Amazon workers launch union drive at Minnesota fulfillment center

By: - December 15, 2022 2:40 pm

Protesters shine a light reading “Amazon workers rising” on the retail giant’s fulfillment center in Shakopee during a worker rally for higher wages in December 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

After years of scattershot walk-outs and demonstrations, workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Shakopee have begun an effort to unionize the warehouse and legally force the retail giant to negotiate with them.

Union organizers at the warehouse are collecting union cards for Amazon Labor Union Minnesota, which is affiliated with the first and only unionized Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y.

The union drive is sure to set up another high-profile standoff between union supporters and Amazon, which fiercely opposes unions and has violated U.S. labor law in its efforts to quash organizing efforts.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tyler Hamilton, a lead organizer with the campaign, said a union will give them a stronger position to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions.

“(Amazon leaders) only care about what is the bare minimum we can pay people and still have enough workers,” Hamilton said. “Them just showing this consistently, for years, has really undermined the credibility they could have had.”

Hamilton, 25, has worked at the warehouse for over five years, which makes him something of a grizzled old-timer at a company where few people endure the grueling, fast-paced work for longer than a year. Hamilton, who was already thin, says he lost 10 lbs in his first month working at Amazon.

He works the overnight shift — 5 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. — four days a week most of the year. During the holiday season, Amazon requires workers to put in up to 60 hours a week to handle the surge in purchases.

Tyler Hamilton is leading an effort to unionize Amazon’s fulfillment center in Shakopee. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

He has helped lead numerous demonstrations at the warehouse with help from the Awood Center, a non-profit worker center that supports primarily East African workers. Hamilton says the Awood Center is like 911 dispatch for problems at the warehouse. They counsel workers on their rights to help them advocate for themselves.

While the Awood Center (the Somali word for “power”) has received support from the SEIU, it is not legally allowed to support unionizing efforts or collectively bargain on behalf of workers. Instead, they have focused on helping workers pressure managers to raise wages and make religious accommodations, with their successes garnering national media attention.

In April, the Awood Center supported a walk out to demand a $3-an-hour raise for all shifts and paid time off for Eid, a Muslim holiday celebrated by many of the warehouse’s workers. The starting wage for workers is $19 an hour and tops out at $21.40 an hour.

The walk out affected operations at the fulfillment center for eight hours, making it one of the most impactful actions workers have taken, Hamilton said.

Amazon gave workers a 65-cent raise this fall, which Hamilton balked at given soaring inflation. The company has not made Eid a paid holiday, although it does have a process for workers to request religious accommodations.

Following the walk-out and inspired by union organizers’ recent victory in New York, Hamilton and a group of 20 or so people began meeting to lay the groundwork for a union drive. In the summer, they signed their cards themselves and this fall they launched a Twitter account and website to collect cards from other workers.

Amazon Labor Union Minnesota would be separate but affiliated with the ALU in New York, whose leaders have helped counsel Hamilton and other Minnesota organizers. That means if successful, workers would have to build an entirely new union in addition to negotiating a labor contract with Amazon.

His pitch to other workers is that a union will give them the power to directly negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions, rather than staging the occasional demonstration and hoping for the best. Muslim workers have long requested the company install floor-level sinks — called wudus — so they can wash their feet. Other Amazon facilities have them but not the Shakopee warehouse.

Hamilton also tells workers that a union will let them enshrine the things they like about Amazon — like its health insurance — in a contract so it can’t be easily taken away.

“If Amazon tomorrow woke up and said, ‘You know, we want to save some more money, we’re going to cut your health insurance,’ there is nothing that we can do to stop them,” Hamilton said.

But winning a contract is hardly a guarantee even if workers vote to unionize. Many fledging unions peter out before ever ratifying a labor agreement. The Amazon Labor Union only recently prevailed in defending its April victory after Amazon challenged the results, and the union alleges the company is doing everything it can to delay negotiations.

Hamilton believes the Shakopee warehouse can be the second in the country to unionize, but winning an election is far from certain. Unionizing efforts have largely been unsuccessful at Amazon.

The high turnover at Amazon warehouses — estimated to be 170% annually at the Shakopee facility — has made unionizing them a daunting task for labor organizers.

Union organizers traditionally wait to collect signed cards from a clear majority of the workforce before filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees private-sector unions. That way, the union effort can afford to lose some supporters in the weeks between filing for an election and voting, when companies often wage a campaign to dissuade workers from unionizing.

That strategy is difficult to pursue when new faces appear at work every day. Chris Smalls, the leader of the only successful union drive at Amazon, bucked tradition and filed for an election with just over the minimum 30% of signatures needed to hold an election at the warehouse where he worked in Staten Island, N.Y.

It worked at one warehouse in Staten Island, but the Amazon Labor Union lost the following two elections at a nearby facility in Staten Island and one in Albany, N.Y. Workers also voted down a union in Bessemer, Ala. in an effort led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Hamilton says they’ll file as soon as they feel confident they can win an election, which could take weeks or months.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.