Amazon workers have been speaking out against inhumane working conditions for years, and now, they’re pushing to unionize. As the largest online retailer in the US and the second company in the world to hit $1 trillion in net worth, Amazon certainly has the money and means to improve working conditions for its employees, and yet it refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong.
Both current and former Amazon employees have reported that warehouse working conditions are less than favorable. No air conditioning, no heat, and the prioritization of robots over humans are just a few of the many complaints that have been made by employees.
“The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my shirts even when it’s freezing cold outside,” said Rashad Long, a Staten Island warehouse employee, in an interview with Vox. “We have asked the company to provide air conditioning, but the company told us that the robots inside cannot work in the cold weather.”
Due to the intense work environment, many employees have even reported a fear of using the bathroom, and Muslim employees are fearful of taking the time to pray and reducing their productivity. The workload is non-stop, and Amazon is focused on getting consumers their products expediently rather than worker safety or health.
“Right now, at that fulfillment center, if an employee is a picker, they want that person to pick up four hundred items per hour, picking [up one] item every seven seconds,” revealed an unnamed Staten Island employee.
Though Amazon has denied all claims surrounding its inhumane working conditions, Amazon workers will not be silenced. Early signs of negotiations began this past summer, when a group of East African workers in Minnesota advocated for a prayer space and improved holiday hours during Ramadan. On Black Friday, Amazon employees in Europe protested mistreatment, and on December 14th, 2018, employees and activists alike gathered outside a fulfillment center in Shakopee, MN to denounce Amazon and pressure them to change working conditions for the better.
The beginning of December is also when Bloomberg reported that employees of the Staten Island fulfillment center planned to unionize. Prior to this announcement, Amazon came under fire for receiving more than $2 billion in tax breaks for its new headquarters in Long Island City. Staten Island employees are partnering with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to try to leverage this tax break for better working conditions and higher wages.
Amazon has always been against unions; in a leaked company training video, managers, were explicitly told, “We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders, or most importantly, our associates. Our business model is built upon speed, innovation, and customer obsession—things that are generally not associated with unions.” The video bolsters workers’ claims that Amazon does not care about workers’ well-being, they only care about numbers.
Amidst all of this, there is a silver lining. If Amazon employees are able to form a union, it could have a nationwide effect. Union membership has significantly decreased from 1983 to 2017—20.1% to 10.7%. However, there is a lot of pro-union momentum currently coming from millennials, certain politicians, and workers from large companies similar to Amazon. Given Amazon’s size and scope, it certainly has the potential to set an example for other corporations by recognizing unions and improving the treatment of workers.