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Amazon strike highlights strikingly different takes on working conditions inside Shakopee facility

Amazon strike
MinnPost photo by Joey Peters
The rally, which lasted the afternoon, drew well over 100 supporters, including a bevy of elected DFL officeholders, representatives from local labor unions and even Amazon tech workers from Seattle.

By the time a severe thunderstorm hailed down at the end of an otherwise sweltering Monday afternoon, the opposing sides to an hourslong protest across the parking lot from Amazon’s fulfillment center in Shakopee both declared victory. 

“We create a lot of wealth for Amazon, but they aren’t treating us with the respect and dignity that we deserve,” Safiyo Mohamed, one of the rally organizers, said in a statement after the rally. “We are so happy for all the support from the community and from Amazon workers across the world.

Meanwhile, an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement that only 15 of the Shakopee warehouse’s 1,500 workers left the job to participate in the strike and faulted “an outside organization” for using the company’s Prime Day “to raise its own visibility,” spread “misinformation” and use “political rhetoric to fuel media attention.”

The rally, which lasted the afternoon, drew well over 100 supporters, including a bevy of elected DFL officeholders, representatives from local labor unions and even Amazon tech workers from Seattle. It was organized by three Somali-American women, including Mohamed, who work at the warehouse and are pushing for changes like lowered quotas and more full-time employees. The Awood Center, which advocates for the rights of East African workers in Minnesota, also helped organize the rally. 

Organizers chose Prime Day, one of Amazon’s biggest sales and deals promotions, for the strike. 

The lead-up to the strike drew national attention, with vocal support from Democratic Party presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as well as media coverage from outlets like NPR, Bloomberg and the Washington Post. 

Organizers were hoping around 100 warehouse workers would walk off the job Monday and strike for the afternoon. Local Amazon workers who did show up blamed a depressed worker turnout on an increased presence of Shakopee police officers and company safety workers monitoring the warehouse entrance and parking lot.

“There are managers, supervisors and police that are standing at the front gates and front doors, and [workers] are scared to come out because of that,” Mohamed Hassan, who assembles packages in the warehouse, told a crowd gathered at the rally through an interpreter. “And I’m sad for that.” 

Indeed, at least six police officers and 14 safety workers were stationed near the warehouse entrance as evening fell and the facility’s evening shift change began. Tyler Hamilton, a picker who has worked at the Shakopee warehouse for nearly two years, said he usually sees one or two safety workers and no cops during this time on busy days. Hamilton, who didn’t attend the strike but said he spent his shift inside “helping remind people” about it, called the increased security presence “very intimidating” to workers inside the factory.

“Everybody here knows it’s not normal,” he said.

Brenda Alfred, a spokeswoman for Amazon, confirmed that the beefed-up security and police presence was because of the rally. “With the activity that we were prepared for or anticipating, we have folks that are absolutely monitoring what’s going on in the property to ensure everyone is safe,” Alfred said. 

Workplace conditions ‘not sustainable’ 

Perhaps the biggest grievance of workers who did show up for the strike was their high quotas. Hassan, for example, said he must move at least 84 packages an hour during the workday. Some of these packages can get heavy — from 80 to 100 pounds, he said — and he faults the pace for causing injuries to his wrists. 

“If you need to use the bathroom, because you’re so fearful of the break, minutes are counted against you, then you have to hold [it] because of that,” Hassan, who is in his 50s, said through an interpreter.

Mohamed Hassan
MinnPost photo by Joey Peters
Mohamed Hassan, left, who assembles packages in the warehouse, told a crowd gathered at the rally through an interpreter, right, that he must move at least 84 packages an hour during the workday.
Hamilton, who is in his 20s, said warehouse workers have to be in good health to do their jobs. His job is to pick items off a shelf and put them on a conveyor belt — 330 times an hour. “But you have to go faster than that, because inevitably things will interrupt it,” he said.

If a conveyor belt malfunctions, for example, Hamilton said it “will bring your rate down, so you have to go above your actual quota, especially if you want to use the bathroom or something like that.” 

Meg Brady is a re-binner in the warehouse who showed up to the rally. Her job consists of taking an item off a conveyor belt and putting it into a cubbyhole 600 times an hour to make rate. She faults the job with giving her tendinitis in her left ankle. The workplace wouldn’t grant her worker’s compensation for the injury — they claimed it wasn’t workplace-related, Brady said — so she worked through it and developed a stress fracture. 

