Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Amazon’

Amazon Worker: Why We’re Bringing the Climate Strike to Jeff Bezos

Friday, September 13th, 2019

Two months after Amazon warehouse workers across the globe staged a one-day strike, the great “disruptor” is facing another workplace disruption—this time by tech workers at its Seattle headquarters.

The group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice announced this week that it would join the September 20 Global Climate Strike led by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. The employees are calling on Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030, cancel the company’s custom contracts that accelerate gas and oil extraction, and cease funding climate denying lobbyists and politicians.

The last year has seen rank-and-file tech workers walk out over sexual harassment at Google and sales to migrant detention centers by the online retailer Wayfair. Tech workers have also organized a wider movement called #TechWontBuildIt to oppose contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

But according to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, next week’s walkout will be the first one by workers at the company’s corporate offices, as well as the first walkout in the tech industry over the climate crisis. More than 1,000 employees have currently pledged to participate via an online form.

The action grew out of a push by Amazon employees earlier this year to pass a shareholder resolution asking Jeff Bezos to create a comprehensive climate change plan. After a group of workers announced their intention to introduce this resolution, Amazon responded by announcing a “Shipment Zero” program to make 50% of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030. More than 8,000 Amazon employees signed an open letter in April deriding this plan as inadequate and calling on the company to do more.

In May, shareholders voted down the climate resolution, but the group continued organizing as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ).

In These Times spoke to Catherine Han, a software developer at Amazon, about the historic walkout and what it’s like to organize tech workers.

Have you been a part of workplace organizing or actions before?

No, this is the first time I’ve been involved in something like this.

How did you get involved in Amazon Employees for Climate Justice?

Environmental stewardship has always been something I was really passionate about. But my involvement had mostly been volunteer work—with different conservancy groups, trail work, things like that. Nothing super formal.

At work, a lot of my coworkers are very environmentally conscious. We would have a lot of conversations about climate change and what we could do, but it was always from a personal standpoint. Joining a group at work hadn’t really occurred to me.

I heard about this group after the shareholders letter announcement last year, and getting involved has been a really eye-opening experience for me. We are bringing a voice to this huge problem that had previously felt like a lot of individual concerns.

Why did the group decide to go on strike?

The call to action for the climate strike really came from the youth who were organizing it. They put out a call to action for a global movement, and we wanted to show solidarity and respond to that call, and also to push Amazon to show climate leadership.

Has it been difficult to get co-workers on board?

There have been a lot of very positive responses and a lot of easy conversations.

I think some of the more negative or hesitant reactions are often from people who are inexperienced with organized action. So it’s just discomfort with the unknown.

I think there’s broad agreement that being a tech worker at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world is an opportunity to raise the visibility of the climate crisis and show what we expect from our leadership.

If we can come together and have a company-wide commitment to get to zero emissions by 2030, that will empower workers to actually come up with the specifics we need to meet that.

What do you think of Amazon’s response to the climate crisis so far? Your group has pointed out some of the problems with the “Shipment Zero” plan Amazon announced earlier this year. While the company has pledged to make half of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030, for example, this could still mean a net increase in emissions if shipments continue to grow.

For us, just given the science and the time we have left to make a substantial impact on the trajectory of the climate crisis, Shipment Zero isn’t anywhere near aggressive enough.

The important thing was that this came as a response to the shareholder letter. So one of the biggest takeaways for me was that organized action does work. As the result of the shareholder letter, we saw a positive response from Amazon. For me, that was really empowering to see, and it makes me optimistic about the walkout and the power of that.

Was that the first time you’ve seen the success of collective action?

I really saw the power of organized action a few years ago during the women’s march. I went to the Seattle march and it was one of the first organized actions that I had participated in. Seeing power in numbers was really eye-opening for me.

My experience with the climate change movement within Amazon has been similar. For a lot of people, this is their first time being involved in an organization like this. I think that finding a voice together has been a very transformational experience for a lot of people who have been involved.

Earlier this year, workers across Europe, as well as Minnesota and Chicago, staged coordinated walkouts and other actions on Prime Day. Working conditions in Amazon warehouses are often very bad, and there are a lot of environmental justice issues associated with them—warehouses are more likely to be located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, and cause air pollution, noise, traffic safety and other issues in the surrounding area.

Do you see the climate organizing you’re doing as related to organizing by warehouse workers?

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice was definitely in support of the strikes. We’re focused on climate justice, and part of the climate crisis is that there is a disproportionate impact on impoverished communities.

We released a solidarity statement that articulates this:

Lending our support to our coworkers in Minnesota is a natural part of our climate justice priorities. We cannot create a sustainable, long-term approach to addressing the climate crisis without addressing structural racial and economic inequities that are part of our system of extraction — of energy, material, and human labor — that have caused the crisis.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

Breaking Up Amazon Doesn’t Go Far Enough—We Must Put It Under Public Control

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

What should be done with Amazon? While some parts of the company should indeed be broken up, its sprawling scale is not its only problem. Much of what Amazon does is harmful for reasons inherent to the logic of private ownership, and would remain so at any scale. While the public probably does not need to own, say, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, much of Amazon can and should be nationalized and put to use to build a democratic economy.

