BooksellingThe Colophon

March 26 declared a day of solidarity for Amazon workers trying to unionize

Box with Amazon logo scowling in anger
Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are in a fight to unionize as a way to advocate for better working conditions (Box photo: BAmazon Union)

Yesterday, The Guardian reported on an internal memo indicating that Amazon management had chastised workers “for urinating in bottles and defecating in bags while on the job.” The memo, which was leaked to the Intercept, goes on to state, “We understand that [driver associates] may have emergencies while on-road, and especially during COVID, DAs have struggled to find bathrooms while delivering.”

The memo was leaked following a denial on social media that Amazon workers were forced to urinate in bottles during their shifts because they were not allowed sufficient bathroom breaks.

The contretemps comes at the same time as Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, are in a fight to unionize as a way to better advocate for improved working conditions. The push to unionize comes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a period that reportedly saw Amazon founder and outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth increase by $70 billion USD.

To support the ground-level workers in their fight for a union, a group of publishers, editors, publicists, and booksellers have declared March 26 a day of solidarity. Publishing professionals from U.S. independent presses including Haymarket Books, Verso Books, Coffee House Press, and Europa Editions join other book workers and stakeholders in signing on to a statement demanding that Amazon increase safety protections and improve working conditions for its warehouse and delivery employees.

Allison Tamarkin Paller of 7 Stories Press writes, “The fact that these brave workers are fighting for their rights against Amazon, the largest multinational corporation in the world (and one that has altered the book industry more than any other force in history), makes it all the more necessary for worker-allies to stand up and make their support known.”

And Daley Farr of Coffee House Press says, “[We] have to confront Amazon, not just as competition, but as a dangerous monopoly built on the abuse of the workers – and we must oppose dehumanizing and exploitative conditions for book workers everywhere.”

Floating, misshapen barcode and Amazon scowl
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the dangers faced by the very people who provide us with the goods that keep our economy afloat (Barcode image: Chad Felix)

One of the signatories to the statement is Dan Wells, publisher of the Windsor, Ontario, independent press Biblioasis, which last year brought out the English translation of Jorge Carrión’s book Against Amazon and Other Essays. In the title essay, Carrión writes, “Apparently the only thing that matters to Amazon is the speed and efficiency of its service. There is almost no human mediation. Everything is automatic, almost instantaneous. However, a massive economic and political structure exists behind all those mechanical operations.”

Carrión is wrong to suggest there is almost no human mediation in Amazon’s operation: the workers who ensure the company’s speed and efficiency are frequently erased in the public perception and exploited by their employer, which is why support for the Bessemer union push is so urgent and important. (In Canada, where Indigo employees in Ontario and British Columbia successfully unionized, positive results have already been seen.)

On the BAmazon Union website, the rationale for unionizing is made clear: “Having a union at Amazon would give us the right to collectively bargain over our working conditions including items such as safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits, and other important issues that would make our workplace better.”

But more than that, the employees pushing for collective bargaining recognize the larger significance of holding one of the most powerful and wealthiest companies on the planet to account: ”Corporations like Amazon have built decades of increasingly bold and aggressive attacks on workers’ rights that have dramatically eroded union density, harmed working conditions, and lowered the standard of living for many workers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, while enriching billionaires like Bezos, has exposed the pitiful circumstances of the very people we rely on to keep supply chains open and goods moving through a changed and uncertain world. The workers who put themselves, their health, and that of their families on the line to keep goods flowing and the economy afloat are the ones most in danger of being exploited or falling through the cracks of a tattered and fragile social safety net. It is imperative for everyone who benefits from the services these workers provide to support them in their push for safer and more humane treatment.

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