Workers in the US and Britain fight for workplace safety

Wildcat strikes and a high-profile resignation are highlighting the anti-worker essence of capitalist accumulation.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Unrest amongst Amazon warehouse staff in the US, long simmering, has come to a head over the company’s cavalier response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Workers at a warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota walked out at the end of April when the bosses fired a workmate who stayed at home to protect her two children from the illness. Faiza Osman had worked for Amazon for nearly three years, and was acting in accordance with official company guidelines, which told workers to stay at home if they needed time off.

Over 50 workers took part in the Shakopee strike. Alarmed, local bosses hurriedly rescinded Osman’s sacking and tried to pretend that it had never happened.

This lightning strike came hard on the heels of strikes at other Amazon warehouses in Staten Island, Chicago and Detroit, in a wave of militancy which does not bode well for Amazon’s president, Jeff Bezos – one of the six billionaires currently owning as much wealth as that possessed by half the world’s population.

Amazon warehouse workers are showing that they are prepared to fight to defend their own safety. Minnesota workers in particular have led many such strikes in recent months, and in November won some concessions over working conditions.

The militant workers, many of whom are migrants from Somalia, are also struggling against Amazon’s decision to end its unlimited paid leave policy – just at a time when confirmed Covid-19 cases are escalating.

The leading role being played by migrant workers has its echoes in the leading role played by Irish workers in the earlier US labour movement.

Amazon’s warehouses are clearly a toxic environment, with more than 75 cases of the virus already reported in over half of its 110 warehouses. Workers complain that social distancing is not enforced, gloves and masks are not provided, nor even basics like hand sanitisers.

And when someone gets ill, the victim’s workmates are often the last to know. It can be days before management drops fellow workers the bad news via a casual text message, meanwhile leaving workmates in the dark about the possible implications for their own safety.

Amazon’s palpable failure to take seriously the health and welfare of its own employees is becoming the spark for the development of a significant wave of militancy. (Amazon reinstates fired warehouse worker after employees strike by Lauren Kaori Gurley, Vice, 28 April 2020)

Top Amazon ‘vice-president’ resigns

There are signs that even some senior management circles are getting nervous about the growing anger and confidence of the workforce.

One straw in the wind was the abrupt resignation on 1 May of Tim Bray, one of two dozen or so of Amazon’s grandly titled ‘vice-presidents’, each of whom is tasked with representing the interests of Bezos on earth.

This privileged worker, a gifted software engineer, at first got cold feet over the failure of the company to take its environmental responsibilities seriously, last year adding his signature to a letter scripted by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), asking the company’s shareholders to vote on a resolution calling for Amazon to clean up its environmental act.

The shareholders, zealously defending their profit margins, voted down the resolution, but a few months later, under pressure from Amazon tech workers who joined the one-day global climate strike, Amazon went into PR overdrive, pledging to “make the company part of the climate-crisis solution”.

However, whilst privileged workers like Bray could with impunity dip a principled toe into environmental activism, the political climate suddenly grew colder when the AECJ group had the temerity to involve itself in defending the struggle of warehouse workers over the life and death issues that came to the fore with the advent of Covid-19.

Bray explained: “Warehouse workers reached out to AECJ for support. They responded by internally promoting a petition and organising a video call for Thursday 16 April, featuring warehouse workers from around the world, with guest activist Naomi Klein.

“An announcement sent to internal mailing lists on Friday 10 April was apparently the flashpoint. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two visible AECJ leaders, were fired on the spot that day. The justifications were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing.”

Happily for him, it seems that Tim Bray will be landing on his feet, with China’s Huawei said to be joining a queue of potential headhunters. But as Bray himself correctly noted, the only way forward for Amazon’s many ‘associates’ (wage slaves) toiling in the warehouses is by “increasing their collective strength”. (Bye, Amazon by Tim Bray, 29 April 2020)

Croydon University hospital

Meanwhile, back in Britain, cleaners and porters working at Croydon University hospital are similarly finding themselves forced to choose between flouting government instructions not to go to work with Covid-19 symptoms, or staying at home and starving.

Employees who phone in sick are not getting the full occupational sick pay, but only the statutory minimum of just £94 a week.

Porters and cleaners are not employed directly by the hospital trust but by the notorious outsourcing privateers of G4S. The company has predictably also been dragging its feet over the supply of even the bare minimum of PPE, despite the fact that Croydon is one of the London boroughs with the highest rate of Covid-19 infection. (G4S workers ‘cannot’ self-isolate on statutory sick pay, GMB, 30 April 2020)

Whether it’s G4S porters in Croydon or warehouse workers in Minnesota, the message is the same. The departing ‘vice-president’ put it succinctly: “Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible [easily replaceable] units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

Meanwhile, for their part, the warehouse workers of Minnesota are usefully demonstrating for the rest of us just how the class struggle against exploitation is done.