DCH1 Amazonians United march with striking school workers in 2019
CHRISTIAN ZAMARRÓN KNOWS DIRECT ACTION WORKS. He flew to Madrid in late April to share his Chicago experiences with fellow worker activists in the Amazon Workers International (AWI).
Christian is a lead organizer with DCH1 Amazonians United, a group of warehouse workers at an Amazon distribution centre in Chicago. The group organized four “safety strikes” after COVID-19 hit that forced Amazon to: reduce the volume of work to allow workers to practice social distancing, stagger breaks, increase worksite cleaning, take worker temperatures and provide masks, gloves and wipes.
“We also asked why we were filling orders for a lot of junk that wasn’t essential, since we were designated essential service workers,” says Christian.
Christian says spontaneous community support was a key part of the workers’ success in Chicago. People in the neighbourhoods surrounding the Amazon warehouse formed a caravan of cars to clog the streets around the warehouse so that delivery vans couldn’t get in or out.
‘We’re all employed by the same monster’
“Were all employed by the same monster.” says Christian, “van drivers, independent contractors, flex drivers, temp, permanent. It’s just a matter of us figuring out how we can unite and fight together.”
AWI is a key part of that effort. It is a collective of Amazon workers from Germany, Poland, Spain, France, Slovakia and the USA “who have been involved in every-day organizing, and different forms of struggle,” according to their Facebook page. They have been meeting twice a year since 2015 “to connect Amazon workers ‘across borders’ and ‘across union memberships’".
Amazon strategy: divide and conquer
Amazonians United members are warehouse workers. Their disputes with Amazon have lead to strikes and other job actions in Sacramento, California, Chicago and New York City.
Amazon tech workers have different issues with the corporation connected to their leadership of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ).
Amazon fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two AECJ leaders, in April, after they joined about a thousand other Amazon tech workers online to hear warehouse workers in Chicago, New York and Poland talk about working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Amazon clearly did not want this event to happen,” Costa told her fellow workers. “They apparently do not want tech workers talking to warehouse workers. They fired us to silence you and to silence all of us.”
Cunningham and Costa, said they circulated a petition in late March started by warehouse workers in New York. It called for improved safety protocols, closures of facilities where employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and enhanced benefits.
“We’re in the middle of both the climate crisis and a global pandemic,” Cunningham said. “This is the time to deeply care about one another. If we can’t fight for each other now, when can we?”
Amazon exec quits to support workers
Many of Amazon’s warehouse workers in Europe are unionized, and labor groups there have forced a series of changes. For example, a French court recently agreed with unions that Amazon warehouses selling nonessential items must shut down or face a fine of a million euros a day.
In the USA Amazon has tried to use both carrot and stick. It fired the organizer of a walkout in New York and a worker in Minnesota who stayed home for fear of giving her kids COVID-19. However, when her fellow workers protested, Amazon hired her back.
Tim Bray, an Amazon vice-president and “distinguished engineer” (one of only eight in the company) resigned to protest the firings of Costa and Cunningham. “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19,” Bray said in a blog post May 3. Bray also noted he was walking away from over $1 million in pretax income and stock, and from valued colleagues.
Bray’s activism includes being arrested in Canada in 2018 at a rally protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline project.
“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of COVID-19 response,” Bray said. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”
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