News & Commentary

March 31, 2020

Zachary Boullt

Zachary Boullt is a student at Harvard Law School.

This week has continued a wave of strikes and collective action from workers amidst the pandemic. As Mackenzie discussed yesterday, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island Fulfillment Warehouse walked out of work on Monday in protest of the company’s lack of protection against the virus and precautionary information. While Amazon confirms that one worker at the warehouse has contracted the virus, workers claim that there are at least 10 cases. Organizers claim that over 60 workers participated in the walkout, while Amazon claims that 15 participated. Since the walkout, Amazon has courted further criticism after firing Chris Smalls, a strike leader. Smalls claims that he was fired in retaliation for the strike. Amazon stated last night that Smalls was fired for not following pandemic safety regulations, particularly for not quarantining for 14 days after exposure to an employee with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Smalls plans to pressure local government officials to intervene in his termination and the working conditions at the fulfillment center. The New York State Attorney General Letita James called the firing “immoral and inhumane” and has called on the NLRB to investigate.

Workers at other Amazon subsidiaries today are engaging in strikes and walk-outs. Today, Whole Foods workers are engaging in a “sick-out” across the country, calling in sick and not going to work. The strike is the first mass collective action from Whole Foods workers since 1980. Whole Foods workers are demanding guaranteed paid leave for workers quarantining or self-isolating, funding for coronavirus testing and treatment, hazard pay during scheduled hours, and the shutdown of locations where a worker tests positive for coronavirus, with workers retaining full pay until the store reopens. Whole Foods so far has offered increased wages, distancing guidelines, more overtime pay, and two weeks’ additional paid leave to workers who are diagnosed or medically quarantined, but not to those who voluntarily isolate.

Instacart gig workers, known as “shoppers”, yesterday also engaged in a mass strike, refusing to accept new orders. The workers demanded protective gear, $5-per-order hazard pay, and an expanded sick leave policy. Instacart has given paid leave through May 8 for any worker diagnosed with coronavirus or put in mandatory quarantine. It has also introduced a bonus program, more promotions, and an updated app tipping option. The company the day before the strike also announced it would start distributing hand sanitizer. Workers were not satisfied with the additional measures, though cited the measures as evidence of the strike changing Instacart’s behavior. Instacart has since reported that it suffered no impact from the strike but rather an increase in groceries sold, and it plans to do a massive increase in gig worker hiring. Courtney and Jon have written more about the Instacart strike here.

General Electric workers in Lynn, Massachusetts and Boston, Massachusetts have also engaged in walk-outs and six-feet-apart protests. Workers are demanding that General Electric repurpose its jet engine facilities to make ventilators, as the facilities are currently idle due to slowdowns in the aviation industry. The protests are also in response to General Electric’s announcement of its plans to lay off 10 percent of its domestic aviation workforce and a temporary layoff of 50 percent of its maintenance workers. The company says the layoffs are an attempt to save the company money, though General Electric is not requesting funds from the recent congressional relief package.

Everlane, a clothing retailer, has been criticized as union busting after firing most of its customer service team, who were in the process of unionizing through CWA since January.  Everlane, after facing pressure and claims of union busting on Twitter from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, defended the layoffs based on the company’s store closures, lack of profitability, and conversion of other “customer experience” associates to customer service. The union claims the converted workers were actually retail workers.

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