COVID-19Militant Journalism

Bay Area Amazon workers fight for safe working conditions

Interview with Adrienne Williams

On Aug. 1, Amazon workers and community supporters in the Bay Area will hold an early-morning car caravan to deliver a petition to the San Leandro Amazon Warehouse. Across the country, Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers are organizing for decent pay and better working conditions. Liberation News spoke with Adrienne Williams, a co-founder of Bay Area Amazonians and one of the organizers of Saturday’s action.

Join the caravan on Aug. 1 at 6:30 AM, 1933 Davis St, San Leandro CA 94577.

Liberation News: Can you tell us a little about the action on Saturday and why it’s taking place?

Adrienne Williams: Saturday’s action is a car caravan to deliver a petition to the Amazon warehouse in San Leandro. That warehouse needs to be shut down for cleaning and those employees – all of them – need to be given two weeks off with pay to quarantine. 

The hope is that this action is actually leading to a bigger conversation, because this is not the only Amazon warehouse that this is happening in, and it’s not the only company it’s happening in. We know that this is happening to Tesla workers. And the problem is when we have these heavy hitters getting away with this, then smaller businesses see that and go “Oh, if they can get away with it then I can too.” So if they see that the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks of the world can just flaunt the law and get away with it, that’s going to trickle down to every business owner and allow them to do the same. We’re just not going to be in a safe situation if every business owner decides that they don’t have to tell their employees when other employees are sick.

LN: Have there been cases of COVID-19 at this warehouse?

AW: What we know is that there have been at least three or four. We’ve been working with a woman who is the official-unofficial COVID tracker of Amazon. She’s an Amazon employee who has taken it upon herself, and, now that people know who she is, more and more employees are reaching out to her when they get updates.

LN: We’d love to hear more about how you got involved with Bay Area Amazonians.

AW: Six months ago, I never would have thought this is what my life would be. I think a lot of people can probably say that. After the schools closed, Amazon’s attitude was: “We don’t care how you find your way through this; we don’t care if you don’t have any money while you homeschool your children: we’re not helping you.”

That really bugged me because we work so hard and it’s not our fault there’s a pandemic. So, after I realized that Amazon doesn’t give a crap, it got me talking to more people and that’s how I met Chris Smalls and a lot of amazing women from that group. Then it turns into this snowball effect where you meet another person and another: this person has this skill, and this person has that skill, and [it] built into this thing that was very organic. 

It wasn’t something I expected or set out to do, but it feels so necessary, because what you would hope is that when you go to a manager or a boss or write an open letter to a CEO and say, “Hey here’s this kink in the chain, here’s this place where people are getting hurt or dying, or they’re not being paid what they should be” they would say “OMG that’s terrible, let’s fix that!” What we’re finding is that they actually say, “Shut your mouth or we’ll fire you.”

They’re bullies – and I am so not about being bullied. So for me, that’s really what put me on this trail. I don’t consider myself an organizer; I don’t consider myself an activist – at the end of the day I joke with my partner that “I’m just a chick that wants healthcare.” I just want to pay for a roof over me and my daughter’s head, and I want some healthcare. I just want to be able to pay my rent and go to the doctor, and that’s really where all of this started.

LN: And Jeff Bezos has raked in billions of dollars just since this pandemic started. And of course this is the workers at Amazon making this profit for him. Can you talk a little more about what it’s like to work at Amazon? Both in terms of the experience of the delivery drivers and in the warehouses?

AW: Well, he made $13 billion just last Wednesday – just on that day! Part of the problem is that his business model is so convoluted and everybody’s job is so different from everybody else’s that it’s different for any one person to understand where the issues are. For me as a driver, there are issues that stem from the pandemic: customers don’t wear masks or the vans aren’t sanitized, and I have to wipe down my van, and it’s very difficult to find wipes. 

But there’s also major issues not related to the pandemic – what happens when it’s over 100 degrees outside and they still don’t allow you to slow down your route? I literally had to be taken in an ambulance one day because my stops were so close together that I couldn’t get the van to cool down. I have pictures on my phone of how the van will get up to 122 degrees inside the van – and that’s with the AC on. These are safety violations that have nothing to do with COVID. And when I’ve asked a manager, “Do you have a heat illness prevention poster? Do you have any information that can help us with these problems?” they have nothing. They hand us one 12-oz warm water at the beginning of our shifts. I work 8-12 hours, that one warm water is not helping me out a bit.

I think what we’re afraid of right now is that we could get pigeon-holed and [people will think] “oh this is a pandemic issue and once the pandemic is over they’ll be fine.”But there were people dying at Amazon before COVID! There were people being injured and maimed and threatened and intimidated before COVID. This pandemic has really just exacerbated the issue – and they’ve used it to find ways to intimidate and fire organizers. John, for instance, was passing out unionization flyers, and now they’re using COVID to say “Oh we’re going to suspend him for two months because he wasn’t social distancing properly.”But we know they’re just mad because he’s passing out union flyers! 

