New Frontiers in Disrespecting Workers

Here’s what Christian Smalls, who was recently fired after organizing a walkout at JFK1, a Staten Island Amazon facility, over the company’s response to coronavirus, told me about Amazon:

You have employees that have been [at Amazon] three, four, five years, and this is the respect that you pay them? Unpaid time? And meanwhile you’re hiring 100,000 people and paying them $17 an hour and double overtime pay? You’re forgetting the veterans who helped build the empire, and hiring people, putting more people at risk because these people are walking into buildings that are coronavirus-infested, double-digits of cases in a building. And, meanwhile, the people who helped you build this company up aren’t being paid at all. It’s disrespectful what [Bezos] is doing, and it’s a shame what he’s doing. He should be ashamed of himself. I don’t know how he sleeps at night.

In other words, Amazon is replacing its current workforce with a more desperate labor force, most likely some of the 22 million or so who have lost work during this past month. The hiring spree comes not from increased demand—though the company is likely enjoying an uptick in online orders as much of the population shelters in place—but from current employee’s absences from work as they stay home, unpaid, prioritizing their lives over the functioning of the online-ordering empire. As Smalls put it: “Right now, nobody’s at work. I hear it’s a ghost town in there. Nobody’s going to work, but they’re all unpaid. They’re just hiring people who want a job right now.” While Amazon’s current workers stay home, the company trawls the depths of the reserve army of labor for those willing to risk their lives for $17 an hour.

It should be noted that, while Smalls was one of only a few workers who have been fired after organizing against Amazon’s working conditions, the company has pioneered strategies for retaliation during the epidemic. Here’s what one worker who organized a picket at a Chicago-area Amazon facility told me,

The response [to the protest was] basic surveillance and intimidation, continual reminders about the six-feet-apart policy. Now, as we’ve seen with that Staten Island worker [Christian Smalls] who got fired, they obviously fired him for organizing, but one of the excuses Amazon provided was that he broke quarantine — he was violating the six-foot rule. On Monday night, someone from corporate was there and pulled out a phone to take a picture of us. We started to put it together that they were building their case for writing us up or firing us for violating the so-called CDC-recommended rule.

Never mind the fact that every single job function in our warehouse requires you being within six feet of each other. Everyone knows that including management. When we were turning in the petition towards the end of the Monday night action, we were inside the break room and management came in and told us we had to be six feet apart.

But they said it while literally standing shoulder to shoulder. I was just like, “the two of you are not six feet apart.” They look at each other and uncomfortably shuffle a couple of feet away.

Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, is innovating levels of disrespect for its workers, too.

As Business Insider reports today,

Whole Foods is keeping an eye on stores at risk of unionizing through an interactive heat map, according to five people with knowledge of the matter and internal documents viewed by Business Insider.

The heat map is powered by an elaborate scoring system, which assigns a rating to each of Whole Foods’ 510 stores based on the likelihood that their employees might form or join a union.

The stores’ individual risk scores are calculated from more than two dozen metrics, including employee “loyalty,” turnover, and racial diversity; “tipline” calls to human resources; geographic proximity to a union office; and violations recorded by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The map also tracks local economic and demographic factors such as the unemployment rate in a store’s locale and the percentage of families in the area that are living below the poverty line.

The company uses three sets of “risk factors” to calculate the score: external risks, store risks, and member sentiment.

External risks include “local union membership size; distance in miles between the store and the closest union; number of charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board alleging labor law violations; and a ‘labor incident tracker,’ which logs incidents related to organizing and union activity,” as well as “the percentage of families within the store’s zip code that fall below the poverty line and the local unemployment rate.”

Store risks include “average store compensation, average total store sales, and a “diversity index” that represents the racial and ethnic diversity of every store. Stores at higher risk of unionizing have lower diversity and lower employee compensation, as well as higher total store sales and higher rates of workers’ compensation claims, according to the documents.”

Member sentiment, the third set of factors, “include items like employee loyalty and engagement.”

As Business Insider notes, Whole Foods is taking the Walmart path of anti-unionism. Years ago, Walmart hired defense-contractor Lockheed Martin to do similar union-busting against OUR Walmart, a union-backed organizing effort. As Bloomberg reported on the Walmart effort at the time,

Internally, however, Walmart considered [OUR Walmart] enough of a threat that it hired an intelligence-gathering service from Lockheed Martin, contacted the FBI, staffed up its labor hotline, ranked stores by labor activity, and kept eyes on employees (and activists) prominent in the group. During that time, about 100 workers were actively involved in recruiting for OUR Walmart, but employees (or associates, as they’re called at Walmart) across the company were watched; the briefest conversations were reported to the “home office,” as Walmart calls its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

Whereas Walmart was once the vanguard of union-busting, the Amazon empire may be overtaking it as the most anti-social company. Congratulations to Bezos.

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