When Working Means Deadly Risk, Backlash Brews

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- On March 28, Chris Smalls felt like giving up. He’d spent days talking with co-workers at the Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in New York City’s Staten Island about how to temporarily shut down the facility, where many say management has been slow to disclose and address cases of Covid-19. They’d tried approaching managers with their concerns as a group, to no avail, he says. That morning, a Saturday, Amazon management told Smalls they were directing him to self-quarantine because of contact with a co-worker who’d tested positive, a move Smalls says was arbitrary and designed to shut him up.

For a while that day, Smalls sat at home with a co-worker, dejected. “I guess we’re just all going to get sick,” he recalls thinking. “Amazon wins again.” But he managed to rally and consider what else he hadn’t tried. By the evening, he was emailing reporters and contacting coworkers to drum up support for a strike. Workers strategized via a private Instagram group and spread the word with handwritten and photocopied notes left in the employee bathroom. Come Monday, some workers—Amazon says just 15, the activists say more than 50—walked off the job. Within hours, Smalls was fired.

A week later, the Staten Island warehouse is still open, and Smalls is still out of work. But the strike, which was repeated yesterday, has short-circuited Amazon’s public-relations machinery and maybe—at least momentarily—its labor relations model, too. New York City’s mayor and New York state’s attorney general have demanded investigations into Smalls’s firing, and dozens of lawmakers and hundreds of white-collar Amazon tech workers have joined labor leaders demanding the company bring back Smalls and shut down warehouses until it has implemented stronger safety measures. The workers’ strike has become international news, as has Amazon’s response, especially notes from a meeting with Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos in which the company’s general counsel wrote that focusing attention on Smalls would help Amazon’s PR campaign because Smalls was “not smart or articulate.”

Staff at some of Amazon’s Whole Foods supermarkets and at retail warehouses in Illinois and Michigan have mounted their own work stoppages, a trend some workers are hoping to see spread. “Since New York can do it, we can too,” Detroit-area warehouse worker Mario Crippen wrote in a private Facebook group a few hours before the Staten Island walkout. “Who is with me?”

Amazon spokesperson Kristen Kish said in a statement that the company has changed at least 100 of its processes in recent weeks to protect employees. Fewer than 90 total employees at the New York, Illinois, and Michigan warehouses have participated in the recent protests, she said, less than 1% of the overall workforce at those sites. She said Smalls was terminated for “putting the health and safety of others at risk” by refusing to stay home as directed, an explanation Smalls says is false.

Crippen, whose one-day strike happened two days after Smalls’s, says he knew he was taking a risk, but that “I’d rather get fired than lose my life at that job over the virus.” That sort of sentiment is becoming a common refrain. Over the past several weeks coronavirus concerns have spurred strikes by nonunion workers at companies including Instacart, Perdue Farms, and McDonald’s, where workers at several restaurants have walked off demanding paid sick days and sanitizer. Managers “were basically like, ‘Do the best you can’” to keep the restaurant running with reduced staffing amid the pandemic, says Ashley Halliday, who joined a strike at her Orlando-area McDonald’s. “And I was like, ‘No.’”

In North Carolina, nonunion nurses, standing several feet apart, confronted managers from the for-profit hospital giant HCA with a petition listing demands such as increased availability of personal protective equipment. “This is my first pandemic,” says Sarah Kuhl, one of the nurses. “There’s strength in numbers.”

In emailed statements, Instacart, McDonald’s, and HCA all emphasized their commitment to worker safety.

There are new “grumblings” about unionization among physicians, too, according to Kentucky emergency room doctor Ryan Stanton, a board member of the American College of Emergency Physicians. Failures to provide sufficient PPE and moves to retaliate against doctors who publicize problems have provoked “a huge backlash,” says Stanton. While doctors won’t walk off the job during a health crisis, he says, there’s more force behind the drive to organize than he could have imagined before the advent of Covid-19. “There will be a critical point at which doctors and nurses get fed up and say, ‘We are not chattel,’” he says.

The pandemic has also provoked new activism from union members in many sectors, such as General Electric employees in Massachusetts who rallied to demand the company redeploy them to manufacture ventilators rather than laying off staff. By giving workers something bigger to fear than their boss, and rechristening often-forgotten workers as essential, the coronavirus has laid the groundwork for a new worker rebellion. The risk of retaliation, and how organizers respond, could determine whether it gets quelled or catches fire.

More dramatic disruption could be coming soon. Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen says some cities’ transit workers, many of whom are legally prohibited from striking, could soon do it anyway if their safety demands aren’t met. “A strike to protect the lives of workers is a morally justifiable strike, regardless of what state law says,” according to Samuelsen. “It’s not like we’re going to comply with the law and die.”