After that, she had to wear a boot, which prompted her to take short-term disability for the past two months. Brady said she gets $340 a week on disability and hopes to return to Amazon in a few weeks. “This is really not sustainable, the work we’re doing here,” she said.

A different narrative

Amazon’s public relations team presented reporters covering Monday’s strike with a different narrative. They emphasized that warehouse workers make between $16.25 and $20.80 per hour. Alfred said that 75 percent of the workforce is able to meet their quotas, and added that Amazon offers coaching to those having trouble. Inside the warehouse, workers high-fived each other under a balloon arch at the entrance during shift change. 

“That’s how Prime Week looks,” Khasin Abdi, an area manager at the warehouse, told MinnPost. “If you go to Target and it’s the holiday season, there’s a lot of customers and it’s very busy. But here, it’s just another day, just with more flavor to it.”

Abdi said the grievances listed at the rally were not something he’s experienced. 

Michael Lawes, another warehouse worker made available to reporters by the Amazon PR team, said the quota goals are “very attainable” and that he’s able to take a 30-minute break during each shift. Lawes works as a picker. 

“It’s a great place to work,” Asli Mohamed, another worker who stocks products, said. “Prime Week — they make it real fun.” 

Abdi, Lawes and Mohamed all said they could not understand why some workers were choosing to strike. 

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Joe Schantz on 07/16/2019 - 01:32 pm.

    100+ protesters compared to corporate PR and 3 half-baked employee testimonials….”strikingly different takes”?!

    Using your final word and headline to gaslight folks protesting for humane labor practices is tacky, Minnpost.

  2. Submitted by Greg Smith on 07/16/2019 - 09:53 pm.

    Ask any farm kid about haying back in the day.
    84 packages an hour? That is a day off.

    • Submitted by Elizabeth Council on 07/18/2019 - 09:12 am.

      So, because other people in completely different circumstances have also had tough jobs, workers at Amazon shouldn’t ask for better treatment? There will always be people whose lives are markedly better or worse than others, and this kind of “Back in my day” reasoning never made life better for anyone. Back in someone else’s day, 7 year olds worked 80 hour weeks on factory lines. Society was fine then, so we should do away with these silly child labor laws that are protecting fragile snowflake children from character-building hard labor!

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 07/17/2019 - 06:35 am.

    What a joke. 15 employees out of 1,500 stage a rally and a bevy DFL officeholders flock to it . If you do not like your job, leave and get another job. Evidently 1,485 folks enjoy their job. How is this newsworthy.?

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/17/2019 - 09:30 am.

      Why would you assume that those 1485 employees who didn’t protest must enjoy their jobs? Maybe they are terrified of losing their jobs. Maybe too the low unemployment rate compiled by the Federal Reserve is a joke, and tens of millions of working class people are under- or marginally employed, and there aren’t really so many jobs you can just quit your job and go find another?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/18/2019 - 10:20 am.

      “If you do not like your job, leave and get another job.”

      Is that how it works? When the miners on the Iron Range went on strike for decent pay and working conditions, was that just a “joke,” or was it setting the stage for the future of the industry? When you see your friends with the Steelworkers’ Union-guaranteed contracts and pensions, do you sneer that they should have gone elsewhere if they weren’t “enjoying” their jobs?

  4. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/17/2019 - 08:35 am.

    As a practice I buy nothing from Amazon. I will not support a man who has monopolized so much of American consumerism, while manipulating the political dialogue with his Mockingbird outlet AKA The Washington Post, while contracting with the CIA and the Pentagon to make sure Bezos gets everything he wants.

    But apparently I am in the minority in this land of the free and the brave. Most Americans it seems love their preferred monopolists, those powerful men who lead and protect us, whatever that does to turn this Republic into a plutocracy, a sham democracy of, by and for the wealthiest of the wealthy.

  5. Submitted by Michael Ofjord on 07/17/2019 - 07:18 pm.

    If Jeff Bezos can figure out how to sell everything, why can’t he or other talented people figure out how to design these places with the least harm to the humans who work there? If these businesses spend millions of hours and dollars how to run efficiently and maximize profit, then surely the best minds can figure out how to design buildings for people to thrive and make a decent living. If not, Bezos is no leader, but simply another businessman. And that’s no compliment.

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