by Guy Oron
Over 150 people gathered this Saturday, Feb. 20, to protest in solidarity with Amazon warehouse workers and against the crisis of housing affordability in King County. The protestors gathered outside the Renton offices of the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association (WMFHA), a landlord lobby group, before marching to the Amazon Flex warehouse, also known as DSE5.
The demonstration was organized by a coalition of local activist and labor groups, including the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America (SDSA) and MLK Labor (also known as the King County Labor Council). Organizers coordinated the action in coordination with a national day of solidarity in support of workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, who are trying to unionize. Workers at the Bessemer warehouse are currently voting on whether to form a union, and if they prove successful, the facility would become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States.
Demonstrators believe that this vote on unionization could spark a nationwide movement. “If [the Amazon warehouse workers] can win in Alabama, I think that will send shockwaves across the country,” said Ty Moore, an organizer with SDSA.
Amazon is one of the largest corporations in Washington, employing over 75,000 people in the Puget Sound region. The company has grown dramatically despite the COVID-19 pandemic, taking advantage of increased demand for deliveries and in-home entertainment. Forbes reports that the corporation made $386 billion in revenue in 2020, an increase of 38% from 2019. Across the United States, Amazon has opened over 800 warehouses and other logistic facilities, including 16 in Western Washington.
However, the Alabama union push has been far from unopposed. Amazon has been criticized for its heavy-handed anti-union tactics against pro-union workers at the Bessemer warehouse. According to the Payday Report, Amazon has barraged its workers with anti-union messages and even offered to pay workers to resign so they can’t vote in favor of unionizing. Black workers make up 80% of the workforce at the Bessemer warehouse, and the majority are women.
Mimi Harris, who is co-chair of SDSA and works at the Kent Amazon Sort Center, spoke at the protest about how Amazon punished their employees for small actions of solidarity. After Harris and her fellow warehouse workers organized a potluck fundraiser to help a coworker move out of an abusive situation, they received notice that half of them would be moved to the night shift. “For all the single moms, of which there are many on my shift, that was effectively termination from the company. Amazon was afraid of our solidarity and they’re terrified right now about what’s happening in Bessemer,” Harris said.
Amazon has also come under fire for harsh working conditions at its warehouses. Harris described having countless issues working at Amazon warehouses: “People are pushed to such high productivity rates that they have to make the assessment of whether they actually have time to go to the bathroom and that is something I experienced week after week working [at the Renton warehouse].”
In addition, many have expressed concerns around Amazon worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Harris said that Amazon’s response has been inadequate. Harris called the $2 per hour in hazard pay they received “a pretty small gesture” and criticized Amazon’s social distancing policies. “As soon as you go into where the work in the warehouse actually happens, there’s not even a pretense of social distancing. We’re crammed into aisles together,” said Harris. “So it’s really, really scary to go into work.”
In an email to the Emerald, an Amazon spokesperson said that in 2020, Amazon spent $11.5 billion on COVID-19 safety measures and $2.5 billion in bonuses and incentives for its frontline workers.
Protestors also drew attention to the crisis of housing affordability and evictions in the region. Crosscut reports that over 200,000 renters in Washington State are behind on rental payments and could potentially face eviction if the eviction moratorium — which is set to expire on March 31 — is not renewed.
Ariana Laureano, an organizer and renter who has been unable to make rent payments during the pandemic, described her situation as “living on the brink of collapse. The eviction moratorium has been the only stopgap to a tidal wave of homelessness.”
Organizers of the protest demanded immediate relief for tenants, statewide rent control, and advocated for the passing of Senate Bill 5160, which would give renters more protections. They see Amazon as one of the biggest obstacles to advancing both workers’ rights and housing justice.
“We’ve seen how Amazon on the one end refuses to pay their warehouse workers, their drivers, their whole logistics operations a living wage,” said Moore. “On the other end, Amazon opposes all the measures we’ve been trying to pass to win more affordable housing. They opposed the JumpStart Amazon Tax, they opposed the candidates we were running for City Hall last year. They’ve been an obstacle at every angle.”
Despite struggles for dignity and safety at work as well as secure and affordable housing, workers drew inspiration and hope from the Bessemer Amazon warehouse workers and their organizing. For Harris, she says, “It means everything.”
Guy Oron is a Seattle-based writer and journalist. His writing has been featured in the Nation, South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.
Featured image by Susan Fried.
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