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‘Beat the machine’: Amazon warehouse workers strike to protest inhumane conditions

‘Beat the machine’: Amazon warehouse workers strike to protest inhumane conditions

Ahead of the strike, an effort had been made to decorate the fulfillment center in Shakopee for Prime Day. There were silvered balloons spelling out MSP1, the name of the warehouse, visible through the glass visitor’s window in the lobby, and walls of smiling Amazon boxes festooned with Prime Day banners. Also in the window: a large, smiling man in a blazer, some sort of security person, but it was hard to say because his ID tag was tucked out of sight in his armpit. Above the turnstiles was written: Work Hard. Have fun. Make History. That sign was permanent.

The week before, the Shakopee workers had announced their intention to strike on the first day of Prime Day, which this year lasts two days. It would be the first work stoppage at a US facility during a peak shopping time, the most ambitious in an escalating series of actions at the Shakopee fulfillment center.

Shortly before 2PM, when the day-shift workers planned to walk out, Hibaq Mohamed and several other workers came into the lobby. Twenty-six years old, Mohamed is originally from Somalia but emigrated to Kenya, then won a visa lottery to come to the US three years ago. Her first job in the country was at Amazon. At first she liked it, but the pace of work had increased to grueling levels, and more and more workers were getting fired for not keeping up.

Supporters hold signs during a rally and protest outside of the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Prime Day in Shakopee, Minn.

“I’m new in the country, and I know we have rights,” she told me over the phone earlier. “That’s what America does: it makes things better, and if I see something isn’t right, and not fair, I just decided to become a strong person, and that I have the right to speak up.”

As workers began filing through the turnstiles, Mohamed gave them high-fives, shouting their names and words of encouragement.

It was hard to see past the walls of Amazon boxes onto the factory floor, but you could hear the oceanic roar of thousands of goods moving. An Amazon spokesperson, Ashley Robinson, met me just past the turnstiles.

“It’s Prime Day. It’s high visibility, so we know that our critics — unions and politicians — are going to use it to raise their visibility, and we know from a business perspective, it works to the union’s favor because it will also increase their union dues,” she said. “There’s a business case to be made there.”

(Amazon has opposedefforts by its workers to form a union, and the striking workers are not represented by one, though some representatives of the Teamsters and other unions had shown up in support.)

“It’s very hot,” Robinson said. “It will be interesting to see how many people hang out out there.”

She handed me a printout of Amazon’s position, which also accused the protesters of using Prime Day to increase membership dues. The protestors were “conjuring misinformation,” the statement said, and claimed that anyone attending the event was uninformed. “We already offer the things they purport to be their cause — industry-leading pay starting at $15 per hour, benefits, and a safe workplace for our employees,” the statement read.

Back in the lobby, many of the workers had left and been replaced by police and Amazon employees with fluorescent vests that read “Loss Prevention.” Later I would learn that Mohamed and the others had been told to leave the property and gather on the public sidewalk on the other side of the parking lot. Two Loss Prevention people said I needed to do the same. When I tried to wait for the photographer I was working with, who was still somewhere inside, they insisted with increasing firmness that I needed to leave, and they would escort him out, too. The rushed show-and-tell period was over.

“As a member of the media I’m going to ask you to come this way with me,” one said.

Later, an employee sent me a photo of 15 police officers and managers lined up in front of the entrance to the facility. Several workers described the mood as “hostile.”

Amazon workers, including Hibaq Mohamed (center), and their supporters protest outside of the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Prime Day in Shakopee, Minn.

As I was leaving, a former Amazon employee wearing two wrist protectors started asking the gathering crew why workers inside were being told the strike would be deducted from their unpaid time off. Workers say they are given 20 hours of unpaid time off per quarter, the equivalent of about two shifts, after which they lose their jobs. In an email, Amazon confirmed that it was their policy to deduct the walkout from unpaid time off, but did not respond to a question about whether workers lose their jobs for exceeding the limit.

Awood, the East African workers’ advocacy group that has been helping organize the strike, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this month over the policy. Reached via email, Ken Jacobs, the chair of the Labor Center at UC Berkeley, said the policy sounded like retaliation for protected concerted activity.

“Everybody who’s organized in this strike, their [unpaid time off] is protected, under federal law. It should be protected,” said Kim Hatfield, before she too was escorted off the property. “These people are scared to do anything because you can get fired right here, if you go zero.”

