By JR Valrey, Black New World Media
It is said that once the script is written, people can walk into the history that they wrote for themselves. George Orwell wrote “1984”, published in 1949. And as more and more is exposed about the largest corporate behemoths the world has ever known, it can almost be said that 2020 is being transformed into an Orwellian dream; with the current power that Silicon Valley’s Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon has over our current societal normalcy. Although we have accepted this new way of being as normal, the toll that it takes on human life is very abnormal.
“I started at Amazon on November 18, 2019. I was an Amazon delivery driver. The job itself is not bad. I was out in the community. The customers for the most part are happy to see you. Little kids are super excited to get whatever it is they know they are getting and that usually makes dealing with the assholes worth it,” said Adrienne Williams, an organizer with Bay Area Amazonians, an organization of workers fighting unjust working conditions against the corporate giant.
“But there are also really scary sides to the job that could easily be fixed, yet Amazon has created this weird system where there is no mechanism to fix major systems issues. And, in-fact bringing attention to those issues usually gets you in trouble. Some of the scarier issues that could be easily fixed on the delivery side are route design issues. Putting drivers in the mountains where there are no paved roads or street lights at 8pm in November is not safe.
“If there was even one route designer in every delivery warehouse, drivers could bring those issues to that designer and routes could be updated to keep employees safe. During the holidays last year, certain areas were being followed and robbed. That information could have been sent to a route designer and rerouted to Amazon lockers in that same area to keep drivers safe. When the Amazon GPS (because Bezos reportedly won’t use google maps) sends us yet again down a one-way street or a road that has yet to be built, we can make those changes on the same day,” says a frustrated Adrienne Williams.
Now that COVID has officially opened the pandemic era, the population is even more dependent on the corporate digital monsters to keep our lives up to par with the innovations of the digital and information age, especially since the nation has had to shelter in place.
“The wage theft is upsetting as well. Every morning we are meeting for a Stand Up Meeting with our boss and an Amazon Manager. We do not get paid for that. We are also expected to do homework based on our driving scores. All of that adds up. Even if that only adds up 30 minutes of free labor a day. If you work full time. That is 30 minutes a day, $10 a day, $50 a week; That is between, $2400 an $2600 a year that they owe us, Unacceptable”.
Adrienne Williams is, by far, not the employee giving insight into Amazon’s technocratic tyranny.
“Then there were times when I would work a 10 hour shift, but because of how they calculate overtime, and the fact that I work an overnight shift, I would get paid a straight 10 hours for that. And then when you went to try and talk to someone about it, your manager in the warehouse couldn’t really do anything so you have to call this customer service line that reminds you of Comcast or something. So you’d spend a bunch of time doing that, and most people do it off the clock, because nobody wants to sit in the lobby to make that phone call,” explained John Hopkins, a warehouse worker and organizer with Bay Area Amazonians.
A small business abusing employees like this, would tend to be investigated and penalized, if it was constantly being reported. The capitalist gods of Silicon Valley are too big to fail, thus even be thoroughly investigated. They are above the law.
“The first thing I noticed was that there was basically no training. They just kind of showed you the very most basic part of the job and left you to your own devices, and so for the first few days you were constantly getting stuck, because you ran into a situation that you hadn’t been taught to deal with, and you hadn’t even been told who to go to with questions. But meanwhile they’re tracking your performance and you’re expected to meet a quota. Nobody tells you the details of the quota, and you don’t get regular updates on where you stand against the quota – you’re expected to discover on your own that you have to seek that information out, which is another layer of bureaucracy.
“The wage theft is upsetting as well. Every morning we are meeting for a Stand Up Meeting with our boss and an Amazon Manager. We do not get paid for that.”
“But, even though I knew I was in for an unpleasant experience, I really don’t think I could ever be prepared for the feeling of dehumanization that it entails. There are things that just seem like basic human decency that Amazon, the company, fails at. And at first I thought it was just incompetence, and the size and scale of the company, but then I realized that it was more so by design,” explained John Hopkins.
