Tech by VICE

Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart Workers Organize a Historic Mass Strike

On May 1st, frontline workers at some of the biggest corporations in the country will lead a mass strike action, asking customers to boycott Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, and Target.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Apr 29 2020, 12:00pm

Jason Koebler

A series of work stoppages, sick-outs, and protests in recent weeks will culminate on Friday, May 1 in a historic strike organized by frontline workers at some of the country’s largest corporations.

Workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, Target, and Shipt say they will walk off the job on May 1 to protest their employers’ failure to provide basic protections for frontline workers who are risking and losing their lives at work. Meanwhile, these same companies are making record profits.

In a flyer circulated widely on social media, organizers of the so-called “May Day General Strike” implore customers to boycott Whole Foods, Amazon, Target, and Instacart on May 1.

“It’s more powerful when we come together,” Chris Smalls, a lead organizer of the May 1 walkout, who was fired from Amazon’s Staten Island fulfillment center after staging a walkout on March 31, told Motherboard. “We formed an alliance between a bunch of different companies because we all have one common goal which is to save the lives of workers and communities. Right now isn’t the time to open up the economy. Amazon is a breeding ground [for this virus] which is spreading right now through multiple facilities.”

“While we respect people’s right to express themselves, we object to the irresponsible actions of labor groups in spreading misinformation and making false claims about Amazon during this unprecedented health and economic crisis," a spokesperson from Amazon told Motherboard in response to news of the May Day walkout.

In early April, Vice News obtained a leaked memo from an internal meeting of Amazon leadership, which described a campaign to smear the fired warehouse organizer Smalls, calling him "not smart or articulate" as part of a PR strategy to make him "the face of the entire union/organizing movement."

Led by Smalls, dozens of organizers have been planning the logistics of the walkout over Zoom calls in recent days. Since the pandemic broke out, retail, warehouse and gig workers have coalesced around a similar list of demands: personal protective gear, health care benefits, paid leave, and hazard pay—making it natural for them to coordinate a mass action.

“We have workers at more than 100 stores who’ve agreed to participate and some stores were enough people will call out to shut stores down,” Adam Ryan, a Target worker in Christiansburg, Virgina, and a lead organizer of the walkout at Target, told Motherboard. “We’re trying to echo calls for a general strike. We want to shut down industry across the board and pushback with large numbers against the right-wing groups that want to risk our lives by reopening the economy.”

On May 1, a day historically celebrated globally by the left as International Workers' Day or May Day, small business owners and right-wing groups will stage “Reopen America” rallies in cities around the country, including Washington DC and Chicago.

The so-called “May Day General Strike” is the culmination of a series of strikes led by workers at companies like Whole Foods, Amazon and Instacart since the pandemic began. The organizers at the forefront of the recent labor unrest form the face of the country’s resurgent labor movement: non-union, underemployed, and precarious workers who have taken things into their own hands to demand changes and organize their co-workers in the absence of a union—primarily over social media and encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram.

Worker-led online groups, such as Whole Worker, Target Workers Unite, and the Instacart Shoppers (National) Facebook group, with thousands of members spanning the country—have been years in the making, but have experienced unprecedented growth during the pandemic, organizers say.

While the mass strike action might not be enough to shut down society, the collective action certainly echoes the calls for a general strike—a coordinated work stoppage across businesses and industries in pursuit of a common goal—the likes of which have not been seen in the United States since World War II.

The planned mass strike was in part seeded at the grocery delivery app Instacart, which recently became profitable for the first time since its founding in 2012, according to a report in The Information. On March 30, thousands of Instacart workers went on strike to demand protective gear, $5 hazard pay per order, and an expansion of paid sick leave to high risk workers. Following Instacart walkout, Whole Foods workers and Target’s delivery app Shipt workers staged their own strikes—making similar demands. Amazon workers at warehouses in Staten Island, Detroit, Chicago, and most recently Shakopee, Minnesota have staged their own walkouts.

The demands for Instacart, Amazon, Whole Foods, and Shipt strikes on May 1 remain largely the same as they did during initial strike actions, as companies have largely resisted providing workers with sufficient paid leave, protective gear, and hazard pay.

“It’s very important for us as similarly positioned workers to come together for demands that are pretty universal,” Vanessa Bain, a lead organizer of the Instacart walkout, told Motherboard. “In addition to building broader worker power, the point of our mass strike action is to bring this to the attention of the politicians and policy makers. We need them to address our demands now, and the fastest way to ensure that this happens is for companies to feel pressured into doing it.”

Following the March 30 Instacart strike, workers did claim a victory when the company agreed to provide workers with face masks and hand sanitizer, which was one of their demands. But workers say the supplies are frequently damaged and low-quality. Meanwhile, Instacart, organizers say workers cannot access paid Covid-19 sick leave because Instacart does not accept doctor’s notes.

“The protective gear they’ve offered us is a joke, and the paid leave they’ve promised us is really hard to get, which many workers don’t have health insurance and cannot afford to go to the doctor,” Bain added. “May Day is the day you don’t go to work or buy things or pay rent. To consumers, we’re saying: ‘Don’t buy from these companies on May 1. Don’t empower them with your dollars.’ That’s what we need for an effective general strike.”

At the Target-owned delivery app Shipt, which has been criticized by its workers for its culture of censorship and retaliation, the action marks the second time workers have walked off the job this month. On April 7, Shipt workers organized the first walkout since the company’s founding in 2014. Shipt workers have demanded $5 hazard pay per order and an expansion of paid leave for high risk workers and those with doctor’s notes.

“It is unconscionable that Shipt is asking workers to get letters from public health officials in order to get paid leave,” Willy Solis, a gig worker in Dallas, who is organizing the walkout at Shipt, told Motherboard. “They are asking us to jump through hoops when we’re sick, so we’re demanding that they expand their policy.”

At Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon, workers will also make many of the same demands as their first strike: guaranteed paid sick leave to those who wish to stay home, the reinstatement of health care coverage for part-time workers which was revoked in 2019, and the closure of stores when employees test positive for coronavirus until they can safely reopen.

Do you work for any of the companies in this article and have a story to share with you? We'd love to hear from you. Please reach out to Lauren at Lauren.gurley@vice.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.

The group Whole Worker, which is coordinating the Whole Foods strike, has created a running tally of positive cases at stores, currently at 253 cases and 2 deaths at 132 stores across the United States.

Tyler Robertson, a lead organizer of the walkout, who helped found the group Whole Worker in 2018, told Motherboard that social media and messaging technologies have played an important role in building a mass movement at Whole Foods stores from Texas to California to New York in recent years. These tools have become even more important at a time when workers cannot organize in real life.

“We’ve built this using free tools like Telegram, social media, and Google docs. We don’t have unions but one of the advantages for the new labor movement has been free tools. We haven’t spent any money organizing,” Robertson told Motherboard. “What I’ve seen in the past two months, I’ve never seen before. It’s a mass awakening of workers.”

Update: This article has been updated with a comment from Amazon.

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