David and others suggest that breaking up Amazon would restore some semblance of market fairness and that regulatory action could keep the power of its remnants in check. But historically, breakups of monopolies have been relatively inefficient. The Bell System, led by AT&T, was broken apart in 1984 and is today on track to be even larger, as the AT&T-Time Warner merger proceeds. Antitrust mechanisms can temporarily roll back monopolies, but the preference to dominate, rather than compete, survives.

Even should antitrust action succeed, it’s not clear that restoring competition would be better for society at large in the case of Amazon’s primary application—connecting buyers with sellers. Online platforms attain a natural monopoly when a certain level of market share is achieved and competition becomes next to impossible. What little competition among platforms remains doesn’t produce better outcomes, but instead creates a race-to-the-bottom to cut costs. Take Amazon’s new promise of one-day delivery; Walmart quickly followed suit. While it might appear convenient, neither entity has to account for the intensifying extraction from workers and the environment; both can continue to externalize these costs. Profit-driven private ownership of the Amazon marketplace will continue to create “innovation” at the expense of public good.

While David does suggest that the Amazon marketplace could operate under public ownership, he doesn’t seem to see the significance of such a “nationalized digital mall.” Amazon’s ownership of this digital mall is what allows its success, using its primacy to extort and manipulate the market in its own interests. It is Amazon’s profit imperative, not an inevitable function of a marketplace platform, that drives it to pressure third-party sellers, squeeze workers, and recommend products that fail consumers. By becoming the market, Amazon has effectively become the market’s regulator. Such powers should belong to the public.

Democratic public ownership of the marketplace platform could retool this infrastructure for public good. The People’s Amazon—call it Ourmazon—could guarantee access to the marketplace for smaller producers rather than driving down the cost of their goods and services. As a public distribution network, Ourmazon could stabilize prices at a point that ensures viability and competitiveness for small businesses at a cost that benefits consumers.

Critics of nationalization contend that the government would be forced to adopt Amazon’s extractive practices to operate at an enterprise scale. But if those practices are indeed necessary for efficiency, why would new regulations produce different outcomes? A nationalized platform could shift the definition of efficiency to include metrics beyond shareholder value.

One of Amazon’s key (and controversial, due to real privacy concerns) features is the massive amount of data it harvests and leverages to maximize its profits. In its current position, Amazon picks winners and losers for its own ends, with algorithms that impact prices, order search results and collate recommendations. That data could instead be optimized for a wide array of economic priorities, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to hobbling products with labor abuses in their supply chains. A nationalized entity, managed along democratic priorities, could advantage small businesses, unionized businesses, or worker-owned businesses.

There are still more clear benefits to the public ownership of Amazon’s distribution and logistics infrastructure. The promise of one-day shipping, unchecked, poses a logistics nightmare, creating precarious work conditionsand significant environmental impact. Democratic public ownership could ensure that the flow of goods meets labor and environmental standards. Amazon’s HQ2 fiasco epitomizes race-to-the-bottom urban planning, while democratically decided plans could incorporate considerations like resiliency to natural disasters or areas needing an economic revival.

Amazon is dominating its way to becoming the backbone of the U.S. economy. A nationalized company could play the backbone of a more equitable system. As Amazon expands into activities like providing easier-to-access credit cards, it is creating new markets out of sectors that would be better served with social provisions. Similarly, look at Amazon’s move into online pharmacy. We can imagine how powerful a publicly owned pharmacy could be, expanding access to affordable medication, driven by care rather than profit.

The flaw of antitrust is that the problem of power is reduced to a matter of scale, when power should be rooted in democratic control and ownership. Who owns the data? Who programs the algorithm? Who governs the platform? Breaking up Amazon may be necessary, but some of its pieces would inevitably become natural monopolies that would be better served as publicly owned platforms operated for public benefit. Public ownership of Amazon would enable a redesign to maximize public benefit over profit.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Katie Parker is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher focused on regional planning and community economic development. Adam Simpson is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher and writer as well as a co-host of the podcast Future Left.

Angry About Low Pay and Sweltering Heat, These Amazon Warehouse Workers Are Organizing

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Thousands of Amazon workers struck on “Prime Day” this week in what was perhaps the largest multinational action to date against the online behemoth. European Amazon employees have been waging coordinated strikes against the company since 2013, but this time they were joined by U.S. counterparts at a Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center, where workers staged a first-of-its-kind six-hour work stoppage. To date, Amazon has successfully fended off all attempts at unionization in the United States since the company’s founding in 1994.

Meanwhile, at another U.S. Amazon facility in Chicago, a new organizing effort is underway. Early Tuesday morning, a group of 30 workers at the company’s DCH1 delivery station on the city’s South Side staged a “walk-in” to the facility’s management during a 2:30 a.m. break on the overnight shift.

The group delivered a list of demands to site management that included a pay bump, health insurance and functioning air conditioning in the facility, where workers say they are laboring in sweltering heat.

The DCH1 delivery station is the last place that Amazon parcels arrive before reaching the doorsteps of Chicago-area customers. Workers scan and sort at a grueling pace inside a building with a metal roof and walls, and towers of packages often block ventilation from overhead fans. The workforce includes seniors and people with medical conditions such as diabetes, and dehydration and heat stroke are frequent problems, according to four employees at the facility who spoke to In These Times on condition of anonymity.

