June-July 2021

Page 26


Amazon workers aren’t as concerned about the minimum wage as they are about brutal working conditions


A year ago, ex-Amazon employee Chris Smalls and other demonstrators protested what they viewed as a lack of COVID-19 safety measures at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. He claims he was fired for dissenting and is now organizing a union at the facility.



Then there’s the surveillance and control that Amazon maintains. “They have GPS bracelets that track where you are within the workplace,” Vachon noted. “And if you spend more than a certain number of minutes—even in the bathroom— you’re getting docked pay for unproductive use of your time.” Organizing at Bessemer Conditions at Bessemer prompted disgruntled workers to join forces with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, an international organization with 1.3 million members. The RWDSU sent staff members to Bessemer to help print leaflets, make T-shirts and produce buttons—all designed to generate excitement around the campaign to unionize. “But the unionization effort came from the workers themselves,” Vachon emphasized. Union organization usually proceeds slowly, but the Bessemer campaign came to a vote unusually quickly, arriving in just five months, according to Vachon. Organizers generally want to win over 50% of the workforce before acknowledging that they’re even thinking about a union. The organizers wanted a bargaining unit of 1,500 workers, meaning that’s how many would cast votes for or against. But Amazon successfully petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to expand the unit to 5,800 members, substantially diluting support for the union, Vachon said. Having to convince that many more people to vote in favor of the union also created a lot of work for the organizers, he noted. A key factor in the Bessemer situation was the high turnover of employees, which is 100%, according to Vachon. That means more employees leave the job during the course of a year than the facility employs at any one time.



mazon employs blatant union-busting tactics to keep harried workers from organizing at its giant fulfillment centers, according to observers of recent events at the company’s facilities in Bessemer, Alabama, and Staten Island, New York. The result? Despite what many consider harsh and even dangerous working conditions, employees at Bessemer resoundingly rejected unionization in April by a vote of 738 in favor and 1,798 opposed. But experts contend that many of the workers actually had little choice but to vote against their own interests. Union organizing at Bessemer began the way it often does, with a handful of dissatisfied workers talking discreetly among themselves about grievances and deciding to do something about it, said Todd E. Vachon, facility coordinator at the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University. “Quite a few workers who started working at the warehouse previously had unionized jobs,” Vachon told Luckbox. “So they’re used to having all the benefits and contract protections of a union.” Pickers who move merchandise around in the Bessemer fulfillment center weren’t as concerned about earning higher wages as they were about how fast they have to work, how many packages they have to handle per shift and how many injuries can result, according to Vachon. Amazon might require workers to pick 400 items per hour, which translates to 4,000 to 6,000 per 10-hour or 12-hour shift, noted Chris Smalls, a former worker at the company’s Staten Island fulfillment center. “It’s common to have people taking pain medicine or muscle relaxer because the body’s put to the test every day,” said Smalls. That’s why Amazon places vending machines in the facilities to dispense over-the-counter pain medication.

Luckbox | June/July 2021

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