“I think when I started, in January it was largely about pay. Amazon touts it’s $15/hr as twice the minimum wage, but in the Bay Area, it’s basically minimum wage. They deserve 0 credit for that talking point as it pertains to regions with a cost of living as high as ours. Jeff Bezos made $13 billion in one day. The idea that we should have to have two jobs just to barely scrape by while he rakes in more money than he could spend in a lifetime in a single day is just inherently insulting. There are only 24 hours in everyone’s day, and Jeff Bezos isn’t “essential” during this pandemic. We are. So to begin with it was about higher wages, and having more of a say in how things go in the warehouse in general.”
Regular society would call what Amazon is doing “grand theft”, the capitalist elite prefer to euphemistically call it “public relations genius”.
“Obviously the pandemic raised the stakes. Once the pandemic came into the picture, it became a matter of life and death. Whether or not we have influence over how things go in our warehouse could be the difference maker for our survival. Now I think the focus is on things like making sure that social distancing is enforced for the safety of workers, and not to punish organizers. Now we’re worried about forcing Amazon to be more transparent with workers about what risk they really face, and what steps are being taken to keep them safe,” described John Hopkins, an organizer with Bay Area Amazonians.
Millions of dollars goes into creating an image for your brand, to pay for consultants, a public relations department, a publicist, photographers, videographers, and more. We have to consider why we think corporations in general, and Amazon in particular has the image it does considering recently CEO Jeff Bezo came out publicly in support of Black Lives Matter. MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, also recently announced in July that she was giving $160 million to Historically Black Colleges and Universities including Howard University, Hampton University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University, Xavier University of Louisiana, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Many believe that all of this public relations, tax deductible activity was the first family of Amazon (Jeff Bezos family) trying to ready Amazon’s image and their personal image’s for the organizational backlash that has been forecasted because of the workers organizing around the nation and the massive amounts of habitual employee abuse, by their corporate management team.
“John is a perfect example. When I met him, he was on suspension for nearly a month and a half. Amazon said that he had violated their COVID 19 break room policy of staying after his shift more than 15 minutes. John had been passing out unionization flyers and had even put them up on the bulletin board. Amazon went so far as to swap out the type of lockers they were using in that facility, from ones that utilized an employee provided padlock, to a permanent keypad with a pass code. It is my understanding that John’s flyers were confiscated when the lockers were swapped out. But, no managers will have a discussion about that specific issue with John. Though he has been allowed back to work finally after almost 2 months. Amazon is attempting to push him out in every way they can. Recently they tried to doc him points, for not showing up to work on two of his days off. He is currently on a final written warning, for what, I’m not quite sure. It’s hard to keep up. And, at some point Amazon will probably be successful at firing him. It is really disgusting,” said Bay Area Amazonians organizer Adrienne Williams..
“I want to state unequivocally that Amazon is union-busting. There’s no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about it. My own situation illustrates it perfectly. I was bringing union flyers, and ended up being suspended, when I asked management for a response as to why my union flyers had gone missing. They tried to pretend as if it wasn’t about my unions flyers, and anything that Amazon has in writing will make it seem like the union flyers weren’t a consideration. But if you look back at what I’ve been saying since the beginning, there’s no question that this has always been about me bringing union flyers. The only reason my suspension didn’t turn into a termination is because Amazon had already gotten into hot water with respect to retaliations because of Chris Smalls and Bashir Mohamed. But, just because they pulled back in my case, doesn’t mean that they’re done trying to get rid of me, and other workers who’s stories aren’t as publicly known are also at risk. I want to mention specifically Hibaq Mohamed in Minneapolis who is fighting to keep her job after being put on a final written warning for bogus reasons,” said organizer John Hopkins.
“Many believe that all of this public relations, tax deductible activity was the first family of Amazon (Jeff Bezos family) trying to ready Amazon’s image and their personal image’s for the organizational backlash that has been forecasted, because of the workers organizing around the nation and the massive amounts of habitual employee abuse, by their corporate management team.”
“I think it’s too late for Amazon to say that this is just a few isolated incidents. I think we clearly see a pattern in how people who speak up are treated. The difference now is that these cases are getting attention because COVID presents such a serious risk, and it’s easy to see how stark the injustice is right now. But it’s really important to recognize that this is Amazon’s modus operandi all day every day. The average tenure of a warehouse associate is less than a year. That’s by design. It reminds me of the beginning of the podcast “Behind the Police”, where the host talks about how the Spartans had an annual tradition in which they would kill all the smart slaves to prevent uprisings. I think the strategy at Amazon is very much the same, and to serve the same purpose.
