Above Photo: Amazon’s swift delivery network takes a million people to run. During Prime Week, workers took aim at disrupting this symphony of human capital with walkouts at four distinct warehouse types in its logistics chain—including one of its large air hubs in Southern California. Warehouse Worker Resource Center.
Amazon’s vast distribution network is staggering. There’s the invisible lacework of surveillance algorithms and artificial intelligence. There are the visible footprints: trucks, robots, hulking warehouses.
And then there are the workers. It takes more than a million people, most of them low-paid and grindingly exploited, to pick, sort, unload, ship, and deliver packages to customers’ doors within days of an order.
Last week workers took aim at disrupting this symphony of human capital with walkouts at four distinct warehouse types in the company’s logistics chain—a cross-dock near Chicago, a delivery station and a fulfillment center near Atlanta, and in Southern California, one of the company’s large air hubs.
The walkouts weren’t centrally coordinated. But they were all timed to coincide with the company’s Prime Day promotional sales rush, which ran October 10 to 12.
Across these facilities, workers say they’re overworked and underpaid, squeezed by rising inflation and terrible conditions.
Think of each strike as a small test. Speed is Amazon’s brand, and its massive warehouse and logistics chain is designed to move goods fast. Any interruption or delay gives workers leverage.
Links On The Chain
“How do you get a handmade item delivered from a small business in rural Connecticut to a customer in Los Angeles?” asked an Amazon press release last year, promoting the new air hub in San Bernardino, California. “In a straight line across the sky, thanks to Amazon Air and its thousands of incredible employees.”
Those incredible employees are now part of a group called Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, supported by the Teamsters and the Warehouse Worker Resource Center.
A hundred day and night shift workers at the air hub, one of more than a dozen hubs nationally, walked out October 14 after the company failed to meet their demands to boost pay to $22 hourly, improve health and safety standards in sweltering hot working conditions, and put an end to retaliation.
Meanwhile in Joliet, near Chicago, 50 workers at the cross-dock facility MDW2 had walked off the job October 11, demanding stronger health and safety policies and a wage hike to $25 an hour.
A cross-dock facility is a central hub where products are sorted and distributed to regional fulfillment centers without being racked or stored. The one in Joliet employs between 1,000 and 2,000 workers, depending on seasonal hiring peaks.
The next day, a dozen workers walked out at ATL2, a fulfillment center in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to protest unfair labor practice violations, unsafe working conditions, and low pay. Fulfillment centers are where customers orders are stored, picked, packed, and shipped.
And at the delivery station DGE9 in Buford, Georgia, workers walked out October 11 and 12—a dozen people the first day, two dozen the next—protesting Amazon’s failure to meet the demands they had made in a summer petition: 24 hours of paid time off and an $18 base wage.
Delivery stations are the final stop in the company’s logistics chain. They are essential to Amazon’s promise of speedy same-day to two-day delivery.
Alfonso Rodriguez remembers feeling welcomed when he started at the San Bernardino air hub in June 2021, walking into a workplace adorned with rainbows for LGBTQ Pride Month. But the rainbows soon dimmed as he got to know the working conditions.
It was a sweltering summer; workers recorded 96-degree heat inside cargo planes and tractor-trailers, while temperatures on the tarmac shot up to 110.
Rodriguez is a learning ambassador, charged with training new hires. But “by November I no longer wanted to train people,” he said, because it was too painful to watch his trainees buckle under the workload and suffer without water breaks during a record heat wave.
Around the Christmas holidays, Amazon announced with little notice that the warehouse would be closed for two days, unexpectedly cutting workers’ take-home pay. A petition against the closure kicked off the air hub’s first organizing campaign.
Anna Ortega was on track to become a process assistant, a role adjacent to management, when a co-worker approached her to sign the petition. She declined.
“I was too scared to sign up at first. I thought they were gonna get fired,” she said. “None of them got fired. And they actually got Amazon to implement a national policy change [giving workers advance notice of closures].”
She joined her co-workers in their next collective action, presenting a petition for a $5 wage increase. Soon she began wondering, “Hey, what if we unionize?”
‘Just Be Thankful’
Workers started building an organizing committee. They kept marching on the boss. In July they delivered an 800-signature petition.
Management went on the offensive, bringing in anti-union consultants. In August more than 150 workers walked off the job, according to The Washington Post. (Amazon said it was only 74.)