Last month, when a small fire broke out in the facility, managers told workers not to leave their stations, according to one of the employees. No one was injured, but the incident stoked anger.

DCH1 Amazonians United, which has launched a public Facebook page, says workers decided to take action on Prime Day in part after hearing about Minnesota workers’ plans to strike. At present, the workers are not affiliated with any union or community organization.

They’re also building off a successful action this spring, when about 140 employees—roughly a quarter of the workforce—signed a petition demanding adequate access to drinking water at the facility. Managers had stopped providing workers with water bottles, and five-gallon water jugs weren’t being replaced throughout the day, says Terry Miller (a pseudonym), who has worked at the facility for four and a half months.

During his second week on the job, he remembers, a coworker passed out from dehydration.

But as soon as workers delivered the petition in May, a manager went out and bought water bottles, says Miller. Shortly after that, water stations were installed.

“Ever since then, people saw that if we move, if we demand our rights, we can win,” says Fred Brown (a pseudonym), another Amazon employee who began working at the facility in 2017.

After circulating a survey to determine which issues fellow employees cared most about, workers decided to stage another action for Amazon’s highly publicized July Prime day. Apparently short-handed during this peak week, the facility has been offering employees a pay bump to come in an hour before their regular shift is scheduled to start—they receive $18, rather than the usual $15, but only for the extra hour.

DCH1 Amazonians United is demanding “prime pay for Prime days,” or $18 an hour throughout “blackout periods” when workers aren’t permitted to schedule time off and are handling a high volume of packages as a result of the company’s promotions.

Employees received a pay bump as part of a much-touted decision by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to raise the starting wage to $15 an hour. The announcement came after years of criticism from labor, as well the “Stop Bezos Act” introduced by Bernie Sanders that would have penalized large employers that pay low wages.

But employees at the DCH1 facility typically have their hours capped at 28 a week, and many still struggle to pay their bills, says J.R. (a pseudonym). After working a homecare job during the week, on the weekends he pulls three overnight shifts at the Amazon facility and then reports for a childcare job with just a few hours of sleep in between.

“Jeff Bezos’ net worth is about $160 billion,” he says. “Thank you for the $15, but you can’t expect us to stay there forever. The way I see it, $15 is the new minimum wage.”

In a statement e-mailed to In These Times, an Amazon spokesperson said that the company is “proud to offer great employment opportunities with excellent pay, benefits, and a safe workplace for our people.”

The spokesperson did not respond to In These Times’ questions about the facility.

Employees who spoke with In These Times say that in addition to low pay, workers are dissatisfied with the lack of health benefits. According to the workers, they receive some vision and dental benefits, but in lieu of health insurance they are encouraged to call a health hotline number.

In the past year, Amazon has more than doubled the rate at which workers are expected to scan packages at the facility, say the employees, who also complain of seemingly arbitrary write-ups and firings. One of the workers says he was written up after a manager accused him of scanning a package incorrectly two months after the fact.

An investigation by the Verge this spring revealed that Amazon automatically tracks its employees’ productivity and may fire as much as 10 percent of its workforce annually for failing to meet internal targets.

After presenting their list of demands on Tuesday, the DCH1 workers say they were promised a meeting with the site manager that has yet to occur. They are circulating a public petition to demand the meeting.

In the meantime, Brown says that news of Tuesday’s action is reaching more coworkers. “You can feel the shift in power,” he says.

Amazon opened the DCH1 facility in Chicago in 2015. “I always say, they came to the wrong city,” says J.R. “Chicago is known for unions, so you can only get away with it for so long.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

“Bezos, Our Backs Are Tired”: Amazon Workers Strike on Prime Day

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

On Monday afternoon, in the blistering heat of a 95-degree day, approximately 50 Amazon workers and community supporters rallied outside of a suburban Minnesota Amazon warehouse chanting, “We work, We sweat, Amazon workers need a rest!” That chant was followed by, “Hey Jeff Bezos! Our backs are tired and our funds are low!”

The crowd was picketing to support workers at the Shakopee, Minnesota warehouse (or “fulfillment center”) who timed their strike to coincide with “Prime Day,” one of the company’s key online sales events. Prime Day is being promoted on Amazon’s website as a “two-day parade of epic deals,” when monthly subscribers to the company’s Prime service can shop for discounted items and expect fast home delivery.

Workers say these deals are taking a toll on those tasked with fulfilling customer orders at a breakneck pace. From 2:00 p.m. to at least 8:00 p.m. on July 15, approximately 100 warehouse employees at the Amazon facility in Minnesota are expected to walk off the job in hopes of calling attention to what they say are unfair working conditions, as well as the company’s reliance on temporary employees.

They are joined by workers at Amazon facilities across Europe who are also be walking off the job, according to Mike Murphy of Quartz, to call attention to labor issues such as stagnant pay and unrealistic work quotas.

