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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

On Prime Day, Organizers Want You to Think of the Workers

In case our homepage didn’t tip you off, today (and tomorrow) is Prime Day. For Prime members, that means deals, deals, deals. For Amazon’s warehouse workers, it usually means mandatory extra time, or MET as the company abbreviates it. MET intensifies an already taxing work schedule: A typical warehouse shift consists of 10 hours of unrelenting physical labor with two 30-minute breaks. (Policies are less consistent for delivery drivers, since most of them work for a network of contractors, but suffice to say their workloads will ramp up comparably.) At the same time, something else is intensifying: scrutiny into Amazon’s working conditions.

The recent union drive in Bessemer, Alabama, brought national attention to labor issues at the ecommerce giant, attracting criticism from the likes of Bernie Sanders and Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, who sits on the House Committee on Education and Labor. Earlier this month The Washington Post published a report calling out the Amazon’s poor safety record, and last week The New York Times followed up with an investigation into the company’s HR failures and head-spinning turnover rate during the pandemic. Jeff Bezos nodded at some of the criticism in a letter to shareholders in April, pledging to make Amazon “Earth’s Best Employer” and “Earth’s Safest Place to Work” (even as he prepares to leave Earth behind). While labor protests around Prime Day are nothing new, they arguably have more teeth this year.

So while shoppers try to score some savings this week, a number of groups around the country are trying to organize the company’s massive, swelling workforce. And they're converging from multiple angles.

First, the dream of unionizing the Bessemer warehouse lives on. After decidedly losing the union election in April, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) challenged the results, alleging improper conduct on Amazon’s part. A decision from the National Labor Relations Board is expected imminently. If the hearing officer rules in the union’s favor, she could order a rerun election, although Amazon could appeal such a ruling.

Meanwhile, a scrappier union drive is underway near Staten Island, New York. It’s led by the independent Amazon Labor Union, which is made up of rank-and-file workers. The Teamsters, which primarily represents logistics workers as the country’s largest labor union, has also intimated that it's got something big in the works. “Focusing on one facility at a time and depending on America's weak and hard-to-enforce legal procedures are insufficient to win against monopoly corporations like Amazon,” Teamsters national director for Amazon Randy Korgan wrote in Salon ahead of their annual convention this week.

Any group organizing at Amazon, big or small, faces long odds, says Rutgers labor relations professor Rebecca Kolins Givan. The company’s formidable tactics were on display in Bessemer: the $375-an-hour union-busting consultants, the months-long messaging campaign dispersed through myriad communications channels, and its power to alter traffic patterns on a whim. “Amazon has the law and billions of dollars on its side,” Givan says. “Thinking about creative ways to address these challenges is only a good thing" for organizers.

The 118-year-old, 1.4 million-member-strong Teamsters union has resources and experience on its side. But Christian Smalls, a former Staten Island process assistant, thinks Amazon requires a nontraditional approach. Last year Amazon fired Smalls after he led a walkout protesting the company’s Covid-19 response. After meeting notes leaked showing Amazon’s general counsel calling Smalls, who is Black, “not smart or articulate,” and planning to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” Smalls set out to make the company eat its words. He helped found the Congress of Essential Workers, a year-old labor group that’s supporting the Amazon Labor Union in the Staten Island drive.

Comprising about 25 organizers and bolstered by a 150-member organizing committee inside the warehouse, the ALU’s advantage, Smalls believes, comes from its years of insider knowledge. “The fact that I was a supervisor for four years, I definitely know the ins and outs of Amazon’s warehouses,” he says. “We’re organizing the way it needs to be done when it comes to Amazon.”

For instance, the ALU has begun appropriating Amazon’s internal communications systems to bat down anti-union messaging. The company runs a program called Voice of the Associate, where workers can write their concerns on virtual and physical boards posted inside the warehouses, and managers are expected to respond. After Amazon started posting what Smalls called false information about union dues, workers started countering it on the VOA board. “The way we’re putting it on Front Street, we’re putting them in a tough situation,” he says. “So all of a sudden they started removing all the literature with the union facts. All of it has been out of the building for the last couple weeks.” (Amazon did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.)

When a New York Times investigation came out last week detailing Amazon’s HR missteps during the pandemic, Smalls and his co-organizers printed out copies and distributed them to workers. “These workers work 10-, 11-, 12-hour days,” he says. “They’re exhausted. They get off work, and they’re disconnected from the outside. They’re not in tune with the labor movement the way we are. So we’re educating them first.” While the RWDSU marshaled support from the likes of President Biden and Bernie Sanders during the Bessemer campaign, Smalls doesn’t think high-profile endorsements make a difference to most workers.

The RWDSU concedes as much. The union’s dramatic election loss in April, with “no” votes outnumbering “yes” votes by a more than 2-to-1 margin, inspired no small amount of soul-searching from organizers both inside and outside the campaign. While the RWDSU still sees itself as in the fight, the union acknowledged that some days pro-union employees spent 12 hours on the phone with reporters, time they might have spent rallying their coworkers. If a rerun election happens, a spokesperson says, they will focus their energies more on getting out the vote.

Right now, the Amazon Labor Union runs largely on volunteer help and donations from a GoFundMe page. A labor lawyer moonlights for the group pro bono, advising it on the finer points of the National Labor Relations Act and Unfair Labor Practice charges. (It has already filed several.)

“It’s hard to organize without resources, so independent unions are not that common,” says Givan. “In the case of the attempt in Staten Island, there might be the ability to be a little scrappier and more agile. But they also don’t have access to the resources of an existing union where they’d have the experience of current members, the legal advice, and all kinds of support. So there’s a trade-off there.”

Ahead of Prime Day, both the RWDSU and the Teamsters sent statements highlighting what they respectively called Amazon’s “unbearable pace of work” and “appalling record of worker exploitation.” The Teamsters referenced both the Times’ and the Post’s reporting. The Post investigation in particular found that Amazon’s serious injury rate last year was nearly double that of its competitors. In response, the company acknowledged that it “has work to do” and announced a new workplace safety initiative.

While bad press may galvanize organizers and even force some company policy changes, Amazon seems bulletproof when it comes to its customers. This was especially true after the pandemic rendered its services—and its delivery drivers’ and warehouse workers’ labor—essential. Analysts at Consumer Intelligence Research Partners found that Amazon added about 30 million Prime members between March of 2020 and 2021, a faster growth rate than any of the three previous years. “That shouldn’t surprise anyone,” says CIRP cofounder Michael Levin. “It became even more of an essential household supplier.”

Popularity especially swelled among customers 45 and older, “whose heightened Covid-19 risk caused them to opt for new modes of shopping,” according to a March report by the supply chain company Convey. Positive consumer sentiment jumped 7 percentage points last year, with customers ranking “fast, free shipping” as their favorite attribute. Criticism seems yet to translate into reduced sales, a phenomenon NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway has described as “consumer dissonance.”

Smalls maintains his post outside the Staten Island facility, collecting union authorization cards, cooking food for workers, and hosting a pre–Prime Day vigil, even after a fence was erected in the spot where he used to stand. To qualify for an NLRB election, the ALU needs 30 percent of the warehouse’s roughly 5,000 workers to sign cards, although organizers typically aim much higher. Smalls says the ALU is a quarter of the way to its undisclosed goal and is on track to file for an election by late July or August. If the RWDSU wins its case, another election could be on its heels. Then Amazon will bolster its fortress, while organizers sharpen their proverbial pebbles.

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