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Amazon “Profiting from This Pandemic” as Warehouse Workers Walk Off Job to Demand Safer Conditions

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Just a week after Amazon fired a worker who led a walkout, workers at the same Staten Island warehouse walked off the job again Monday to protest unsafe working conditions as online orders soar during the pandemic. We get an update from Angeles Solis, lead organizer at Make the Road New York, which helped organize the strike. Solis helps lead the group’s Beyond Amazon coalition in New York City. If Amazon doesn’t do more to protect workers, “they are not only profiting from this pandemic, but they’re helping to perpetuate it,” Solis says. We also talk about mutual aid organizing among immigrant and low-income communities, and Make the Road’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island walked off the job and stayed home from work Monday to protest unsafe working conditions as online orders soar amidst the coronavirus pandemic. The action came just a week after Chris Smalls, a worker at Amazon, was fired by Amazon after leading a walkout at the same warehouse, known as JFK8. More than 50 Amazon warehouses across the U.S. have confirmed COVID-19 cases, including the Staten Island warehouse, where at least a dozen workers have reportedly tested positive for the virus. This is Staten Island warehouse worker Rina Cummings.

RINA CUMMINGS: I’ve recently been made aware that there are more positive coronavirus cases at the warehouse. I am not going to work today because Amazon is putting my life at risk, they’re putting my fellow workers’ life at risk, as well as the community at risk. We need Jeff Bezos to close the warehouses with positive cases.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to Angeles Solis, lead organizer at Make the Road New York. She helps lead the group’s Beyond Amazon coalition in New York City and helped organize Monday’s strike. In a minute, we’ll talk about mutual aid organizing among immigrant and low-income communities and Make the Road’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, and we’ll be speaking with Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the rest of the hour. But right now we turn to Angeles Solis.

Describe the worker strikes at Amazon. Were you there? How are they organizing? What are people calling for, Angeles?

ANGELES SOLIS: Good morning. To give some perspective on the scale of one of the largest warehouses on the East Coast, the JFK8 facility in Staten Island employs thousands, thousands who come to work from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey.

Now, our members walked out last Monday because of the report of 10 positive cases in the facility. This Monday, yesterday, over 60 workers walked out again, because they are nearing 30 positive cases and Amazon has not done enough to institute safety protections, health protections, ensure sick leave for individuals who are not just showing symptoms but also have not tested positive. So, members of Make the Road New York, workers organizing with New York Communities for Change, and the Athena coalition took action to call on Governor Cuomo to intervene and to stop the spread of the transmission.

Now, we have Amazon workers who are members who say that they feel proud when they go into work and are packing essential items like diapers and food and medicine, but so many don’t feel the same way when they are walking into a facility risking their lives just to ship glitter tattoos and board games. Now, if we don’t call on Amazon to put their billions towards protecting their workers and limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the supply chain, they are not only profiting from this pandemic, but they’re helping to perpetuate it. The virus has been shown to survive on cardboard, so we are talking about protections for the workers from the warehouse through the delivery chain.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Angeles, I wanted to ask you — Amazon is one of the companies that’s actually enjoying windfall profits as a result of the current crisis, because the number of online orders has so sharply increased — 50% increase in the orders of food orders to Amazon. Could you talk about how has the company dealt with, since the crisis, inside of its plants, from what you’re hearing from the workers, in terms of protection for them?

ANGELES SOLIS: Absolutely. Far too many workers do not have enough masks, gloves or proper protective equipment. There have not been strict enough social distancing measures inside of crowded break rooms. Picture thousands of workers using the same turnstiles, the same microwaves, the same bathrooms. There has been cleaning around them, but there has not been sanitation closures or commitment to 100% pay for workers who go home.

Now this is an opportunity to make very bold demands of the richest corporation in the world. For far too long, corporations like Amazon have paid nothing in taxes. And that has starved our safety net hospitals, our public hospitals, like Elmhurst, that require resources to deliver the care we need in this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice News recently reported — well, they obtained leaked notes from an internal meeting of Amazon company executives discussing a plan to malign Chris Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate.” This was apparently part of Amazon’s PR strategy to smear Smalls and make him, quote, “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Angeles, can you respond to this?

ANGELES SOLIS: Absolutely. I would say that Amazon’s actions towards Chris indicate a pattern of disrespect for all of the employees in the workforce who speak out against dangerous working conditions. There is a reason that Amazon has been named one of the most dangerous workplaces in America by the national Occupational Health and Safety Administration. And it is because when workers speak up about dangerous conditions on their job, Amazon swiftly suppresses worker organizing, cuts corners and ensures that workers do not have the ability to speak up on the job safely without feeling intimidated. And their actions toward Chris are not only, quite frankly, racist, especially towards a black man in America, but indicate how they treat whistleblowers across their supply chain.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Angeles, I wanted to ask you, related to what’s going on in Queens — and Make the Road has been very active among the immigrant communities in Brooklyn and Queens for years — to what do you attribute this enormous spike in illnesses, especially, and deaths in Queens and the Elmhurst Hospital area?

