ALU Newsletter #7: Amazon is Killing Us
12/14/2021 update from the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island
It’s a common and natural thing to confront fears about taking risks when we come together to organize as workers: what if the management illegally retaliates against us for organizing, as they did to ALU President Chris Smalls last year when he spoke out about COVID-19 safety in solidarity with his fellow coworkers? (Amazon continues to resist the NY State Attorney General’s demand that Chris be reinstated and that safety protocols be enhanced.)
Of course, the last thing that anyone in the ALU wants is for more workers to be fired—or to be fired ourselves—especially not for exercising our supposed legal rights to organize. But the fear of taking risks must also be balanced against the awareness that the risks are already there, all around us, whether we choose to act or not. In fact, most of the risks we face at Amazon can only be reduced by organizing together to make Amazon do the right thing.
Two Kinds of Termination
It is bad enough that Amazon workers are always under threat of termination by an Evil AI management system that treats workers like robots, makes working less safe, and that is built to churn through workers at a predictable rate of 3% per week, 150% per year—with managers even hiring workers just to fire them in order to make their rate. And as we know all too well, Amazon has a history of illegal retaliation and harassment of workers who protest and organize, both here in New York and across the country—despite Amazon’s “Leadership Principle” encouraging workers to “Disagree and Commit.”
But Amazon’s Evil AI will not just terminate your employment without a second thought—without even a first thought, actually—it may even terminate your life. One of the reasons why we must take risks as workers and organizers (regardless of the supposed protections of the law), is that we already face even greater risks to our lives, our health, and our bodily safety on a daily basis at Amazon, and we must confront these problems if they are ever going to change. Jeff Bezos will not swoop in from space to save us: his vow to make Amazon “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work” is a cruel joke when Amazon is in fact one of the most dangerous places to work— almost twice as dangerous as the rest of the industry. It is just what an evil alien robot would promise before enslaving the human race.
If Amazon Workers Are Pandemic Heroes, Then Jeff Bezos Is a Supervillain
Right around the time that Amazon management fired Chris last year for organizing over COVID-19 safety protocols at Amazon, another worker at DDC3 in Virginia was also making internal complaints about the lack of proper safety protocols. Rather than hiring a team of medical professionals, Amazon management conscripted Poushawn Brown to conduct COVID-19 testing, and they neglected to provide her with a proper N-95 mask, surgical gloves, gowns, goggles, or other personal protective equipment. The site’s cleaning crew had quit early on during the pandemic, and the replacement cleaners focused on the floors and walls, not the carts and trays that workers handled regularly. She wanted management to close the facility and have it professionally cleaned and sanitized, but the HR department dismissed her request. The site manager said to her: “we still have to do the numbers,” insisting that “we will not lose money.”
On April 10, 2020, Brown wrote an anonymous email to Amazon corporate headquarters, objecting that “Amazon leadership is not concerned with their employees” and “is allowing its employees to come to work and be exposed to COVID-19 and taking it home to their families.” She noted that there wasn’t a screening process for the delivery drivers, warehouse cleaners weren’t wearing masks or social distancing, and they were only cleaning non-work areas, and not “the carts, racks, and bags that the drivers and employees touch constantly.” Four employees had tested positive over several days, but coworkers were only notified after the fourth employee tested positive. “Employees and managers are scared for their lives and do not want to come to work until the site is cleaned,” she wrote. “Amazon does not offer insurance for 80% of the employees that work at the warehouse so if someone were to get sick, how will they receive medical treatment let alone pay for their, or their families, healthcare while contracting the virus.”
On January 14, 2021, Poushawn Brown came home from her COVID-19 testing job at Amazon feeling unwell. She died in bed the next day. The only assistance Amazon offered her family was two months of counseling for her 12-year-old daughter Gabrielle, and they instead depended on the generosity of over a thousand people who gave to their GoFundMe page. Poushawn did not have to die so that Amazon could “do the numbers.”
Since then, the slowly grinding gears of the law have begun to catch up to Amazon’s move-fast-and-break-people management approach. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Amazon illegally retaliated against Chicago workers who organized a COVID-19 safety strike, that Amazon illegally interrogated and threatened the lead organizer of a COVID-19 safety walkout in Queens, and that Amazon illegally fired ALU organizer Gerald Bryson in retaliation for protesting COVID-19 safety conditions.
New York Attorney General Letitia James has sued Amazon for “its failures to provide adequate health and safety measures for employees at the company’s New York facilities and Amazon’s retaliatory actions against multiple employees amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.” Rather than comply with concerns for worker safety, however, Amazon management decided to sue the Attorney General. Recently, AG James filed a motion for an injunction to compel Amazon to reinstate Chris, and to immediately improve COVID-19 safety protocols, pending the outcome of the state’s ongoing litigation.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta also sued Amazon for hiding COVID-19 cases from workers, and secured a settlement with Amazon that required the company to provide prompt and precise information about COVID-19 cases to all workers and local health agencies, to submit to state monitoring, and to pay a fine of $500,000.
Ultimately, $500k is a paltry penalty for recklessly endangering thousands of workers’ lives—just the price of doing business for Amazon (slightly more than one minute of revenue for the company) and chump change for billionaire Jeff Bezos. Obviously, we can’t rely on lawyers and politicians to protect us, because not even they can stop Amazon from flagrantly putting workers’ bodies and lives at risk every day. Only workers united and organized to demand better conditions can apply the leverage.
When Disaster Strikes
Given Amazon’s consistent disregard for worker safety, it is a tragedy but not a surprise that Amazon workers were killed on the job on Friday, by a tornado that tore through a warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, because they were forced to stay at work despite urgent weather safety warnings. “Amazon won’t let us leave,” one worker texted his girlfriend before he died.
