Amazon is among Chicago’s biggest employers—and unlike many industries, its Chicago footprint grew rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic, scouting new sites in Pullman, McKinley Park, Gage Park, West Humboldt Park, and other neighborhoods. By the same token, worker organizing at local Amazon sites took off in 2019, and as the corporation built new locations, new organizing efforts were born.
This is according to workers involved with Amazonians United, the workers’ committee that carried out a series of workplace actions in recent years and has secured several labor wins in Chicago-area Amazon sites. In March 2020, employees at DCH1, the Little Village-Pilsen warehouse, learned by robocall of the first confirmed cases of coronavirus. As the Weekly reported at the time, Amazon lacked safety precautions: it did not require or provide masks, sanitizing or personal protective equipment, and did not have social distancing protocols.
With a list of demands, dozens of workers organized work stoppages on March 30 and April 3, as well as popular petitions that eventually granted them safety measures and paid time off at the height of COVID. Within a year of these actions, Amazon announced that it would shutter the facility at 2801 South Western Avenue—the base of the Chicago chapter of Amazonians United. Some in the worker-led union believe that it was an attempt to break up their legally protected activity. But also, as Amazon admitted, this was their oldest delivery center in Chicago. Workers had noticed a variety of OSHA violations in the 50,000-square-foot warehouse, such as holes in the floor, old machinery, and other liabilities.
Amazon would relocate workers to other sites only if they took up the new graveyard shift—which they refer to as the “megacycle.” The ten-hour shift, from 1:20am to 11:50am, is a highly inconvenient schedule for parents of small children and people holding second jobs or going to school. Despite the constant employee turnover, many members of Amazonians United were dispersed to other Chicago delivery stations.
While their organizing was no longer concentrated in one place, organized workers say this move has allowed them to build power across the region. Right before Christmas—Amazon’s busiest season—workers staged walkouts from the Gage Park and Cicero facilities, accusing their supervisors of overworking and underpaying them. Their demand for fair and consistent pay across facilities resulted in $2 raises in January of this year.
The Weekly has since caught up with Amazon workers. Below is an interview with Amazon employee and organizer Ted Miin, in his own words.
Tell me about your organizing committee and how did you manage to organize people across locations?
We are a union, and union [means] workers that come together to address issues to make things better for ourselves. So we’re definitely a union. I think one of the beauties of the sort of organizing that we’re doing [is that it] is based on our solidarity, our relationships with each other. And so just because our workplaces closed and we transferred to different locations, it didn’t mean that we didn’t have a relationship or a union anymore. It just meant that now we were spread out a little bit, and we had to figure out how to how to rebuild in some ways, because if you [had] twenty friends in one place, and now you have ten friends in one place and ten friends in another, well, you need to figure out how you can communicate as a union of twenty people and not be divided by that.
But our relationships were largely unaffected. Other than folks that had to quit, but even then, some of our co-workers that had to quit, we’re still in an organization with, we’re still coming to the same cookouts. Some of our co-workers that have to quit, it turns out, months or even a year or two later, end up back at Amazon because their situation changes. Maybe they went to work at Target or Walmart for a little bit. And maybe they had a second job that fell through and then they reapplied. I think the beauty of our approach is that these long-term relationships transcended just one warehouse location.
Can you tell me more about the recent actions at Amazon sites?
We had been transferred to these new warehouses over this eight month period, and it was pretty clear among coworkers that it’s the same thing as everywhere else, and basically every job is overworked and underpaid. The main issues when we’re talking with each other at work in the break room are: First off, we’re underpaid, even compared to Target and Walmart in the same areas. Amazon always tells us that they “remain competitive with compensation” and “we’re always assessing,” and we’re going to them [saying], “Hey, Target just raised their pay from $20 to $22 an hour, you’re still paying us at $15.80. I thought you said you’re being competitive. What’s the deal?” And then nothing, we’ll never hear back.
And on top of that, [we’re] understaffed. So instead of having, for example, thirty workers to move all these packages, they might only have twenty-five or twenty-six. And that makes a huge difference for how fast we have to move, literally how much weight and [how many] packages over the course of a ten-hour shift that each worker has to move. This increases the rate of injury. I think I saw a recent report that the injury rates at Amazon warehouses are two times more than other logistics warehouses, like UPS and FedEx, for example. So we were overworked, underpaid, and pissed off.
It was pretty easy for us to decide on our main demands. At DIL3, we wanted a $3 an hour raise just to match the pay that Amazon was already giving other co-workers and other stations, [but] not ours. Also, to get us closer to what competitors like Target and Walmart were paying, as well as safe staffing and the option to rotate, so that we can [work in] different positions with the warehouse, and at least be a bit less worn down doing the same tasks day in and day out. So we did a petition to bring our co-workers together around the same demands and make sure we could unite around the same issues. Almost everyone on our shifts signed the petition.
