Injured former Amazon warehouse workers and labor organizers in Chicago are protesting dangerous work speed and high injury rates today outside one of the company’s brick-and-mortar stores in downtown Chicago. The action coincides with the release of a new report on injury rates in one of the region’s largest and most dangerous warehouses, MDW7, the first in Illinois with automated robots.
“The speed of the workplace, and automation adding to the speed is one thing that comes up over and over again when I organize workers in Chicago,” said Roberto Clack, an organizer with Warehouse Workers for Justice, the Chicago organization behind the Tuesday’s protest and report. “It’s no surprise that between Thanksgiving and Christmas, those injuries are the worst. Warehouse workers are paying the price of Amazon’s speed.”
The report and protest in Chicago coincides with the launch of a national coalition, known as Athena, of three dozen grassroots labor, antitrust, and digital rights organizations—the first unified resistance effort in the United States against the delivery giant. In recent months, Amazon warehouse workers in New York City, Minnesota, and California’s Inland Empire have also staged actions.
"It’s no coincidence to us that this group would emerge now because the holiday shopping season has become an opportunity for our critics, including unions, to raise awareness for their cause – in this case, increased membership dues, a company spokeswoman told Motherboard, responding to news of Athena's formation. "These groups are conjuring misinformation to work in their favor, when in fact we already offer the things they claim to be able to provide."
Chicago is the country’s largest inland port, and as a critical and massive point in Amazon’s logistics and supply chain, organizers view the region’s warehouses as a uniquely strategic point for Amazon labor organizing. Warehouse Workers for Justice, which organizes warehouse workers in the Chicago area is one of Athena’s founding members.
“Chicago is a very strategic location for labor organizing, because it’s a choke point in Amazon’s network,” Clack said. “A massive amount of products come through our community. To organize for justice for workers at Amazon, you have to be in Chicagoland.
Three former employees, who say they were injured on the job, will take part in the protest. Responding to news of the protest, an Amazon spokeswoman told Motherboard, "there were no Amazon employees who participated in today’s event – this was strictly an outside community group with no connection to Amazon."
The new health and safety report, which contains data compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), shows that nine of every 100 workers at MDW7 were injured so badly in 2018 that they had to take time off work or be placed on light duty. Clack says that the use of automated robots—which are typically deployed in Amazon’s warehouse near cities to handle the high volume of small consumer goods—adds to speed which increases rather than decreases injury rates. Last year, 40 workers at the fulfillment center suffered such severe injuries that they could not return to Amazon—leaving some of them permanently disabled. (According to a recent report by Reveal, injuries for Amazon Fulfillment workers in the United States are more than double the national average for warehouse workers.)
In response to news of the report, an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard, "While many companies under-record safety incidents in order to keep their rates low, Amazon does the opposite—we take an aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small, which results in elevated recordable rates and makes comparisons misleading."
One of these MDW7 workers is Michelle Miller, 47, who tore her rotator cuff after less than a year on the job from the constant up and down repetition of lifting items above her shoulders.
The injury occurred over a year ago, but Miller says it’s still painful to do simple things like get dressed and brush her hair.
“They say they care about employees but they didn’t like it when I got hurt. They said ‘we’ll look into it,’ but they never did,” Miller, who says she was fired in August after being transferred to the loading docks, told Motherboard. “It’s all about money and the customers and how fast we can get products out.”
Miller, who is still out of work and will be getting a surgery for her injury next year, will speak at Tuesday’s picket line. “I’ve never spoken out before, but I really want people and customers to know what goes on behind the scenes at Amazon. People have been injured and killed in Amazon warehouses, and no one’s doing anything to make it safer. I want to make it safer for my friends and family who still work there.”
Three generations of Miller’s family, including her sister, mother, and son have worked at the Amazon warehouse in Monee, the southeast Chicago suburb, which pays more than $15 an hour, making it one of the better-paying blue collar jobs in the area.
This article was updated with comment from Amazon.