Over 100 Residents of California’s Inland Empire Occupy Amazon Developer's Offices

Amazon is the rumored tenant of a newly approved air cargo facility that working-class residents say would bring more dead end jobs and air pollution to their community.
January 23, 2020, 3:09pm
Andres
San Bernardino Airport Communities

On December 30, a local commission in the city of San Bernardino, California unanimously approved a $200 million air cargo facility. The future occupant is rumored to be Amazon, the largest private employer in California’s Inland Empire—comprised of the sprawling San Bernardino and Riverside counties—which form the interior of greater Los Angeles.

Supporters of the airport’s expansion say the hub could generate as many as 3,800 jobs and $5 million in revenue for the city.

But locals are concerned about the pollution and more grueling warehouse jobs coming to the area. On Wednesday, roughly 150 residents, labor organizers, and former Amazon warehouse workers—known collectively as San Bernardino Airport Communities protested at the offices of the developer Hillwood, chanting, playing drums, and waving banners reading: “AMAZON: WE DESERVE GOOD JOBS AND CLEAN AIR.” The Texas-based developer Hillwood is a favorite of Amazon’s. Recent projects include a regional Amazon air hub at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and a delivery center outside Chicago.

“The Inland Empire is America’s shopping cart,” said Mario Vasquez, a communications coordinator for Teamsters Local 1932, and one of the lead organizers of San Bernardino Airport Communities, told Motherboard. “Living in San Bernardino, everyone knows someone who is affected by Amazon—someone who’s working in the warehouses, someone who’s had their lungs damaged…. Everywhere you turn is a warehouse or a big ass truck.”

The protestors, who’ve organized under the name San Bernardino Airport Communities, demanded the developer Hillwood and Amazon agree to a set of legally-binding community guidelines for wages and air and noise pollution—such as promising to provide soundproofing for homes and schools, supply zero emission trucks, and that new jobs will that pay at least $20 an hour.

“Hillwood and Amazon both have the available funds and the legal framework to provide benefits to the communities from which they have already received millions in profits and public benefits,” San Bernardino Airport Communities wrote in an letter delivered to Hillwood’s senior vice president John Magness on Wednesday that was provided to Motherboard. “We need more than the promise of 4,000 potential Amazon jobs. We need a real commitment to good jobs and real solutions to mitigate the negative impacts a project like Eastgate is sure to bring.”

Since 2012, when jobs were scarce in the Inland Empire, Amazon has opened 14 fulfillment centers in the Riverside and San Bernardino counties. And in less than a decade, the region transformed into an e-commerce empire and Amazon’s largest regional concentration of logistics warehouses in the world. An abundance of low-cost real estate and blue-collar workers—and proximity to some of the wealthiest enclaves in Southern California—made it an appealing spot for the world’s largest shipping company to root itself.

Vasquez’s group has been organizing around these demands for months. In November, San Bernardino Airport Communities sent the same list of demands to Jeff Bezos in a letter. And on December 2, Cyber Monday, hundreds of Inland Empire residents marched outside of an Amazon fulfillment center in San Bernardino, blocking traffic.

Senator Bernie Sanders caught wind, and declared his opposition to the airport expansion and his support for the community group—as did a group of Amazon’s white collar employees in Seattle, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

San Bernardino Airport Communities contend that, based on the size of the facility, an Amazon operation would bring an additional 24 flights a day and an additional 7,515 vehicles—including 500 trucks moving through the area each day.

“I have very strong feelings about this. Amazon is one of the worst places to work. When I was there, I felt expendable,” Eric Guillen, a former Amazon warehouse worker who spoke at Wednesday’s protest, told Motherboard. “I’m all for jobs in San Bernardino. But what I want is quality jobs. And with the airport opening up, it’s gonna bring more trucks, more cargo, and it’s going to adversely affect the air quality. If you’re going to come into my community, make it better, not worse.”

In recent years, idling trucks have begun to clog up residential neighborhoods. Roughly 18,000 people in the county have taken up dangerous, dead-end warehouse jobs in Amazon’s 14 fulfillment centers, according to data provided by the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit economics research group in Southern California, to Motherboard.

In the greater Los Angeles area, 62 percent of Amazon workers receive some form of government assistance, according to a “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store,” a recent report by the Economic Roundtable on Amazon’s impact in Southern California. In other words, despite Amazon’s claims that its warehouse jobs pay a living wage, the shipping giant is letting its workers live in poverty and forcing the government to pick up the tab. For every $1 in wages paid by Amazon, warehouse workers receive an estimated $0.24 cents in public assistance, according to the same report. Roughly 80 percent of the Inland Empire’s residents are black or Latino.

“As a consequence of having low wages and insufficient incomes to afford adequate homes for their families, 57 percent of Amazon warehouse workers live in housing that is overcrowded and substandard,” the authors of the report write. “There is direct and indirect evidence of significant homelessness among warehouse workers.”

“Warehouse jobs are the only jobs that people can come by here. There’s a pipeline from the high schools. I worked there because it was the best hours I could get,” said Andres Garcia, 28, who spoke at the Wednesday protest and worked at a San Bernardino fulfillment center in 2014. “All of the issues around Hillwood airport have added to the collective misery in the area. In the last five years, there’s been a huge influx of warehouses. It’s kind of so bad that it’s completely situating whole neighborhoods next to massive warehouse properties.”

To make matters worse, last year San Bernardino and Riverside Counties reported the worst and second worst air pollution of all U.S. counties, respectively. Garcia, who was born with asthma, says the air quality makes it extremely difficult to enjoy the nearby wilderness.

The December 30 vote to authorize the airport cargo facility took place just days before a California law came into effect that requires local agencies to disclose details about warehouse distribution centers before a vote. Protestors are particularly angry about a confidentiality clause in the new ground lease for the airport facility that, conveniently for the businesses involved, makes it difficult to prove that the future occupant is Amazon.

“We were totally blindsided by this special meeting that happened between New Years and Christmas,” said Garcia, who was born and raised in the country. “It was a typical political staging where they gave the public notice on a Friday and voted on a Monday. They’re squeaking by the law. It was a huge loss for our group.”

“Our campaign is about raising standards, especially because this is a public airport,” said Vasquez, the Teamsters communications director and a lead organizer of the San Bernardino Airport Communities campaign. “If we’re going to be Amazon’s first regional air hub, they damn better guarantee job quality standards. Working families deserve this.”

Amazon and Hillwood did not respond to a request for comment.