This Black Friday, read an interview with Amazonians United on how their petition for clean drinking water became a movement.
This interview, extracted from the book The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, was conducted via email on April 19, 2020 by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese with ten Amazon warehouse workers from Chicago, Illinois. All of the workers featured in this interview are core members of DCH1 Amazonians United.
‘This chapter was conducted in the same way we confront our bosses: collectively. We wrote this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the beginning of our international anti-retaliation campaign against Amazon. Our ancestors descend from five continents and yet we met through the process of building our union while waging struggle within the belly of the largest capitalist beast. We honor the legacy of those who came before us by organizing within Amazon and in the process rebuilding an international labor movement.’ – DCH1 Amazonians United
Interviewers: What is Amazonians United and when did it start?
Response #1: Amazonians United is an organizing worker-based movement, fighting for workers’ rights, and improvement of working conditions in our workplaces. We started in 2019 after we won our first organized action: the water demand. Those of us who participated realized the power we had as workers.
Response #2: Amazonians United is a movement of workers organizing to protect ourselves, democratize our workplaces, and advance the interests of all working people.
Response #3: Six of us came together in April of 2019 because we were fed up with so many things at Amazon. Our pay was low, we were talked to like children, we didn’t have health insurance. DCH1 was filthy and we didn’t have regular access to clean water. The water issue was actually not the issue we were most pissed about, but it was the most ridiculous issue and the one we thought most coworkers would support. The issue is that the 5-gallon water stations were often left open to the dusty air without a 5-gallon water jug. They were never cleaned, there were never any cups, and there was only one water fountain that was either broken or had the “replace the filter” light on. We decided to do a petition about it … Doing an online petition was good because then we got our coworkers’ phone numbers or became Facebook friends, but only about 30 co-workers actually signed it … We were nervous about going around the break room collecting signatures, but got over our nervousness once we started talking with co-workers because they all agreed and would talk about how ridiculous it is that we have to do a petition to get some water. It took us a few weeks to get to 150 signatures, but that felt like a good number so we decided to turn it in. We decided that we would type out all the petition signatures into a Word document and print it out with our demands at the top so that we could keep the original petition sheets. We decided to turn the petition in during stand-up, which is the time when every worker, about 120 on that day, is circled around the manager which is leading us in stretches, telling us we need to get our scan rates up, and asking questions like “what’s the safety tip?” and “what’s the standard work tip?”
We went in having decided that one person would turn the petition in, and multiple others would vocalize their support in some kind of way. When the manager asked for a safety tip, the designated person spoke up and said “I have a safety tip. In fact 150 of us do. We need water! And we have our petition right here.” The manager said: “I’ll take care of it,” then another co-worker said, “When are you going to take care of it? We need it now,” and the manager exclaimed “I’ll take it care of it right away.” The manager tried to move on to another subject, the “standard work tip” and a co-worker raised his hand and said: “My standard work tip is we need water.” The manager, exasperated, said “I’ll take care of it right away.” He quickly ended stand-up and was frantically texting someone and flipping through the petition signatures. Then, within two hours, Ambassadors (which acted like supervisors even though they’re Tier 1 workers like everyone else) came around giving everyone bottled water which the manager had gone out to buy from the local grocery store. It had never felt so good to drink water! And everyone saw that when we do something together we can make things happen. After this, six of us (there were some new co-workers that showed up and some that didn’t show up) met up again to talk about how things had gone and we decided that we needed to address other issues. But we figured that we should name ourselves … that was how DCH1 Amazonians United was born.
Interviewers: Can you describe the working conditions at DCH1?
Response #1: In general, Amazon’s working conditions are like most other jobs. If you’re good at your job, most management and associates who think they can, move up, if they “yes, man it up.” They will try to work you into the ground without giving you anything of value in return. Favoritism is rampant. Management spreads misinformation as well as targets co-workers and the most prevalent issue is general incompetence on management’s part. Currently, the biggest issue is the lack of care for human life [by] the management (the lives of our fellow co-workers, the lives of our drivers, and the lives of innocent customers) via an unclean facility, improper distancing, and withholding of coronavirus cases within said facility.
Response #2: Since my first day, I was able to tell how much professionalism and organizational skills some leads and managers lack. From cursing with employees to playing favorites. The warehouse itself needs to be more organized physically and with more adequate managers.
Response #3: The working conditions at DCH1 can be quite harsh. It’s warehouse work that requires intense physical labor, extended hours on your feet, and working in close contact with others. Also the work culture is far from being professional … A large number of those in management and people who aspire to become management seem to lack professionalism in dealing with issues at the job. I have witnessed a learning Ambassador cursing out an employee because the woman moved her cart because it was in the way … Even I had an experience with an Ambassador in my early days at the company. I was still learning the job. I had been sent to an area for an advanced worker to handle. She did get me some help, but the matter in which she told me to hurry up, I felt disrespected and felt the problem could have been handled better.
