Thu, Jul 12, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Exploited workers need a union. When will they get one?

The e-commerce giant has suppressed all efforts to unionize since its founding, but with widespread employee abuse, only unions can hold the company accountable

By Michael Sainato  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

With a net worth of about US$140 billion, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is now the richest person in the world. That distinction has come at the expense of Amazon’s workers. In order for those workers to begin sharing in the vast wealth their labor has afforded Bezos and other Amazon executives, they need a union.

Since Amazon’s founding in 1994, the company has successfully suppressed all efforts by its employees to unionize and improve working conditions. A few years ago, maintenance and repair technicians at Amazon filed a petition with the US National Labor Relations Board announcing their intention to form what would have been Amazon’s first union.

Amazon immediately hired a law firm to suppress the organizing effort. In January 2014, under intense pressure from management, the maintenance and repair workers voted against unionizing.

In 2000, after an arm of the Communication Workers of America attempted to organize customer service employees, Amazon responded by shutting down the call center where they worked. The company claimed, unpersuasively, that the firings were not related.

That year, the New York Times reported that Amazon’s internal Web site for managers included instructions on detecting and busting unionizing efforts.

In 2016, the New York Times exposed a manager at an Amazon warehouse in Delaware who made up an anti-union story to scare employees off organizing.

Several employees appeared to have been fired for advocating a union, the newspaper said.

While Amazon has been diligently working to shut down any prospect of its workers unionizing, investigative journalists and activists have uncovered widespread abuses of workers. Ambulances were called to British Amazon warehouses 600 times in three years.

James Bloodworth, a writer who went undercover at an Amazon warehouse in Staffordshire, England, discovered that workers there routinely urinated in water bottles to avoid being punished for taking breaks from work.

Similar conditions have been reported in the US.

In a 2011 essay for the Atlantic, writer Vanessa Veselka shared her experiences working at an Amazon warehouse outside Seattle. She described how employees were forced to work in robotic, fast-paced conditions.

Veselka was eventually fired from her temp position at the warehouse after she attempted to organize a union.

More recently, warehouse workers told Business Insider about time-crunched employees using trash cans to go to the bathroom. Employees also described a work atmosphere predicated on fear of missing productivity targets, saying that employees spent most of their lunch breaks waiting in line for onerous security screenings.

Former Amazon workers have also said they are pressured to underreport warehouse injuries.

Amazon workers are not paid wages that reflect these strenuous working conditions. In at least four states, the company is one of the top 20 employers of people dependent on food stamps.

In a corporate filing last year, Amazon reported that the median salary of its employees was US$28,446, or about US$13.68 per hour for full-time employees. Bezos makes more than that every nine seconds.

The very presence of the company’s warehouses in a given area can drive down local warehouse wages, according to the Economist, which cited declines of more than 30 percent in Lexington County in South Carolina, 17 percent in Chesterfield, Virginia, and 16 percent in Tracy, California.

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