LN: At the ILWU port shutdown on Juneteenth, you spoke about how workers organizing in places like Amazon and others look to these older radical unions like the ILWU as an inspiration. What lessons do you think there are to be learned for people who are organizing in 2020?

AW: We’re in this new age of organizing – when you look at someone like Jeff Bezos, I really believe he built his business with unions in mind. He purposefully has things set up so workers can’t communicate. He purposefully has drivers so disconnected from warehouse workers that we can’t talk to each other. I believe that he took cues from strong unions like the ILWU and saw how they were able to make such strides and said, “I don’t want that happening around here, so what can I do to make sure that it’s always divided? That my workers can never really communicate?”

What I would really love to be able to emulate about the ILWU is that they seem like they’re more for their people, their workers than a lot of unions…. I know longshoremen, and I look at their lifestyles and see that these people who are happy, they’re well paid, they have good benefits, and they don’t quit! Bosses don’t care about turnover; workers are the ones who care about turnover. When you see an industry where people don’t quit, it’s like, okay, that’s where we need to be. Because Amazon’s turnover [rate] is every 6 months to a year – that’s insane!

LN: Right, there’s no way to build a stable life around a job that you’re going to have to leave in 6 months.

AW: And there’s no way to unionize! Because you get a core group, and then that group quits and you have to start over. And Jeff Bezos is fine with that! He’s okay with us being disposable because how do you build anything strong if everybody’s always quitting?

LN: This action is taking place in the middle of not just the pandemic but also one of the largest uprisings against racism in recent history. Can you speak a little about the connections between the labor organizing work, the struggle for racial justice, and the struggle against police terror?

AW: Jeff Bezos likes to put out these solidarity statements – if you walk through the Richmond warehouse, there are all these digital screens that say, “We stand in solidarity with Black lives! We stand blah blah blah!” But when I first did my training, the first thing we were told is that if we were attacked on the road we would be fired if we fought back. That doesn’t really seem like solidarity. Women don’t feel safe – especially when our routes are designed in such a way that you give us the rural areas in the middle of nowhere where our phones die in the morning and then give us neighborhoods at night where we don’t feel safe. If you carry pepper spray, you’ll be fired. There’s nothing that says your body has value, if you’re going to be fired if you protect it.

Also all of these Ring [doorbell] cameras that everyone has – you’d be surprised how many people have Ring cameras! – Amazon has agreements with police that they’ll turn those over at any point! Customers don’t even have control over that data and information, because Amazon can just turn big chunks of Ring data over at any time. All day while I’m working, that information can be given to the cops.

When customers put delivery notes that say “put this in the backyard,” for multiple reasons, I’m not comfortable with that. People are calling the cops on Black men, even in Amazon uniforms, because they’re going into peoples’ backyards. On the flip side, if it’s nighttime, as a woman I don’t feel comfortable going into peoples’ backyards. But when I call Amazon support and say, “It’s 9 PM, the sun is down, I don’t feel comfortable,” I’ve had support tell me straight up, “Well, if they call and complain you’re in trouble.” I’ve had to tell them “Well, if I get murdered you’re in trouble.”

Jeff Bezos also owns Whole Foods, which is firing employees left and right for wearing pins that say “we stand against racism” or wearing Black Lives Matter masks. Their statements are all for PR so they don’t lose customers, but there’s no real hard stance against racism. It’s a shame –  when you’re the richest company in the world, run by the richest man in the world, you would think you would have a little leeway to take a hard stance.

LN: It’s very stark the way the “diversity” of Amazon breaks down in terms of who’s actually working at different areas of the company

AW: And there’s no path up! There’s no way to move up, I haven’t seen it.

What I see is the managers tend to be young white men, who tend to be fresh out of college. It’s not so much that I mind the white male part, though I would like for there to be some diversity, but I would love for them to have some life experience so they can relate to their employees. When they closed the schools down, I went to an Amazon manager to ask, “Hey, what’s Amazon’s plan for this?” I had a manager laugh in my face and say, “I wish I could choose to take three weeks off and still get paid.” He doesn’t have kids, he doesn’t have enough life experience to understand that this is not a joke. It’s not a choice for me to leave my seven-year-old at home until 11pm – that’s not a choice!

LN: Any advice you’d like to give to anyone who’s reading this article who might be thinking about organizing their workplaces?

AW: If you work at Amazon, or Tesla, or any of these companies where they have these powerful CEOs who they know are doing them wrong – don’t be afraid! There are other people out there who are willing to fight with you! Reach out to somebody that’s doing this work so we can connect you with the right people. The only way we can beat this is if we all start doing it together.

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