By Karen Schieve
Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos is a very rich man, among the richest in the world. He owns numerous palaces and the Blue Origins rocket launching pad in Texas for private space travel and exploration. Mr. Bezos has become even richer from the profits of Whole Foods, an up-scale grocery chain, and from The Washington Post newspaper.
He profited big time from the deadly COVID virus. The price of Amazon’s stock jumped to $3,075 per share over the last several days alone. Its share value increased 75 percent over its price a year ago. The company’s value hit $1.7 trillion. Mr. Bezos’s personal wealth hit $195 billion.
So just how much does Jeff Bezos pay the people whose labor and effort made him a multi-billionaire? Well, just enough so that they have to keep coming back every day. He pays his Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama $15.30 an hour! And apparently those workers also have some dental and medical insurance. Not bad you say for a southern state?
The importance of the Amazon union drive
There are zero unionized warehouses (Amazon calls them fulfillment centers) in the United States today. Of the 110 active warehouses, with many more planned, none are union. Thus, the present Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) scheduled March 30 collective bargaining election results have gained the attention of union activists across the country. As we go to press Amazon’s 6,000 workers, a majority Black and women, are engaged in a critical union organizing struggle that has won the solidarity of thousands of union and political activists who have mobilized in over 50 cities at Amazon-owned facilities, like Whole Foods stores, to score this mega corporation anti-union policies.
Without a union, Amazon workers have been subjected to an unbelievable “speed-up” regimen. Amazon keeps track of every worker, and every single second that worker is not working. If someone is in a restroom for four minutes, for example, that time is included in their individual TOT (Time Off Task) record. If one’s TOT is deemed too high, termination proceedings are expected to follow.
And too bad if a worker needs to run to the restroom because its location is too distant to get to at a normal walking pace. If a restroom is “out-of-order” so that a worker must seek another location, too bad; they are punished with additional TOT. Fear of hitting a “too high” TOT number is immense. Some workers bring their own bottles or pails to use to relieve themselves. Others don’t drink water until the very end of the day. While Amazon claims to have lengthened its allowed break times and to be more lenient with TOTs workers report that nothing of the kind has been implemented.
20,000 Amazon workers with COVID-19
The median household income in Bessemer is $30,000. One in four people living there are at or below the poverty line. The RWDSU and its president, Stuart Applebaum, a Black man, see the union’s recognition drive at Bessemer as an integral part of the civil rights movement, if not a preclude to follow-up drives at other major warehouse facilities. Applebaum’s organizers are largely Black, many of whom have worked or are working in poultry warehouses across the South. Treating workers with respect, a simple notion, has been central to the union’s appeal.
Amazon’s warehouses have double the standard rate of serious injuries in the wholesale industry. Amazon has been silent on the COVID crisis, consistently resisting worker requests for basic safety and protective gear as well as for information regarding how many of their co-workers have contracted the disease. When word got back that Amazon had hidden the fact that 20,000 of their co-workers, as of October 2020, had contracted COVID, workers at several facilities walked off the job in protest. They were immediately fired.
Amazon’s union busting
Amazon has gone to lengths to avoid being unionized, spending $millions on the notorious Morgan Lewis outfit, among the top union-busting law firms in the U.S. Morgan Lewis was retained by former President Donald Trump as tax counsel for the Trump Organization, holding that post since 2015. Representing some 75 percent of Fortune’s top 100 organizations, this firm specializes in fighting workers’ efforts to win sick, injury and back pay for company anti-worker policies. Morgan Lewis assisted Amazon in establishing a new website called “Do It Without Dues,”
that it employs to regularly email its workers with company propaganda. Stressing the fact that Amazon’s starting wage is $15.30, more than double the $7.25 federal minimum wage, the company counsels workers that they do not need a union, not to mention pay union dues, because Amazon also provides competitive base wages, a “Career Choice” program, company paid short and long-term disability coverage, vacation and personal time off, and paid maternal and parental leave, etc., etc. All this of course, leaving aside company hype and exaggeration, is yours for the taking, Amazon asserts, neglecting to mention that its TOT requirements essentially turn human beings into slaves on the warehouse floor.
Darryl Richardson applied to Amazon after the auto parts store where he worked for $23.15 per hour closed. Richardson, according to The Guardian newspaper, was at first excited about working for Amazon. “I thought it would be a nice facility that would treat you right,” he said. Five months later he was convinced otherwise. “There is no concern for safety,” he stated, “or being forced to work four and an a half hours without a break or being fired for too many TOTs or for any other reason.”
Richardson, an Amazon “picker,” complained about the fast, unrelenting pace of work and about seeing co-workers terminated for falling behind Amazon’s production quotas regardless of the amount of TOT’s he has accumulated. He is expected to pick, categorize and transport 315 items per hour, or five items a minute. “You’re running at a consistent fast pace”, Richardson explained, “You ain’t got time to look around… You get treated like a number. You don’t get treated like a person. They work you like a robot.”
Return to class struggle trade unionism?
The RWDSU’s union drive in the “right-to-work” state of Alabama may well prove to be decisive turning point for working people in the months and years ahead. As with the “red state” teacher strikes of a few years ago, a victory at Bessemer can serve open the door to a return to the militant class struggle trade unionism of decades past wherein fighting and democratic unions combined basic collective bargaining and worker rights’ issues with broader working class solidarity.
The example of a successful Black-led fightback against one of the nation’s most powerful corporations might well provide the impetus for a critical break from the bureaucratic and class collaborationist policies that have today reduced today’s trade union movement to its lowest state in past century. When the most oppressed exercise their collective power at the point of production and win, the times will indeed be propitious for future wins.
Solidarity with the Amazon workers at Bessemer!