“We’re Workers, Not Robots”

The Amazon workers who went on strike yesterday took on the world’s richest man and one of the world’s most powerful corporations. They’re heroes, plain and simple.

The exterior of an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Mohamed Hassan looks like everyone’s favorite uncle at a family picnic. He has a stylish goatee with some frost to it. If he told you he was fifty, you’d believe him; if he told you he was eighty, you’d believe him. “I am old,” is all he says. He has a ready smile and an expressive manner. He speaks Somali, but even before the translator tells us what he said, you can see when a joke’s coming.

He also walks with a cane, a bit of a stoop. He shows his wrists and elbows — there are bone spurs, and something about the way he holds his left arm seems a little off, like it would hurt him if he tried to straighten it out too fast. “I have injured my shoulder. My muscles ache. My bone here [on his elbow] and the one on the other side are not the same.” That’s what happens when your favorite uncle is lifting hundred-pound boxes up to three times a minute, for eleven-hour days, at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota.

On Monday, Hassan and several of his coworkers walked off the job in a six-hour strike, attempting to use Amazon’s Prime Day mega-sale as a point of leverage. Elsewhere in the United States, Amazon critics protested the company’s connections to immigration enforcement, and in Germany, a reported two thousand Amazon workers went on strike. Some consumers said they’d forgo buying from Amazon and other affiliated companies, refusing to pass the digital picket line.

In Shakopee, workers walked out to challenge the richest person in the world and remind him that, as Amazon worker Sahro Sharif told the crowd, “We are here because we’re workers, not robots.” Amazon admitted that at least fifteen workers walked off the job in Shakopee, but downplayed the significance, noting that the center has about 1,500 workers. “The fact is that Amazon provides a safe, quality work environment in which associates are the heart and soul of the customer experience, and today’s event shows that our associates know that to be true,” the company said in a statement. “We encourage anyone to come take a tour anytime.”

The Shakopee fulfillment center is one of scores of similar Amazon facilities across the country — nearly 150, by one estimate. Goods come in, get unpacked, and are then arranged in a building longer than two football fields. When consumers make their orders, the goods go out, and workers are expected to “make rate” — hit their hourly quota of bins lifted, shirts packed, or boxes sealed. “Three boxes a minute. Sometimes four, sometimes five,” Hassan says. Even a trip to the bathroom is no excuse — “every minute is counted against you.” Some workers have resorted to keeping an empty bottle handy.

On Monday, hundreds of supporters from labor unions, community action groups, and the Awood Center (an East African workers’ group) were on hand to support Hassan and the other strikers. Workers took turns sharing their stories. Sharif, who moved to Minnesota from Ohio two years ago, began by announcing that “we are here telling Amazon they need to do better. We are tired of Amazon workers being hurt on the job.”  Meg Bradley noted that her grandfather went on strike one hundred years ago in his factory. “I think he’s looking down on me and he’s pretty proud of what’s going on,” Bradley said.

The action was the third of its kind at the Shakopee facility, longer than workers’ flash action back in December, which took the company largely by surprise and nearly sparked police violence against the strikers, and longer than the three-hour strike in March. Driven by the organizing of Somali workers, the facility has become the most rebellious of Amazon’s US warehouses.

The company has steadily gotten savvier. This time, workers reported that Amazon stationed managers at every exit and made clear that anyone who walked out for the six-hour strike (three hours for the day shift, three hours for the evening shift) would have their names recorded. “If you go, we’re going to write names,” Hassan said they told him.

(In case you’re wondering, yes, it is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act to surveil workers engaged in protected, concerted activity, or to punish them for acting in concert in defense of their rights. Funny how Jeff Bezos, regularly lambasted by President Trump as an enemy of the people, has no reason to fear that Trump’s National Labor Relations Board will hold him accountable for alleged labor violations. The bonds of wealth for the few derived from the labor of the many are stronger than Twitter spats.)

