Amazon Came to the Bargaining Table—But Workers Want More

Labor organizing is gaining renewed momentum among some Amazon employees in the United States. The retail giant—run by the richest man in the world—is now one of the largest employers in the country, with more than 125,000 full-time hourly associates working in its fulfillment and sortation centers alone. Throughout Amazon’s 24-year history, portions of its enormous US workforce have attempted several times to form a union, but the company has consistently—and successfully—fought back. Now, amid a tight labor market, workers in Minnesota have succeeded in getting management to meet some of their demands. On Friday afternoon, they staged a protest at an Amazon facility on the outskirts of Minneapolis to ask for even more.

Over the summer, a group of East African Amazon workers in the Minneapolis area began negotiating with Amazon to make compromises around Ramadan holiday hours, better responding to worker complaints, and building a dedicated prayer space in the Shakopee fulfillment center. Unsatisfied with the pace of progress toward improving working conditions, the group rallied a few hundred people, including local teamster chapters, to the Shakopee facility parking lot Friday afternoon to demand that Amazon reduce productivity rates to safe levels, respect the cultural differences of Muslim East Africans, and invest in a community fund to aid in affordable housing for workers.

At 4 pm, as the winter sun was setting on the Shakopee business park, about 30 workers walked out of the fulfillment center to the cheers of the crowd gathered on the edge of the property. “Haa aan awoodno!” they chanted, which means “Yes we can” in Somali. Abdukadir Ahmed was the first one to reach the crowd. Tall and thin with black fleece earmuffs covering his tight curls, the 35-year-old arrived in Minneapolis from Egypt in March of last year, and has been working at Amazon as a package scanner for a year and a half. On a typical day, he says, he will work a 10-hour shift, and scan and rebin up to 600 packages each hour. “They’re always pushing, pushing all the time,” says Ahmed. “Nobody appreciates us, they just treat us like robots.” He’d like to see his hourly rate drop to something more like 180 packages per hour.

For about an hour, protesters clad in parkas and khamiis shivered in freezing temperatures as they listened to organizers speak about taking back some of Amazon’s billions for local Minnesota communities. Around 5 pm, the group marched to the facility’s front doors to deliver its demands to managers inside. They were stopped by a dozen Shakopee police squad cars and told to leave the premises or they’d be arrested for trespassing. Organizers corralled the rally back to the street, with shouts of “Amazon, we’ll be back” trailing behind them.

Hafsa Hassan, a 21-year-old who works on the Shakopee facility’s shipping dock, says outrage has been simmering for longer than the 16 months she’s been an Amazon employee. “People are just fed up,” she says. “We knew it was a hard job physically but nobody signed up for the mental and emotional abuse.”

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Ashley Robinson, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in a statement that the company has an “open and direct dialogue with employees” in Minnesota. She says the average pay for Amazon workers in the state is between $16.25 and $20.80 in addition to full benefits; the minimum wage in Minnesota is $7.87. “I encourage anyone to compare our pay, benefits, and workplace to other retailers and major employers in the Shakopee community and across the country. We invite anyone to see for themselves and take a tour through our fulfillment center tour program,” the statement reads, in part.

On Wednesday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged $2.5 million to a Minneapolis nonprofit that helps homeless individuals and families find affordable long-term housing. At the rally Friday, Imam Mohamed Omar, a founding member of the Muslim Coalition of the Minnesota faith-based organization ISAIAH, applauded the move but emphasized that one-off charitable donations are not the intended outcome of the ongoing negotiations. “It’s good to put ointment or a Band-Aid on a wound, but prevention is the best medicine,” Omar said. He called for Bezos to invest portions of Amazon’s annual revenues in a Community Care Fund, so that Amazon can “pour back into our communities a portion of what they have taken.”

The workers in Minnesota are not alone in demanding that Amazon change its labor practices. Over the summer, employees at the Amazon-owned grocery chain Whole Foods began moving to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union following layoffs. On Tuesday, Bloomberg first reported that a group of employees at a recently opened Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island are also organizing a unionization campaign with RWDSU. Workers there say they are concerned about safety issues, inadequate pay, and unreasonable hourly quotas. For now, the specifics of how they plan to obtain union recognition aren’t clear.

