By Luis Feliz Leon / Labor Notes
In the middle of Amazon’s Prime Day promotional sales rush, 60 warehouse workers walked out for more than three hours at its delivery station in Pontiac, Michigan—bringing the facility to the brink of a total shutdown.
A delivery station is the last warehouse an Amazon package passes through before it is loaded into a truck or van en route to the customer.
This year’s “Prime Day” shopping bonanza July 11 and 12 set a record for the largest sales day in Amazon’s history. The crush of Prime Day puts even more pressure on workers to keep up with conveyor belts overflowing with boxes that can weigh as much as 50 pounds.
“We are demanding a safe work environment where we are not straining, pulling muscles from lifting heavy packages, or tripping over boxes falling off the conveyor belt,” said Alicia Ozier, one of the strikers at the delivery station.
She and her co-workers walked out after Amazon retaliated by refusing to accommodate her when she sustained an injury on the job.
They were joined by Amazon delivery drivers from Palmdale, California, who recently organized with the Teamsters. Those drivers have been on strike for three weeks, during which time they have picketed nine Amazon facilities around the country.
That strike “shows that workers can fight back against this company,” said Pontiac warehouse worker Nick White in a press release. “We invited them to extend their picket line to Michigan because this is one fight.”
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PRIMED FOR INJURY
Safety is a top issue among Amazon’s 1.6 million employees worldwide. That number doesn’t include 275,000 Amazon delivery drivers who are nominally employed by contractors through the company’s Delivery Service Partner program. Amazon says it employs 20,000 workers in Michigan across 20 facilities.
Workers at Amazon warehouses in the U.S. sustained nearly 39,000 injuries in 2022, according to the Strategic Organizing Center, and the injury rate at Amazon warehouses is 70 percent higher than other warehouses.
The company pushes workers to a pace that breaks down their bodies, influencing the productivity metrics and robotics of competitors like Walmart and Target.
“It’s very rare to walk into a warehouse in any industry at all and see a million units being shipped,” Marc Wulfraat, a longtime consultant in the logistics industry who runs the consulting firm MWPVL International, told Vox last year.
“A million a week is a high-volume operation, but Amazon, on a peak day, is doing a million units a day,” Wulfraat said. “In the history of warehouses, we’ve never seen these levels of automation coupled with these rates.”
Last October, Ozier and her co-workers marched on management to deliver a petition demanding that Amazon slow down its dangerous line speed and stop deducting hours from workers’ time-off bank for being mere minutes late.
“Amazon grants us UPT [unpaid time off],” she said, and then “steals it back in one-hour increments instead of the true time, or the minimum 15 minutes.” If you run out of UPT, you can get fired.
Another sore point: “We should not have to use our vacation, paid time off, or unpaid time off to cover an illness,” Ozier said on the bustling picket line. “We want sick time.”
Through petitions, marches on the boss, and button-up actions, the workers in the delivery station have already notched some wins. For one, Amazon now provides them with bottled water at all times. (Due to failing infrastructure, northern Michigan has been experiencing periodic water advisories, when tap water isn’t safe to drink unless you boil it first—so workers can’t use the warehouse water fountains.)
Workers also gained a modicum of shop floor control when Amazon agreed to allow them to stop the conveyor belt if there was an unsafe situation.
Scorching heat was another concern; they’ve been toiling in what Ozier describes as “near-heatstroke conditions.” The workers forced Amazon to install fans. But this remedy was short-lived—once the fans broke down, Amazon didn’t replace them, said White, interviewed on the picket line.
In May, Amazon started holding captive-audience meetings to pressure the workers not to form a union.
FUDGING THE NUMBERS
An Amazon spokesperson downplayed the Pontiac walkout: “With less than one percent of the employees at the facilities participating in today’s protest, we don’t anticipate any significant impact on our operations.”
She described DDT6 as a fulfillment center that opened this year with 1,200 employees.