Response #4: Working too close even before the pandemic. During pick and stage it can be up to seven people in a cell picking. Some cells … need to be reset to allow more space in them. With several workers, bags, and boxes, it’s really tight.
Response #5: During or before the [COVID-19] pandemic? Because before the pandemic was even here, we fought for PTO [Paid Time Off] at the time and that was I believe during peak season. The warehouse was already falling apart. There was a lot of things not being handled like not having enough working scanners for stowers, issues with the boxes coming down the conveyor belts because of unknown leakages that stopped them from coming down, actual leakages from the ceiling parts of the warehouse during and also after it rained/snowed, etc. … There’s still a lot of toxic management from Peak season there to make our lives a living hell.
Response #6: One of the main ongoing issues that I’ve noticed also is the amount of VTO [Voluntary Time Off] they give out before the shift has even started. When that happens, the people that do show up to work get swamped with having to work at a faster pace to cover being short staffed and later on in the night having to do another job assignment because of the same reason of not having enough people. Another issue is the whole conversion process from a white badge to a blue badge (temporary to permanent employee). They keep giving the runaround on when this conversion will be possible.
Response #7: I’ve seen plenty of co-workers face issues with co-workers on the same level as them with the fear of management taking the wrong side based on favoritism. I think the biggest issue in our facility is our site leader; under his care this culture of favoritism, targeting, and incompetence has festered … He targets any associates trying to fight for their rights, care for themselves or their co-workers, and most recently, the safety of the general public. He incompetently handles associates fighting for what’s rightfully theirs. He does this by lying to us for what we’re entitled to, withholding information, or when all else fails, by threatening us, while stating we’re more than welcome to take his statements as threats.
Interviewers: Describe the workforce at DCH1
Response #1: The workforce at DCH1 is majority African American and Hispanic/Latino. The age of employees here range from early 20s and we have employees that are as old as their early 70s.
Response #2: At DCH1 there’s a variety with [sic] race, age, gender and sexual preferences.
Interviewers: What are some of the things Amazon workers can do to improve their working conditions?
Response #1: Get together with their co-workers, have conversations about what needs to change at work, and fight together against the management to get those needs fulfilled. Fighting can look like signing and presenting petitions to management, coordinating and agreeing not to work at unsafe rates, walking out, striking, and much more. A lot of good ideas can come from just getting together with your co-workers and talking about what to do.
Response #2: Standing together as a unit is the only way to improve our work conditions. For some reason there’s a bevy of associates who don’t realize that without them Amazon would lose a facility. Without us, the richest man in the world would be out of his riches. As such we should show him what we’re capable of beyond our stow rates.
Interviewers: What have you won so far and how?
Response #1: So far, we’ve won:
- Clean drinking water
- Pay when the warehouse was too hot to work in safely
- Pay when the lights went off in the warehouse
- Pay when the volume of goods was too low and management tried to force people to take unpaid time off
- Paid time off (PTO) for every part-time worker in the U.S.
- Some COVID-19 safety measures like masks and cleaning supplies (not adequate though)
- Full-time jobs
- Health care
- Retraining Ambassadors
- Changed disrespectful behavior from managers
We won these things by talking with our co-workers; building relationships, community, and unity; coming together on issues using petitions; taking action; marching on our bosses, and going on strike.
Interviewers: What do you think is the key to building worker power at Amazon?
Response #1: The key is building a team of solid people at every Amazon facility that gets together, talks regularly through some sort of messaging app, has meetings in person and/or virtually, talks about workplace issues together, decides on what the biggest issue is that would resonate with the most people, writes out a demand together with the small crew, and makes a plan for taking action on that demand in a way that involves other co-workers and in a way that seems reasonable to other co-workers. Most important is that our co-workers see what we’re doing and agree that we’re in the right. It’s key to not seem like crazy unreasonable people, because if you do, then co-workers won’t support you and the boss can divide and conquer your teams until it’s destroyed. These teams usually start small, and with solid people … It takes consistency and perseverance … Once these Amazonians United teams form, they connect with Amazonians United at other Amazon sites and continue growing the movement together ….
Response #2: Standing strong in our convictions, management will attempt to divide whenever possible. However, supporting our own facility as well as others across the globe will prove our wins are consistent. It starts at our own facilities, being educated on our rights and standing strong together.
Interviewers: What are some of the biggest challenges you and your fellow workers face? What have you done to try to overcome those challenges?
Response #1: What makes this tough is the constant nitpicking and nagging the management engages within the warehouse. Throughout the entire shift, we have this sense of paranoia and urgency combined. I feel like I’ve done my best by maintaining a solidarity standpoint and mutual acquaintanceship among some of my co-workers on my shift. We work together to get through our shifts.
Response #2: Most in charge don’t care for our well-being, the well-being of drivers/cleaners or our customers. During this pandemic, we’ve been shown a management that claims to care, prefers their paycheck versus our safety or the safety of others.