Hatfield never worked in the Shakopee warehouse. She was actually from Texas, and had flown into Minneapolis that morning to attend the strike. She said she’d lost her job after getting a repetitive stress injury opening “thousands of boxes a night” at a fulfillment center in Haslet, and had been unable to get workers compensation. Workers at her center were afraid to visit Amazon’s in-house clinic because it was seen as “the first step out the door.” The official name for her fulfillment center was DFW7, she said, but everyone called it “the meat grinder.”

Robots move products in the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Prime Day in Shakopee, Minn., on Monday, July 15th, 2019.

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It’s true that Amazon pays its full-time fulfillment center employees at least $15 an hour, a change the company instituted in October after criticism from high-profile figures like Bernie Sanders, among others. The company also offers employees benefits, a 401K, and other amenities that make it, on paper, not a bad place to work. But pay and benefits are not the primary reason the Shakopee workers are striking. The problem, worker after worker said, is “the rate.”

Every task in Amazon’s fulfillment centers has a rate. Workers say the two most demanding jobs are “stow” and “pick.” When goods come into the fulfillment center, they’re unboxed and sent to stowers, who scan and place the goods onto the shelves carried by the orange Roomba-like robots that roll along the floor. That item is now in stock.

When an item is ordered, a robot rolls a shelf up to a “picker,” who grabs it, scans it, and puts it on a conveyor belt to be packaged and sent out. Depending on their station, workers are shown a range of graphics displaying whether they’re meeting their rate or falling behind. Some are shown the amount of time they’ve been working and the number of items they’ve scanned, along with a moving average, which drops if you take time to go to the bathroom or have a problem with your workstation. Others are shown a graph that rises and falls, and that turns green, yellow, or red depending on how fast they’re working.

“You have to beat the machine,” said Faizal Dualeh, a Somali immigrant who worked at the facility as a temporary employee for three months. “It’s like a nightmare, all these machines telling you your rate is down.”

If a worker falls behind, they receive a warning. Multiple workers in Shakopee said it was common for workers to be fired on their fourth warning, and that the process felt automatic, with managers deferring to the software.

”Oh, we didn’t fire you, the machine fired you because you are lower than the rate,” Dualeh said, recounting the process.

Robinson, the Amazon spokesperson, said there was “no three strikes you’re out” rule, and that “it is a matter of conversations” managers have with workers. Employees said the conversations are often cursory at best, often amounting to exhortations to work faster. Documents previously obtained by The Verge found that Amazon fired roughly 300 employees over the course of a year at a Baltimore fulfillment center for failing to meet productivity quotas, representing more than 10 percent of the workforce.

When Mohamed started working at the Shakopee fulfillment center three years ago, her rate in stow was 120 items per hour. Now it’s around 280. Workers say they were once permitted one error per 1,000 items. Now they are allowed one error per 2,200. When they make an error, workers say they must work twice as fast to get their ratio back in good standing. Robinson said the rate is “supposed to set a cadence of expectation” and that the goal is to have someone processing an order every 10 to 20 seconds.

The pace, workers said, is unsustainable. They must constantly be moving, climbing on step ladders to retrieve or stow goods or stopping to grab them from low shelves, boxing and unboxing packages without pausing to rest.

“If you’re doing that much more work, that wears you down and tires you out and you’re far more likely to make mistakes,” said Tyler Hamilton, 22, who has worked at the facility for a year and a half. “You’re going to have poor quality. You’re more likely to get injured. People can move faster, but you’re more likely to throw out your back or something.”

“The Amazon experience is horrible,” said Mohamed. “We are like a machine, like robots. The rate keeps increasing and increasing and increasing.”

Mohamed struggles to sleep, worrying about what the rate tomorrow might be. She said she was injured during a “power hour,” a period when managers entice employees to work faster by gifting the most productive ones with Amazon gift cards and other rewards. Some exercise equipment fell on her legs, and she had difficulty bending her knees the next day. She told her manager that she wouldn’t be able to make rate because of her injury, and her manager said that would be acceptable. But the next week, she received a warning just the same. (After several weeks of effort, she was able to have the warning removed.)

The pressures of the rate are so intense, Mohamed and other workers said, that employees suffer from dehydration because they are afraid that if they drink too much water, then they’ll have to use the bathroom and their rate will drop.

