Thanks to the notoriously brutal working conditions at its fulfillment centers, Amazon has become a lighting rod of criticism from the American labor movement and the Democratic Socialists of America, who claim to champion the rights of workers (despite the fact that most of the organization's members are college students and creative-class workers relying on handouts from their parents to pay their expensive Brooklyn rents). The e-commerce giant even won the dubious distinction of being specifically called out in a bill proposed by Socialist champion Bernie Sanders (his "Stop BEZOS" act).
As investigative reporters on multiple continents have burnished Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' reputation as a ruthless capitalist by exposing some of the company's more extreme labor abuses, like effectively forcing employees to pee in bottles to avoid taking unpaid bathroom breaks and hiring ambulances to wait outside some of its warehouses to cart away workers suffering from heat stroke.
As the debate about what, exactly, Amazon owes its workers and the municipalities that host its facilities has taken on renewed relevance following the backlash to the generous tax breaks offered by NYC for Amazon to build a new headquarters in Long Island City (the city's subway is crumbling, but Amazon is getting taxpayer-funded handouts to build a helipad!), more Amazon workers are rising up to protest their brutal working conditions.
This month, workers at the Amazon's MSP1 fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota gathered outside the facility on a cold Friday evening to protest several of these 'abuses', including the company's refusal to accommodate Muslim workers by not providing adequate space and time for prayer as well as its refusal to accommodate workers observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which this year coincided with the company's Prime Day sale.
A Gizmodo story about the protest in Minnesota included an interesting detail about another demonstration at a facility in Staten Island. Workers at the Amazon facility in Staten Island who recently announced their intention to unionize complained about the company's refusal to install air-conditioning in its sweltering facility.
The reason given by Amazon for refusing to provide the air conditioning? The robots in its facility can't function optimally in cold weather.
MSP1 is a fairly new and heavily-roboticized factory, much like the facility on Staten Island, New York, where workers recently announced their intention to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). One worker at the Staten Island facility, in a protest outside New York’s City Hall last week, expressed concern over long shifts, non-functioning smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, and inhumane temperatures. "We have asked the company to provide air conditioning," she explained to the crowd, "but they told us that the robots inside can’t work in the cold weather."
One worker who was leaving work during the demonstration in Minnesota, which involved some 250 workers and labor activists, told Gizmodo that he felt "utterly expendable" and offered a comment that sounded like a line of dialogue ripped straight from Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."
One worker getting off his shift at MSP1 (we were unable to get his name) told Gizmodo that the rate of the work continues to climb while the workers remain utterly expendable, toiling in poor conditions. "If you work with me," he said, "you will be sick within a week." Another MSP1 worker, Khadra Kassim, told the crowd through a translator that due to a workplace injury she nearly miscarried her unborn daughter.
Amazon pulled out all the stops in trying to suppress the action and play down coverage in the media - including requesting the presence of police officers, who mostly stood around in confusion unable to discern which workers were demonstrating, and which were just leaving work (sound familiar?).
Just before 5pm, the crowd of protesters moved from the sidewalk in front of MSP1 - where they had set up a massive prayer rug as well as an amplification system from the bed of a pickup truck - and marched on the building itself.
Police officers, who had not been present earlier in the day, lay in wait in the parking lot and were joined by additional units including Minnesota State Patrol officers and the Scott County sheriff, approximately 16 vehicles in total. The Shakopee Police Department confirmed in a phone call with Gizmodo, "no arrests, no property damage, no injuries." In the moment, officers seemed confused as to which individuals were protesters and which were simply leaving work.
The crowd, meanwhile, dispersed peacefully, chanting, "Amazon - we’ll be back."
Unfortunately for the striking workers, Amazon has every incentive to dig in its heels. Amazon's economic heft is enough to cow municipal and state governments into cooperation, and as management seeks to assuage investors' festering fears about 'peak earnings', we imagine the company's much-maligned productivity targets will become increasingly stringent.
And while Amazon's workers gripe about the company treating them like they're expendable, the fact is that as Amazon robotics' continues to innovate and upgrade, pretty soon, the company's dependence on its human workers will decline, leading to lower head counts and - by extension - fewer jobs.