At Monday night’s rally, some people had come great distances to show their solidarity. Westin Fridley, an IT worker from Seattle, read statements of support from his comrades; he gathered a hundred in less than a day after putting out a call via email. Michael Russo, a pilot for Atlas Air, which hauls Amazon products around the country, flew in from Chicago, and in full uniform and tie spoke of his union’s (Teamsters Local 1224) support up and down the corporate flow chart.  “We’re all just one more link in that whole supply chain,” he told me before the rally began. “The truck drivers, the last mile drivers, the cargo pilots — we’re all hauling the same stuff, and we’re all in this together.” Erin Murphy, a fiery union organizer and former candidate for Minnesota governor, was also there. “It’s not possible for me to stand idly by and not bring my voice and my time in solidarity with what they’re doing,” Murphy told me.

While many of us listened to the speakers, a determined group of one hundred or so kept up the picket at the facility’s entrance. Using the power of persuasion, with police on hand ready to respond to any perceived provocation, the group convinced more than a dozen freight drivers to support the picket line and turn back rather than enter the building.

Pushed to the Limit

Working conditions inside Amazon’s fulfillment centers literally amount to insult added to injury. According to worker testimonials, the company relies on big business’s favorite technique, the speedup, to drive workers harder and harder — because $11 billion in profits last year apparently wasn’t enough. Meg Bradley, who spoke at the rally, began work in November 2017 with seventy others. Five are left.

Predictably, the speedup means injuries. Pinched nerves. Carpal tunnel. Strained tendons. The kinds of workplace injuries that human beings always get when they’re pushed to the limit by a corporation whose concern for the welfare of their workers is second only to . . . anything that will increase profits. (Amazon has denied overburdening workers, insisting ahead of the strike that the company supports “people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”)

Kimberly Hatfield-Ybarra, an Amazon worker who came all the way from Dallas to join the strikers, has been battling Amazon over workplace injuries for more than a year. She “would clock fourteen miles before lunch . . . while I’m toting a pallet jack.” No surprise, then, that the repetitive stress injuries piled up. But the company’s efficiency knows no bounds. “Amazon is the best at what they do, in every aspect of their business,” she says. It’s not admiration. “When it comes to workers’ injuries, they know how to shoot down a claim.”

And then there’s the insult. Like many of the workers at this fulfillment center, Hassan is East African and Muslim. There’s a doorway — not a room, but a doorway — that is their designated prayer space (and, of course, they have to make rate even in the hours they pray). Nabihah Maqbool, of the nonprofit legal group Muslim Advocates, told me that her group filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges against the Shakopee fulfillment center, alleging that workers are being discriminated against on the basis of “race, religion, and national origin.”

Monday’s strike came just a day after President Trump, in tweets racist even for him, urged Minnesota’s Somali-born representative, Ilhan Omar, to “go back” to where she came from. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told me that “corporate greed has directly benefited from [companies] not allowing religious rights protected by the Constitution . . . it’s harassment, it’s denial of basic fundamental rights, and . . . it’s the physical overtake by these companies, who pretty much bleed these people out.” And yet, it’s these workers, some of the most harassed and put upon in the country, who are taking the initiative and realizing their collective power.

“Speak in One Voice”

Monday’s action showed that solidarity is powerful. Amazon wouldn’t react so strongly — stationing managers at every door, threatening to essentially blacklist employees — if they didn’t realize the threat. Even if the turnout was smaller than organizers had hoped for — they originally claimed about a hundred would walk out — any action like this is a threat to the company’s well-oiled revenue machine. Especially when it’s attracting support from national politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Warehouse workers, IT, airline pilots: Amazon, as a company, is infrastructure. Its huge profits come from its ability to squeeze every drop of efficiency from every stage of the process. It’s vulnerable at all of those points to even the smallest disruption.

An hour in December. Three in March. Six today. Amazon has to know that when workers are ready to make the leap from six hours to six days, their entire corporate model will be exposed. You can’t send a warehouse overseas, or to a Republican state down south. Amazon has more than $30 billion in cash on hand.  In this case, the power in the hands of the workers truly is greater than Amazon’s hoarded gold.

And Mohamed Hassan has a message to his fellow workers: “Speak in one voice, stand for our rights, unite our voice, and come out and tell the truth about what’s going on.”