Spencer Cox, an economic geography PhD candidate and activist, took a job at the Shakopee sortation center in 2016, and was shocked by the intensity of the work.

“Amazon essentially has developed factory-line technology for retail,” he said. The early 20th century saw manufacturing work reorganized around the assembly line, which set the pace for workers, each of whom endlessly repeated a single task in the production process. Amazon, Cox said, has managed to create something similar through its investments in automation and worker-monitoring technology. Instead of the speed of the factory line setting the pace of work, there’s the rate.

“Imagine taking all of the workers that were spread across the mall, and the downtown shopping center, and Main Street, closing all of that down, and concentrating them in a single building, and putting them on a factory line where every single second of the day is watched,” Cox said.

In economic terms, the result is a significant boost in worker productivity. In 2016, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that Amazon required about half the employees a traditional retailer needs per $10 million in sales. Stacy Mitchell, the institute’s director, said it appears that Amazon has employed even fewer workers relative to sales in the years since the study was conducted. This fits with a company-wide push toward increasing automation and efficiency after several years of rapid expansion and hiring. In the company’s earnings call last April, Brian Olsavsky, Amazon’s chief financial officer, touted the “really, really impressive gains and efficiencies in both the warehouses and also the data centers,” and announced that the company would now be pursuing ways to bring free two-day delivery down to one day.

But the advent of assembly-line manufacturing also saw intense fights between workers and management over the pace of work. “So it should be no surprise that, as the factory line moves into retail work, that one of the primary demands would be the de-intensification of that work,” Cox said.

While automation can alleviate some of the strain of physical labor, it’s often accompanied by an expectation that workers be more productive, said Beth Gutelius, the associate director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who studies how technology is implemented in warehouses. There’s an expectation that employees work at the pace of the robots, and the ability to precisely quantify their labor creates pressure to fill any gaps.

“It’s a question of how much can the human body take,” said Gutelius. “And I think that with warehouse workers, and Amazon workers in particular because productivity rates are high, this is where some of the real struggle is.”

“You’re a robot, because you’re working with a robot,” said Dualeh. “But we’re humans, not robots.”

By midafternoon, around a hundred workers and their supporters had gathered on the sidewalk. Some clustered under tents, seeking shade in the 90-degree heat, while others picketed on the street, chanting “Amazon, hear our voice,” and cheering whenever a semi truck honked in support and turned away.

The protests in Shakopee began in the East African Muslim community, which makes up a sizable chunk of the fulfillment center staff. When Amazon opened its fulfillment center in 2016, it recruited heavily from the Minneapolis neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, sometimes called Little Mogadishu. Amazon put up billboards in the neighborhood, and initially ran a direct bus service to its warehouse. That bus became the first opportunity to organize. Amazon cut funding for it in late 2017, and frustrated workers circulated a petition to bring it back.

Amazon didn’t bring back the bus, but the workers started pushing for other changes. By then they were aided by the Awood Center, a local nonprofit created in 2017 to advocate for East African workers. It’s backed by the Service Employees International Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group started hearing complaints from Amazon workers almost immediately after it was founded, and has helped workers craft their demands and organize protests and news conferences.

In 2018, Prime Day coincided with Ramadan, and workers were concerned that Amazon’s heavy and fast-paced workload would make it impossible to fast or pray. In May, workers at the Shakopee center handed out flyers urging their co-workers to wear blue, the color of the Somali flag, in solidarity. The day before the scheduled protest, a manager said on-site prayer rooms would be set up and the workers would have their quotas temporarily lowered.

“That was amazing, but it didn’t continue,” said Mohamed. The pressures of making rate were still too great. They could pray, but their rate would continue to drop as they did so, and they would have to work double afterward.

The workers protested in June, and again in December. Amazon representatives began meeting with Awood and Minnesota workers, and said it would make some small changes: requiring a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on firings related to rates, and having a manager meet with workers quarterly. The New York Times described it at the time as the first known case of workers getting Amazon management to negotiate in the US, though the company said the meetings were not negotiations, but a form of community engagement.

In any case, the concessions were insufficient for the workers, who say they continued to experience punishing workloads. By March, dissatisfaction at the warehouse began to spread. A group of night-shift workers decided to protest.

Hibaq Mohamed (center), an Amazon worker, speaks to the media during a protest outside of the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Prime Day in Shakopee, Minn.

