During the past year of global pandemic, business has been booming for Amazon with a 200 percent rise in profits and transformative increase in delivery infrastructure. Throughout the pandemic, its essential workers have carried out a series of organizing campaigns against a radically changing workplace, characterized by extreme conditions and massive profits stolen from workers. Last March workers at one warehouse in Chicago with Amazonians United won paid time off for all workers and have continued to organize around safety issues. Rampant spoke with one worker organizer about the current state of struggle and about the union drive of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama.
During the pandemic, Amazon has made record profits based on the hyper- exploitation of workers, working often in unsafe environments. Tell us a little about the conditions where you work for Amazon in Chicago.
Conditions have been weird at DCH1, where I work, since our safety strikes in April 2020. DCH1, Amazon’s first Chicago delivery station, reduced package volume by about 50 percent immediately after our safety strikes, and then reduced package volume by 50 percent in October. So the volume has been very low. VTO, voluntary time off, is offered every single day. It’s weird to say, but many nights there are three or four hours where we’re not even doing anything, where we’re just sitting around talking. There are many reasons for this, but clearly one of them is Amazon has been opening up many new delivery stations.
Amazon’s been running more volume through the new delivery stations and have, for some reason, kept our facility overstaffed. I think it’s all been part of a transition process to the new megacycle shift. Perhaps it’s also due to our safety strikes, because that’s when we saw the immediate decrease in the volume. And I think it is also to basically make us chill out because less work and more VTO available is basically like a release valve for people’s anger. A lot of times, if people are angry, if people get pissed off, they just take VTO. There’s so much VTO that we can take it days before our scheduled shift, minutes before our shift, even in the middle of our shift while we’re working. Many coworkers, if they’re feeling overworked or pissed at work due to some bullshit, will just say “fuck it,” take the VTO and go home. It’s really easy because all we have to do is go on our Amazon app and click “accept VTO.” The downside is that our paychecks take a serious hit.
Has the decrease in volume and the increase in VTO primarily had that release valve effect on anger, or do workers feel as though they won something and feel more emboldened and confident? What’s the mood like?
It’s changed over time. Immediately after the safety strikes there was fear and uncertainty because Amazon was retaliating against us. They gave some of our coworkers final written warnings, so we filed some unfair labor practice charges and started a petition against retaliation. We put a spotlight on Amazon’s retaliation and we weren’t backing down. We were standing firm and continuing to build support from our coworkers.
After some time and with the pandemic wearing on us, people were just going in and doing the little work that there was and then leaving. There wasn’t too much activity to be honest. But toward the end of summer a lot of rumors started circulating because DCH1 kept running, overstaffed, with so little work, every single day. Things just didn’t make sense.
The questions circulating were “Is DCH1 going to close? What’s gonna happen here?” We were asking those kinds of questions but weren’t getting any sort of response. Managers would just say, “Nothing’s happening. Everything’s just going along as normal.” Then came September, and Amazon offered us the opportunity to transfer to one of the three new delivery stations that they had just opened up. Not too many people transferred because the new delivery stations only had the megacycle shift as an option, which is a ten-hour shift from 1:20 am to 11:50 am. Our longest shift at DCH1 is the eight-hour overnight shift from 8:15 pm to 4:45 am; the rest are four-hour shifts. So the megacycle was a pretty big change. But then, just a few days after the “opportunity” to transfer, Amazon declared that all white badges have to transfer or they will be fired. White badges are considered seasonal workers, even though most of our coworkers with white badges at DCH1 had worked at Amazon for more than a year.
We were pissed and spoke up about it, but Amazon made this change very fast and we couldn’t do much about it. The rumors about DCH1 closing continued circulating because it was like, how can it continue to be like this, how can we continue coming to work, but there’s no work? What’s gonna happen? And then, on January 25, managers announced that DCH1 was being shut down, and we had to transfer to the megacycle. We were pissed.
It sounds as though there are large shifts in the workplace, with people being forced out, being forced to move to different positions, and general uncertainty. How much of that do you think amounts to conscious tactics by the bosses as retaliation for your PTO win?
I think that it plays some part, but the main reason for these changes is Amazon’s focus on expansion. Amazon evaluates risks and the threats but I don’t think unions or workers organizing and disrupting their logistics chain is Amazon’s primary concern. The biggest thing on their mind is expansion. They’re opening up delivery stations and fulfillment centers at a crazy pace. I don’t even know how many they’ve opened up in the Chicagoland area just this past year, I think it’s over ten, and they’re doing this in every city! Amazon is delivering the majority of their own packages now. Whereas when I started the majority of packages were delivered through USPS and UPS. It’s a major shift.
Can you elaborate a little bit on what the megacycle is and what these conditions are like for workers? What are the challenges to organizing around these?
