As Amazon Union Votes Get Tallied, More Stories Emerge About Working Conditions

Working conditions has been an argument used for unionization. We are learning more stories are emerging of what conditions are like as an Amazon employee.

When you buy products from Amazon, all you really see is the customer facing website. You can purchase products and, after a few days to a week, the product arrives in that famous parcel with the black swoosh smiley face. At most, you might catch a glimpse of the driver out the window, but that’s generally about all customers typically see in the behind the scenes process.

Of course, ever since Amazon employees decided to try to unionize, more attention was paid to the reasons why employees want to unionize. One area of contention is work place conditions. That alone has led to some heated exchange between public figures and Amazon. In one instance, accusations were made that Amazon employees were forced to urinate in bottles as they did their delivery rounds. Amazon, for their part, denied that happened and went so far as to say that if it were true, nobody would work for the company.

Now, Amazon is admitting that the story is, in fact, true. From ArsTechnica:

Amazon has posted an apology to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) for a tweet last week denying that it makes its workers urinate in water bottles.

But the tweet turned into a PR fiasco for Amazon. The next day, Vice published a story with the headline “Amazon Denies Workers Pee in Bottles. Here Are the Pee Bottles.” It included a photo of bottles with an Amazon worker’s urine in them.

Vice noted that this was a common topic of discussion on the r/AmazonDSPDrivers subreddit. There are “dozens of threads and hundreds of comments” with drivers lamenting their need to pee in bottles, hedges, and other things besides a toilet.

Now Amazon has changed its tune. “The tweet was incorrect,” Amazon admitted on its website. “It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.”

Amazon says that “a typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time.”

However, the company acknowledged that this isn’t always true for its delivery drivers.

“We know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes, and this has been especially the case during Covid when many public restrooms have been closed,” Amazon wrote.

“This is a long-standing, industry-wide issue and is not specific to Amazon,” the company added. Amazon says it wants to solve the problem: “We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions.”

Many analysts have already noted that Amazon’s aggressive anti-union push is a sign that the company is worried about where this is all heading. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only story circulating that puts into question Amazon’s working conditions.

In another story, more than 900 Amazon employees have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Greater Toronto Area. This is especially worrying given how much the variants such as the UK and the Brazilian variants have been spreading in recent weeks.

In another report, Amazon is accused of having illegally fired two employees who were advocating for COVID safety measures. From The Guardian:

Amazon illegally fired two employees who advocated for better working conditions during the pandemic, the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found.

The online retailer last year terminated the employment of Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa after they publicly protested its environmental and labor policies.

The two former employees accused the company of enforcing policies in a discriminatory fashion and having vague rules that “chill and restrain” staff from exercising rights, according to their charge filed in October, seen by Reuters.

The board said on Monday that its regional director in Seattle will issue a complaint if the parties do not settle the case, according to the New York Times.

Cunningham and Costa had gained prominence for pushing the company to do more on the climate crisis and became some of the company’s most outspoken internal critics. About a year ago they were terminated after circulating a petition on Amazon’s pandemic safety protocols and worked to raise money for warehouse staff at risk of contracting Covid-19.

“I don’t regret standing up with my co-workers,” Costa said in a statement at the time of her termination. “This is about human lives, and the future of humanity. In this crisis, we must stand up for what we believe in, have hope, and demand from our corporations and employers a basic decency that’s been lacking in this crisis.”

Another story suggests that Amazon is attempting to quash an effort to bring transparency for it’s COVID safety protocols for its employees. From JacobinMag:

As Amazon tries to beat back a union drive and silence critics of its labor practices, the retail behemoth is now asking the Biden administration to help quash a shareholder initiative demanding the company publicly disclose what it has done to protect its workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s request comes as federal investigators have seen a spike in complaints by Amazon workers during the pandemic.

Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos is worth an estimated $181 billion, has led an intense campaign to dissuade its workers in Bessemer, Alabama from forming the first-ever union at one of the company’s warehouses. The company has lashed out at progressive lawmakers supporting the union drive, reportedly at the direction of Bezos, moves that have only prompted more reporting about Amazon’s awful labor practices.

The company has consistently faced scrutiny over how it has responded to COVID. In February, New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit arguing that, since the start of the pandemic, “Amazon has failed and continues to fail to provide reasonable and adequate protection to the lives, health, and safety of its employees.” The lawsuit says the company illegally retaliated against workers raising concerns about their safety. Amazon responded by suing the attorney general in an attempt to block the case.

Now, Amazon wants President Joe Biden’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow the company to ignore major shareholders demanding management publicly detail their efforts to protect workers from the coronavirus strain that led to a boost in company business and a bump in its stock price. Bezos has seen his net worth increase by $58 billion since the pandemic started, while nearly twenty thousand Amazon workers were infected by last September.

Most of this is painting a pretty bad picture of Amazon. We did, however, find one story that talks about how Amazon is allowing on-site vaccinations as well. From CNBC:

Some Amazon warehouse workers will soon be able to get vaccinated against Covid-19 at their workplace.

Amazon announced Thursday that it’s setting up on-site vaccination clinics at fulfillment centers in Missouri, followed by Nevada and Kansas in the coming weeks. At the clinics, which are expected to run for about five days, vaccines will be administered to employees by licensed health-care providers.

The company said it expects to launch vaccination clinics at additional warehouses across the country as more vaccine supply becomes available to front-line employees in other states.

It comes as the U.S. continues to pick up the pace of vaccinations, with the nation administering more than 2.5 million shots per day. Companies with essential workers, including Amazon, have been vying to give their workers priority access to the shots.

It’s interesting that most of the stories we are seeing at this point is practically an argument for unionization.

The thing with unionization is that it allows employees a seat at the table to determine how business should be run. There is obviously no shortage of stories good and bad about unions. It’s unsurprising because not all unions are created equal. What’s more, not all union representatives within a union are created equal for that matter. That is definitely true for much larger unions.

This vote, from what we can tell, is simply a vote on whether or not that voice at the table should be present at all. It doesn’t necessarily have either the baggage or the credibility yet because it doesn’t really exist yet. Until it’s ability to exist happens, it’s difficult to really gauge whether this is ultimately going to be better for everyone involved. As it stands now, from what we are seeing, the situation with employee workplace conditions doesn’t look great by any means. So, it kind of looks like forming a union is a path forward. It is a tough sell to say that the status quo right now is acceptable based on what we are seeing floating around in the news. If the vote doesn’t go in the way of the union, then there’s a very strong case to be made that Amazon can do better. That is the bare minimum that we can see.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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