Prime time: Could coronavirus help Amazon workers unionise?

Employees of the online retail powerhouse organise with labour groups to demand more sick leave and safer conditions.

    Demonstrators calling for hazard pay and safer working conditions outside of an Amazon warehouse during the coronavirus outbreak in Staten Island, New York, the United States [File:Lucas Jackson/Reuters]
    Demonstrators calling for hazard pay and safer working conditions outside of an Amazon warehouse during the coronavirus outbreak in Staten Island, New York, the United States [File:Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

    Amazon.com Inc employees in the United States are seizing on the coronavirus crisis to demand the world's largest online retailer offer more paid sick time and safer working conditions and temporarily shut warehouses with infections for deep cleaning.

    Employees in at least 11 states - from New York to Minnesota - this year have voiced concerns and staged actions to highlight a variety of purported workplace deficiencies, allegations the company has denied.

    More:

    Supporting these Amazon workers are labour groups and unions eager to penetrate the Seattle-based behemoth after years of failed attempts to unionise its operations.

    Reuters news agency spoke with 16 unions and labour groups targeting Amazon, including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Newer worker advocacy groups like Athena and the Warehouse Workers for Justice are also critical of Amazon's business practices.

    But the legal hurdles to unionising the company's workplaces are steep. For now, many groups say, they are showing workers how to harness public opinion to shame Amazon into granting concessions. They are also helping workers create online petitions, connect with elected officials, contact media and file labour complaints with the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

    "We expect that there will be more push for unionization when we get to the other side of this," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU.

    Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said Amazon already offers what these groups are requesting: $15 per hour or more to start, health benefits and opportunities for career growth.

    "We encourage anyone interested in the facts to compare our overall pay and benefits, as well as our speed in managing this crisis, to other retailers and major employers across the country," she said.

    At least 800 workers in Amazon's 519 US distribution facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, based on internal company figures compiled by Jana Jumpp, an Amazon warehouse employee in Indiana, who shared the numbers with Reuters. Amazon sends text messages and automated calls to employees alerting them about positive cases in their facilities. Jumpp aggregates cases mentioned in messages sent to her by Amazon workers around the country.

    "We have no idea how many people are actually sick, not tested or out on quarantine," Jumpp said on a recent media call organised by Athena, the labour coalition.

    At least six Amazon workers have died of COVID-19, which the company confirmed publicly after each incident.

    Amazon's Lighty would not disclose to Reuters the total number of Amazon employees who have tested positive for coronavirus in the US. She said the company's efforts to quarantine infected workers are helping to slow the spread, and rates of infection "are at or below the communities we're operating in at almost all of our facilities." Lighty did not provide data to support that claim.

    Amazon "objects to the irresponsible actions of labour groups and others in spreading misinformation and making false claims about Amazon," she said, adding that the company will spend $800m in the first half of the year on COVID-19 safety measures.

    With shutdowns now battering Main Street and brick-and-mortar retail competitors, Amazon is poised to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger than ever. The company reported record first-quarter sales of $75.5bn, up 26 percent from the same period a year ago, as customers sheltering in place have relied on its services.

    Amazon had nearly 600,000 US employees in 2019, according to its latest annual report, making it one of the largest employers in the country.

    Over 33 million US workers have filed for unemployment benefits in recent weeks, strengthening the hand of employers at a time of mass unemployment. Still, some labour experts said coronavirus presents unions with their best shot in decades to make inroads at Amazon.

    Amazon worker
    A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest outside of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, the US [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

    "Justice issues and safety at work tend to be the most powerful arguments in organising," said Alex Colvin, a labour relations professor at Cornell University. "They're the strongest reason for workers to want representation."

    He said unions have resorted to public relations as a tool to pressure companies as worker protections such as "collective bargaining and employment rights enforcement have weakened"'.

    Fighting unions

    Amazon has resisted unionisation within its workforce since its founding in 1994. It defeated unionising efforts in Seattle in 2000 and in Delaware in 2014 by a wide margin.

    In recent weeks, it has fired at least four workers in three states who had publicly criticised the company and were involved in organising.

    Lighty said Amazon has "zero tolerance" for retaliation. These workers were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but for violating policies such as physical distancing, she said.

    Among those sacked was Emily Cunningham, a Seattle-based activist with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, who gained prominence for pushing the company to do more to fight global warming. She had recently circulated a petition calling for measures such as improved sick leave and urged all employees to agree on a day in April to call in sick to protest warehouse working conditions.

    "There is a lot of frustration on how Amazon is handling the issue of workplace safety," Cunningham said. She said she has been in touch with the AFL-CIO about the day for calling in sick, and a local affiliate of the union called MLK Labor has offered support to continue the fight on working conditions. MLK Labor confirmed it is working with employees that Amazon fired in Seattle.

    The AFL-CIO's secretary treasurer, Elizabeth Shuler, said the union is using the pandemic to galvanise Amazon workers at company headquarters and enlist support from elected officials. Amazon had over 53,000 employees in Seattle in 2019.

    "Amazon's back yard is Seattle, and that's a major focus for us in terms of how to take the energy, the courage, the activism that we are already seeing there and build that into a real movement," she said.

    Amazon's Lighty said the company has listened to complaints and implemented over 150 measures to keep workers safe. The company is also running television advertisements thanking warehouse workers. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in April showed up at a Texas distribution centre and met workers to show his support.

    New approach

    But a steady rise in the number of infections at warehouses has spurred more protests.

    Amazon worker Mario Crippen led an April 1 walkout at a Michigan warehouse to protest what he said was a lack of transparency from the company about the number of infections. He said about 40 workers participated in that action at the facility in Romulus, about 24 miles southwest of Detroit.

    Amazon disputed that figure, saying fewer than 15 people participated.

    Helping Crippen was labour non-profit United for Respect, which coached him on how to gain media attention without getting fired and use social media to gather more supporters. The group also offered legal help from attorneys if he was terminated.

    Crippen, 26, whose job is to stow products at the warehouse, told Reuters he felt as if "somebody had my back".

    He said at least 25 workers at the Romulus warehouse have tested positive for coronavirus, according to figures compiled by employees at the site. Crippen said some workers want the facility shut down for cleaning, and plan to continue protesting working conditions while exploring the idea of working closely with labour groups and unions in the future.

    Amazon spokeswoman Lighty did not comment about the Romulus protest, the number of cases at the site or the company's decision to not shut down the facility. She said Amazon's decision to handle the closure of a building for deep cleaning depends on several factors, including consulting with health authorities and medical experts.

    A spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity said the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) received employee complaints about the Romulus site and sent a letter to Amazon listing steps the company "could take to correct the hazards". She and MIOSHA would not provide more information.

    Lighty did not comment on the details in the letter.

    Some labour organisers are instructing workers on how to file such safety complaints. They are also using Facebook Live, Instagram posts, Telegram chats and WhatsApp messages to share other tactics with Amazon employees.

    At Whole Foods, an upscale supermarket chain owned by Amazon, several current and former employees have been using Telegram to rally co-workers across the country to agitate for expanded paid sick leave and temporary shutdown of stores with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

    "First step is to ask what will you do if our store is tested positive? Then form a committee. Plan actions. Document. Call the government," wrote one of the workers, who confirmed sending the message and discussed the strategy with Reuters on condition of anonymity.

    This worker and fellow organisers are collaborating with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and are working under the name Whole Worker's National Organizing Committee.

    UFCW President Marc Perrone said the union is currently not focusing on the traditional playbook of getting employees to sign cards and become members.

    "Right now ...it is about showing workers value and what we can do for them," he said.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency