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Amazon’s Clashes With Labor: Days of Conflict and Control

Amazon was built on an underdog philosophy, but its workers are finding a voice. That presents a problem for the company that goes far beyond the union vote in Alabama.

It has been Day 1 at Amazon ever since the company began more than a quarter-century ago. Day 1 is Amazon shorthand for staying hungry, making bold decisions and never forgetting about the customer. This start-up mentality — underdogs against the world — has been extremely good for Amazon’s shoppers and shareholders.

Day 1 holds less appeal for some of Amazon’s employees, especially those doing the physical work in the warehouses. A growing number feel the company is pushing them past their limits and risking their health. They would like Amazon to usher in a more benign Day 2.

The clash between the desire for Day 1 and Day 2 has been unfolding in Alabama, where Amazon warehouse workers in the community of Bessemer have voted on whether to form a union. Government labor regulators are getting ready to sort through the votes in the closely watched election. A result may come as soon as this week. If the union gains a foothold, it will be the first in the company’s history.

Attention has been focused on Bessemer, but the struggle between Day 1 and Day 2 is increasingly playing out everywhere in Amazon’s world. At its heart, the conflict is about control. To maintain Day 1, the company needs to lower labor costs and increase productivity, which requires measuring and tweaking every moment of a worker’s existence.

That kind of control is at the heart of the Amazon enterprise. The idea of surrendering it is the company’s greatest horror. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, wrote in his 2016 shareholder letter: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

For many years, Amazon has managed to maintain control and keep Day 1 going by dazzling with delivery and counted on the media, regulators and politicians to ignore everything unpleasant. The few stories about workers rarely got traction.

But it is now the second-largest private employer in the country. There is widespread pro-worker sentiment in the United States and a pro-union president. In Bessemer, many of the pro-union workers are Black, which makes this a civil rights story as well.

Amazon needs to  measure and tweak every moment of a worker’s existence to maintain its edge, but it is facing more pushback against its control.
Bob Miller for The New York Times

So the costs associated with Day 1 are finally coming into view. And it is showing up not only in Alabama, but in the form of lawsuits, restive workers at other warehouses, Congressional oversight, scrutiny from labor regulators and, most noisily, on Twitter.

In recent weeks, a heated discussion about whether Amazon’s workers must urinate in bottles because they have no time to go to the bathroom — a level of control that few modern corporations would dare exercise — has raged on Twitter.

“Amazon is reorganizing the very nature of retail work — something that traditionally is physically undemanding and has a large amount of downtime — into something more akin to a factory, which never lets up,” said Spencer Cox, a former Amazon worker who is writing his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota about how the company is transforming labor. “For Amazon, this isn’t about money. This is about control of workers’ bodies and every possible moment of their time.”

Amazon did not have a comment for this article.

Signs that Amazon is facing more pushback against its control have started to pile up. In February, Lovenia Scott, a former warehouse worker for the company in Vacaville, Calif., accused Amazon in a lawsuit of having such an “immense volume of work to be completed” that she and her colleagues did not get any breaks. Ms. Scott is seeking class-action status.

Last month, the California Labor Commissioner said 718 delivery drivers who worked for Green Messengers, a Southern California contractor for Amazon, were owed $ 5 million in wages that never made it to their wallets. The drivers were paid for 10-hour days, the labor commissioner said, but the volume of packages was so great that they often had to work 11 or more hours and through breaks.

Amazon said it no longer worked with Green Messengers and would appeal the decision. Green Messengers could not be reached for comment.

An Amazon warehouse in the Canadian province of Ontario showed rapid spread of Covid-19 in March. “Our investigation determined a closure was required to break the chain of transmission,” said Dr. Lawrence Loh, the regional medical officer. “We provided our recommendation to Amazon.” The company, he said, “did not answer.” The health officials ordered the workers to self-isolate, effectively shutting the facility for two weeks.

And five U.S. senators wrote a letter to the company last month demanding more information about why it was equipping its delivery vans with surveillance cameras that constantly monitor the driver. The technology, the senators wrote, “raises important privacy and worker oversight questions Amazon must answer.”

Amazon has presented a different opinion of what Day 1 means for workers. The first thing it mentions in its official statement on Bessemer is the starting pay of $ 15.30 per hour, double the federal minimum wage.

Mr. Cox, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in Washington State, said the higher pay had paradoxically fueled the discontent. The pay “is better than working at a gas station, so people naturally want to keep these jobs,” he said. “That’s why they want them to be fair. I saw a lot of depression and anxiety when I worked for Amazon.”

(Mr. Cox said he was fired by Amazon in 2018 for organizing. Amazon told him that he had violated safety protocol.)

The confrontation between Day 1 and Day 2 has been sharpest over bladders.

The topic erupted last month when Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, tweeted at the company, “Paying workers $ 15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.”

Amazon’s social media account fired back: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”

This isn’t the way corporations usually talk to members of Congress, even on Twitter. On Friday, after days of being pummeled on the issue, Amazon apologized to Representative Pocan, saying: “The tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.” Amazon blamed Covid and “traffic,” not its punishing schedules.

Representative Pocan responded on Saturday with a sigh. “This is not about me, this is about your workers — who you don’t treat with enough respect or dignity,” he wrote.

The bathroom question is one on which the company has long been vulnerable. Enforcement files from regulators in Amazon’s home state of Washington indicate that questions about whether the company had an appropriate number of bathrooms in its Seattle headquarters have arisen over the past dozen years.

The company has “insufficient lavatory facilities for male employees,” according to a 2012 complaint received by the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. “Employees routinely traverse multiple buildings in search of available facilities.”

A 2014 complaint filed by an Amazon employee to the same department said employees got 12 minutes a day for “bathroom, getting water, personal calls, etc.” outside of normally scheduled breaks. Those who needed further toilet time had to provide a doctor’s note “explaining why the need to void more than usual.”

The complaints went beyond Amazon’s white-collar offices. A warehouse worker told Labor and Industries in 2009 that a manager and a human resources representative had told her that “there would be disciplinary action against me if I continue to use the bathroom on company time” — she meant unscheduled breaks. The employee added that the H.R. representative told her that “it was not fair to the company that I was getting paid when I’m not working because I’m in the bathroom.”

Miles Fortune for The New York Times

Amazon did not respond to questions about the enforcement reports. A spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industries declined to comment, except to note that outside of Amazon, “we really don’t get a lot of bathroom-related complaints.”

Other technology companies have prided themselves on overriding mere bodily needs. Marissa Mayer, an early Google employee, attributed the search company’s success to working 130 hours a week — entirely possible, she said in a 2016 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower and how often you go to the bathroom.”

When Google was a start-up, the notion was that you gave up everything — family, sleep, diversion — so you might become successful and rich. But former workers at Amazon warehouses said that under the Day 1 philosophy, they suffered merely to stay employed.

“I believe many employees have indirectly lost their job for going to the bathroom. You’re like, can I hold it to break time?” said John Burgett, who blogged for several years about working in an Amazon warehouse in Indiana.

His conclusion on his last entry, in 2016: Amazon was “testing the limits of human beings as a technical tool.”

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