From the March-April 2021 issue of News & Letters
Oakland, Calif.—On Feb. 20, in front of an Amazon-owned Whole Foods store, several dozen activists gathered as part of a national day of solidarity to support Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon workers struggling for union recognition. If successful, the Bessemer facility would be the first Amazon location to become unionized in the U.S. At least 50 other similar protests took place around the country.
ECONOMIC INEQUALITY, DEADLY CONDITIONS
There were lots of speeches and chants. Many focused on an astronomical inequality: Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, earns $35 million per hour, while the workers get $15 per hour for grueling, unsafe, stressful working conditions, forced to risk their lives during the pandemic.
Current and former Amazon workers who spoke condemned Amazon’s non-response to COVID-19. We heard that the San Leandro warehouse (just south of Oakland) was shut down by workers for a time because of the unsafe conditions, one of the many work actions on the shop floor demanding better safety on the job including COVID precautions.
Amazon’s hiring and profits exploded during the pandemic, as many shoppers stayed home for safety. Amazon had to take on a huge number of new-hires, yet their primary focus to meet the increased demand is through speed-ups, which break workers’ bodies through heavy, repetitive motions.
AMAZON’S EXPLOITATION IS WORLDWIDE
Rank-and-file workers have been self-organizing and initiating workplace actions through internet groups in a nationwide ferment caused by horrid working conditions. At issue worldwide is Amazon’s ongoing mental and physical brutalization of workers being forced to work alongside robots and meet their pace. They either meet the ever-increasing speed-up or lose their job (see “Amazon workers organize cross-border solidarity,” News & Letters, July-August 2019).
Workers are fired for the flimsiest excuses, especially to ward off unionization. One worker/union organizer told us that when his friend asked for parental leave, his request was denied because he was one week short of completing his probationary period. He appealed, and the leave was granted. After he took the leave and he returned to work, his leave was rescinded and he was fired for absenteeism. There was no doubt in his mind, however, that he was fired for befriending a union organizer.
The Bessemer facility, just outside of Birmingham, has a primarily Black population in an industrial area where Black workers have a long history of struggling for human dignity in life and in the workplace. The Amazon workers contacted the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union over the brutal pace of work and stress on their job.
Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, said that Black Lives Matter also influenced the union drive, saying, “They were fed up with how they were being treated, their basic humanity” (see “Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening,” The New York Times, Feb. 18, 2021).
At our protest Nube Brown, a prisoner human rights activist and co-editor of the San Francisco Bay View, saw cheap labor as a continuity with slavery and the struggle for human dignity. A News and Letters Committees speaker also pointed to this human content in the unionization struggle and in the multiple actions against Amazon’s roboticized anti-human workplace.
—Bay Area Marxist-Humanists