After the walkout, Amazon raised wages by 90 cents an hour on weekday night shifts and 85 cents on weekend nights. But workers had demanded $5. And now they were facing retaliation, surveillance, and another heat wave.
Managers also started sending workers up on ladders into crossbelt conveyors to dislodge fallen packages, a job previously done by trained maintenance technicians.
“They were sending us up to these tight, crammed spaces,” Ortega said. “It’s hot. There’s no ventilation. It’s dark. The whole time that you’re in there you have to crab-walk. After every other step, there’s a beam directly above your head.
“We would come out dripping in sweat, panting.”
The warehouse feels dark now, Rodriguez says, with union busters skulking in the shadows—far from the “rainbow environment” that once appealed to him.
“What Amazon is showing is predator-like behavior,” he said. “They follow a plan that has worked: come to these poor communities where people are told that they should just be thankful, not ask for more.
“I’ve only been there a year, and that’s how long it took to figure out that this plan does not work out for the worker. It only works out for Amazon.”
A Critical Node
Air hub workers are strategically placed at a critical node in Amazon’s distribution network.
Amazon is the largest employer in Southern California and has more than 40 facilities in the state, according to the consulting firm MWPVL International.
Each day, Amazon operates 14 flights in and out of the sprawling air hub known as KSBD. It’s part of the company’s air freight division, where Amazon-branded planes and trucks transport packages to warehouses across the country. Amazon Air operates at 42 airports, within 100 miles of 70 percent of the U.S. population.
The company is heavily investing in its business-to-consumer delivery, entering the third-party shipping sector. In April it rolled out “Buy with Amazon,” which allows consumers to use their Prime memberships when selecting shipping options even if they’re buying stuff on a different platform than Amazon.com.
In response to a slowdown in e-commerce, which has left the company with excess capacity, Amazon is both freezing hiring and abandoning warehouse expansions. However, in the Inland Empire it faces a different sort of challenge.
According to a leaked internal research report, Amazon has burned through its workforce in the Inland Empire so fast that it fears it will run out of workers by the end of 2022.
“Amazon has hired everybody,” said Rodriguez. “I’m 35, but I consider myself one of the older people. I call myself an OG, an old gay.”
In September Amazon announced it would be spending $1 billion to boost worker pay nationwide.
“What that looked like for our warehouse, we got a 50 cent raise,” said Arturo Adame, who works at the delivery station in Buford, Georgia. “We were asking for $3. During the peak season, they give us a $3 bonus—so what we were asking was, let’s make that bonus permanent.”
“I didn’t even get a quarter to put in the vending machine” is how Theometra Robinson, at the Stone Mountain fulfillment center, described the raise.
‘Light Bulb Went Off’
After the Amazon Labor Union won its historic victory at a Staten Island fulfillment center, Robinson reached out to Teamsters Local 728 in Lakewood, Georgia.
“I knew that they represented UPS workers,” she said. “They were the top union in the country. That’s bargaining power for us.”
Robinson had started at ATL2 in May 2021. She rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a process assistant within months. Things were on the upswing until she got a written warning after cursing out a worker who had physically assaulted her.
Soon after, Amazon rescinded her promotion and refused to transfer her from a department she characterized as a hostile work environment. She fell into a bout of depression that lasted until ALU’s win lifted her spirits.
“A light bulb went off,” she said. “They didn’t know I had unionized before.” Robinson and other GardaWorld Security drivers had won a union drive in 2010 with the Security, Police and Fire Professionals.
Lone Wolf Campaign
She went to a Teamsters training in Georgia on unionizing Amazon, but she felt its emphasis was misplaced on organizing contract workers who drive Amazon-branded vans.
“If you try to unionize them, Amazon will cancel these people’s contracts,” she argued. “You have to unionize the warehouses and negotiate some kind of terms and conditions for these drivers, because you’re going to lose on that other end.”
The Teamsters advised her to focus on list-building, identifying leaders for a committee, and building a base of support before going public with a campaign. “They don’t want you to be exposed as one of the organizers. They want you to do everything covert,” she said.
She disagreed with that strategy, too. “Look, this facility is too big to be covert,” she told them. “This is a building of 4,000 people. I can’t throw a rock and hit three people I know. You’re in a station isolated all day. You can barely walk around and go pee.