The megacycle is a shift from 1:20 am to 11:50 am. This is a combination of two shifts that currently exist at DCH1. The first shift is cycle one and the second shift is the load-out. Cycle one, the shift I currently work, is 8:15 pm to 4:45 am. We receive packages from fulfillment centers and sort them into bags. Load-out, the shift after mine, takes the bags and puts them out for delivery drivers. So it’s two shifts: one for the packages to come in and then another to get them loaded onto vans. It is a total of twelve hours of work between those two shifts, condensed into one shift that is ten hours. And it’s the only shift available. Before, everybody used to be part-time, now everyone will be full-time. This is a change for Amazon delivery stations nationwide.
I know that Amazon workers are now organizing a campaign to allow schedule accommodations for folks. What does the organizing around megacycles look like? What challenges do you anticipate?
We started organizing committee meetings (OC) where we discussed the issues the megacycle creates and the closing down of DCH1. Working from 1 am to noon is bad for our bodies and especially bad for mothers, so we decided to start a worker petition and campaign for megacycle accommodations. Our top demand is that Amazon provide schedule accommodations for people who need them—a simple change that HR could make. Since this is a systemwide change affecting thousands of mothers across the US, we decided to encourage workers across the US to start circulating the petition at their facilities too. We’ve been getting coworkers to sign the petition, inviting new folks to our organizing committee meetings and spreading the petition at the new delivery station sites too.
Amazon is about halfway done making this transition to the megacycle and we haven’t seen too many other workers say anything about it or put up a fight against it. So we figured let’s start this petition, let’s open it up to fellow Amazon workers anywhere. Now workers from many different sites from across the country are signing it. Our work is to help our coworkers in other places build up their campaigns and build up organizing committees through conversation and action on this issue. We also have our public petition seeking support and solidarity from the public, with a few different options for how the community can help our campaign grow.
What are your thoughts about what’s going on in Alabama. It seems like all eyes are on the union drive at Bessemer. What do you think about the prospects for unionizing Amazon workers? What’s the relationship between organizing for union recognition like they’re doing now and organizing around specific concrete struggles like Amazonians United have been doing? How does what’s going on in Alabama affect what you’re doing?
We’ve got to talk about what building a real union means and what kind of work it takes to build a real union. We, Amazonians United Chicagoland, are a union. We’re not sitting around waiting for anyone to recognize us as a union in order to be or act as a union. We’re also not interested in the legal processes required to be called a union by the government.
Why aren’t we interested in these processes? Because we’re not interested in playing a game with rules that our oppressors created to limit our ability to fight. We’re gonna continue building up our union through these issue-based campaigns, and through building solidarity and community with our coworkers. The basis of our relationships, of our existence as an organization, is the struggle against our bosses, the struggle against the oppressive and exploitative conditions that we live within.
For us, success isn’t dependent upon a union election, it’s in growing what we have been building step-by-step and for that growth to be led by workers and controlled by workers. We’re a union of workers that is fighting directly. When there are issues, we take them on directly. As we’re expanding and as we’re putting up fights and bringing other coworkers with us from other facilities, it’s helping them also do the same.
When we see bullshit at work, instead of thinking, “Let’s find a union that can help us,” our thinking is, “We have some issues, all right, how are we gonna deal with them? What are we going to do?”
As far as the union election in Alabama, I’m in complete solidarity with our coworkers there, but the union, RWDSU, fucked up from the beginning. It’s a shame that RWDSU is running a campaign whose only outcome can be failure. We all should be more critical of these attempts to “unionize workers.”
Let me try to be more clear. I see that RWDSU staffers and members have been effective at collecting union authorization cards, but a union built out of paper won’t stand. My coworkers in Alabama, as far as I can tell, don’t have a strong organizing committee that is taking on fights within the workplace. RWDSU organizers could be guiding them in how to organize themselves, but they’re not. So I don’t blame the workers, I blame the union staffers for misguiding workers. I’ve heard a few Alabama workers talk about issues within the workplace, but I haven’t heard of them figuring out how to address them directly by taking some sort of collective action. Workers in Alabama were angry about issues, so they decided to reach out to a union for help, and the union told them, “All right. The solution to these issues is that you have to form a union, and the way to do it is through a union election.” So the union staffers started their collection of union authorization cards. They got a lot of cards signed, went through some legal maneuvers and then got the union election with an expanded bargaining unit. They initially filed for a bargaining unit of like 1,500, now it’s a bargaining unit of 5,800.
And now what they’re doing is basically just mobilizing a yes vote, calling or texting workers, “Hey how’s it going, vote yes for the union!” But where is the fighting organization of workers? All I’ve seen is solidarity rallies of non-Amazon workers and a lot of media coverage painting Amazon workers as helpless victims of Amazon’s anti-union campaign.
If workers don’t have solid fighting organizations within the workplace, Amazon’s anti-union campaign is going to be very effective because they don’t have a way of combating it. The solidarity rallies and media coverage are nice, but most workers don’t see them or care about them, and they don’t do much for workers in captive-audience meetings where they’re being convinced that a union would be bad for them. Outside rallies and endless articles on how this is a historic and monumental election simply don’t weigh heavily on how workers make their decisions on whether to vote yes or no for a union. The vast majority of workers make decisions based on what they see and hear directly from people they trust, and based on their assessment of how this is going to directly impact their lives.