“Stating that our Staten Island workers want a union is not a fair representation of the vast majority of the employees at this site,” Robinson, the Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement. “At Amazon we are proud of our safe working conditions, open communication and industry leading benefits.”

Several pro-union Amazon employees attended a press conference outside New York City Hall Wednesday morning, ahead of a hearing about the company’s proposed “second headquarters” in Long Island City, Queens. Last month, Amazon announced that it had chosen Long Island City to be the site of one of its new mega offices, where 25,000 white-collar employees are expected to eventually work. The secretive deal, which netted Amazon over a billion dollars in governmental incentives, has incited a backlash among some local residents and politicians. The Staten Island organizers plan to use the HQ2 deal as leverage for their own efforts.

“My hands hurt all the time. I can’t even write,” Sharon Bleach, a Staten Island Amazon employee, said outside City Hall Wednesday. Bleach, 60, has worked at the company for only a month, and said she is forced to work with boxes stacked up all around her. She worries there would be no way to escape in the case of a fire or accident. In response to Bleach’s concerns, Robinson said she should talk to her managers and that “all exits and walkways are clearly marked and kept clear.” She added that Amazon surveys all workers each month about their perceptions of safety conditions.

For now, there’s no way to know whether these nascent organizing efforts will grow into a widespread movement at Amazon outposts across the US. “All of the diamonds have to line up for these efforts to be successful, since employers have so much more power than workers,” says Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, who studies labor movements. “To win, a campaign needs a well-thought-out and savvy strategy, which includes being focused on the key grievances that animate workers, and also an ability to persuade people that they can win a union drive and benefit from it.”

Amazon’s employees do have several factors working in their favor. For one, the labor market is extremely tight in the United States right now; the unemployment rate was at 3.7 percent in November. Amazon’s employees are also part of a wider renewed interest in unionizing among some workers, particularly millennials, says Milkman. “That was also a factor in the wave of teachers’ strikes earlier this year, and in recent unionization drives among adjunct faculty and graduate students,” she says. Hundreds of Columbia University teaching and research assistants went on strike in August, for example. Milkman added that many online publications have also recently unionized.

Amazon’s labor practices, as well as the government incentives the company has received, also face growing scrutiny from some lawmakers. In September, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation called the Stop BEZOS Act, which is designed to encourage large employers to raise wages by taxing them when employees are forced to rely on public benefits like food stamps. The bill was accompanied by a campaign that encouraged Amazon workers to share their experiences of working at the company. Shortly after the legislation was introduced, Amazon announced it was raising its minimum wage to $15 for all US employees.

Amazon has fought back against unionization campaigns in the past. When a small group of maintenance and repair technicians moved to unionize at a Delaware Amazon warehouse in 2014, the company hired a law firm that specializes in opposing organized labor. The employees eventually voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Earlier this year, Gizmodo published transcripts from an internal video reportedly distributed to Whole Foods managers that appears designed to train them to spot and squash organizing efforts. A former Amazon warehouse manager in the midwest says he was shown a similar video after a human resources employee overhead workers discussing unions in late 2016. A regional HR representative was called into the facility the next day to show the clip, according to the employee. “The slides from that Gizmodo article are essentially the same as the ones that HR showed my facility,” they explained. “The message it conveys hasn’t changed: Unions are bad for Amazon.”

“Amazon respects its employees’ right to choose to join or not join a labor union. Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution,” Robinson said. “We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.” (The 1935 National Labor Relations Act protects workers’ right to form unions.)

Union membership in the United States has declined significantly in recent decades. In 1983, 20.1 percent of American workers were part of a union, compared to only 10.7 percent in 2017. Should even a fraction of Amazon workers become unionized, it would be a significant milestone for organized labor across the country. But a lot needs to happen before reaching that point.


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Elon Musk Abuses Tesla Autopilot on *60 Minutes*

“Do you feel safe?” Leslie Stahl asked Elon Musk on Sunday’s episode of 60 Minutes, as the scene showed her riding on the freeway with Musk in a red Tesla Model 3. “Yeah,” the CEO answered, settling back into the driver’s seat, his hands clasped together over his stomach, after turning on the car’s semiautonomous driving system. “Now you’re not driving at all,” Stahl said, incredulously, looking over at his feet.

