Rakyle Johnson, a sorter, joins about a dozen fellow Amazon workers in a walkout and protest on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 to demand better working conditions at the online retailer’s Gage Park facility, 3507 W. 51st St.
Rakyle Johnson, a sorter, joins about a dozen fellow Amazon workers in a walkout and protest on Wednesday to demand better working conditions at the online retailer’s Gage Park facility, 3507 W. 51st St. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The employees press their case for a wage hike, rideshares to and from work and modifications of a 10.5-hour shift.

Workers staged a protest Wednesday for better wages and work rules at an Amazon distribution hub in Gage Park, applying pressure as the company awaits results of a union organizing drive in Alabama.

Employees supporting the protest outside the hub at 3507 W. 51st St. said as many as 40 workers took part at various times in the morning walkout. Among their demands was a $2-an-hour wage increase and scheduling accommodations as the company implements 10.5-hour work shifts.

“I’m done with just accepting what the company does. I know my heart is telling me to take action. I’m willing to lead and be that example,” said Rakyle Johnson, a sorter, discussing the decision to walk off the job.

An Amazon associate, Bekim Mehmedi, said the online retailer hasn’t addressed staffing shortages, creating an intense workplace atmosphere that has led to injuries. He said some workers hired seasonally were not kept on full time as some had been promised. Longer shifts have been hard for workers who must allow for child care, Mehmedi said.

An Amazon spokeswoman, Nikki Wheeler, said only a few employees left their posts and that some at the protest were from other facilities. Operations in Gage Park were not disrupted, she said.

Vanessa Carillo Ruiz, 23, joins about a dozen fellow Amazon workers in a walkout and protest Wednesday, April 7, 2021 to demand better working conditions at the Amazon facility in Gage Park on the Southwest Side.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Vanessa Carillo Ruiz, 23, joins about a dozen fellow Amazon workers in a walkout and protest Wednesday to demand better working conditions at the Amazon facility in Gage Park on the Southwest Side.

Wheeler declined to say if Amazon will concede some employee demands, which include covering the cost of shared rides to and from work, a benefit the company offers at some locations. “We think it’s important to hear our employees’ concerns and hear what they have to say,” she said.

However, Wheeler added: “I would not say that those [protesters] are representative of all employees.”

Asked if the company would discipline workers who left their posts, she said, “Absolutely not. That’s not our culture.”

However, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled Amazon illegally fired two workers at its Seattle headquarters for speaking out about the company’s carbon footprint and treatment of warehouse employees.

The NLRB also is counting ballots from the first union organizing campaign at an Amazon plant. About 5,800 workers in Bessemer, Alabama have been asked to approve the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union as their bargaining agent.

It’s a long process liable to bring challenges over whether certain workers were eligible to vote. But approval of the union could intensify labor pressure on Amazon in other locales.

The employee protest in Chicago is not connected to a union. The workers have adapted the name Amazonians United Chicagoland. In a Facebook post, the group cited its right to act independently, without the backing of a union or a nonprofit group that supports workers’ causes.

Mehmedi said members are open-minded about whether to ultimately affiliate with a union. But for now, he said workers prefer to organize around specific issues. He said Amazon is susceptible to public pressure and is unlikely to retaliate against workers who support the movement.

Labor experts, though, have said Amazon may see no legal obligation to bargain with an ad hoc group that hasn’t shown support from a majority of workers.

About a dozen Amazon workers stage a walkout and protest at the online retailer’s Gage Park facility on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 to demand better working conditions.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
About a dozen Amazon workers stage a walkout and protest at the online retailer’s Gage Park facility on Wednesday to demand better working conditions.

Amazon is expanding on Chicago’s South Side and shuffling some staff to new locations. It has pulled out of a leased building at 2801 S. Western Ave. and moved some of its workers to Gage Park.

“The longer shift schedules are commonly used across our operations network and as we transition sites to them, employees have a number of choices, including part-time schedules, that best support their needs,” Wheeler said.

City officials have endorsed Amazon’s plan for a shipping center at 2424 S. Halsted St. Also, applications for city sign permits show Amazon expects to occupy a new warehouse building at 3535 S. Ashland Ave., former site of a Wrigley gum factory.

Finally, Amazon reportedly is buying the 70-acre Central Steel & Wire plant at 3000 W. 51st St.

Wheeler had no information about the new locations.

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