prior to their Amazon employment, the speed up, social isolation, and surveillance promote suicidal ideas. As one employee wrote, “It’s this isolating colony of hell where people having breakdowns is a regular occurrence. It’s mentally taxing to do the same task super fast for 10-hour shifts, four or five days a week.”
Multiracial and Multiethnic Leadership
The Amazon strikes and organizing highlight the strengths and potential of collaboration with workers of various religions, nationalities, and racial categories. In the major Minnesota site in Shakopee, the Awood Center for East African Muslim workers, mostly from Somalia, organized the work actions. They also protested Amazon’s denial of their religious needs, such as time to pray during the work day. Unions and community organizations supported them, and workers of all backgrounds followed their leadership to strike.
While the number of strikers was low and the strike only lasted 6 hours, it demonstrated the potential for tech staff, Amazon airline pilots, warehouse workers from multiple countries to unite around common goals. It also appealed to the public to boycott the Prime Day sales. Demands included economic, safety, and political issues, such as climate change and opposition to anti-immigrant attacks by ICE. Employees showed that they could not be co-opted by Amazon’s recent $15 per hour minimum wage.
Such fightbacks can reinvigorate a docile labor movement and increase class consciousness around the world. It can turn workers against the capitalist system and not just one of its worst examples. It will take militant organizers who refuse to rely on politicians and union leaders but instead fight for an equitable society.
No Bargain for Workers. https://www.france24.com/en/20190716-amazon-workers-strike-prime-day-france-germany-usa
Video on Amazon’s delivery processes and safety issues from company reps and workers at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/15/amazon-workers-prime-day-strike-begins-in-minnesota.html