“In order for me to get what you are asking me, I need to be out there.”
Robinson started a lone wolf campaign. Standing outside the facility handing out flyers was a way to plant a flag and draw workers towards her. But the union-busting was swift. Managers started targeting workers who seemed sympathetic.
Meanwhile Amazon had set more strenuous rules—preventing water breaks, dinging workers for missed productivity targets and “time off task.” Workers were fed up.
Their first walkout was September 14, after a worker passed out from heat exhaustion. The second was October 11.
A Clandestine Approach
Adame and his striking co-workers from the delivery center in nearby Buford piled into a van to meet Robinson and her co-workers as they walked out during Prime Week. “We’re in the same fight,” he said. “We walked out; you walked out. Let’s celebrate together.”
However, Adame says they are trying different strategies. “I would attribute the difference to where we work,” he said. “Theometra’s facility is a fulfillment center employing thousands of workers. They can be a bit more direct because it’s harder to communicate with other workers.
“They are taking an aggressive style to organizing and announcing their walkout plans, which is probably the only way to organize a fulfillment center.
“I trust that they know what they are doing. They work there.”
By contrast, the workers at DGE9 are keeping things as clandestine as possible. “At the delivery station, we have a lot of leverage,” Adame said. “So we’re being diligent about building the committee, so we can delay freight and affect Amazon’s bottom line.”
Influenced by the collective Amazonians United, which has chapters across the U.S. and Canada, the Buford workers have adopted a solidarity union model. That means they’re not pursuing legal union recognition anytime soon. Instead, their focus is on workplace collective action.
“Knowing the terror campaign that Amazon would unleash if you certify an election—the union-busting, the captive-audience meetings-–having a shop floor solidarity union is one way” to overcome these hurdles to a traditional strategy, Adame said.
“We would love to unionize Amazon formally. We just know it’s going to be a tough battle. And we’re committed to setting the stage, so one day we can make that happen.”
He appreciates Amazonians United for its “strategic vision,” which prioritizes delivery stations as a critical link in the supply chain.
“Since delivery stations are part of the last mile and only employ about 100 employees,” he said, “they are a very good place to organize and bring co-workers together and affect the company’s bottom line and delay freight. That’s the only way to get the company’s attention and be taken seriously.”
‘You Can’t Even Breathe’
The Amazon workers organizing at the cross-dock facility MDW2 in Joliet, Illinois, are getting support from the United Electrical Workers-backed worker center Warehouse Workers for Justice.
They have filed 50 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints to date and collected 700 signatures on their petition.
Tennetta Baker has worked at Amazon for six years; before this she was a certified nursing assistant. At first she liked the pay bumps Amazon would give out for attendance and meeting productivity quotas.
But despite her contributions (“I’ve trained over 1,000 people easily,” she says) the raises stopped. This is a policy intended to get rid of long-term employees, to prevent what founder Jeff Bezos has characterized as “a march to mediocrity.”
This year Baker got a 60 cent bump to $20.90. Her co-pays and premiums have been increasing too. And besides the money, “it’s the safety issues, the racial slurs,” she said, “the nitpicking supervisors do, the changes on a whim.”
MDW2 workers walked out in May to protest what WWJ called “racist death threats” scrawled on bathroom walls.
“We still see masks a lot,” said another worker, Cesar Escutia. “I thought it was people concerned with Covid and the flu, but it was actually people with asthma who are concerned about the dust in the air. There’s a lot of issues you can face at work, but not being able to breathe?
“You go through life, and you work these types of jobs just because you want to make a wage and provide so many products that people need—and you can’t even do it with the dignity of knowing that you’re going to be able to breathe.”
He teared up as he spoke. “It’s the worst place I’ve worked,” he said.
Escutia works nights. “You go in, you work 10 hours, you go home, you get to sleep,” he said. “You don’t get much more opportunity to do anything else. And before you know it you’re back to work the next day. At no point can you really have meaningful conversations or meaningful rest.”
Sometimes the grueling conditions zap his confidence that winning is even possible. “I have my doubts about this fight that we’re partaking in,” he said. What if “it’s all in vain, if we can’t get meaningful change for ourselves, even after all the struggle?
“But I see things like today, and I get a lot of hope.”