Essential and angry!

Low-wage workers rebel against abuse

A man holds up a sign reading
Staten Island, March 30, 2020. Christian Smalls (pictured) was fired almost immediately after leading fellow workers to protest lack of safety at Amazon. The reason given for his release: failure to social distance. PHOTO: Jeenah Moon / Reuters
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Over 30 million U.S. workers had filed for unemployment by April 25. Millions more are actually out of work. By early May more than 80,000 had died — many of them low-wage workers — the majority women, immigrants, and people of color. Overwhelmed hospitals endanger staff, particularly custodians, food servers, nursing assistants and technicians.

Yet some governors have ignored medical advice and begun to reopen businesses.

Through it all, low-wage workers have sanitized surfaces, made deliveries, and ensured that groceries and medicine remain available — often without adequate protection or sick leave. Many have long been organizing to win better pay and working conditions. Now, with their lives at stake, people are saying “enough!”

Instacart shoppers organize. They buy and deliver groceries and face danger daily. The Gig Worker Collective (GWC) organized four national strikes since 2016, when they rallied public support and stopped a scheme to steal their tips. In February, before the pandemic, shoppers in Skokie, Illinois, voted to unionize with UFCW local 1546. Other shoppers fight for the very right to join a union.

On March 30, workers estimated in the thousands began an indefinite strike, this time for hazard pay of $5 per order, sanitization products and actual paid sick leave.

Instacart was prodded to provide minimal “health and safety kits,” which GWC calls totally inadequate. Collective founder Vanessa Bain said, “Instacart has decided they would rather let us die than to protect us properly, because one of (CEO and Amazon alum) Apoorva Mehta’s spreadsheets has calculated that it’s cheaper that way.”

GWC strike organizer Ashley Johnson told this writer that “GWC should continue to do what they’re doing — continue to hold Instacart accountable for the hundreds of thousands of people they’re profiting off the labor of.”

Instacart is valued at eight billion dollars.

Amazon — exploitation leader. Amazon made $75.5 billion in the first quarter of 2020 by delivering supplies to people sheltering at home. The low-wage workers who create that wealth want safety, freedom of association, and paid leave during the pandemic.

“He’s not smart, or articulate,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Sapolsky of Chris Smalls, the worker fired for organizing a 100-worker, March 30 walkout at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y. Zapolsky claimed Smalls failed to socially distance, which an April 24 online speak-out organized by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice exposed as a lie. Amazon workers in Poland, France, Germany, Illinois, New York, and Minnesota charge that safety enforcers crowd in closely when work is sped up, but otherwise use social distancing as cover to surveil, interrupt, discipline, and fire labor organizers.

Workers created Amazonians United (AU), a national organizing committee, to fight back. They filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board over the firings.

In the last year, AU in Sacramento won jobs back for two fired workers. In Chicago AU got clean drinking water, a one-day paid shutdown during a heatwave, and paid leave for all U.S. Amazon warehouse staff.

Another organization, the Awood Center in Shakopee, Minnesota, recently won the reinstatement of two fired workers, through walkouts, pickets, buttons, and petitions delivered to management. They showed you can win demands even without a union.

Unions and community coalitions step up. In March, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) and the South Dakota Dream Coalition told Smithfield pork processing plant managers that the Sioux Falls facility was an outbreak waiting to happen, needed to close for deep cleaning and that workers needed protective equipment. In response, Smithfield offered bonuses to workers for perfect attendance.

The Dream Coalition organized an April 9 car caravan and again demanded that Smithfield shut down for two weeks and sanitize the whole plant. On April 12, after hundreds had gotten sick, Smithfield closed the plant indefinitely.

The union and the Dream Coalition got workers a guarantee of full pay for two weeks. But, as of April 19, 725 workers had been diagnosed with Covid-19, and at least one, Agustin Rodriguez, had died. Smithfield’s defense was, according to a spokesperson, “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.”

On May Day, transit and healthcare workers picketed in Staten Island in solidarity with workers on a national strike at Amazon, Whole Foods, FedEx, Target and Walmart.

Low-wage, essential workers have shown the courage, resourcefulness and know-how needed to involve labor, the surrounding communities and the press to popularize the idea that safety on the job, time off and decent wages are non-negotiable human rights. They also demonstrate why workers should control industry. They already know how to do the job safely and are motivated by concern for the welfare of their communities.

Now is the time to turn appreciation of this essential workforce into large-scale labor solidarity and put the brakes on corporate impunity.

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