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, have 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.