Amazon worker-activists form international organization to demand change in warehouses

Megan Rose Dickey
Employees at work during the visit by the French president to the Amazon factory in Boves, near Amiens, northern France on October 3, 2017. (Photo: YOAN VALAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Amazon workers across the world are formalizing their activism with the creation of the Amazon Workers International. Its first action is a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon Director of UK Customer Fulfillment Stefano Perego in which the group demands the company makes permanent certain steps Amazon has implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of the global health crisis, Amazon made some positive changes -- changes that workers want to ensure stay long beyond the pandemic. Those changes include an increase of $2 per hour and an extra five minutes' worth of break time. The company also got rid of productivity feedback, which incentivizes workers to do more, faster.

"They're talking about taking that away," Christian Zamarrón, an Amazon warehouse worker in Chicago, told TechCrunch. "I don't think they should take it away. These are things we need not just during a pandemic but all the time."

As of April 24, Amazon said it would extend the increased hourly pay through May 16.

"We’ve extended the increased hourly pay through May 16," Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski told TechCrunch. "We are also extending double overtime pay in the U.S. and Canada. These extensions increase our total investment in pay during COVID-19 to nearly $700 million for our hourly employees and partners. In addition, we are providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures. We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time and the team is doing incredible work for our customers and the community."

Amazon Workers International formed after about 40 Amazon warehouse workers around the world gathered in Madrid a couple of months ago. The organization represents Amazon workers from six countries: Germany, Poland, Spain, France, Slovakia and the United States.

"Each country has its own laws but from our conversations at our convenings, we just see that we all have basically the same issues, Zamarròn said. "In Europe, especially, they've seen the necessity for international solidarity and how that makes them stronger."

While Zammarròn's list of grievances with Amazon is long, what tops his list is retaliation.

"That needs to end," he said.

Toward the end of March, warehouse workers in Chicago went on a number of safety strikes in "response to Amazon's complete disregard for our lives with positive COVID-19 cases spreading through our warehouse," Zamarròn, who helped organize the actions in Chicago, said. "They've been retaliating these past weeks trying to scare us and trying to shut us up. We've been fighting back."

Regarding retaliation, Amazon said in a statement to TechCrunch that it respects the rights of employees to protest and recognizes their legal right to do so, "but these rights do not provide blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, well-being or safety of their colleagues."

In March, Amazon fired worker-activist Chris Smalls, who helped organize a protest at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York.

"We did not terminate Mr. Smalls employment for organizing a 15-person protest," an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch. "We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment. Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines. He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite further putting the teams at risk."

NY Attorney General Leticia James has since said she's considering taking legal action against Amazon. Then, more recently, a group of Amazon workers at a fulfillment center in Minnesota protested the firing of a worker who stayed home for fear of giving her kids COVID-19. Shortly after the protest, Amazon reinstated the worker.

Already, Amazon warehouse workers have filed unfair labor practice charges and have more on the way, Zamarròn said. Still, he said he's already seen Amazon change a lot of safety policies. Amazon started providing masks, taking temperatures and providing hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

"And maybe the biggest thing they did was they slowed down the work," he said. "They decreased the amount of work so that actually helps in maintaining some social distancing. And these were immediate changes after our safety strikes. Before that, they were basically operating as if everything was normal."

But workers still want to make it known that their coworkers are continuing to get sick. In the letter, workers say Amazon lacks in the transparency department. Amazon, however, maintains that when it confirms a case of COVID-19 among workers, it communicates that to other people who work at that same site.

This letter of demands is just the first of what we're seeing from AWI.

"Our international solidarity will definitely grow," he said. "This is a very important aspect of what we're doing and what any worker movement should do, which is expressing coordinated international demands and coordinated international actions."