Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the United States. In recent years, the popularity of its quick deliveries has meant the company needs to grow fast, with hundreds of sorting and delivery warehouses around the country.
But the company’s also faced pushback over pay and working conditions from some of its employees.
Last year, employees at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, outside Birmingham, voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. But the National Labor Relations Board threw out the results of that election over company interference and ordered a re-vote, the results of which will get tallied starting in late March. There’s also a unionization vote in New York at that same time.
In Chicago, a group of workers called Amazonians United Chicagoland says it’s seen success from its organizing efforts – including a recent work stoppage three days before Christmas, when dozens of employees at two Amazon warehouses in southwest side Gage Park and Cicero walked off the job.
“We got fed up with being underpaid, overworked, lied to,” said Chris Zamarrón, an Amazon employee and organizer with Amazonians United Chicagoland. “They weren’t keeping their promises.”
Among other things, the organized employees wanted the freedom to work a variety of roles within the warehouse to reduce physical strain and a $5 increase in their hourly pay.
“It was basically like, we gotta unite, we gotta do something about it because if we don’t, then nothing’s going to get done about it,” Zamarrón said.
This month, Amazon gave them a raise. New employees will now start at $18 an hour, up from $15.80.
“(It’s) not everything that we asked for, but it was about half that,” Zamarrón said.
Amazon denies that the raise was related to the walkouts. In a statement, a company spokesperson said, “The recent pay adjustments were part of a regular wage review process that occurred over several months and impacted employees at more than two dozen sites around Chicago.”
The organized workers also say morale has improved since the December action.
“Now we feel like management is walking on eggshells,” said Amazonians United’s Vanessa Carrillo. “We feel like we turned the tables on them.”
Amazonians United is not a formal labor union. Since forming at a now-shuttered warehouse in McKinley Park in 2019, the group has led walkouts and petitions for things like water for employees, COVID safety measures and accommodations for long overnight shifts. Organizers don’t disclose how many members are in the group, but say they’re active at both the Gage Park and Cicero facilities.
“What we’re doing, it’s union work,” Carrillo said. “We consider ourselves a union whether Amazon recognizes us or not.”
It doesn’t – but the company has agreed to make it easier for employees to organize. In a late December settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, Amazon agreed to notify workers around the country of their rights to take collective action or unionize, and said it wouldn’t interfere with those efforts.
Smalls says he was fired after leading a COVID safety walkout, and after last year’s failed vote in Alabama, decided to organize his former workplace as part of an independent union not affiliated with an established organization.
“We think that we have a better chance to take on the onslaught of the union-busting Amazon does, because they can’t use the same spiels that they do with an established union,” Smalls said.
And Amazonians United Chicagoland members say affiliating with an established union would feel like an unnecessary go-between.
“We’re the ones that know how things are inside the warehouse,” Carrillo said. “If someone else steps in as a union rep, we fear that they won’t listen to our voices.”
Members also say they’ve seen quicker results than they think a traditional union can offer, without the work of trying to organize a formal election. Right now, the group’s deciding the next issues workers want to tackle – and thinking about expansion. Their goal?
“A presence at every facility so that these people know they gotta respect us, because we’re the ones that do the work,” Zamarrón said. “If they disrespect us, we can choose to not do that work.”
In a statement on the various organizing efforts facing Amazon, a spokesperson said, “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes—quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle. … We’ve made great progress in recent years and months in important areas like pay and safety. There are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, both in our fulfillment centers and in our corporate spaces for employees, and that's our focus.”