We just went around and talked to everyone in the break room [or] outside in the parking lot. Nearly everyone signed it. We delivered it to management and we told them they had a week to respond… I think like two weeks passed. Still nothing… And I think it was common sense for most of our co-workers: “we have to stop working, we have to stop doing the thing that’s hurting us.” We had to disrupt the numbers, which is what they care about. To make them take us seriously… we needed to walk out.
We coordinated with our coworkers at the other delivery station. We both walked out a few days before Christmas. And I think it was almost exactly a month after that Amazon announced the raise for us. Actually, they said twenty-four delivery stations in the Chicago area, which they were probably afraid would also walk out because they saw us doing it… And so I think our coordinated walkouts won a raise for thousands of Amazon workers in the Chicago area… $2 an hour, depending on how much folks are making, might not seem like a lot. But for us, after taxes… that’s like $60-$70 per week more that we’re getting now than we were before we walked out. And I always joke with my co-workers, like, “that raise can save your relationship.” You know, that’s an extra date night once a week that you can do with your partner… That’s an extra bill, an extra couple bills paid that month.
It’s definitely still not enough. But let’s be honest, it was a really concrete and substantial improvement to our lives, having that extra money on our paychecks every week… So the same raise was given to the Cicero warehouse DLN2 that we won, and DI03 as well. My understanding is it includes other delivery stations in the Chicago area. We have friends and co-workers at DXH5 on the Southwest Side, DI07 on the North Side, they all got the same raise as well.
Have the interactions between workers and supervisors changed in the last year and a half?
I think the environment has been a lot better. They’re bringing in food and snacks every week, they’re trying to do all the little things like, “okay, let’s keep these workers happy enough.” But of course, we know that a $3 snack is not the $3 an hour raise that we need, so we’re not fooled. But it’s nice to get some of the small freebies on the side while we’re figuring out how we can get all that we deserve. But yeah, there’s been a definite shift in the sort of dynamic—social dynamic, power dynamic—in the warehouse for how we’re treated. And how we can kind of simply ask, for example, to switch to a different spot. Before that, that was unheard of, and now management will simply accommodate it.
Last month, workers in Staten Island, NY voted to form the first official union within Amazon in the U.S. How significant is this for workers who are in the rest of the country, or in Chicago?
I think it’s definitely encouraged more conversation about unionizing, what unionizing is. “Should we try that? You know, what are they doing? Like, should we try what they’re doing? I just read about this news. What do you think about what’s going on in New York?” Those are the types of things that come up a little bit more. For us at Amazonians United Chicagoland, specifically, we are definitely happy for our co-workers in Staten Island, especially to see another independent union succeed. I don’t think anyone expected that. I mean, outside of those that were doing it and were confident in it.
I think it’s also important to be honest, and talk about how the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) processes still work in favor of employers and bosses and their timelines, and not workers who can build our own power and our own workplaces. Take, for example: an election might take a year…. And then my understanding is the average amount of time after an election has been certified… the average amount of time for a contract to be negotiated and ratified is well over a year. So altogether, engaging in those legal processes, you’re talking about two years of time where you’re spending the time and energy to kind of seek that sort of legal approval. And compare, for example, when we were transferred to new facilities in April of last year, and we were walking out by December… It took nine months for us, just by organizing ourselves and taking direct action, to win the raise.
I think the timing for us as workers to organize ourselves—building our power in our workplaces, and taking action where we have power—works quicker to get changes. And that also kind of builds the culture among each other as co-workers, where we recognize that our power is in our own hands… I think we’d rather spend our time and energy building our union based on direct action and solidarity in our workplaces. And it’s already won raises and other concessions for thousands of workers in Chicago in a relatively short time. But we’re definitely happy for our co-workers in Staten Island, we hope they find a path to getting some material gains using their approach. We’re excited to see what improvements they can win that way. Overall, I think it’s good that we can be having these conversations more and be having honest assessments of, like, what should we be doing as workers in the biggest company in the world when we’re in a pandemic?
Anything you want to share about what you’re planning ahead?
I think, generally, what we all are in agreement on is that we’re growing more and deeper within the facilities we’re already in. We’re definitely going to grow and build up our membership in other facilities in the Chicago area—especially now that we’re all at the same pay level, now that everyone’s gotten the raise that we want. [But] we’re all still lagging behind the Walmarts and Targets that are moving up to $20 to $24 an hour for warehouse work, while we’re still at $18 an hour. I think there’s definitely shared issues that all Chicago Amazon warehouse workers will be on the same page fighting for. So, you know, growing more deeply among coworkers. That region is definitely where we’re headed. And maybe beyond as well.
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.