The majority of workers at the warehouse are East African immigrants, according to an event announcement for the July 15 strike. There are more than 100 such centers in the United States, but this is the only known facility participating in the walkout. These workers are being assisted by a Minneapolis-based labor rights group called the Awood Center, whose stated mission is to “build economic and political power amongst workers in the East African community of Minnesota.”

Meg Brady has worked at the Shakopee fulfillment center for nearly 18 months, although she says she is currently off the job due to a workplace injury. She joined coworkers and local labor activists on the picket line outside the Amazon facility. As a hot, blustery wind took hold, Brady described the stress fracture in her foot that is keeping her from her work as a “rebinner,” or someone tasked with grabbing items off a conveyor belt and putting them in a cubbyhole.

“I group items for orders,” she said, noting that she has to pull 600 products off the conveyor belt per hour. A big screen mounted in front of her keeps tabs of her work speed. There is pressure to keep up, Brady insisted, as she has seen fellow warehouse workers get written up and sometimes fired for being unable to meet Amazon’s requirements. All of this has led to a repetitive stress injury—one she says she had to fight to get recognized as job-related.

She joined the walkout in solidarity, hoping the workers’ actions will lead to reduced work rates, as well as an investment from Amazon in ergonomics. “Right now, we have poorly designed workstations,” Brady said.

Bryan Menegus of Gizmodo notes that workers at this “infamous” Amazon facility have spent the past year engaging in walk-outs and other actions on behalf of religious freedom and other labor concerns. Thus far, workers have won some concessions, including the right, in 2018, to honor the Muslim holiday of Ramadan during that year’s Prime Day event.

William Stolz also works in the Shakopee fulfillment center and helped organize the strike. In a July 9 interview with National Public Radio, Stolz described his work as a “picker”—someone who works in tandem with robots to put customer orders together, at a rapid pace dictated by Amazon.

Workers want to be treated like “human beings, not machines,” Stolz told NPR, before citing other labor concerns—such as Amazon’s use of temporary workers—as reasons for the planned walk-out. Currently, around 1,500 employees work at the Shakopee facility.

As the strike got underway at 2:00 p.m., a small but growing group of workers and labor activists began to hold picket signs demanding workplace concessions from Amazon, including reduced work rates and allowing more temporary employees to become permanent workers with access to benefits. In response to news of the planned action, Amazon has insisted that it provides competitive wages and benefits in Minnesota.

Still, the July 15 strike comes amid a year of increasing pressure on Amazon to alter its business practices and put labor, climate and human rights first. In 2018, thousands of Amazon workers in Europe mounted their own Prime Day strike, citing such concerns as unfair labor practices and union-busting. Similarly, the company backed off plans for a proposed second headquarters in New York City, thanks in part to union-led pressure.

Amazon began doing business in 1994 and has grown to become a global company with billions in annual earnings. In 2018, the company raked in over $232 billion in revenue and paid zero dollars in federal income taxes, according to sources such as CNBC. First-quarter earnings for 2019 have come in at close to $60 billion, putting Amazon on track to surpass last year’s revenue totals.

One of the company’s central income-boosting strategies has been increasing speed of its product-delivery rate, especially through its fee-based Prime service. The company recently announced plans to pour $800 million into making one-day delivery the standard for Prime members, who pay a monthly fee in exchange for free shipping on millions of products.

Amazon has said that its quick order-turnaround system is accomplished not just by human labor but also by technological advances, including its own Amazon Robotics design.

While Amazon’s earnings continue to grow, however, workers charged with filling orders at faster speeds are working under “endlessly brutal and punishing conditions,” as reporter Ravie Lakshmanan put itThe Guardianhas described warehouse workers being injured on the job and then denied benefits or help. In another case, a former Amazon employee said he was fired for supporting unionization efforts.

These conditions led Amazon workers across Europe to go on strike on Prime Day in 2018. This year, Amazon workers at the Shakopee fulfillment center will take up the mantle and engage in a six-hour work stoppage.

So far, this is the only known action planned by Amazon employees in the United States. The striking Minnesota workers were joined, however, by a handful of engineers from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, who  reportedly flew to Minnesota to join the protest and pressure the retail behemoth to take a more active role in addressing climate justice concerns.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

Minnesota Amazon workers plan Prime Day strike, this week in the war on workers

Monday, July 15th, 2019

Consider there to be a digital picket line around Amazon’s upcoming Prime Day. Workers in a Shakopee, Minnesota, warehouse are staging a walkout for six hours of Prime Day to protest harsh working conditions.

Amazon’s answer to the workers’ protest is that it raised wages to a $15 minimum. Which is good. But it’s not what they’re talking about here. The workers are talking about the strict quotas they have to meet to keep their jobs, quotas that lead to physically punishing work. They’re talking about warehouse temperatures and broken sprinkler systems. And they want to push Amazon to turn more temp jobs into permanent jobs.

This will be the first U.S. work stoppage for Amazon, though the company’s European warehouse workers have held strikes. Minnesota Amazon warehouses, though, have been the site of successful organizing by Muslim workers seeking accommodations during Ramadan, when they’re fasting. Pilots who fly for Amazon—and have their own issues with the company—are sending a representative to the strike and said in a statement that “We hope that Amazon takes seriously these striking workers’ calls for change.