Not only did Amazon management neglect to “notify employees about the tornado even as it happened,” but then they went back and encrypted “internal help ticket messages about the Illinois facility, making them inaccessible to most workers,” in order to cover up their negligent disregard for worker concerns about the natural disaster. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has opened an investigation into the warehouse collapse, especially since the Edwardsville workers say they never received any emergency training—not even so much as a fire drill. Meanwhile, Amazon is funding lobbying groups that are fighting legislation which would protect workers from management retaliation if they flee an unsafe workplace, as the workers in Edwardsville should have been encouraged to do.
Amazon workers in New York might find all of this too familiar, after being forced to go to work during Tropical Depression Ida—despite the region’s first-ever flash flood emergency warning from the National Weather Service and NYC alerts bombarding phones with scary messages: “do not attempt to travel unless you are fleeing an area subject to flooding or under an evacuation order.” As a Gizmodo article noted at the time, it’s all part of a pattern:
“This isn’t the first time Amazon workers have been on the job during extreme weather that’s being worsened by the climate crisis. In June, a viral TikTok showed an Amazon driver braving flooded roads in Detroit to make a delivery. That same month, during record heat in the Pacific Northwest, Amazon warehouse staff in Washington were reportedly forced to work in 90-degree heat indoors. (That same heat wave was deemed a “mass casualty event” by Oregon county officials as dozens perished.)”
Dave Clark @davehclarkWe’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, Illinois. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone who has been impacted by the storm’s path across the U.S.
The morning after the tornado killed Amazon workers in Illinois, Bezos was in Texas taking a giddy selfie with his wannabe space cadets. “Happy crew this morning in the training center,” he wrote, having still said nothing publicly about the catastrophe at his Amazon warehouse the night before. It wasn’t until 9pm on Saturday night that the Bezos PR team finally kicked in, and his avatar fired off some perfunctory “thoughts and prayers” on Twitter, presumably while Bezos was pleasantly entertained at the lavish party at his Beverly Hills mansion that night.
The Disaster is Amazon
There is not just one fix that will make Amazon a safe place to work, instead of one of the most dangerous employers, notorious for its “epidemic of workplace injuries.” It will require a total paradigm shift in the way that workers are considered by management—not as input/output flow rate number generators, parcel processors, fleshy appendages to algorithms and automation—and that will require that the human workers take more control over the conditions of our own work.
Even The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, could not avoid the conclusion from studying the OSHA data that “Amazon’s serious injury rates are nearly double those at warehouses run by other companies.” And while Amazon workers and former OSHA senior staff say that the high rate of injuries is no random accident but precisely a reflection that “the targets the company sets are too aggressive,” Bezos still refuses to accept this. “We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” he told Amazon shareholders, and his Amazon Leadership Principles even celebrate “relentlessly high standards” that “many people may think…are unreasonably high.” There may be a “customer obsession,” but there is no worker regard at all.
Whether the grueling demands result in workers being forced to go to work in unsafe weather conditions or cross unsafe roads, or to rush to lift and move heavy objects at high rates, in repetitive and stressful movements that damage their bodies, or to work long hours without any breaks, or to pee in bottles while driving (which Amazon management lied about and then was forced to admit), or to work in heat so punishing they pass out from heat stroke, it is the same relentless and robotic focus on input and output, on “making rate,” that is destroying human beings.
We Are Not Robots
The origin of the word robot is the word slave. And it is clear that Jeff Bezos would prefer robots, or slaves, to the free human beings with human needs and human demands whom he is still compelled to employ to do the work that “paid for all of this” space tourism that occupies his infinite boredom. The systems of Amazon are designed for the robots that will eventually replace us as workers, and in the meantime we are forced to work like robots do.
Jeff Bezos has strapped computers to our arms and scanners to our fingertips, directing us by algorithm through managers attached to laptops on carts. He has literally patented a system that would force workers into cages on top of robots, and his grand idea to increase worker safety was a new algorithm that “will set workers’ schedules according to muscle use.”
Reclaiming Our Time
To add insult to injury, not only does Amazon’s inhuman management system overwork us, and under-protect us, leaving our bodies sick and damaged, but when we need to take time to recover, Amazon is illegally stealing our paid sick time!
According to New York State law, an employer with more than 100 employees must grant all employees 56 hours of paid sick leave per year, regardless of whether they are full-time or part-time workers. Amazon HR has made it clear in writing that they consider paid personal time off (PTO) to be equivalent to sick time, even though they only provide 24 hours of annual PTO to part-time workers, and 48 hours to full-time workers. This means they are taking as much as 32 hours of pay from workers each year—possibly more than $600—and potentially forcing workers to use their unpaid time (UPT) when they should be entitled to paid sick leave. This may also unnecessarily force workers into danger of being terminated for running out of UPT. It’s a trap!
We encourage all workers to see your Amazon HR representatives, open up an HR case in A to Z, and call the Amazon ERC (888-892-7180), to demand that they tell you exactly how much paid sick time you have available, and at what rate you accrue it. Tell them that you know the NY state law (they probably don’t): that you are entitled to 56 paid hours, not 48 or 24, and that if Amazon fails to inform you within three days of exactly how much sick time you have available, that is a violation of the law. Document all interactions, start to finish. We can gather these together as evidence of a deliberate policy. When enough of us make it clear to Amazon that we’ve caught on to their wage theft, we can make them stop stealing from us and give us what is rightfully ours.
Until Next Week!
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