Story and photos by Pete Shaw
The French novelist Honoré de Balzac is often credited with having written that behind every great fortune there is a crime. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, the ubiquitous company that seems able to sell everything to everyone, everywhere, has surely amassed a great fortune. He is the richest person in the world, at least by monetary standards, taking in $9 million an hour. The workers at his warehouses, who are the backbone of Bezos’s fortune–at least the half or so of them who are full time employees–take in a more modest $15 an hour. It seems fantastical that those full time warehouse workers make as much in one hour–prior to the taxes that Bezos does not pay–as Bezos does in six-thousandths of an hour.
Under capitalist theology, Bezos’s fortune does not constitute a crime, but rather is a reward for rigors and ruthless adherence to dogma. And if the unwashed working in Amazon’s warehouses, euphemistically called fulfillment centers, do not enjoy the harsh conditions and paltry wages under which they toil–no bathroom breaks, water stations without cups, and backbreaking work often under unsafe conditions–then they are blessed with the freedom to just pack up and work somewhere else, as if jobs grow on trees.
Every so often, Amazon has a sale called Prime Day. The sale occurs around a date that numerically is composed of prime numbers. During it, Amazon rakes in huge amounts of money, and this year’s celebration of consumption, taking place around July 17, was slated to make 5.8 billion dollars in sales, all on the backs of workers who receive a minuscule portion of the profits.
The obscene wealth obtained by Bezos and his company does not sit well with these warehouse employees, and they are organizing and fighting back. On Wednesday July 17, the Amazon warehouse on NW Yeon Avenue, was the site of a rally and picnic in support of the workers inside it and all Amazon workers around the world. Amazon employs over 200,000 people in the US, and another 375,000 beyond it.
If the Portland weather this Summer has not been hospitable to picnicking, then surely the industrial area surrounding Amazon’s DPD1 warehouse, with its near constant flow of 18 wheeled trucks, loud noises, and various high rising tanks along the Willamette River is not an environment that will provide an offsetting solace. No matter: the true quality of any affair worth its salt comes down to the people involved. And so despite the unfavorable conditions, over 50 supporters of the PDX Amazon Workers Solidarity Campaign gathered outside DPD1, moving to loud music and lunching on a spread of hot dogs, hamburgers, veggie burgers, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, and potato chips.
Kayla from the Portland Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) told the crowd, “There are exactly two sides in this fight. There’s all of us out here hustling and barely getting enough money to get by, and then there’s them: the bosses. I’m here today to say that we can stand up and demand better.” She would know. A teacher in Southwest Washington, she and her fellow educators banded together and went on strike last year, eventually winning the contract they demanded.
“We won because we did it together,” she said. “I know it can be scary when we take on our bosses. But it’s only scary when we do it ourselves. When we take on the boss together, it’s the boss who ends up scared.”
Reverend Sandra Decker of Service Employees International Union 503, DSA, Portland Jobs with Justice, and the Raging Grannies noted that since Prime Day–and the accompanying protests–started on Monday, July 15, Amazon’s stock had fallen $11 per share, from $2,018 to $2,007. As of writing, the price had further dropped to $1,960. That’s not a huge difference, but it is nonetheless a difference, particularly because Prime Day is something that one would expect would raise Amazon’s stock value.
Decker also added that Amazon profits at the expense of immigrants in its push to have the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies make use of its facial-recognition technology, Rekognition. As well, Amazon works with Palantir, a data analytics company which has about $50 million in contracts with ICE. Palantir’s software, which ICE uses to gather information on people without documentation, is hosted on the Amazon Web Services cloud.
Immigrant rights and justice advocates have noted that this technology will further aid ICE, CBP, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in further terrorizing immigrant communities in the US, helping build profiles of immigrants who would then be detained and deported. Those agencies, particularly ICE, are tearing apart families and communities, including putting children in cages at the horrid US concentration camps near the Mexico-US border.
“We are a disposable world,” she said. “Amazon workers are disrespected, overworked, and treated like they are disposable. Children are stolen from their parents, kept in cages, lost, and die. Disposable children. Those children arrived with parents getting their children out of harm’s way. They were getting their children to a better life.”
Decker then urged people to return any and all stuff they receive from Amazon.