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

 

Amazon employees across Europe protest ‘inhuman’ working conditions

Monday, November 26th, 2018

Amazon warehouse workers in several European countries took to the streets in protest this week over what they called “inhuman” working conditions.

In the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain, workers walked the streets holding signs reading “Treated like a robot at Amazon” and “We are not robots.” According to The Washington Post, some walked off the job, intentionally timing their protest for Black Friday, the busiest day of the shopping year.

“The conditions our members at Amazon are working under are frankly inhuman,” Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB trade union in the U.K., said in a statement Wednesday.

“They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances. We’re standing up and saying enough is enough, these are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay — they’re not robots.”

In May, a GMB Freedom of Information request revealed ambulances had been called to one Amazon warehouse in the town of Rugeley, England at least 115 times in a span of three years, according to The Guardian. Three of those calls were for maternity or pregnancy-related problems, and three were for “major trauma,” the outlet noted.

In total, GMB found ambulances had been called out to Amazon’s U.K. warehouses a total of 600 times in three years.

“Hundreds of ambulance call-outs, pregnant women telling us they are forced to stand for 10 hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles — even miscarriages and pregnancy issues at work. None of these things happen in a safe, happy working environments,” GMB national officer Mick Rix told The Guardian.

Amazon officials say the the allegation fail to present  “an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.”

At the company’s San Fernando logistics center in Madrid, Spain, workers held their fourth major protest to demand better working conditions and increased pay, chanting, “We will not accept discounts to our rights.”

“This is our biggest pressure [action] to date,” Marc Blanes, a trade labor union official for CGT, told Spanish newspaper El Diario.

Amazon issued a statement in response to that protest, claiming, “Most of the employees on the morning shift today in the Amazon logistics center in San Fernando de Henares are working and processing customer orders.”

According to those leading the strike, however, at least 90 percent of the workers at the San Fernando facility had joined the protest. Only two people were left working the loading bay, Douglas Harper of the CCOO trade union confederation told the Associated Press.

“It is one of the days that Amazon has most sales, and these are days when we can hurt more and make ourselves be heard because the company has not listened to us and does not want to reach any agreement,” 38-year-old employee Eduardo Hernandez, who joined the strike, told AP reporters.

Workers at distribution centers in Rheinberg and Bad Hersfeld, Germany also staged protests Friday, demanding higher pay, the latest demonstration in a years-long trade union effort.

“We have a worldwide problem, a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world,” Frank Bsirske, head of the Verdi union representing Amazon workers, told The Local in Denmark. “It’s like going back to the 19th century.”

Workers gathered in front of the German publishing group Axel Springer, parent company of Business Insider, where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was set to receive a business innovation award this week, carrying signs that read “Make Bezos pay.”

Amazon employees from Italy, France, and Poland also joined the demonstration.

The Local noted Amazon, which has around 560,000 employees, reported a profit of around $3 billion last year alone.

The National Retail Federation expects more than 164 million people to shop between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, approximately the same number as in 2017. E-commerce sales, however, are expected to jump 15 percent this holiday season, as consumers ditch brick and mortar stores for online retail giants like Amazon.

According to Adobe, as of 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Black Friday, online spending had skyrocketed nearly 30 percent over last year’s totals. NPR reported online spending was set to reach $6.4 billion by the end of the day, with an additional $3.7 billion from Thanksgiving Day, one day prior.

Target and Walmart are making moves in response to that trend, to rival Amazon’s Prime two-day delivery incentive. Amazon, however, has not missed a beat, announcing recently that it would give Prime subscribers free same-day deliveryon even more items through the holiday season.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an editor at ThinkProgress. She formerly worked at Bustle and Romper.

Thousands of Amazon Delivery Drivers Won’t Be Eligible for the $15 Wage

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Amazon’s announcement raising its entry-level wage to $15 an hour for all employees has been lauded as an inspiring example of corporate responsibility. In response to sharp criticism and threatened legislation from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over low pay and horrid conditions at Amazon warehouses, CEO Jeff Bezos said: “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead.”

But thousands of workers delivering your Amazon packages won’t be eligible for that $15 entry-level wage. Across the country, thousands of workers wear Amazon uniforms, use Amazon equipment, and work out of Amazon facilities, but are not classified as Amazon employees. They work for third parties known as delivery service partners (DSPs). It’s just one way Amazon manages the burden of getting billions of packages each year into the hands of its customers.

Amazon has confirmed that these third-party DSPs are not covered by its new wage standard.

Not only will drivers delivering for Amazon be deprived the pay levels of other Amazon employees, but in one notable instance, they were cheated out of wages by a DSP that violated state and federal labor laws.

A federal judge ruled in August that as many as 757 hundred delivery drivers with one DSP on the East Coast were robbed of overtime pay through falsifying time sheet records. The workers have thus far been unable to collect the back pay—potentially millions of dollars— from the DSP or Amazon.

And workers at other Amazon DSPs describe similar practices. So while Amazon basks infavorable PR, it is simultaneously deeply implicated in routine wage theft.