Response #3: Our biggest challenges are capitalism, structural racism, and the resulting poverty that denies our freedom of self-determination including our freedom to control our own lives, bodies, and labor. To overcome these challenges, we have built community and solidarity with our co-workers to organize and build our power to transform our workplace and society.
Response #4: Management constantly tries to individualize and atomize us, to keep us weak, divided, and at each other’s throats. We counter these efforts by management by getting more organized, extending solidarity to co-workers who are mistreated, explaining that we share common interests as opposed to management’s interests. Management is tyrannical and highly organized. We need to be democratic and highly organized to counter them.
Response #5: Amazon manages us through stress. They individualize us, put us at odds with each other, and do everything they can to prevent us from socializing. We do everything we can to build community. For several months, we were organizing a potluck during lunch every Monday. Sharing food does a lot to build community! We make an effort to look our co-workers in the eye and have real conversation, laugh at management’s ridiculousness with our co-workers, seek to understand who our co-workers really are, share ourselves with our co-workers, and build meaningful bonds of trust and friendship. We give each other rides, throw kickbacks, go bowling, go to marches, create group texts, form Facebook groups, organize cookouts and sometimes just hang out to talk about whatever is on our mind. We overcome management’s structural attempts to divide us by building community between us, and it’s fun!
Interviewers: Can Amazonians United help lay the foundation to finally unionize Amazon in the United States or beyond?
Response #1: Yes, and we’re working hard to form a worker-run organization in the United States. We also know that there are workers outside of Amazon who are interested in the types of struggles and victories that we’ve had, and hope to engage them as well. Beyond our borders, we know that Amazon workers have already been organizing and taking action together and we have been working with them to form an international organization of workers.
Response #2: Our workplace organizing committees are the foundation, and Amazonians United is our union. Amazonians United is the organizational manifestation of our unity and collective struggle within and between Amazon workplaces. We don’t need the recognition of our bosses or government to be a union. We don’t need to file for a union election with the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] to be a union. We don’t need to have a collective bargaining agreement to be a union. We determine, through our solidarity, strategy, and action, if we are a union. We are a true union of workers, by workers, and for workers. We exercise our power to get what we need, and it works. We are unionizing Amazon every time a fellow worker decides to form a workplace organizing committee which drives issue campaigns with the broad support of their co-workers. That is Amazonians United.
Interviewers: All around the world, Amazon warehouse workers are resisting. In Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and all over the United States, Amazon’s warehouse workers are organizing for better wages and working conditions. How can workers build power across regions, cities, and borders to take on Amazon?
Response #1: In order to take on Amazon, we need to get together, build relationships, and coordinate with one another so that when workers in one region/state/country take action, workers elsewhere take action in solidarity with them. This is absolutely necessary because without that solidarity, Amazon will be able to break actions in any given area by rerouting goods through adjacent areas.
Response #2: As a team not just in our facilities but across the world, unified we have power that management could only hope to replicate.
Response #3: In March 2020, unknowingly flying into one of the centers of the pandemic, we joined Amazon workers in Spain for a transnational convening of workers from Poland, France, Germany, Spain and the U.S. As our plane was descending to the Madrid Airport, we learned that Trump was closing the borders of the U.S. to Europe. Already in Madrid and unable to return, we headed to our international convening and spent three days discussing how we can build international solidarity and organize coordinated campaigns. The situation in each of our countries is unique, because each has its own history and its own legal framework, but the soul-sucking experience of working at Amazon is largely the same. At this tenth international convening, we decided to name our rank-and-file network: Amazon Workers International. We build power by growing organizing committees with our co-workers at every workplace, and then connecting our struggles regionally, nationally, and internationally. It is through our joint struggles that we build solidarity, and it is through this international solidarity between all workers, Amazon and non-Amazon, that we can take on any boss.
Interviewers: How can those not working for Amazon best support the struggle of Amazon workers?
Response #1: Get a job at Amazon and start organizing together with us! Those not working for Amazon can best support the struggle of Amazon workers by keeping an eye out for opportunities to act in solidarity, like showing up to an action when a call is put out and following the lead of the workers; donating funds for workers (make sure that you’re actually donating to workers though); and finally, organizing with your co-workers and communities to build up strong, independent mass movements that can link up with ours. That last one is the most important because it’s hard to support our struggle unless you also have some organized power yourself. Business unions, NGOs, and politicians have all been unwilling to support workers where there aren’t easy dues for them to collect from us, wealthy donors that they can show us off to, or photo-ops for themselves. None of them are coming to save us. We’re all that we’ve got. Without mass movements, we will run into the limits of what is possible within the workplace and stagnate. With mass movements, together, we can create a better world for all of us, one in which the dignity of each and every human being is respected.
Contact DCH1 Amazonians United at: [email protected] / www. facebook.com/dch1united.
The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy is edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese, and is out now!
It is part of the Wildcat series, which includes books that uncover the radical militancy which characterises international workers struggles.