But those figures are garbled. Delivery stations like DDT6 employ on average 100 to 200 workers. A fulfillment center is a much larger warehouse where customer orders are received and items are packed for shipping.
There is a large robotic fulfillment center DET3, which employs 3,000 people, located at the same Pontiac site. Both facilities opened in 2021.
Asked to clarify, the spokesperson wrote only “Apologies, Luis – that should say DET6. Thanks for checking!” But DET6 is a whole different fulfillment center, 17 miles away in Detroit.
Unfortunately, local news reports didn’t catch the obfuscation and wrote things like “A fraction of those workers—close to 100 people—were on the line Friday…”
In their petition last fall, the delivery station workers also demanded to restore a $3 peak-season pay increase, which Amazon had revoked in January 2022.
“Amazon sells this place as a career, but our workers shouldn’t have to DoorDash, they shouldn’t have to Uber, they shouldn’t have to do all these side gigs in order to make ends meet,” said White. He makes $19.45—the $17.95 base rate plus a $1.50 night-shift differential.
Employers struggled to attract and retain warehouse workers early in the pandemic, which caused a shift in spending from services to goods, said Monique Morrissey, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.
Non-college-educated workers had found new leverage by quitting and moving to better-paying or easier jobs, forcing Amazon and its competitors to respond with sign-on bonuses and wage increases. White saw ads from Walmart and Target last year advertising warehouse jobs that started in the $20 to $24 range.
“No doubt Amazon had to prominently advertise an increase in pay in response to negative reports about the company’s poor working conditions and low wages,” said Morrissey.
But wages have since slumped. Hiring website ZipRecruiter lists $15 to $16.50 for a Walmart freight handler in Madison Heights, Michigan; Indeed.com shows a Target overnight warehouse job starting at $15.25 in Sterling Heights. Amazon didn’t bother adding any peak-season bump last year.
Overall, Amazon has put downward pressure on wages in the industry. U.S. warehouse wages have fallen over the last decade to an annual average of $45,900, which is far below what workers were making decades ago—even as warehouse employment soared to 1.5 million by 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Across all industries, while worker productivity surged 62 percent from 1979 to 2020, average hourly pay crawled up just 17 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In 2018, in response to mounting organizing and political pressure, Amazon announced it would raise its minimum wage to $15. At the same time, UPS Teamsters were in contract negotiations. UPS part-timers, who work in warehouses sorting parcels and loading them into delivery trucks, were pressing for a $15 starting wage.
But the union capitulated to a $13 starting rate, rising to $15.50 in 2022. Part-timers already on the job got no catch-up raise to stay ahead of new hires. Then-President James P. Hoffa Jr. forced the contract through even after a majority voted it down. This year, with new leadership, the Teamsters are fighting for higher starting wages for new hires and catch-up increases for current employees.
In Palmdale, the delivery drivers negotiated a contract with Amazon’s subcontractor for $30 an hour—but Amazon terminated the contractor. They are now fighting for Amazon to honor that contract and bargain with the union as a joint employer.
Meanwhile at UPS, part-timers are pushing for $25 an hour, more full-time jobs, and an end to the “market rate adjustments” that allow the company to hike wages to attract new hires when the labor market is tight and lower them when the labor supply is plentiful.
UPS Teamsters have already won many of their key non-economic demands, but with negotiations at a standstill over part-time pay and other top economic demands, they’re hitting the bricks around the country in “practice picketing.” Their contract expires July 31.
A strong Teamster contract at UPS could show Amazon workers what a union can do. At a practice picket outside a Brooklyn UPS hub on July 14, Teamsters President Sean O’Brien rallied Local 804 members.
“UPS is going to strike themselves unless they get real, get smart,” he said over cheers and clapping. “They made $100 billion off all of you. Now is the time to reward the people that made them a tremendous success.
“We need to take this contract as a model, as an industry standard to organize the unorganized.”
Luis Feliz Leon
Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.