A ‘prime opportunity’ for workers, communities to take on Amazon

Workers at Amazon’s Shakopee facility went on strike in July 2019.

By Kristi Wright and Peter Rachleff, East Side Freedom Library

Half a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 190,000 Americans have lost their lives, tens of millions are unemployed or underemployed and many small businesses have closed permanently. While working people have struggled, major corporations like Amazon have consolidated power, posting record profits as they expand operations. The company has intensified the exploitation of its growing workforce, breaking promises to provide hazard pay and bonuses to workers risking their health and safety.

A century ago, farmer, labor and community activists used an octopus to depict the ways that they saw capitalist greed grasping for control over social, economic and political life. Today, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate metaphor for Amazon.

Yet the breadth of Amazon’s reach makes possible intersectional and international alliances. In honor of Labor Day, the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul hosted “Labor Day Ain’t No Picnic,” a conversation among a group of activists using research, social media, art and on-the-ground organizing to rein in the modern-day octopus. They detailed Amazon’s tightening grip on workers, e-commerce, cloud computing, public policy and more, as well as what we can do about it. (Watch the full discussion here.)

Speakers included Tyler Hamilton, a worker at the Amazon warehouse in Shakopee who has ties to the Awood Center, an East African worker center; Dania Rajendra, director of Athena, a coalition of over 50 nonprofits taking on Amazon; Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit dedicated to building economic and political power for local communities; and Sue Zumberge, owner of Subtext Books, an independent bookstore in St. Paul. Funds raised from the event were split between ESFL and the Education Minnesota Foundation School and Child Care Worker Relief Fund.

A trillion-dollar company, Amazon is massive. Rajendra explained that it directly employs 850,000 workers, and relies on an additional 75,000 subcontracted workers to fulfill its signature one- and two-day shipping. It dominates the e-commerce space, with more than two-thirds of online shoppers starting their search at Amazon, and more than half of American families subscribing to Amazon Prime. The company acquired grocery chain Whole Foods in 2017. Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s main revenue driver, provides cloud computing and storage for nearly half of the web, including such household names as Zoom, Netflix and Slack. Lesser known are Amazon’s partnerships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the CIA and local law-enforcement agencies. CEO Jeff Bezos, with a net worth of $192.1 billion, is the world’s richest person.

At Amazon warehouses, where home delivery orders are tracked and packed, workers face grueling conditions. Held to superhuman productivity standards, they are pressured to “make rate” of up to 400 packages per hour, or risk being written up or fired. The system treats workers as machines, Hamilton said, and is not designed to include them in a decision-making process dominated by executives and shareholders. If a worker speaks up as an individual, the company’s resources are mobilized to silence them, which is why collective action is necessary to win change. Hamilton recounted how in March 2019, at the 2,500-worker warehouse in Shakopee, managers announced higher rates, cuts to support roles and an increase in low-paid temp positions. Objections raised by workers through official channels were ignored. Fed up, a group of mostly East African workers partnered with the Awood Center in Minneapolis to organize a three-hour walkout. Proclaiming “we are humans, not robots,” they rallied for safe jobs, respect from managers and a voice in the workplace. Since then, the Awood Center has continued to organize strikes and protests at the warehouse.

Small businesses have also been hurt by Amazon’s near-monopoly. Zumberge, owner of Subtext Books, explained how bookstores were the first target of the octopus. In 2007, she testified at the Minnesota Legislature about Amazon’s evasion of state sales taxes. As the company has grown, more customers use her bookstore as a showroom for Amazon, scanning barcodes to look for a lower price on the app.

To be sure, the web, e-commerce and home delivery have been a great convenience during the pandemic. Rather than conflate opposition to Amazon with opposition to these services, Mitchell urged communities to imagine ways to provide them by democratic means. Putting the company in historical context, she described how the weakening of labor and antitrust laws over the last several decades has led to an immense concentration of corporate power, allowing large businesses like Amazon to hold down wages, defeat unions, crush small businesses, enforce racial hierarchy and capture the political process. With its e-commerce, shipping, and cloud computing services, it controls important economic infrastructure. How could we build a system that better serves our community?

It is nearly impossible to avoid Amazon completely, speakers acknowledged. They urged supporters not to feel guilty for using Amazon, but rather to engage in collective action. Donate to labor and community organizations that are taking on Amazon, and show up to support picketing workers. Vote for policymakers that will pass pro-labor and pro-worker legislation, break up monopolies and strengthen safety protections. Avoid ordering heavy, bulky items that are hard on warehouse workers’ bodies. Shop at local businesses offering curbside pickup and delivery. And donate to organizations like ESFL that provide a forum for learning about these issues and their history.

In the present crisis, issues of corporate power have become all the more pressing. As we grow increasingly dependent on economic infrastructure controlled by capitalist greed, it may seem difficult to envision anything different. A century ago, farmer, labor and community activists taught us that even when the octopus seems unbeatable, victory is possible if the working class fights together. Whether it be through research, social media, art or on-the-ground organizing, we too have the power to transform our world. A better world is possible, and we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

– Kristi Wright is labor liaison for the East Side Freedom Library. Peter Rachleff is the ESFL’s co-executive director.

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