Rabbi Debra Kolodny added a bit of religious fervor to the rally. Noting that the Hebrew Sacred Scriptures were the first collective bargaining agreement, establishing the first weekend–the one day known as the Sabbath–she stated that regardless of one’s religious affiliation, if any, those scriptures called out and said, “ Your cause is not only just. Your cause is not only fair. Your cause is not only right. Your cause is holy.”
She added that the fighting Amazon workers and their supporters were “heirs to a lineage of 3,000 years of prophets and rabble rousers and judges and chieftains, justice seekers and change makers, and only fairly recently of unionists and activists whose tireless work brings decency and equity and respect to all.”
The need for that decency, equity, and respect was made apparent by Joyce Nantz, who for six months starting in October 2018 worked at the Amazon DPD1 warehouse. She described her work there as “a brutal, sweaty job lifting extremely heavy bags over my head over and over again.” It did not take too long before she came to understand that “the richest man in the world did not give a shit about me or any of my co-workers.”
Nantz described a workplace where she and her fellow employees could never work fast or well enough, and that even though they were the source of Jeff Bezos’ immense wealth, many of them needed public assistance to make ends meet. She described a litany of abuses including “incessant, ear-piercing, screaming sirens” that damaged her hearing, silent cars that drove about the warehouse that hit her and nearly hit her many times, having to sit on a filthy floor to rest her aching feet during her lunch break when there were not enough chairs for all the workers, and when about to pass out due to dehydration, being unable to find cups at the water station. These indignities and dangers, Nantz said, happened many times.
Eventually, Nantz suffered a debilitating injury from lifting 100 pound bags filled with packages over her head. She told the crowd, “I’ll never forget the day I got fired by richest man in the world because I got injured at my job from working at his warehouse. The richest man in the world does not respect his workers. He needs to be sent a message. That message is that the workplace must be safe, the workers must be paid a living wage, and the workers that work for the richest man in the world need to be treated with respect.”
It is also a matter of capitalist dogma that government should not interfere with markets, unless it is to the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. And while Amazon toots its own horn in granting a $15 an hour wage to its full-time employees–$2.50 more than the minimum wage stipulated for Portland by Oregon’s 2016 minimum wage legislation–it is far from a living wage. Assuming a 40 hour work week, a $15 an hour employee, after taxes, will take home about $1,864 a month. The average rent for an apartment in Portland is $1,457, leaving little room for other necessities such as food and healthcare, never mind the occasional pleasure such as taking in a movie that in a truly civilized society would count as part of living. For the half of Amazon’s warehouse workers earning less than $15 an hour, the prospects are even more grim. And with Amazon opposing its workers unionizing, any gains are subject to the whims of the boss.
However, the only political sort who showed up at Wednesday’s rally to support the Amazon warehouse workers was Portland DSA member Paige Kreisman, who will be running to represent Oregon’s House District 42 covering portions of Northeast and Southeast Portland. District 42 is currently represented by Rob Nosse, one of a handful of supposedly pro-labor Democrats who voted to cut public employee pension benefits.
“This is a very important time for our elected officials to be supporting our workers,” said Kreisman. “Our workers in Oregon are under attack from the federal level, from the state level, and we’ve seen nothing but backs turned and cold shoulders from our elected representatives, people who call themselves progressives. But where are they? There’s none of them here. We’re in Mitch Greenlick’s district, and he calls himself a progressive. Where’s he? He’s not here. Where are the so-called labor candidates? Where’s Rob Nosse? Where’s Tina Kotek? They’re not here. We have to demand more from our elected officials so they stand with workers. Our elected officials need to make a choice. Will they fight for the workers who work in their districts for near poverty wages? Or will they fight for the corporations that line their pockets, that write their checks. Well, I choose to stand with workers.”
Kreisman later noted that “our power really is in the workplace because we control the flow of commodities…we drive the trucks, we work the trucks, we produce all commodities and all power under capitalism. That is where our power is, and that is where we need to build our movement from the bottom up.”
Building that movement will necessarily include solidarity with other workers, including those at other Amazon facilities. At Wednesday’s picnic, food was shared among people drawn from or representing numerous labor unions, as big as the American Federation of Government Employees, and as local as the Little Big Union, representing workers at Little Big Burger. Earlier in the week, Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota walked out on a six hour strike. And in Europe, workers in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, and Spain took part in Amazon protests demanding safer working conditions and better wages.
As Decker said when addressing the crowd, “We made this monster. We have to unmake it.”
Emphasis on “We.”