The coronavirus worker rebellion, inchoate as it is, is remarkable precisely because the U.S. in so many ways is set up to prevent such things from happening. Congress in 1935 passed a law guaranteeing workers the right to collectively bargain, strike, and protest, but riddled it with loopholes and limitations that, combined with a slew of economic transformations, technological innovations, corporate strategies, court rulings, and hostile laws, have rendered it a pretty empty promise. Workers who try to unionize can legally be forced to attend meetings where managers issue ominous “predictions” about what will ensue if they do. Workers who try to strike can often legally be “permanently replaced.” Usually, the most that managers have to fear if they fire an employee for organizing is perhaps having to reinstate that person eventually with back pay, and without having to pay punitive damages or accept personal liability.

The coronavirus hasn’t swept away workers’ fears that protesting could get them fired. But for a growing number, it’s helped to overcome them. At Instacart, where delivery workers are classified as independent contractors explicitly excluded from labor protections, the fear that refusing work could get you denied future shifts has kept many workers from participating in past protests, says strike leader Vanessa Bain. But the pandemic has changed the calculation: “It’s a lot easier for somebody to decide, ‘I can’t continue to shop, because if I get sick, my grandparents are going to get sick.’”

The crisis is emboldening workers in other ways, too. It’s trained a spotlight on the companies that still get to operate while everything else shuts down, and the workers that allow them to. That means harsher scrutiny from the public, politicians, and the press on businesses that seem to fall short of their duty, and a widespread valorization of the “essential” service and logistics workers who are often ignored. In periods like this, says University of California at Santa Barbara historian Nelson Lichtenstein, “they demand recognition, and society is giving it to them—and why isn’t their employer?”

By failing to fully protect the people who are dutifully showing up to work in a “shelter-in-place” moment, Lichtenstein says, “the companies are breaking these new but extremely powerful norms, for an illicit, selfish reason.” That’s a dynamic that buoys worker activists and makes it easier for solidarity to spread. It could also rewire other battles between management and labor, such as the $110 million effort bankrolled by gig companies like Uber and Lyft in California to pass a voter referendum to prevent drivers previously classified as independent contractors from being deemed full-fledged employees.

But the window the virus pried open could quickly get slammed shut. While the virus has given workers the logistical leverage and moral authority of being christened “essential,” it’s also gifted their bosses with a pool of millions of newly unemployed potential replacement staff. In the Bay Area, Amazon has sent mailers advertising warehouse jobs paying $22.25 an hour with “No resume or interview required”—a sign, depending on your perspective, either of how badly the company currently needs to keep its warehouses staffed, or how far it’s willing to go to keep the upper hand over workers who fall out of line. And plenty of workers remain desperate to hold on to their jobs, whether out of duty, economic dependence, or both.

So a lot depends on what happens to workers like Smalls, whose activism and termination co-workers around the country say they’ve been watching with interest. Amazon says Smalls was fired for violating safety rules by ignoring the quarantine they ordered, not for organizing a safety strike. The company says its employees “are doing incredibly important work every day to support their communities,” and that their feedback has led to major health and safety measures like requiring temperature checks and providing masks. But workers at several warehouses say they still don’t have the basic protective equipment they need and that managers have actually downplayed the risk by making false claims, such as that the virus can’t live on cardboard or can’t be acquired in an interaction shorter than 15 minutes. (Amazon denies this.)

“I’ve talked to a couple of associates that said they’d love to walk out of the building, but they know if they did, they’d end up like Chris,” says a warehouse worker in Pennsylvania, who requested anonymity for fear of similar repercussions. “I think every facility that Amazon has needs to walk out, so that there’s too many for them to fire.”

The same U.S. legal regime that makes it so hard for workers to rebel under normal circumstances also strengthens Amazon’s hand here. While New York’s attorney general says she’s considering all options to pursue Smalls’s firing, and the mayor says his human rights commission will investigate, precedent restricts local governments’ ability to punish companies for retaliating against workers.

Still, labor advocates and allies are trying their best to make Smalls’s March 30 firing an episode Amazon will be loath to repeat. The city and state may still have legal avenues to pursue the firing as a case of retaliation for safety whistleblowing, rather than for organizing, says Seattle University law professor Charlotte Garden. Smalls says that if everything he’s gone through was what it took to get Bezos’s attention, it was worth it. “The employees are starting to realize we’ve got the power,” he says.

This past Sunday night, a group of nurses at Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai-Grace Hospital held a sit-in protest in their break room over staffing and safety issues and said they were sent home by the hospital, which issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” that a “very small number” were “refusing to care for patients.” On Monday, workers were striking over coronavirus concerns at McDonald’s in Los Angeles and San Jose, at two manufacturing companies in Illinois, and again at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse. On Tuesday, workers plan to protest at a Barnes & Noble warehouse in New Jersey and to begin a strike at Target’s delivery company Shipt.

If activists at companies like Amazon can keep the strikes spreading even after a ringleader’s firing, the coronavirus worker rebellion could leave a mark that outlasts the virus itself. “Retaliation backfiring on the employer only really happens in unusual circumstances,” says University of Chicago historian Gabriel Winant. “But we might be in those.”
Read more: Blue-Collar America Braces for Another Devastating Recession

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