Amazon Is the Largest Employer in California’s Inland Empire. Workers There Want a Union.

Ten years ago, Amazon operated zero facilities in California. It now operates close to 40 facilities in the Inland Empire alone, making it the region’s largest employer. Workers essentially live in a company town — which may be why many want to unionize.

A robot sorts and stacks bins at an Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, California. (Watchara Phomicinda / MediaNews Group / The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

It was a Monday afternoon in Moreno Valley, California, and Nannette Plascencia was sitting at a table outside of an Amazon warehouse in high winds and pouring rain engaging in the riskiest activity of her career: encouraging her colleagues to sign union cards.

Plascencia has worked at the Moreno Valley facility for seven and a half years, nearly its entire existence, as a vendor receive, scanning and sorting items that come into the warehouse from the company’s many vendors. She said she’s never been disciplined by warehouse management, and does “good work” with a group of colleagues she enjoys. She’s in some ways an unlikely organizer of her coworkers at the Moreno Valley warehouse, who are in the early days of their attempt to become the second Amazon facility in the country to successfully unionize with the Amazon Labor Union.

But Plascencia has plenty of reasons to organize. Not only does Amazon have proficiency requirements that vendor receives must meet, a rate at which they must complete their work, but the company’s computers also track how much time it takes each vendor receive to scan each item that comes into the facility and how frequently they are scanning items. Even if they meet their overall proficiency requirement, if a worker is not scanning items at stringent intervals they are threatened with discipline. Plascencia said that the algorithm makes no allowance for the time that she and her colleagues spend dealing with items that are damaged or any of the spills and broken glass they see on a daily basis. Nor does it factor in time for workers to use the bathroom, which results in workers skipping bathroom breaks.

“Even if we made rate, we could still be written up for time off-task,” Plascencia said. “We would tell them: How could we have time off-task if we were able to make rate? If I was off this long, there’s no way I would have been able to make my rate.”

Plascencia said that the relentless, impersonal nature of the surveillance has made her feel like a “lab rat,” working under constant suspicion despite her sterling record at the company. So Plascencia began organizing, referring to a potential union as the “soccer team” in her conversations with her colleagues in an attempt to keep Amazon officials in the dark. Several months ago she purchased a ticket to see Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls speak in Hollywood. After meeting and talking to Smalls at the event, she was clear on the path forward.

Workers at the Moreno Valley facility aren’t the only workers organizing at Amazon in the Inland Empire. Ricardo Perez, who works as an amnesty floor monitor at an air hub facility in San Bernardino, said that workers at his facility were pushed toward organizing last year when Amazon closed its facility for several days around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and only offered workers a fraction of the pay they were expecting to make.

“We asked for back pay to pay back those thirty-five hours that people lost, because we had even heard stories of associates who had lost their homes over the holidays due to the loss of that income,” Perez said. “That was just heartbreaking for everyone to hear.”

A group of workers at the facility delivered a petition to management at the facility. At a meeting in March, the workers were told that while the company wouldn’t be giving them any back pay, they would be able to take unlimited overtime for the entire month to help offset the loss of income over the holiday period. Perez called it a “small victory,” but one that changed the mindset of a number of workers at the hub: if they organized, change at the facility was possible. That understanding was critical as record-setting inflation quickly hit a crisis point for many of the workers at the air hub during the spring. Some of the workers, Perez said, could no longer afford the gas they needed to get to the warehouse.

More than eight hundred people signed another petition asking for a $5 per hour raise. They were told that the company would launch a wage review and deliver the results in the fall. For Perez and many of his colleagues, that wasn’t good enough. In mid-August, a group of more than a hundred fifty workers at the facility organizing with Inland Empire Amazon Workers United walked off the job. Perez said workers are not currently thinking about unionizing, but that, depending on how Amazon responds to their demands, workers may consider it down the line.

Amazon’s presence in the Inland Empire, the region of coastal Southern California centered around San Bernardino and Riverside, is overwhelming. The corporation is the region’s largest private employer. Last year, reporter Erika Hayasaki wrote that it “is so enmeshed in the Inland Empire that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, internet cloud provider and high school career track.”

Its presence in the Inland Empire is, perhaps, a preview of the world some believe that Amazon hopes to build: one in which it has an iron grip on every aspect of American life from housing to health care to education. It’s also why the battle to organize Amazon in the Inland Empire is of particular importance.

A World of Warehouses

The fact that the pandemic has been lucrative for Jeff Bezos is well-documented — his net worth grew by nearly 80 percent in 2020 alone. What is less well-documented is the extent to which Amazon used the dire early period of the pandemic to drastically expand its physical footprint in American communities. Between the start of 2020 and the end of 2021, Amazon more than doubled the number of warehouses it operates in the United States from five hundred to more than twelve hundred. Ten years ago, Amazon didn’t operate a single facility in the state of California. It now operates close to forty different facilities in the Inland metro area alone.

Amazon is far from the only multinational corporation operating warehouses in the area. As the United States began outsourcing much of its manufacturing in the early 1980s, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which now process 40 percent of the country’s imported goods, grew in importance. In the decades since, corporations like Walmart, United Parcel Service, Target, and Lowe’s have set up shop in the nearby Inland Empire with remarkable results: according to the Robert Redford Conservancy at Pitzer College, these corporations now have one billion square feet of warehouses in the area, covering nearly thirty-seven contiguous square miles.

The environmental effects of all this construction are astounding. The Redford Conservancy estimated that trucks made more than one million trips in and out of warehouses in the area in 2020, producing more than ten billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and helping to ensure that the Inland Empire has the worst air quality in the United States. More than 70 percent of children under ten in the area have asthma, while rates of cardiovascular disease are elevated as well. Amazon has said that it will, at some point, transition to electric vehicles. Susan Phillips, a professor at Pitzer and director of the Redford Conservancy, said she thinks the company owes the region reparations.

