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Amazon warehouse workers organized to demand PTO, and coronavirus clinched it

Devin Coldewey

Amazon never tires of explaining how great it is to work at one of its warehouses, but as usual the actual employees tell a different story. This particular group of Chicago workers was fed up with the company failing to provide paid time off or vacation it promised to part-time workers. They organized; Amazon resisted -- and at last, the coronavirus acted as tiebreaker.

It's an interesting first-hand story from workers being exploited by a business and working to change that —  I say exploited not because the work is hard and the pay low, though that's true too, but because they had to fight to get basic considerations and resources from a company claiming to value their health and welfare.

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The group is not a union, but it's the seed from which unions sprang long ago: workers with a common grievance acting in unison to force management to come to the table. Originally the group formed to make a petition for access to clean water to drink. You read that right! After complaining individually to no effect, they got 150 people to sign the petition, presented it and soon there were pallets of bottled water available and new water stations being installed.

From this we learned that we get the changes we need by getting organized and taking action together. Since there was still plenty of bullshit to address, we met up again and after some brainstorming decided to name ourselves DCH1 Amazonians United. There’s no union or nonprofit backing us up, it’s just us workers, full of dignity, trying to make ends meet. When we found out that Amazon was denying us the PTO we were supposed to have, we were ready to do something about it.

Amazon promised in writing that workers putting in more than 20 hours would accrue PTO and vacation time, but that simply wasn't happening. Somehow, the people at the warehouse were a special class of employee that worked more than 20 hours and didn't accrue PTO and vacation. One way or another something had to change.

After pulling together 251 signatures to a petition demanding PTO and a meeting with their regional manager, they presented it on three separate occasions so each shift could hear management's response. One manager accepted the petition, another refused to take it. The site lead started isolating workers, telling them they could meet one on one but not as a group with the regional manager. This is labor organization shutdown 101, by the way.

The group heard that a similar group to theirs in Sacramento had walked out, and clearly management did too, as they began acting nervous about collective action. There was an international meeting of Amazon workers to compare notes and techniques.

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Then the coronavirus hit, and across multiple Amazon labor groups petitions were passed demanding protective measures against infection, increased hazard pay and childcare subsidies, and that the company cease withholding sick leave.

In the middle of these growing efforts, Amazon decided to grant PTO to all workers above 20 hours.

Image Credits: DHC1 Amazonians United

In a statement to TechCrunch, the company said that it "has implemented a broad suite of new benefits changes for employees in our operations and logistics network throughout this unprecedented pandemic event," and that this decision was not due to the agitations of Amazonians United or any other single group. Indeed, it sounds like groups all over the world had to combine and protest these policies together in order for Amazon to take notice. I asked why the PTO was not being given in the first place and have yet to hear back.

The Chicago group was far from alone in its plight, but it took organization and communication for them to find the courage and means to make the changes necessary. Here's hoping the 100,000 workers Amazon plans to hire benefit from the work of their peers.