“The face of Amazon.com

Tyhee Hickman of Pennsylvania and Shanay Bolden of Maryland, lead plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court lawsuit, worked for TL Transportation, a Mid-Atlantic regional delivery service. According to the lawsuit, TL literally calls its delivery drivers “the face of Amazon.com,” but those workers are not considered Amazon employees.

Hickman and Bolden’s stories make clear, however, that TL Transportation is merely a pass-through for Amazon. Hickman writes in a sworn statement that he was hired by TL in November 2016, only to report to Amazon’s warehouse in King of Prussia, Penn. for training. The trainer was an Amazon employee. All training materials included Amazon logos. Workers had to purchase and wear Amazon hats, shirts and jackets. Delivery vans had “Amazon” emblazoned on the side, and workers also used an Amazon proprietary device called a “Rabbit” to track routes and scan packages. The Rabbit can also call Amazon customers if they are absent during delivery.

According to Bolden, who worked out of Baltimore, Amazon assigned the routes, and drivers were supposed to call Amazon if they ran into difficulties with deliveries. But despite all this involvement, pay stubs reviewed by In These Times listed the employer as TL Transportation.

“People assume they’re interacting with an employee of a company if they’re wearing the company’s uniform,” says Celine McNicholas, director of labor law and policy at the Economic Policy Institute. “But the web of contracting makes it difficult to discern.”

“Running, running, rushing, rushing”

That TL Transportation subjected employees to wage theft isn’t really in doubt. In a sloppy, misspelled flyer (“WELCOM ABOARD, WE LOOK FORWARD TO WORKING WITH YOU”), employees were told that they would be paid “$160.00 per day based on 8 hrs regular and 2 hours overtime… if you finish early you will be paid of entire day.”
In other words, the time sheet would build in two hours of daily overtime, regardless of hours worked. Pay stubs reflected that. Falsifying time sheets in this manner is definitively illegal, as U.S. District Court Judge Gerald McHugh confirmed in his ruling against TL in August. “Overtime compensation must be specifically linked to the hours an employee actually worked,” McHugh writes.

TL kept to this day rate, with the built-in overtime, regardless of how many days an employee worked. One of Bolden’s pay stubs showed a week where she worked all seven days, with 56 hours at the regular rate and 14 hours of overtime. She should have received 30 overtime hours that week.

In theory, workers could hope to finish deliveries early, earning the $160 day rate for less than 10 hours of work. But that was a pipe dream. Three workers who made sworn declarations and another interviewed by In These Times stated that they always worked more than 10 hours in a day, but were not paid additional overtime.

Hickman stated he would arrive to the Pennsylvania warehouse at 6 a.m. on workdays, attend required meetings with self-identified Amazon personnel, and not leave the warehouse until 9:30. That left him six and half hours to complete his delivery runs of 165 to 200 packages, sometimes as far away as Delaware. If Hickman brought back packages as undeliverable, he was sent back out to re-deliver them, adding more time to the day. Workers also had to inspect delivery vans on exit and re-entry and refuel them at the end of the day. Hickman testified he would usually return to the warehouse at 7:00 p.m., 13 hours after he arrived for work.

A former employee interviewed by In These Times on condition of anonymity, because he has not yet been deposed in the case, described how difficult it was to complete the runs: “It was like running, running, rushing, rushing,” he said. “If you don’t keep going you can’t finish in time.”

To keep up with the demanding schedules, workers were unable to fit in lunch or rest breaks; Hickman testified to having to urinate into bottles or on the side of the road to keep things moving. If workers did miraculously complete routes early, managers sent them back out to “rescue” other delivery drivers, by taking some of their packages. Regardless of the total hours worked in a week, the flat rate never changed.

The job was described as difficult, with rampant turnover. Hickman lasted five months; Bolden lasted seven. The former employee only lasted three. “I lost weight dramatically,” he says. “My wife told me, ‘You look so skinny.’”

The buck stops nowhere

These workers’ stories are broadly consistent with an investigation by Business Insider, which interviewed over 30 drivers with Amazon DSPs. But unlike other DSPs, TL Transportation never had workers sign contracts with a mandatory arbitration agreement, blocking their right to sue. Because it failed to do so, the plaintiffs sought lost and stolen wages in federal court.

Employers steal roughly $8 billion from worker paychecks per year, according to a 2017 studyfrom the Economic Policy Institute. But winning a wage theft ruling through summary judgment without trial, as the TL delivery workers did in August, is exceedingly rare.

Despite the court victory, no worker has yet been paid. TL, which continues to operate, says it lacks the funds to pay above the day rate. Amazon claims it has nothing to do with TL’s labor practices. Plaintiffs continue to battle it outin federal court.

TL’s co-owners Scott Foreman and Herschel Lowe, both named as defendants in the complaint, did not return phone messages asking for comment.

A second lawsuit, against a DSP named NEA Delivery, was filed in August in California, joining prior suits in IllinoisWashington stateand Arizona. But because every DSP is different, plaintiffs’ attorneys must go individually, company by company, to seek restitution for wronged workers. This has the added benefit of preventing Amazon delivery personnel from unionizing across the sector. Amazon has a longstanding policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

“This is nothing unique” among large corporations, said EPI’s McNicholas. “The reason companies do it is that it complicates the worker’s ability to hold their employer accountable.” In Amazon’s case, instead of offering a base wage of $15 an hour and a suite of benefits, it simply hires couriers like TL Transportation at a set rate per delivery and pleads ignorance about violations of labor law. The workers end up stuck, unable to win money owed them from fly-by-night third parties, and unable to challenge the corporate giant whose packages they actually deliver.