Musk went on to demonstrate the car’s new Navigate on Autopilot feature, which lets it change lanes by itself. Stahl’s wowed reaction—“Oh my goodness”—matches that of many people when they first see the Tesla take control of its steering and speed. But her questioning, trying to gauge Musk’s involvement in the driving process, highlights a significant issue Tesla faces as it rolls out ever more advanced Autopilot features.

A growing body of evidence makes clear that many drivers are confused about what the car can and can’t do. Tesla has repeatedly insisted—with spokesperson statements, driver manuals, and on-screen warnings in the car—that Autopilot is not an autonomous system. It doesn’t even see stopped firetrucks. The human is always responsible, and should keep their hands on the wheel. Yet, on one of the country’s most popular news programs, Musk risked compounding the confusion by clearly not even touching the steering wheel, and agreeing that he wasn’t driving. As he put it: “I’m not doing anything.”

Meanwhile, Musk continues to talk up Tesla’s goal of making its cars drive themselves in situations far beyond the highway, with no human oversight or involvement. And so he risks widening the gap between what the car seems to do and what it actually does.

Outfits like Waymo and GM’s Cruise are going straight for a fully autonomous system, testing their tech with trained safety drivers in carefully prescribed situations. Tesla has been adding abilities steadily via over-the-air software updates, telling its customers these features are in beta, and letting them have at it. The approach has its merits—they’re clever assistance features that could make driving safer if they’re used properly—but also relies on a driving public that understands the system’s limitations. That’s what makes Musk’s on-camera willingness to let go of the wheel look so unfortunate. (Tesla did not reply to a series of questions about the 60 Minutes interview.)

“His board of directors needs to slap him upside the head,” says Missy Cummings, who researches human and autonomous vehicle interaction at Duke University. “One of the biggest problems with Tesla is something called mode confusion—people don’t realize when a car is in one automated mode versus not.”

Ironically, part of the problem is the high quality of Tesla’s software. Over the weekend, I drove about 60 miles on the freeway in a Model 3, using Navigate on Autopilot. The new feature lets the car change lanes to pass slower vehicles and merge into the correct lane to take an exit. The car’s central display shows other cars around the Tesla in a cartoonish graphical representation. (Once, on surface streets, the car spotted a man on an electric scooter moving into a blind spot, noting him as a stick figure pedestrian.) The car requires the driver’s approval before changing lanes, indicating where it wants to go with a gray line on the screen. Once I signaled my approval with a tap of the gear or indicator stalk, the computer put on the blinker, waited for a gap in the traffic, moved over, and canceled the signal. It felt particularly futuristic when I reached my freeway exit (per the destination I entered in the navigation system). The car signaled, moved into the exit lane, slowed down, and made three “bong” sounds to tell me Navigate on Autopilot was turning off, all without my involvement.

Because it was a new feature, I stayed hyper alert, keeping at least one hand on the wheel and watching the mirrors to make sure the car stayed safe—just like you’re supposed to. But I know from experience with previous versions of Autopilot that such vigilance wears off quickly. When the car drives so capably, it’s easy to be lulled into a sense that the computer doesn’t need any help or supervision. It’s fine. It’s OK to glance away from the road for a moment, or a minute, or a few minutes.

“This is why it’s so dangerous,” says Cummings. “One of the things we know for sure is humans will immediately start not paying attention as soon as the car is doing a good enough job.”

This sort of overconfidence in the automation has been cited by the National Transportation Safety Board in the first Autopilot fatality that killed Josh Brown in Florida in May 2016. It has been implicated in more recent deaths and the three times (at least) Tesla drivers have slammed into stopped fire trucks in 2018 alone. And with the booming sales of the Model 3, more and more regular drivers, with little experience of automated systems and no training, will be acting as Tesla’s safety drivers. “The public doesn’t understand issues surrounding the technical limitations,” Cummings says.

That’s not holding Tesla back. Also on Sunday, Musk tweeted that the company is testing more Autopilot features in development software, including the ability to handle traffic lights and roundabouts.

For the foreseeable future, though, Tesla’s cars will require driver oversight, if not input. But despite Tesla’s recent efforts to make it harder for drivers to zone out, the man leading the charge doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.

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