Unsurprisingly, lower-income and immigrant communities have been hit the hardest by the environmental destruction. Inland Empire communities like Riverside and San Bernardino are majority Latino, comprised in part by working-class people of color who have been priced out of Los Angeles. Across the state of California, it’s the labor of working-class people of color that is enriching corporate bosses like Bezos.

As of 2017, 54 percent of warehouse workers in the state were Latino, while 1o percent were black and 9 percent Asian-American. It’s also their communities that have been radically transformed by the profusion of warehouses, turning what were long pastoral, heavily agricultural towns into places scaled for mass commerce instead of people. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the small, historically black town of Bloomington, where six of the eight public schools are already located next to warehouses and Amazon earlier this year proposed building a new, 260,000 square foot warehouse five hundred feet from the high school.

For many in the Inland Empire, it’s a familiar story. The recent history of the land that Amazon and its corporate brethren now occupy is largely one of extraction, especially in contrast with the immense wealth located near it. There are almost no warehouses in higher-income, plurality white Orange County, even though Orange County consumes more e-commerce products per capita than counties that surround it.

“It’s kind of seen as the backyard or the side yard of the LA area,” Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director at the Warehouse Workers Resource Center, said of the Inland Empire. “It’s where a lot of dumps and waste facilities were put, kind of the dirtier facilities and industries they didn’t want in LA, especially by the ’70s and ’80s… and I think that’s kind of similar to what the narrative is now: that’s where we put all the warehouses — out there where those people live.”

Kaoosji said that when Amazon arrived in 2011, there was a fair amount of optimism among Inland Empire residents that a technology company renowned for innovation would provide blue-collar workers with a chance to change that paradigm. Instead, what workers have primarily found are precarious jobs that provide no path to economic advancement and are so grueling that workers often can’t keep them for more than a brief period of time.

According to data from the National Employment Law Project, the turnover rate for warehouse workers in California counties with Amazon fulfillment centers was more than 100 percent in 2017 — meaning that warehouse workers were leaving their jobs faster than they could be hired. While those numbers include warehouses not run by Amazon, the effect of Amazon on the numbers is unmistakable. Prior to Amazon opening facilities in California, the rate of turnover for warehouse workers in Amazon counties was just 38.1 percent.

Churning through and discarding workers is not an unintended consequence of Amazon’s extraordinary growth. It’s a core part of its business model. According to Amazon’s former HR chief of operations Dave Niekerk, Bezos believed that workers became less eager to perform over time and wanted to avoid amassing “a large, disgruntled” workforce that would lead the company on “a march to mediocrity.” Amazon does not want hourly wage workers like Plascencia to stick around, lest they get any ideas about organizing to claim even a small share of power.

Ready to Fight Back

At Plascencia’s facility, workers who work on the outbound side of operations loading trucks are frequently drenched in sweat to the point where they look like “they just got off of a treadmill.” Perez, meanwhile, said that ambulances were called to the air hub five separate times over a two-week stretch during a recent Southern California heat wave as workers recorded indoor temperatures of 85+ degrees.

“We are constantly looking at each other and asking people, ‘Are you okay?’ We’ve had associates working with the safety team to get ice chests everywhere, to get electrolyte packets, to make sure that everyone is able to have access to cold water so that people are able to take their breaks whenever they need to, because by the time someone starts to feel woozy, drowsy, or feels like they’re going to faint, it might already be too late,” Perez said.

Amazon has created a set of frontline jobs so demanding, in conditions so degrading, that it is now running out of workers to employ. An Amazon memo leaked in June warned that if the company “continue[s] business as usual,” it will deplete its US labor supply by 2024. In the Inland Empire, the crisis is more acute: the research, conducted in the middle of 2021, suggested that Amazon was on track to run out of workers in the region by the end of this year.

It is perhaps with this issue in mind that Amazon has turned to recruiting directly in area high schools. Cajon High School in San Bernardino offers an Amazon-funded “Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathway” career track that prepares students for life in the logistics industry, while Pacific High School, also in San Bernardino, prepares students to work on commercial diesel trucks. Amazon has donated thousands of dollars to local districts as well. Perez, who is twenty years old and has already been working at the company for two and a half years, estimated that over half of the workers at the air hub at its launch were twenty-two years old or younger. It’s a snapshot of the extent to which the corporation and the logic of warehouse expansion as the area’s only viable industry has captured many in local government.

But a decade-plus of the Amazon experience has left communities increasingly fractured. Kaoosji noted that between the high turnover rate and Amazon’s practice of hiring workers for the holiday season and scheduling them down or letting them go after it finishes, many of its jobs are functionally seasonal — forcing workers to move around the area throughout the year in search of work.

“There’s a real echo of the agricultural system that we’re seeing here with brown people doing that work for the benefit of the country,” Kaoosji said. “It used to be this was where all the oranges for the country came from, now it’s where everything comes from — but it’s still hardworking people of color doing that work, fundamentally, and not really getting the benefit.”

Given the runaway proliferation of warehouses and the lack of any significant alternative economic vision from local leaders, organizers and workers alike believe that the only realistic recourse is to fight back against the corporations that would rather extract their labor and forget about them. Activists have pushed a number of communities to strengthen environmental standards or place moratoriums on warehouse building entirely. Now, the workers themselves are taking the next step.

“I talked to over seven hundred people, and they all feel the same way I felt the first time when I decided to do this,” Plascencia said of her decision to launch the unionization push. “The only obstacle is getting the fear out of them. Because they want change. They want it badly.”