Amazon Prime Day ignites protests over working conditions, as company accuses unions of ‘conjuring misinformation’

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An Amazon Fulfillment Center in Dupont, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Last year, Amazon Prime Day became the biggest shopping event in the company’s history. Fresh off that success, Amazon decided to expand its flash sales holiday to two days this year.

But much has changed over the past year. Amazon has a target on its back thanks to outspoken critics in Washington D.C., its relationship with law enforcement agencies, the high-profile HQ2 competition, the company’s increased lobbying appetite, and the record wealth of its founder. What’s more, Amazon employees are increasingly emboldened to speak out against their employer.

Buoyed by those shifting tides, activists around the world are seizing Amazon Prime Day as an opportunity to protest and air their grievances against the company, turning Prime Day into a flashpoint in the conflict between Amazon and labor groups. While worker advocates, including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, are celebrating the activism, Amazon criticized unions for “conjuring misinformation to work in their favor.”

The center of the activism is Shakopee, Minn., where workers at an Amazon fulfillment center are organizing a strike on Monday. They are demanding Amazon convert more temps into full-time employees and release some of the pressure to meet quotas. Several members of the advocacy group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice are traveling from the company’s Seattle headquarters to Shakopee to show solidarity.

Amazon engineer Weston Fribley is one of those employees.

“We wanted to attend because our groups share common goals — namely, to make Amazon a better place to work, to ensure the company takes responsibility for its impact on the community, and to secure Amazon’s future as a sustainable enterprise,” Fribley said in an email. “That means Amazon must treat its employees not as disposable cogs, but as humans in whom to invest.”

Amazon says it is proud of the benefits and opportunities it offers to employees, including in its fulfillment centers. Though Amazon warehouse workers are not unionized, the company raised its minimum wage last year to $15 per hour.

Update July 16: Amazon’s head of worldwide operations, Dave Clark, reiterated the company’s position in a CNN guest editorial.

“On Monday, protesters created a lot of noise, calling for benefits Amazon already offers and improved working conditions,” Clark wrote. “But there is a lot of misinformation out there about our working environment, our employer practices and our associates. It is important to emphasize Amazon provides good jobs with a lot of opportunity.”

An Amazon spokesperson said Monday that “events like Prime Day have become an opportunity for our critics, including unions, to raise awareness for their cause, in this case, increased membership dues. Both Clark and the spokesperson noted the $15 minimum wage and other benefits the company offers.

“We can only conclude that the people who plan to attend the event on Monday are simply not informed,” the spokesperson added. “If these groups — unions and the politicians they rally to their cause — really want to help the American worker, we encourage them to focus their energy on passing legislation for an increase in the federal minimum wage, because $7.25 is too low.”

Beyond Shakopee, activists are using social media to organize a boycott of Amazon products and services.

Across Europe, Amazon workers are organizing strikes in Germany, the UK, and Poland. The demonstrations will be coordinated by the UN Global Union, a federation of service workers across 150 countries. Amazon workers in those three countries held demonstrations during the 2018 Prime Day event as well.

The Prime Day activity comes on the heels of another demonstration in New York last week. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Amazon Web Services Summit demanding the company end its relationship with immigration officials, The Guardian reports. Amazon hasn’t been forthcoming in the past about whether it provides facial recognition technology to immigration agencies, but it does sell the software to local police departments. The Department of Homeland security is planning to migrate the system it uses to search for people using biometric data to Amazon’s cloud.

Amazon says it is open to regulation of facial recognition technology and published guidelines for what those rules could look like.

“Our communities are safer and better equipped to help in emergencies when we have the latest technology, including facial recognition technology, in our toolkit,” said Amazon Web Services VP of Public Policy Michael Punke in a blog post.

Update July 15: Amazon provided the following statement regarding its involvement with law enforcement agencies:

“As we’ve said many times and continue to believe strongly, companies and government organizations need to use existing and new technology responsibly and lawfully. There is clearly a need for more clarity from governments on what is acceptable use of AI and ramifications for its misuse, and we’ve provided a proposed legislative framework for this. We remain eager for the government to provide this additional clarity and legislation, and will continue to offer our ideas and specific suggestions.”

Amazon’s fifth annual Prime Day runs Monday and Tuesday this week and offers more than one million sales for Prime subscribers. Those members purchased more than 100 million products during last year’s event. Amazon has more than 100 million Prime members who pay $119 per year to get benefits such as free two-day shipping — which is becoming free one-day shipping, as part of a new initiative Amazon announced earlier this year.

“Amazon needs to understand that human beings are not robots,” said Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, in a statement. “By doubling Prime Day’s duration and halving the delivery time, the company is testing hundreds of thousands of workers’ physical limits as though they were trained triathletes.”

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