AS AMAZON dominates online marketplaces and positions itself to become the largest retailer in the US, more and more people are finding out the true cost of the company’s success, says the US Teamsters union.
While the company consolidates power over multiple markets – tech, entertainment, retail and more – it is maiming and burning through its staff at a rate unlike anything ever seen at any other US business in our lifetimes.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to make Amazon work better for its customers and its workforce.
Amazon’s Epidemic of Workplace Injuries
It’s no secret that Amazon’s abysmal safety record has been a source of public embarrassment for the company.
In his first letter to Amazon shareholders, CEO Andy Jassy said that the company was ‘passionate about further improving safety in our fulfillment network, with a focus on reducing strains, sprains, falls, and repetitive stress injuries.’
According to a study by the Strategic Organising Centre, injuries at Amazon are more frequent and more severe than other employers in the warehousing and logistics industry.
In 2020, for every 100 Amazon warehouse workers there were 5.9 serious injuries requiring the worker to either miss work or be placed on restricted duty.
This rate is nearly 80 per cent higher than the serious injury rate for all other employers in the warehousing industry.
In 2020, Amazon workers who experienced lost-time injuries were forced off work for an average of 46.3 days – more than a month and a half.
That is a week longer than the average recovery time for workers injured in the general warehouse industry and more than two weeks longer than the recovery time for the average worker who suffered a lost time injury.
In 2020, Amazon’s overall warehouse injury rate (6.5/100 FTEs) was over twice that of Walmart (3.0), while Amazon’s severe injury rate (2.6) was more than two-and-a-half times Walmart’s (1.0).
Amazon workers sustained the most serious injuries – those that required them to be moved to light duty or miss work – at rates five times the national average for all of private industry.
In spite of the fact that Amazon employs one third of warehouse workers in the US, the company was responsible for half of all injuries in this sector for 2021.
The Churn-and-Burn Business Model
Amazon loves to tout itself as an employee-friendly company, pointing to a myriad of perks it offers its workforce – $15 an hour starting pay, health insurance and tuition reimbursement are some of the purported benefits of working for the tech behemoth.
What the company doesn’t mention is that hardly anyone they employ works at the company long enough to enjoy what it supposedly has to offer.
Amazon’s inhumane work pace and repetitive work tasks require a level of physical exertion and strain that takes a high toll on workers’ physical health over time, which is why the company needs to constantly replenish its workforce with fresh bodies.
Amazon’s turnover rate among its hourly associates is around 150 per cent a year, which means the company loses more than 1 in 50 of its warehouse workers each week (nearly double the rate of similar businesses).
Turnover at Amazon is so high that it causes overall regional job retention rates to plummet – turnover for all California warehouse workers (including Amazon) also grew from 42.1 per cent in 2011 to 83 per cent in 2017.
In contrast, overall turnover for workers in all California industries only rose slightly, from 63.9 per cent to 69.8 pervcent.
A Better Way
A union would give Amazon workers the voice on the job they need to make the company what it currently only pretends to be – one where shareholders do well because workers are doing well, not one where shareholders do well instead of workers doing well.
It would give them the power to address safety issues, turnover, wages and other issues through the process of collective bargaining.
There’s already plenty of models for this throughout the American economy. Retail and logistics companies like Safeway, Costco, UPS, DHL and countless others all have heavily unionised workplaces that have proven to reduce injuries and turnover.
These companies employ people who stay there for years, even decades, because organised labour has made their workers not disposable, but indispensable.
The recent win in Staten Island by the Amazon Labour Union (ALU) is just the beginning.
Workers at the company are hungry for change, tired of being treated as disposable and demanding a better way of life.
By banding together and organising as Teamsters, workers at the company can fight to ensure that working at the company isn’t just a dangerous job for a few months, but a safe, sustainable, long-term career.
This will benefit the company, its workforce and the entire American economy.
- As of April 1, 1,100 Alabama coal mine workers and their families have been on strike for over a year.
Thousands of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members and supporters were scheduled to convene in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, on the morning of April 6, 2022, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Warrior Met Coal strike.
But, much like the coal bosses themselves, the weather forecast was not cooperating. The weather report, in typical fickle Alabama fashion, had been fluctuating between rain, more rain, and certain waterlogged doom; the union had bought ponchos in bulk to prepare.
As UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said before the rally: ‘A little bad weather isn’t going to slow us down.’
