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Meet the Immigrants Who Took On Amazon


Stolz estimates that about 50 workers assembled before they streamed out into the bracing air. (Amazon says the number of workers who walked out that day was more like 15.) A cheer rose up from the far side of the warehouse parking lot, where a crowd of off-duty Amazon workers and local community allies—more than 200 by some estimates—had been watching the doors and waiting for them. They stood amid patches of crusted snow as the strikers crossed the asphalt to meet them. The protesters brandished signs that said, “Safe jobs now!” and “Respect the East African community.”

Stolz settled into a place at the edge of the crowd. He had joined friends at political protests before, but he’d never participated in anything like this. As American labor rallies go, this one offered a striking remix of the genre’s usual conventions. The organization presiding over the event was not a union but a fledgling organization called the Awood Center, whose motto was “Building East African Worker Power.” (Awood is the Somali word for power.) In the middle of the crowd was a portable PA system, and the first speaker received an ecstatic welcome: US representative Ilhan Omar, who had just weeks before become the first Somali American elected to Congress, promptly led the group in singing “Aan Isweheshano Walaalayaal” (“Let’s Get Together With Our Brothers and Sisters”), a classic Somali solidarity anthem.

“I’ve had many jobs,” the congresswoman told the crowd. “I cleaned offices, I worked on assembly lines, I was even a security guard once. I’ve had jobs where we did not have enough breaks, where we used to try to go to the bathroom just so that we could pray.” The East African community, she said, demanded better. “Amazon doesn’t work if you don’t work,” she said. “It’s about time we make Amazon understand that.”

Then the mic went to a young warehouse worker from Somalia named Khadra Kassim, who delivered a jibe about working for the richest man in the world. “It’s sad to see that the head of Amazon—God is the greatest, and God is above all of us—doesn’t know who his workers are, and what they are faced with,” she said to laughs from the crowd.

As the sun set, the protesters began marching toward the warehouse, back to the glass doors where Stolz and the other strikers had emerged, so that managers could hear them. As if on cue, several Shakopee Police Department patrol cars rolled up to intercept them, misery lights blazing. Flashes of red and blue strobed through the twilight, illuminating the marchers’ faces and picket signs. The officers called for backup. Squad cars arrived from five other towns—Bloomington, Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Jordan, and Savage—and the Scott County Sheriff’s Office. Within minutes, some 15 vehicles, including an ambulance, had converged on the scene. Armed with pepper spray, police formed a human barricade across the glass doors of the lobby.

The crowd started to dissipate when darkness fell. But not all the protesters went home. For several, it was time to start the night shift. Wending their way through the police barricade, they presented their Amazon badges in the lobby and disappeared through the turnstiles, back to the grind of robots and conveyor belts and Christmas.

All told, the walkout at MSP1 lasted less than two hours. Amazon characterizes it as a “small protest” rather than a strike, arguing that it had no appreciable impact on operations. But according to multiple labor experts, it marked the first coordinated strike at an Amazon warehouse in North America—and it wouldn’t be the last time that workers in Shakopee would set precedent. As the protesters cleared away from the police line, they chanted “Amazon, we’ll be back,” and they would soon make good on the promise.

In the 25 years since Amazon was founded, it has become the second-­largest private employer in the United States. Over that time, the company has displayed an extraordinary knack for dictating its own terms to suppliers, local governments, and laborers. For years, the company has induced cities and states to compete to host Amazon facilities; it has managed to extract tax breaks, costly infrastructure upgrades, and valuable public data, even as it builds out a logistics network without which Amazon’s retail empire couldn’t function. What Amazon offers those communities in turn are jobs with competitive wages and benefits for full-time workers, and the expectation that workers—managers, pickers, or stowers—will do their part to uphold the company’s principles of “speed, innovation, and consumer obsession.” In presiding over that bargain, the company has enjoyed tremendous leverage over its US employees, terminating workers if they fail to meet their hourly productivity rates and going to great lengths to fend off labor organizers.

Source: Business Latest