If workers, day-in and day-out, are seeing all this anti-union messaging at work and they’re not seeing a strong campaign against it from within, if workers aren’t fighting against it, mocking it, laughing at it, RWDSU is going to lose that vote. But let’s suppose that RWDSU is able to win the election. How will they get Amazon to agree to a collective bargaining agreement? How is a union going to have any sort of negotiating power with Amazon by only having one fulfillment center organized? Amazon has hundreds of facilities in the United States. They built redundancy into their logistics network to be able to handle disruptions, so why would Amazon agree to a contract without being forced into it?
In Europe we have the example of German Amazon workers who have legally recognized unions at their fulfillment centers. Whenever German workers go on strike, Amazon simply reroutes orders through fulfillment centers in Poland to avoid the striking facilities and successfully undercuts the union’s bargaining power because Amazon doesn’t care if the workers are striking, the packages are still getting to the consumers. For this reason, German workers began supporting Polish workers’ organizing efforts, and this was the beginning of Amazon Workers International. It’s quite simple to see that unionizing Amazon through site-by-site union elections is a failed strategy.
Yeah, and the NLRB unions haven’t had a good track record in southern places because of the very dynamics you describe. It sounds like what you’re saying is really important, that you become a union by fighting and not that you start a union in order to fight.
Yeah, that’s a better and shorter way of saying it.
You have talked about the limitations of the NLRB card drive strategy happening on a shop-by-shop basis. How would you envision strategy on a national basis? What is it going to take to unionize Amazon?
Most people imagine unionizing Amazon as something some business unions will accomplish by winning a national union election. Most people, knowing only our sad excuse of a labor movement, constrain their imagination within the framework of labor law designed to ensure the free flow of commerce. It’s time to be critical and creative.
Unionizing is not a moment, it’s a process. Unionizing is a process in motion when workers meet to formulate petition demands and a plan to get the majority of coworkers signed on. Unionizing is happening when formerly uninvolved coworkers join collective actions against management and when a new organizing committee member hands out Amazonians United newsletters during break. We’re unionizing as we develop a feeling of family between ourselves, as we gather for barbecues and kickbacks, as we help each other out during times of need. That electricity in the air after we roll up on a manager, making him nervous by delivering our petition and expressing our demands as a group, bringing him down and us up . . . that feeling is our union, a real workers’ union, coming into being.
We’re building a real union, not some useless business union that’s simply a dues-extracting organization of lawyer-like staff for workers to call. We’re not interested in handing our collective power over to some bureaucrat who shows up every three years to “negotiate” a concessionary contract through backroom deals with our bosses. We don’t need the recognition of the NLRB or Amazon to form our union, grow our union, or fight as a union. Our union is us workers, organized, acting collectively, building unity, growing in solidarity, fighting as one.
So what is it going to take to unionize Amazon? It’s going to take perseverance, humility, and struggle. It’s going to take many workers with a deep commitment to organizing spread throughout Amazon facilities, forming OCs that tackle issues that resonate with coworkers. Every time we win a change through organizing, coworkers see the power of acting collectively. This is how we begin workplace-wide transformations from the standard individualistic mindset to a collective mindset. It’s how we create a culture of militancy where we’re all putting our incompetent managers in their place instead of bowing our heads to their disrespect. Each organizing committee, committed to the principles of Amazonians United, is the foundation of our union, and we grow from there, collectively developing our strategy and vision as we go.
Amazonians United was born in Chicago when we formed our OC out of our petition campaign for regular access to clean water at DCH1. But Amazon is shutting DCH1 down and spreading us throughout its new Chicago delivery stations. So now we are in the process of becoming a multi-site union, growing our OC at each workplace. As coordinated campaigns grow between Chicagoland sites, we’ll likely form a regional council. And with fellow workers in other cities currently doing the same, we’ll eventually have regional councils coordinating with each other. These are the basic building blocks of our international union of Amazon workers.
Our last question is what people can do to support your struggle here in Chicago and nationally around Amazonians United? For people who are reading this article, what do you want them to do to support your organizing work?
If you’re a fellow Amazon worker or soon-to-be Amazon worker reading this, and you think that how we’re fighting is right, get in contact with us so that we can help guide you on how to build up an organizing committee at your worksite.
Another way of supporting us is by signing and sharing our public megacycle petition. We have our worker megacycle petition too, so if you know an Amazon delivery station worker, share it with them. The last way people can help is to join a solidarity committee. We have a solidarity committee here in Chicago, and there are solidarity committees in some other cities that are there to support the organizing work of Amazonians United members.
The important thing is that folks who want to support are under the guidance of Amazon workers that are organized, not just random activists doing things here and there. I mean, those are nice too sometimes, but the important thing here is to help grow our struggle, our movement, our union, as workers. We need support for growing what’s going on the inside rather than flashy stuff on the outside. The inside organizing is what’s important here.