For Anna Ortega, working at a pawn shop during the pandemic was a grind. A staffing shortage meant that she had to pick up far more hours than she wanted. She felt burnt out. So, in 2021, with money she’d saved from all those hours, Anna quit and took a few weeks off from work. And once her savings started to dwindle, she did what many people who need a job in San Bernardino do: she found a job at an Amazon warehouse.
“At the time, my mother was working at an Amazon facility,” explains Ortega. This, too, is not unusual in the Inland Empire, where Amazon has expanded its presence, becoming the region’s largest employer. San Bernardino is home to Cajon High School, a public school that offers classes in the “Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathways” career track, some of which are taught in a classroom designed to resemble an Amazon facility. (That Ortega’s mother is currently out from Amazon due to an on-the-job injury isn’t surprising, either: the company’s injury rate nationally is roughly double that of the industry average).
Ortega intended to apply to the Amazon facility where her mother worked, but the company was offering a bonus for people who took positions at KSBD, Amazon’s West Coast air hub that opened in April 2021 despite community protests. She took the job at KSBD.
Born and raised in San Bernardino, Ortega has seen how the warehouses have transformed not only the region’s landscape, but its air, too. Like many people in the area, which has the worst air pollution in the country, she was born with asthma. She occasionally saw clouds of black smoke rising from warehouses. Medical professionals call the area a “diesel death zone.”
“There’s always a friggin’ semitruck,” says Ortega. “The air hits me hard.”
A survey of Amazon workers in the Inland Empire during the early months of the pandemic found that the overwhelming majority of respondents suffered from asthma or another lung-related illness. Despite such illnesses making workers particularly vulnerable to COVID, they reported lacking adequate masks and sanitizer in their facilities.
Today, workers in the area are organizing as Inland Empire Amazon Workers United (IE AWU). While the group isn’t a formal union, they act like one. Ortega is now an active member, but she didn’t get involved until recently.
“When one of my coworkers came up to me with the first petition that really started off the organizing in 2021, I was still taking on extra work tasks in hopes that I would get a promotion,” says Ortega. She was afraid of jeopardizing that chance and certain that anyone who signed the petition, which requested back pay after workers lost several days of pay when KSBD temporarily shut down without explanation, would get fired. But then Amazon announced a new national policy minimizing workers’ lost pay in cases of facility shutdowns.
“Seeing that all these workers together brought change was powerful,” says Ortega.
She went back to the coworker who had asked her to sign the petition. While Ortega had previously refused, she now had something else on her mind: a union. While she had never been a union member before, her best friend’s dad was in one, and it had shown her how unions can make a bad job much better. She asked her coworker for thoughts about unionizing. The coworker’s eyes “lit up.”
In the time since that first petition, KSBD workers have organized several actions, including walkouts in August and October of last year in which more than one hundred of the facility’s 1,500 or so workers participated, holding signs outside the facility with messages like “Prime shoppers beware: Amazon Air unfair.” They know that the West Coast air hub’s importance to Amazon gives them strategic leverage to extract concessions. If KSBD workers don’t load the company’s planes, the cost to Amazon adds up quickly.
The workers’ demands include raising starting wages from seventeen to twenty-two dollars an hour, safer working conditions (excessively high temperatures, both in the facility and for those who load and unload the airplanes outside it, are a longstanding issue), and an end to alleged retaliation against those who speak up about issues at the company. Workers say there are currently at least five anti-union consultants at KSBD, and that they have been targeting organizers.
Sara Fee, an outspoken leader of IE AWU at KBSD, was hired shortly after KSBD opened. She unloads trailers on the docks in the air hub’s outbound department. In the summer, she says, it can get so hot that her shirt soaks through with sweat three or four times a shift; a heat wave in the fall of 2022 saw temperatures of over one hundred degrees for weeks straight. Before Fee and her coworkers started organizing, they frequently worked in such heat with few breaks, fearing disciplinary action should they pause to cool off and drink water.
They started petitioning Amazon to respect California Division of Occupational Safety and Health heat-safety standards for outdoor workers. Workers estimate that there are around five hundred people who labor on the tarmacs at KSBD; some brought thermometers to their shifts, recording tarmac temperatures as high as 121 degrees. Management was cowed. Today, KSBD’s outdoor workers can take heat breaks as they please so long as they inform someone. But workers also recorded indoor temperatures peaking at ninety-one degrees, and that issue hasn’t been fixed.
“Amazon doesn’t have a culture of safety,” says Fee, who worked as a caregiver before taking a job at Amazon in April of 2021. “It’s all about production.”
In early January of this year, Fee spoke to KSBD’s general manager about her workplace safety concerns, as well as other frustrations. She and her coworkers were being “stalked and harassed” by the anti-union consultants inside the facility, she says. Shortly after the conversation, Fee was suspended from Amazon.
Workers were outraged by what they saw as retaliation. They filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the National Labor Relations Board against Amazon and its subsidiary, Amazon Air, alleging the suspension was a response to Fee’s protected organizing activities. Then, they spread word of the situation at KSBD, passing out flyers about Fee’s suspension and wearing stickers reading, “Where’s Sara?” They asked the same question on the Voice of Associates board, an online forum Amazon provides for worker feedback. Some pledged to strike if Fee wasn’t reinstated.
At the time, Amazon told the Frontline Observer that the ULP charge “is without merit” and that “Ms. Fee is alleged to have acted in a very unprofessional and inappropriate manner and we’re investigating the incident like we would for any employee.”
By January 5, Fee was told that the investigation had concluded, and she was to return to work the next morning. She says she’s glad to be back on the job — and to have notched another victory for workers at one of Amazon’s most important locations.
Amazon hasn’t granted that five-dollar-an-hour raise yet, safety remains a concern, and California’s cost of living isn’t getting any cheaper. But workers did win a small differential for workers on the night shift, and the company has relented on heat breaks. There are more fans in the warehouse now, too. Each victory builds confidence, she says. No matter how big the company may be, these workers showed they can force Amazon to change its ways.
“We’re David throwing stones at Goliath,” says Fee. “But David won.”