EPI’s McNicholas lays blame for the wage theft at the feet of Amazon, for setting up a system of free, rapid shipping. “It’s very difficult for these subcontracting firms to do business if they’re not cutting corners,” she says. “Amazon may say they set loose terms, but they’re instituting the framework that the subcontracting firms have to honor.”

Amazon outsources to hundreds of DSPs and encourages new delivery start-ups, promising that they can get to work within weeks and make up to $300,000 per year. “Logistics experience not required,” the company states on its website. Amazon has also tested several other systems for package delivery, from using the U.S. Postal Service, private competitors like UPS and FedEx, or an Uber-like system called Amazon Flex, where individuals sign up to deliver packages with their own cars.

None of these involve employees of Amazon, and all have come under scrutiny. Postal workers have complained about onerous package loads and weekend deliveries. Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan sued Amazon in 2016 for failing to ensure that Amazon Flex workers earn the minimum wage after accounting for vehicle and maintenance costs, as well as not paying overtime. The case remains pending.

The third-party hustle

Since the $15 wage announcement, Amazon has been criticized for offsetting the pay increase by removing stock awards and bonuses. Others have characterized the wage hike as a way to avoid unionization at Whole Foods, or an impetus to eliminate workers through automation. But the third-party hustle is a far more efficient way to avoid raising wages, while pushing off liability for labor practices to other companies.

The plaintiffs in the TL Transportation case have named Amazon as a defendant, arguing that the company “control[s] the work activities, condition, and management” of the DSPs and their employees. But this bumps up against the “joint employer” standard set by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under Obama, whereby companies are jointly liable for labor law violations by their franchisees, suppliers or contractors if they have indirect influence over the terms of employment.

Trump’s National Labor Relations Board has proposed narrowing the joint employer definition to companies that exercise “substantial, direct and immediate control” over hiring, firing, discipline and supervision. That would still seem to apply to Amazon, but it’s a close call. And courts typically follow the NLRB, which under Trump isn’t exactly worker-friendly.

If the courts agree that Amazon is not a joint employer, it would have a path to keep tens of thousands of delivery workers outsourced and removed from its new wage standards, without sacrificing the significant publicity benefits of the announcement. It’s good work if you can get it.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Dayen is an investigative fellow with In These Times‘ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraudwon the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

Today Amazon, Tomorrow the Railroad Industry: The Fight for $15 Rolls On

Monday, October 1st, 2018

After being called out by labor activists and progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders for paying poverty wages despite receiving tax breaks and raking in billions of dollars, Amazon has caved to the pressure and announced it will offer all its workers a $15-per-hour minimum wage starting next month. Now, a new coalition of workers and community leaders is taking aim at another major player in the logistics industry: the railroads.

Class I railroads like CSX, Norfolk Southern and BNSF benefit from billions in taxpayer subsidies and are reporting high profits. Yet the people who transport their rail crews between trains, cities, hotels and homes are paid low wages and receive few benefits. To keep costs down and evade liability, the railroads use subcontractors like Hallcon and Professional Transportation Inc. (PTI) to hire their crew drivers.

On September 27, several dozen rail crew drivers with the United Electrical Workers (UE), United Steelworkers (USW), Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and United Public Services Employees Union (UPSEU) protested outside a conference of railroad executives in downtown Chicago. The drivers and community allies are calling on the Class I railroads to implement responsible contractor policies to make companies like Hallcon and PTI pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage and offer decent benefits.

“We’re dedicated drivers out here,” said Devin Ragland, a PTI driver with USW District 7. “It’s not fair that we’re out here from sundown to sunup, running these crews back and forth where they need to go, and then we get mistreated when it comes time for pay.”

Ragland and the other drivers were joined by Cook County Commissioner and congressional candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who called for an “end to the poverty wages in the rail yards.”

“I join your voices in saying to these railroad companies that they should adopt responsible contractor policies to ensure that the prosperity that they are experiencing is shared with all of the workers in the industry,” Garcia told the drivers.

UE, USW, SMART and UPSEU represent crew drivers from coast to coast. UE has been organizing Hallcon drivers nationwide for the past several years, recently winning a union election at the company that added 650 more drivers from 8 states into the union’s ranks, bringing the total number of UE-represented drivers at the company to nearly 1,700. 

“Everywhere we go at Hallcon, people are at minimum wage or just above,” UE International Representative J Burger told In These Times.  Drivers say they earn so little that many are forced to rely on public assistance.

UE is currently negotiating a new master contract at Hallcon. Burger said the company is resisting demands for living wages, instead arguing that drivers should only get a one-time bonus or miniscule raises of between 15 to 20 cents per year.

“I’ve been told we were offered 21 cents. I can’t make a phone call with 21 cents,” driver and UE member Vickie Bogovich said on September 27. “Is that all I’m worth? I don’t think so.”