ANGELES SOLIS: The areas in where our members are most concentrated, the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona, have become the epicenter of the coronavirus, with 20,000 cases and counting. This is the heart of immigrant New York, one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the country. It is an area with a high density of low-income families who are forced to share in overcrowded housing, which increases the viral transmission inside of a household. It is an area where far too many people live paycheck to paycheck. And for a long time, denial to healthcare coverage has contributed to chronic health conditions.

Now, we have lost members of our community, members of our organization, to this virus. And in our grief we organize. We organize because 40% of adult Latinos in New York City have lost their job and the ability to bring food home to their families. We organize because on April 1st 40% of New York City renters came up short on rent. And because our state has yet to enact a rent suspension, far too many have to choose between paying for food or paying for rent.

AMY GOODMAN: Angeles, just this week, I’ve heard of one horror story after another. Two Mexican immigrants who have lived here for decades, brothers, died in their home, didn’t even make it to the hospital. Another immigrant, again undocumented, died. What efforts are you involved with, with Make the Road, to reach out to people? How afraid are people to go to the hospital, like perhaps it’s they’re turning themselves in to a police station or something?

ANGELES SOLIS: Absolutely. The Trump administration has for far too long demonized immigrants, despite the fact that 27,000 DREAMers are at the frontlines of the medical fight in the United States. Now, here in New York City, almost 90% of the delivery workforce are immigrants. Two-thirds of those are undocumented. That means that those delivering food to those who most need it, they themselves cannot access life-critical benefits.

The federal and state stimulus packages fall far too short of what undocumented workers need. This moment calls for a hard look at every single decision-maker who willfully neglects the hard-working undocumented immigrants who pay millions in taxes but do not have the ability to access social benefits. And as such, we have several different initiatives and organizing efforts.

One, our members are — despite being at home, it does not mean that they’re not in the fight. We are still calling for a just stimulus of what we need. We need federal and state packages that provide income streams directly to undocumented immigrants, because currently this population cannot access unemployment benefits. This virus does not discriminate based on immigration status, so it does not make sense that our administrations are not preparing and providing cash assistance so that all people, regardless of immigration status, can participate in social distancing. We are organizing delivery workers to advocate for hazard pay, increased access to testing and treatment, and increased proper protective equipment, as well.

We have organized mutual aid efforts and a number of funds, including a whistleblower fund for Amazon workers across the country. Since the strike at JFK8, we have seen strikes in Detroit, in Chicago, and the same pattern of silencing whistleblowers from the richest corporation in the world. We have organized an Emergency Response Fund, where listeners and viewers can donate to directly support over 3,000 members and more with assistance for buying food. We also have started a mutual aid bike brigade program, which delivers pantry essential items from Make the Road pantries in Brooklyn and Queens straight to our most at-risk members’ homes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Angeles, I wanted to ask you about Governor Cuomo. He has received a lot of attention from the commercial media in recent weeks, many praising his decisive and clearheaded leadership for New York state. I’m wondering your assessment of how Governor Cuomo has functioned up to this point.

ANGELES SOLIS: While New York Governor Cuomo enjoys his moment of fame on a national scale, his actions behind the scenes have harmed thousands of New Yorkers. He passed an austerity budget that fails the working poor and favors the rich. Now, just on the topic of Amazon, while the governor of Kentucky immediately intervened when positive cases of COVID popped up in Amazon warehouses, our governor has yet to respond to the strikers calling on him to ensure their safety and the safety of the public. And in fact, this was the man who wanted to rename himself Amazon Cuomo. And we need the governor of New York to enact real protections for all undocumented immigrants, for all workers in our state. Leadership in front of a camera is one thing, but behind the scenes the budget has hurt our communities. It has taken resources from our schools. It has made cuts to Medicaid. And it has failed to tax the rich and billionaires in our state that have the ability to provide the resources and do their part to slowing the spread of this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Angeles Solis, lead organizer on the workplace justice team at Make the Road New York.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the rest of the hour. Her district includes the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus: Queens, the Bronx and Rikers Island. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Philharmonic orchestra performing Ravel’s Boléro from their homes, sending their gratitude to frontline healthcare workers. Every night, the Empire State Building pulses red in honor of all of those essential workers who are protecting everyone.

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