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Chicago—Amazon workers in a Chicago warehouse think their health should be as essential as their labor—and they’re building on past organizing to get management to act like it.
With at least one confirmed case of Covid-19 at the facility southwest of downtown that’s responsible for the “last mile” of most Amazon Prime deliveries in the city, workers are circulating a petition calling for the company to immediately shut down the warehouse for disinfection, pay all workers during the closure, cover medical bills for workers and family members who contract the coronavirus, and take other steps to put safety first.
On Monday night, at least 30 workers—around half the size of the shift due to go in—gathered outside the facility’s entrances for a socially distanced speak-out and urged coworkers not to clock in and risk their health for Amazon’s packages.
“Our warehouse is a petri dish for spreading this,” says Ted Miin, one of the workers who spoke. “We know that as things get worse, our walkouts and our picket lines and our actions will only grow.”
Anger has been building inside Amazon facilities nationwide as the company tries to keep running flat-out to meet demand. Earlier in March, a Queens warehouse shut down when workers walked out after learning of a positive case. On Monday, March 30, workers at a Staten Island facility where as many as 10 employees are infected walked out mid-shift; one of the main organizers of the action was fired.
Workers at Chicago’s DCH1 (as the facility is known) say managers first disclosed the Covid case in the middle of the night shift, after most of the work had finished, and one worker at a time, to avoid a collective response. Day-shift workers were informed by robocall later the next day—after three more shifts of workers had entered and worked in the facility.
“Managers aren’t taking decisive action that will actually protect us from having coronavirus spread into our communities,” says Christian Zamarrón, who has worked at DCH1 for close to three years. He says the company is focused on “PR stuff: having workers pose for photos and making it look like we’re practicing social distancing. But it’s all a farce.” Workers packing bags for delivery vans often “have to be within a few feet of each other” to do their jobs, he says.
Zamarrón and Miin are part of a group of DCH1 workers who started organizing last year. They had a lot of grievances, but started with the basics: a petition for clean drinking water. At a daily “stand-up” meeting at the start of one shift, one worker spoke up and said they had a “safety tip—in fact, 150 of us have a safety tip on this petition: We need water!”
According to a Medium article co-authored by DCH1 workers, “Within an hour the manager had run to the nearest grocery store and gotten enough cases of bottled water for everyone. For the next months, Amazon had pallets of bottled water available to us. Within a few weeks, management had water lines and water stations installed throughout the facility.”
The workers—who named themselves DCH1 Amazonians United, like similar groups around the country—focused next on wages, health insurance, and lack of air-conditioning. In the midst of Prime Week in mid-July, 25 workers marched into the manager’s office during the overnight shift to present a new petition. Later in the month, management was pressured into sending everyone home with full pay when conditions became unbearable on one of the hottest days of the summer.
At the start of this year, Chicago’s DCH1 workers were inspired by coworkers at a Sacramento facility to organize for paid time off (PTO). Amazon’s employee manual states that any employee working 20 hours or more a week is entitled to paid personal time, but the Chicago workers found managers were routinely denying PTO requests from part-timers.
The DCH1 group presented its latest petition, the one for PTO, at the company’s quarterly “all-hands” meetings for each shift. When Vanessa Carrillo came forward at one of the all-hands meetings, she wasn’t alone—11 of her coworkers stood with her. “Most of the associates who were in that room were applauding when I turned the petition in to the site lead,” she says.
When the manager refused to accept the petition, “people were really pissed about it, that management disrespected us like that,” Carrillo says. It was another step toward unifying workers, some of whom were skeptical about the campaign when the core group began organizing.
Soon, there was a victory to celebrate: On March 23, Amazon announced that all part-time and seasonal employees would be able to apply for PTO. With the coronavirus pandemic spreading, the issue a handful of workers started organizing around months earlier couldn’t be more relevant.
Miin says the quick response now to the coronavirus threat was made possible by previous organizing. “Many people warmed up over the months, seeing us take action, seeing our PTO win,” he says. “So we’ve built some confidence with our coworkers.
Zamarrón says DCH1 Amazonians United will keep fighting to make sure the company honors its PTO announcement while preparing to face the new threat.
“This is a crisis that doesn’t affect just one site; it’s a crisis that affects all Amazon workers, nationally and internationally,” he says. “We’re doing our best to tell our coworkers: This is how you do it. It’s different at every location; you’ve got to figure it out with your coworkers at your site. But this is what we did, and you can do it, too.”