“They’re offering us pennies and we need dollars,” added Clarence Hill, a Hallcon driver who serves as Chief Steward of UE Local 1177. Hill said he is paid only $12 an hour after 8 years on the job.

The drivers are on-call at all hours of the day, required to hop in a company van at a moment’s notice to shuttle a rail crew from one location to another. Frequently, they wait hours at a time before finally getting a call. After one trip, they often have to wait several more hours for the next call, sometimes stretching their work day to 24 hours or more. Drivers are only paid for their driving time, not for the hours they spend waiting.

Burger noted this “stretch out” is not only unfair to drivers, but it also endangers the rail crews they transport, putting them at the mercy of fatigued drivers operating on little to no sleep. In contract talks, UE is fighting for on-call pay and more compact hours when the company is unable to put drivers to work. 

Additionally, the union is demanding improved benefits, including paid time off and affordable health insurance. “We’re trying to make the job something people can actually live by,” Burger told In These Times.

UE’s current contract at Hallcon was originally set to expire in August, but has been extended to October 21. Meanwhile, USW, SMART and UPSEU—which represent drivers at both Hallcon and PTI—will also see some of their current contracts expire later this fall, setting up the potential for a nationwide strike that could disrupt retail freight in time for the busy holiday shopping season.

The unions have been increasingly coordinating efforts over the past year, trying to “have a united front approach,” Burger explained. “We’re all talking about raising the standards in the industry. We’re united for the betterment of the drivers.” 

In addition to Chuy Garcia, the drivers also have the solidarity of the rail crews they shuttle. Other union workers in the railroad industry—including from the Brotherhood of the Maintenance and Way Employees and the Chicago All Rail Craft Coalition—joined Thursday’s protest.

“The labor movement was built on the simple concept that an injury to one is an injury to all,” Mark Burrows of Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers from across North America, told the drivers. “We’re doing all that we can to educate our coworkers and get them behind this struggle.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

Amazon delivery drivers report wage theft and other abuses

Friday, September 14th, 2018

Amazon’s labor practices, from its warehouses to its corporate offices, are terrible—and of course its delivery workers don’t have it any better. Many of Amazon’s packages are delivered by third-party courier companies and drivers face a range of abuses, from wage theft to being pressured into risky behaviors to deliver packages on time, Business Insider reports based on interviews with 31 current or former drivers at 14 of the companies:

Four drivers across three companies said their employers misrepresented the job by promising health benefits without following through. One worker said that when he started his job, his employer promised that he would get health benefits within 90 days of employment. He said he was fired within days of qualifying.

Eight workers across four companies said drivers were denied overtime pay, despite working well over 40 hours a week. Thirteen workers across five companies complained about wages missing from paychecks.

Workers reported being pressured to be on the job on their days off, to work through injury, to ignore stop signs if they were running late, and being fired for challenging illegal practices.

Amazon, of course, says these are contractors and Amazon is trying to work with them to do the right thing, and so on and so forth. But plausible deniability is a key reason companies like Amazon do so much outsourcing of work, and the deniability is that much less plausible coming from a company with Amazon’s labor record in other areas of its business.

Generally speaking, if a giant corporation really really cares about something, its contractors get the message … and if it doesn’t care so much, well, this is what you get. There is one way Amazon can push back against coverage like this: by improving its practices and those of its contractors.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos Labor on September 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. 

Walmart patents technology to eavesdrop on workers

Monday, July 16th, 2018

Walmart has just patented surveillance technology which would allow it to eavesdrop on worker’s conversations and help monitor them to ensure they meet the company’s “performance metrics.”

The “Listening to the Frontend” system would collect audio data from the stores’ cashier areas, allowing it to pick up everything from beeps to conversations with customers to, potentially, conversations between workers.  It would then analyse the sounds to ensure the employee is working efficiently — and help Walmart achieve “cost savings” and “guest satisfaction.”

“We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers,” a Walmart spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, who first reported the story. “We don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”

It’s unclear when, or even if, Walmart will ever actually introduce this technology. But it is another example of how corporate giants are using technology in an attempt to track and control their workers — despite evidence showing that excess surveillance makes workers feel nervous and actually ends up slowing them down.

Amazon — whose profits topped $3 billion in 2017 — recently patented wristbandswhich can precisely track where its warehouse workers are, and point them in the right direction via vibration. In 2013, the Financial Times also documented how Amazon workers’ personal sat-navs set target times for them to shelve packages, and reports them to management if they’re behind schedule.

The surveillance isn’t just relegated to Amazon’s warehouses either. A 2015 New York Times story documented a similar Big Brother-esque atmosphere at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle. In a rare internal email, CEO Jeff Bezos pushed back on the article, saying it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

Uber’s instant rating system is similarly stressful on workers, punishing drivers who fall bellow a 4.6.

Unsurprisingly, being constantly tracked and asked to meet robot-like targets is having a devastating effect on workers. The British GMB trade union previously warned that the kinds of “regimes” Amazon employers worked under were causing them to have musculoskeletal problems as well as stress and anxiety.

“It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh,” Elly Baker, GMB’s lead officer for Amazon, said. “You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Narratively.

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