Shakopee, Minn. ― As a “rebinner” at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Minneapolis, Meg Brady says she is expected to handle 600 items per hour, constantly pivoting on her feet to grab one item and place it in a nearby chute.
Brady, 55, compared the job to an aerobics workout — one she says has left her with a stress fracture in her foot and on short-term disability for almost two months.
She’s been an Amazon employee for a year and seven months. And on Monday afternoon, she joined a small group of her fellow workers and dozens of other protesters outside the cavernous warehouse to demonstrate against the company’s working conditions, benefits and corporate culture. The protest took place on the first day of Prime Day, one of Amazon’s flagship shopping events that generates billions of dollars in sales for the retail giant.
“To actually get out and say [to Amazon], ‘You’re not doing a good job,' that’s not an easy thing to say,” Brady said. “Because Amazon is so huge, you do feel like you’re this small person trying to fight a giant.”
Amazon has long defended how it compensates and treats workers, and the company argues employees don’t need to form a union because Amazon already provides comprehensive benefits. Last year, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all U.S. employees, and chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos has challenged his retail rivals to do the same. Last week, the company announced it would retrain one-third of its U.S. workforce — a total of 100,000 employees — to prepare them for increasingly tech-centered jobs. (Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
But Amazon has still come under increasing scrutiny from workers rights groups, lawmakers and politicians over issues ranging from corporate taxation to market competition. Amazon’s growing power has drawn particular attention on the 2020 campaign trail, with calls to break up the tech giant or more heavily regulate its vast empire. On Monday morning, presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted in support of the strikers, saying: “Their fight for safe and reliable jobs is another reminder that we must come together to hold big corporations accountable.”
In a statement, Amazon said events like Prime Day have invited critics to “raise awareness for their cause.” But the company said those groups are only “conjuring misinformation to work in their favor” and that they ignore Amazon’s existing benefits and safe workplaces.
“We can only conclude that the people who plan to attend the event on Monday are simply not informed,” the company said. “If these groups — unions and the politicians they rally to their cause — really want to help the American worker, we encourage them to focus their energy on passing legislation for an increase in the federal minimum wage, because $7.25 is too low.”
Amazon workers in Europe have protested during prominent shopping days, but Monday’s demonstration in Shakopee marks one of the first strikes from U.S. employees on such a high-demand sales event. Last year, thousands of employees across Spain, Poland and Germany walked off the job around Prime Day to demand better working conditions.
On Monday, as the temperatures climbed into the 90s, a few employees, labor organizers and community members hoisted signs and marched at the edge of Amazon’s Shakopee fulfillment center. Cars whizzing by honked as the protesters chanted, “We work, we sweat, Amazon workers need our rest."
Hundreds of workers inside the fulfillment center continued to work, and 18-wheelers cut through the line of protesters to truck away goods.
Abdinasir Ugaas came from near Minneapolis to support his cousin, a fulfillment center worker. Ugaas emigrated from East Africa decades ago and said that Amazon relies on his community for workers in the Twin Cities area — something the protesters could use to their advantage in asking for change.
“There’s a tight community, and Amazon knows distribution will stop if they walk out,” Ugaas said.
The fulfillment center employs a large number of Muslim immigrants from East Africa who have been pushing for changes for nearly 18 months. The Awood Center, a Minneapolis-based group advocating for East African workers, has spearheaded much of the activism, including calls for sufficient prayer time.
In 2018, Amazon workers in the Twin Cities area chanted “yes, we can” in Somali and English at a delivery center and asked management to reduce their workloads during the holy Ramadan fasts. Those actions led to some improvements, organizers said, including the creation of a designated prayer space and eased pressure on employees to meet quotas during Ramadan.
“We’re proud of these workers standing up to one the biggest corporations in the world,” said Abdirahman Muse, executive director of the Awood Center. “They deserve safe and reliable jobs with a chance to advance. We fully support them and hope Amazon will hear the voices of these brave workers standing up for what is right.”
Brady called on Amazon to invest more in ergonomics to keep employees from getting hurt on the job. And she’s insisting Amazon be more reasonable in how it assesses workers’ productivity. Brady said she’s never been given an explanation for why she must handle 600 items each hour, and she said that rate even applies when she’s taking her breaks. Brady said her co-workers’ productivity rates are also broadcast over the warehouses’ loudspeaker to encourage everyone to push themselves harder.
Amazon responded to the criticism by saying that workers’ performance is evaluated over time, “as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour.” Company policy requires that more than 75 percent of workers exceed their rate expectations before any changes are considered. Breaks don’t factor into productivity expectations, Amazon said, and airing workers’ rates is done for transparency and to promote “a fun and positive environment.”
The Shakopee fulfillment center is one of Amazon’s roughly 75 such facilities in North America, but Brady said she wants her message to carry all the way to Seattle. If employees were allowed to unionize, Brady said she believes there would be higher pay and resources to prevent workplace injuries. Brady makes $17.15 an hour, but said she only feels fairly compensated when she works overtime and makes $25 per hour.
Brady said that many employees are fearful they could be fired if they speak out and that many can’t join the protest because they can’t take the time off. Brady herself worries that after Monday, the company could penalize her by making it harder for her to meet her expected rates — or that she could be fired altogether.
Amazon said workers are free to take paid time off and that there is a zero-tolerance policy for retaliating against employees who speak out.
Still, Brady shoved her fears aside and turned up on Monday to speak before the crowd.
“There are a lot of people who say that if you don’t like the way it is, leave,” Brady said. “That isn’t the answer if you want to change things.”