Mr. Bray is a former vice president at Amazon. Ms. Hoffman is the general secretary of UNI Global Union.
Covid-19 has created strange bedfellows. Six months ago we, a labor leader and an Amazon vice president, would have been on opposite sides in discussing the future of work at Big Tech in general and Amazon in particular. Then on May 1, one of us, Tim, walked away from a senior role at Amazon Web Services, and potentially millions in compensation, in protest over the firing of workers who spoke out about conditions in the company’s warehouses.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen Big Tech share prices and revenue rocket, while some of Amazon’s warehouse workers say they fear coming to work and catching the coronavirus. The company’s decision to fire the activists who demanded safer jobs is unacceptable.
Both of us now agree: Amazon — and the rest of Big Tech — must change. And that includes allowing its workers to unionize.
We’re not alone in wanting accountability from these companies: Jeff Bezos and the heads of Facebook, Google and Apple will appear before the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee today.
The coronavirus has killed over half a million people worldwide and pushed global unemployment to rates not seen since the Great Depression. Shared sacrifice is called for, yet the burden has been far from even. Since mid-March, when quarantined shoppers turned to Amazon’s vast retail platform, its shareholder value increased by nearly $500 billion, to more than $1.4 trillion. Stock market shares are owned disproportionately by the richest people in society, and by Mr. Bezos in particular; his lead over the other richest people on earth has increased markedly.
This wealth is not shared with the workers who help create it. The temporary Covid-19-related hourly raise was rolled back in June, but the order flow remains high, making the already stressful work of those who sort, package and deliver Amazon goods even worse.
My typical morning, my cat usually jumps on my face. Then my alarm goes off about 4 o’clock. I cry for about a good three minutes. Usually during the day, I am numb. I am on autopilot. So I give myself that three minutes to let everything out. So that way I don’t you know, have a breakdown. I grocery shop for thousands, maybe millions of people a day. I don’t know. We’re the back, legs, arms. We are the body of Amazon. We don’t need your thank you commercials. We need better protections and to be paid what we deserve. “Amazon has reportedly confirmed it’s going to stop paying its warehouse workers that extra $2 an hour in coronavirus hazard pay.” “Amazon’s unlimited unpaid-leave policy ended on May 1.” “That means if you have coronavirus, you are expected to still show up to work even after two weeks have passed.” I have lupus nephritis, which means my immune system is weak. So if I even get the mild condition of just getting corona, I would end up in critical condition because that’s how weak my body is. They’re still getting cases every other day or every other week, and not just our warehouse on Staten Island but across the United States. I’m home now scared to go to work. They ended the UPT policy. My leave of absence ended May 9. I requested a new leave, and Amazon denied it. This is my source of income for the past two years. I don’t want to give up the job, but in this pandemic, they’re making me choose between my life or a customer’s order. Amazon is acting like the pandemic is over and everything is back to normal. They call us essential. They call us heroes. But I’m just going to say it. We are expendable. You have 30 million-plus people on unemployment in the country. Hazard pay would actually help because a lot of people are the sole breadwinners now in their household— especially too because we’re risking our lives. Bring the unlimited UPT back. That keeps us safe versus coming in, walking around, not knowing whether they have the virus or not. Business is phenomenal for them right now. Even as unrest builds, it has done nothing to knock Amazon’s share price off the perch, even hitting new record highs. A decent amount of people that I work with have quit. I thought about it. I want to, but I can’t. Me and my sister work hard for everything. We were homeless. You know, my biggest fear is going back to that. “Amazon is facing questions about its initial response to employees who complained about safety.” “Two former Amazon employees say they were fired for their activism.” Definitely not scared of them. My mother was a Marine, and I was in the Navy. But am I scared of losing what keeps a roof over my head and food in my stomach? Yeah, that I’m scared of. We didn’t sign up to come in and risk our lives. We didn’t sign up to be someone’s hero. It’s a shitty choice. In these uncertain times, I just want to remind you that it’s still an uncertain time. Don’t let these policies expire before the pandemic is over.
As this was unfolding, most of Big Tech, including Amazon, sent white-collar workers home to “flatten the curve” and fight the pandemic. Tim saw company leadership go to great lengths to make sure this new system was working and actively seek feedback from the remote workers. Christy heard from a warehouse employee who said productivity targets made it difficult for workers to take a break even for hand washing without a mark on their record. Pay for warehouse workers starts at $15 an hour with minimal access to time off; in May Amazon ended the unpaid leave policy that for a few weeks allowed them to stay home if they had Covid-19 symptoms. The contrast in the treatment of knowledge and warehouse workers couldn’t be starker. Equally clear is the cause: One group has power, the other doesn’t.
Amazon’s decision to fire the activists was easy to make in the United States, where Amazon workers have no union and are left to fend for themselves. With no right to paid sick leave or protection from unfair dismissal, American workers are among the most vulnerable in the world to pressure from any employer, not just Amazon.
Union-represented Amazon workers in Spain, Italy, France and Germany initially failed to resolve their concerns through negotiation, but with court action, regulatory intervention and strikes, they got their needs addressed.
Let’s look at France: Unions there brought a civil case arguing that Amazon had taken inadequate steps to protect workers from infection risk and that it had sidestepped the unions’ statutory role. The court ordered Amazon to limit its sales to only “essential” items, or face harsh penalties until it could reach a safety agreement with the unions. Rather than negotiate, Amazon closed its French operations and appealed. But the appellate court also sided with the workers, who ultimately negotiated a settlement including mandatory union consultation over safety measures, union hiring of external experts to assess the measures’ effectiveness and a continued increase in workers’ hourly pay. The news from Europe shows that Amazon can work with unions and get good results.
Both of us want Amazon to share the wealth with workers and stop putting the relentless pursuit of revenue growth ahead of all other concerns. One way or another, this requires putting more power in the hands of workers. Regulation and legislation are part of the solution. But there’s no need to wait; power can be taken, not just given. That’s what unions are for.
Amazon is a data-driven company. It should recognize the evidence showing that countries with more collective bargaining have a stronger social fabric and better growth, and are more able to weather economic ups and downs. Businesses with collective bargaining relationships, including Auchan Retail and Carrefour, navigated the Covid-19 crisis with less disruption to their businesses and emerged with their reputations intact and even enhanced.
For its own future and the future of the global economy, Amazon should become more responsive to the women and men who’ve enriched shareholders and be willing to recognize and bargain with their representatives. When it comes to the rights of its workers, it should be a leader, not a laggard.
It’s not just Amazon: The need for more unionization is urgent across Big Tech. Amazon stands out because it combines the extraordinary profit margins of these companies with employing hundreds of thousands of front-line workers. There are fewer of these workers at the other iconic tech companies, but nevertheless their employees also deserve a voice over the issues that matter to them.
The question for Mr. Bezos and the billionaires of the world is: Are they ready to rise to the occasion? Will Big Tech listen to and work with its employees to help the world overcome the worst economic and social crisis in recent history?
Tim Bray is a former vice president at Amazon. Christy Hoffman is the general secretary of UNI Global Union.
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News – Opinion | We Have a Question for Jeff Bezos and Other Billionaires