Hamilton knew workers had been organizing and had won some small victories, but none of the actions had happened in his department while he was on. Under strain from the rate increases, Hamilton, Dualeh, and other workers reached out to the Awood Center and planned to walk off the job for three hours, starting at midnight.

As he was walking out, Dualeh said a manager intercepted him in the lobby and told him he was fired for low productivity. He believes it was in retaliation for organizing, and that he was singled out as one of the few temporary workers walking out. Earlier this month, Awood filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the fulfillment center’s staffing agency, Integrity Staffing Solutions.

During the walkout, workers convened at a nearby restaurant and drew up a list of demands on a legal pad, which Awood posted to Facebook. The top of the list was still the rate, followed by more support staff, an end to counting prayer and bathroom breaks against rate, more opportunities for promotion, and converting temporary workers to employees.

After the walkout, workers say Amazon representatives flew in to meet with them, but didn’t acquiesce to their demands. They started planning the Prime Day strike.

The workers had also begun making contact with allies outside of Minnesota. After last year’s protests, organizers in Europe, where unions are stronger and strikes on Prime Day and other peak shopping times are frequent, reached out to the Shakopee workers in support. (Several hundred workers in German fulfillment centers also went on strike yesterday, and there were protests in Spain and Poland.)

A portrait of Weston Fribley, a software engineer in Seattle, outside of the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Prime Day in Shakopee, Minn., on Monday, July 15th, 2019.

In February, Mohamed and members of Awood flew to Seattle, where they met engineers and tech workers in Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a group that has been pushing the company to stop using fossil fuels and aiding the oil and gas industry. Attendees said the meeting consisted of informal relationship-building and plans for future action were not discussed, but the groups stayed in contact over text. Before the Shakopee workers announced their strike, they reached out and asked if the tech workers would show solidarity. Three decided to fly out to attend, and over 100 others wrote letters of support.

“We see these two struggles as very much related,” said Weston Fribley, an Amazon software engineer. “Amazon employees often don’t have a say in the decisions that affect their work and their communities, or how their work is used.”

Tech workers, he said, are often atomized, and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their common goals. He found the Shakopee protests inspiring, seeing how a close-knit community banded together to push for change. “We’re here to let them know that Seattle is not just this ominous cloud that hangs over their work life, but that there are people there paying attention to what they’re doing and will stand with them and support them.”

Sahro Sharif speaks during a rally and protest outside of the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Prime Day in Shakopee, Minn.

At 4PM, workers, organizers, lawmakers, and supporters took to a stage that had been set up on the grass next to the sidewalk and began giving speeches.

Sahro Shariff, an Amazon worker, spoke about the punishing workloads and workers being stuck in temp status. “We are here because we are humans. We are not robots,” she said to cheers.

A worker named Meg Bradley spoke about getting injured on the job and denied workers compensation. Captain Michael Russo, a pilot with Atlas Air, one of Amazons’ contracted carriers, spoke in solidarity. Minnesota Representatives Brad Tabke and Aisha Gomez spoke, as did Fribley.

“We stand with you in this fight for dignity and fair treatment at work,” he said, before reading messages from other tech workers in Seattle.

Passing trucks continued to honk in support, eliciting cheers. Protesters, some red-faced from the sun, listened raptly or live-streamed the proceedings from their phone. Many felt their co-workers had been intimidated into staying behind in the fulfillment center by the heavy managerial and police presence and worries about overdrawing their time-off allowance, but they still felt the action had been a success. Amazon said only 15 workers walked off; the organizers say there were several dozen.

Then, just after the speeches had ended and night-shift workers were arriving to join the strike, the humidity that had been building all day finally broke and rain began to fall. The workers continued to picket, getting rapidly drenched. Others handed out flyers to workers driving home as the rain poured down. Suddenly phones started buzzing: A severe thunderstorm warning. Flash floods. Maybe a tornado.

The remaining workers clustered together under the tents. Worried about the storm, the organizers decided to send people home. An organizer with a bullhorn reminded people of the trucks that had turned away. People posed for pictures, too soaked to care about getting drenched further. Mohamed took the bullhorn briefly and said she was proud of everyone, and that they would keep fighting for change at Amazon. Everyone gave a final chant of “Yes we can” in Somali and headed for shelter.

Topic: #amazon
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