Black workers lead safety fight at Amazon

A Black man with a megaphone in the foreground. Behind him are people with a banner and others holding signs.
Chris Smalls leads march to Jeff Bezos’ mansion on Oct. 4, 2020. PHOTO: Ringo Chiu
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Record profits and record protests: that was 2020 at Amazon. Covid-19 anxieties intensified existing discontent and sparked unprecedented labor activism. This mega e-retailer subjects its staff to extreme pressure to perform and conform, clashing with the need for safety. Yet these workers helped the corporation rake in $96 billion following stay-at-home orders.

Black organizers, many of whom were already campaigning against racism and for better conditions, didn’t miss a beat in leading co-workers off the job for virus protections. Many paid the price — some with their jobs. But they fought back and several beat Goliath! The others are still fighting.

Anger arose in the fulfillment centers where most of the Black workers toil. Whereas corporate employees — only 3.3% of whom are Black — were ordered home, warehouse pickers have no such option.

Amazon is tight lipped about the spread of Covid among “retail heroes,” as their commercials ironically dub them. Pickers complain that management covers up these illnesses. In September, Amazon reported that 20,000 had tested positive. “What really makes me mad is that [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos is one of the richest men on the planet. He can afford to keep us safe,” a Michigan fulfillment staffer told online news source Recode.

Angry frontline workers have staged dozens of wildcat strikes, closing facilities in New York City and the Midwest. Amazonians United in New York released a petition demanding paid leave no matter the Covid diagnosis. In October, hundreds picketed Bezos’ Los Angeles mansion. Both May Day and Black Friday saw international labor actions.

Encouragingly, the crew at a new Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse has bravely filed to unionize — in a right-to-work state! This, despite Amazon’s relentless monitoring of employees, spying on activists and restricting free speech.

An Amazon union — the first in the U.S. — could help launch a trend of workers’ victories. Google techies started it off when they unionized January 4. The courage of both workforces defying their rabidly anti-labor bosses is a boost to organizing everywhere.

Retaliation adds fuel to the fire. Across the board, Amazon responded by reprimanding, suspending and firing dissenters. Of six who lost their jobs in the first months of the pandemic, four were Black warehouse organizers. Courtney Bowden was terminated for mobilizing Pennsylvania coworkers to demand paid time off for part-timers. Suspended in May for having union flyers, Californian John Hopkins, who was reinstated following an investigation, told Recode, “Race permeates everything. These aren’t disconnected issues; what’s at the heart of them all is implicit bias.”

The reprisals escalated defiance. Black protest leader Gerald Bryson took his firing to the National Labor Relations Board where he won a rare victory. The board ruled Amazon unfairly fired him after he led a demonstration on Staten Island. In Minnesota, Somali-American women led a walk-out in defense of their colleague laid off for sheltering at home on unpaid leave. She was reinstated.

When it was leaked that top executives smeared New York strike leader Chris Smalls with a racist phrase, widespread anger crossed over to white-collar workers. A Minneapolis group emailed Bezos recommendations to address “a systemic pattern of racial bias that permeates Amazon.”

The protests have pushed thirteen state attorneys general to launch investigations. The company denies punishing anyone for free speech and touts its approach to safety. But in May, it discontinued $2 per hour hazard pay and doubled overtime. It is also insisting on risky in-person voting in Bessemer’s union certification. Disregard for worker safety is especially grating when the corporation’s stock rose 74% in 2020.

“We don’t want Amazon to be the model for what … the future of work is going to look like,” said the president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

Hope for change lies in the expanding industry-wide agitation at home and abroad. In the U.S., it is people of color who are inspiring others to fight bigotry and callous conditions.

While still young, the rebellion at Amazon holds promise for the increasing numbers working in warehouse jobs and beyond.

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