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Amazon Retaliation: Workers Striking Back

Photograph Source: Fibonacci Blue – CC BY 2.0

Amazon and its contractors have a pattern of retaliating against and intimidating employees who speak out. I know – because they also tried to do it to me.

Last week, my Amazon coworkers in New York took the courageous step of walking off the job to protest our company’s lack of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Amazon workers in Detroit and Chicago have followed suit, demanding that Amazon shut down any warehouse where positive cases of the virus are found, to ensure a thorough cleaning.

Out of a selfish concern for their profits, Amazon has refused to take this basic step, despite repeated requests from Amazon workers, including a petition signed last month by over 4,500 of us.

Now, Amazon employees have tested positive in at least 19 warehouses around the country, and the situation has become dire. So my coworkers are taking action.

But rather than act to protect our health, Amazon’s wealthy executives have chosen to retaliate against employees who speak out. In a brazen attempt to suppress employee dissent, they responded to the Staten Island walkout by firing its main organizer, Chris Smalls.

This decision came from the highest levels of the company. In leaked meeting notes between Jeff Bezos and company executives, Amazon Senior Vice President and General Counsel, David Zapolsky, made racist, anti-worker remarks against Chris, calling him “not smart or articulate” and arguing the company should make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”

The billionaires and executives at Amazon want control, and they are terrified by the idea of workers getting organized to demand things like paid sick leave, hazard pay, and safe working conditions that might have the slightest impact on their billions of dollars in profits. The executives are nervous at the increased questioning by their rank-and-file, including tech and corporate employees. That’s why they are desperate to prevent workers like Chris from speaking out. As Chris put it in an interview with socialist Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant, by firing him, Amazon is “trying to cut off the head of the snake.”

Chris is not alone. Amazon and its contractors have a pattern of retaliating against and intimidating employees who speak out. I know – because they also tried to do it to me.

Retaliation and Intimidation at Amazon

I work as a cargo handler in Kent, WA, at an Amazon delivery station called HBF2. And like many Amazon delivery workers, I work for a third-party contractor.

As far back as February, when COVID-19 first began spreading in Washington state, my coworkers and I have had growing concerns. We have not received basic health supplies like hand sanitizer and face masks from our employer. We have also not received additional paid sick leave, for those of us who might come down with symptoms of COVID-19.

Amazon was not protecting us and neither was our contractor, so I began talking with coworkers about what we could do—organizing meetings outside of work and circulating a petition with a list of changes that were needed.

When my manager found out about it, he pulled me into the office, telling me that he had heard about me “organizing people into groups” and “trying to organize a union”. In a blatant attempt at intimidation, he told me, “it will not be tolerated.”

Threats and retaliation like those against me and Chris are not an aberration. They are a central part of Amazon’s business model.

Just last year, at that same warehouse on Staten Island, Amazon fired another employee, Justin Rashad Long, in retaliation for trying to organize a union. And earlier this year, Amazon made headlines for threatening to fire tech workers who dared to criticize the company’s lack of action on climate change.

In another clear example of Amazon’s anti-worker maneuvers, a management training video was leaked in 2018 from Amazon’s Whole Foods business. The video instructed managers to be vigilant against signs of union activity, including any workers who were asking for a “living wage”!

In addition to silencing its own employees, Amazon also hires well known anti-union contractors like my employer Estes. These contractors act as Amazon’s enforcers. In addition, the company uses this complicated web of contract employment to make it even more difficult for warehouse workers to unite and demand what we deserve.

Amazon Workers Need to Get Organized

There is a reason that Amazon’s wealthy executives want to stop me and my coworkers from getting organized. They know that if we do, we can actually win.

In two Minnesota warehouses, organized groups of Amazon workers have staged walkouts and successfully forced the company to the negotiating table, winning important reforms ranging from increased parking spaces to accommodations for Muslim employees during Ramadan.

In Sacramento, a group of workers organized under the name Amazonians United and staged a successful protest last year to get two employees reinstated who had been wrongfully terminated. That group, along with an Amazonians United group at a warehouse near Chicago, followed up their victory with a campaign to demand Paid Time Off for part-time workers. Workers gathered hundreds of petition signatures and threatened a walkout, eventually forcing the company to grant PTO to part-timers not just in Chicago and Sacramento, but at all of their warehouses.

Amazon workers need to take lessons from these victories. We cannot give in to the company’s bullying and threats. This will only make things worse, and Amazon will continue to put our lives and our security at risk. In order to win necessary changes, we will need to get organized and fight for them, as the warehouse workers in New York, Chicago, and Detroit are doing.

One important step would be the formation of volunteer committees at each warehouse to advocate for the necessary changes like paid sick leave, hazard pay, and adequate cleaning of facilities. Committees could draw up a list of demands, circulate petitions to coworkers, and demand negotiations with management. Facebook or text groups could be set up at each warehouse to facilitate these actions. This will of course have to be done with full recognition of the anti-worker, hostile threats to come from management once committees are discovered.

In addition to forming these committees, it is vital that all workers stand in solidarity with Chris and others against retaliation by the company. We need to make clear to the billionaires at Amazon that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and that any abuse of our coworkers will not be tolerated.

We know where Amazon’s profits come from. They come from the warehouse workers who sort, load, and deliver packages; they come from the grocery workers, delivery workers and other frontline workers during the crisis; and they come from the tech workers who write the company’s algorithms and create the company’s apps. If we don’t work, Amazon’s profits go away.

Amazon of course is not alone in trying to sacrifice workers’ health and lives for profit, nor did this priority begin with the pandemic. Instacart workers are facing similar conditions, and have gone on strike around the country for basic safety and hazard pay. Healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line everyday without adequate support or the desperately needed personal protective equipment (PPE). Big corporations and corporate politicians nationally are preparing to try to force workers back to workplaces at the cost of thousands of lives. Here in Seattle this week, Boeing is attempting to force workers back to its plants by April 8, risking further spreading of the virus all around the state. This is the nature of the rotten capitalist system, which at all times puts the greed of the billionaires ahead of the lives and needs of working people.

This is why I’m a socialist and member of Socialist Alternative. Here in Seattle, we’re also helping lead a campaign to Tax Amazon and the biggest businesses to fund a major jobs and housing program. They can certainly afford it, while increasingly ordinary people can’t even afford their rent in this crisis. If you’re in Seattle you should sign our online initiative petition to get our Amazon Tax on the ballot.

Ultimately, it should be workers and the community who run these huge and “essential” companies like Amazon. We should run them ourselves on the basis of public need, not profit. This will require building strong organization and a movement to take these companies into democratic public ownership, because we can’t control what we don’t own. It is only in this way, in the fight for a socialist world, that we can ensure that the health and needs of ordinary people and the planet come first.