“I think Adrienne and I both agree that the only real solution is for workers to unionize. What we’re doing with Bay Area Amazonians is trying to lay the foundation for that to happen here in the Bay Area and nationwide. Towards that end we’ve applied for a grant from the City of Oakland and the East Bay Community Foundation, which we hope to use for two projects in the short term, that we think will help us realize our long term vision. First, I’ll talk a little bit about that long term vision, and then the projects we’re working on currently and how folks can help.
“The long term vision is that BAA should be a model for workers of how to self organize and create organizing committees to unionize their warehouses. We’re calling the project Revolutionary Praxis, and a big piece of that is rebuking Amazon’s notion that we deserve to earn less than what we need to live because we’re unskilled. We hope to place the falsity of that narrative in stark relief by using our skills, sharing our skills, and being an example of the new society that we hope grows out of this current turmoil. Revolutionary Praxis basically consists of 3 pillars: the first, is inclusivity, we want to make an organization that is inclusive and welcoming to everyone; the second is holacracy which is an organizational structure that emphasizes the agency and autonomy of all participants, as opposed to a centralized, top down model; and the third is restorative justice – we think it’s important that we address conflicts by building community rather than by ostracizing and excommunicating.
“Of course, it’s all really easy to say this, but in reality, passing on this kind of culture is no easy task. In order to assist in that we also aim to release software that would facilitate workers using this system as a way of organizing. We intend to release the software under the Beloved Community License, which will make them free to use for anyone, as long as they use it for bettering the community. This is a radical new license created by Black folks for the betterment of Black folks, and our community more broadly. It prohibits the use of software for war, incarceration or violence, and I think it meshes well with our holistic approach to healing our community. Our first event was a vigil where we drew a parallel between corporate exploitation and slavery through the institution of policing (police came from slave catchers and union busting), because we recognize that you can’t address the problem of police violence without also addressing the violence of corporate exploitation – it’s gotta be a holistic approach,” said Bay Area Amazonians organizer and Amazon employee John Hopkins.
“I want to state unequivocally that Amazon is union-busting. There’s no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about it. My own situation illustrates it perfectly.”
“So, that’s the big picture, we hope to provide software, and a model for a system that facilitates workers in the Bay Area and beyond self-organizing for collective power. In the short term, we need to raise awareness of our work, and draw out those of our colleagues throughout the Bay Area who are going to be enthusiastic about co-creating this organization with us. To that end, the first two projects we’re working on are designed to elicit engagement from Amazon workers, and encourage them to use their voice.
“The first project is a blog that’s actually up and running now, but for which we have much more planned. It’s called Essential Perspectives and the idea is to give a forum for front line workers at Amazon and beyond to be heard free of the filter of their employer of corporate media outlets who are beholden to them for advertising dollars. We want to help American’s get an unvarnished look at what it’s like to be a front line worker, so they will understand why it’s necessary for us to fight. We’ll use the grant money to give workers a stipend for taking the time to tell their story, and for taking the risk of doing so.
“The second project is a viral video campaign that we want to produce. Essentially we want to create kits for families of Amazon employees, so that they can create a video of the kids dancing to “16 Shots” by Stefflon Don, in defense of their mothers. (the lyrics are something along the lines of “don’t mess with my mama”). The kits would include covid masks with a pro-union/anti-amazon union busting message on them. We think that this could be a great way for workers to contribute and speak out, and we hope that they’ll gain the confidence through taking that action to speak out in other ways as well.
“Right now we’re looking to raise money to either match the grant funds, assuming we get the grant from EBCF and the City, or to replace them, if we don’t. We’ve got a GoFundMe set up that people can find by going to our webpage (www.BayAreaamazonians.org) and clicking where it says Support #RevolutionaryPraxis. We also can always use amplification of our message on social media, as we try to put pressure on Jeff Bezos to do the right thing, whether that be paying workers a fair wage, or stopping their contracts with ICE, and police departments. Folks who order from Amazon can be a tremendous help by putting our URL in their delivery notes, so that drivers will gain awareness of our work too,” said John Hopkins.