The day’s schedule was moved up in a bid to outrun the rain. The original start time was slated for 11am, but the rally was already in full swing by 10:30am.
Buses were still arriving as speakers took the stage – according to an emailed UMWA press release, at least 1,200 UMWA members and retirees had bused in from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and they were joined by union members from across the South.
Various union logos were emblazoned on different shirts and hats and flags. There were postal workers, teachers, and public transit workers, retail workers and nonprofit workers, steelworkers and ironworkers, all kinds of retirees, and at least one Writers Guild of America, East, councilperson.
Birmingham DSA showed out, and a huge delegation of UNITE HERE members rolled up from New Orleans. A squad of organisers with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) drove down from Bessemer, where they and the workers at Amazon’s sprawling warehouse remain embroiled in a fight of their own.
416 challenged ballots and 21 unfair labour practice charges against Amazon have stalled any determinative ruling on the final union election results.
Support for the strike has been material as well as physical: ‘To date, the union has paid $20 million out of the UMWA Strike Fund to help the miners this past year and an additional $2 million has been graciously donated from other unions and thousands of individuals,’ Roberts noted in a post-rally press release.
‘We have received especially generous donations from the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE-HERE, SMART, the National Nurses Union, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
‘We have received donations from local and national online fundraising events and have even received donations from workers at Walmart across the country. Every dime has been given to the miners to support their families.’
The lineup of speakers was stacked with union officials, pastors, and regional leaders. The presidents of the Alabama AFL-CIO, Kentucky AFL-CIO, and Virginia AFL-CIO spoke in support of the strikers; so did American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram, and Anthony Shelton, international president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM), who spoke about the support the UMWA had shown his members during their own gruelling strike.
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, was a crowd favourite, as usual. Nelson has been one of the strike’s most visible and dedicated supporters – she’s been back down to Alabama many times to show support and add a little of her patented fire to rally stages.
During a year-long strike in which mainstream recognition (to say nothing of support) has been hard to find, Nelson’s commitment to showing up for the miners has clearly made an impact.
Speaking to the crowd, she drew a direct line between the work her members do 20,000 feet in the air and what the miners do 2,000 feet underground and made a timely point: both breathe recycled air, and that air is only safe because of how hard the unions have fought to make it so.
Keeping the Pressure
Since late October 2021, UMWA members have gathered in front of BlackRock headquarters in New York City in an effort to keep the pressure on the largest shareholder in Warrior Met Coal.
BlackRock is one of several hedge funds that own shares in Warrior Met Coal, holding 13 per cent.
The UMWA held rallies in front of the BlackRock headquarters on June 22nd, July 28th, November 4th, and November 18th, which were held in conjunction with various other venues across the country, in what was dubbed as the UMWA’s International Day of Action.
In addition to the four large rallies held at the doorsteps of Black-Rock, UMWA members have kept their presence known to BlackRock by picketing in front of their office building each week, handing out leaflets to passersby and holding signs to bring awareness to our hardworking members, who have been on strike since April 1st.
‘We won’t back down, and we are never going to give up,’ said International District 2 Vice President Chuck Knisell.
‘We will do whatever it takes to win this strike. And we will win this strike. If we have to be in front of these offices all day, every day, then that’s what we will do.’
UMWA members have traveled from the pine woods of Brookwood, Alabama and the hollows of West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania to show their solidarity with their brothers and sisters on strike.
‘Our membership has done everything we have asked them to do to support our brothers and sisters that have been on strike in Alabama,’ said President Roberts.
‘We have rallied together for the last ten months, and we will continue to dedicate ourselves in whatever manner we see fit until BlackRock and the other hedge funds put pressure on Warrior Met to come to the bargaining table in good faith and reach a fair contract for our members.’
‘It’s time for BlackRock to do their part to put pressure on Warrior Met to give our workers the fair and just contract they deserve,’ said Secretary-Treasurer Sanson.
“Our strikers have been waiting long enough. They made Warrior Met the profitable company they are today, and it’s time they shared some of those profits with the men and women who brought them out of bankruptcy, to begin with.’
Michael Wright, one of over 1,100 UMWA members on strike, has been a miner for 16 years.
‘We want everything back that we had before,” said Wright. “That’s the message we are trying to send to BlackRock. We go underground sacrificing our lives for our families. Warrior Met is making billions of dollars. Where’s our money?’
BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager with a portfolio in excess of $9.5 trillion dollars.