If local headlines are to be believed, not much happens in Shakopee. But on Saturday, this placid town of 40,000 on the outskirts of Minnesota’s Twin Cities became the epicentre of the fight for humane working conditions at one of the world’s most valuable companies.
For the last two years, Amazon has quietly expanded its presence in the suburb, and worker resentment towards conditions there has grown with it, culminating in today’s protest outside fulfillment center MSP1—a sprawling 850,000-square-foot structure abutting a heavy industrial zone—attended by local activists and joined by Amazon workers ending their shifts. It ended with approximately 250 people marching on the building’s main entrance.
The discontent primarily began as a reaction to allegations that the pace Amazon set for its workers, many of whom are practicing Muslims, was impacting their religious freedom. The United States is home to the largest population of Somalis besides Yemen—many of whom fled to the U.S. to escape genocide, civil war, and terrorism—and the overwhelming majority of them reside in Minnesota. As reported by Gizmodo in June, Amazon structures its performance metrics in such a way that makes basic necessities, like prayer or bathroom breaks, prohibitively difficult, sometimes leading to docked pay or termination for those who cannot meet the company’s arduous expectations.
Friday’s protest was intended to pressure Amazon to not only improve working conditions and allow for proper religious expression, but to create a fund that addresses racial disparities in the community and set up an independent review body for HR complaints.
Amazon has little room to plead ignorance to the calls of the workers in Shakopee: Similar labour actions took place in its home base of Seattle nearly two years ago when Muslim security workers held a “pray-in” to protest Amazon’s unwillingness to provide a prayer space. Bloomberg reported that activists within the Shakopee facilities previously brought demands to Amazon over the summer, when the Muslim holiday of Ramadan intersected with Prime Day, an annual celebration of consumerism.
“I toured this facility,” Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the crowd Friday evening, “and what I saw was a company that did not know who they were employing.”
The action outside MSP1 was organised in part by Awood Center (“awood” is Somali for “power”), a relatively new and lean group focused on workers’ rights in the East African community around Minneapolis. Though Amazon disagreed with the characterization, the New York Times previously reported that these workers and Awood Center were able to achieve the unprecedented in getting Amazon to come to the bargaining table. “We have now met twice with Amazon management, which hasn’t happened anywhere else as far as we know,” Abdirahman Muse, the executive director of Awood Center, told Gizmodo. While a victory in its own right, Amazon has not, according to Muse, offered any “acceptable changes” yet, necessitating Friday’s protest.
MSP1 is a fairly new and heavily-roboticized factory, much like the facility on Staten Island, New York, where workers recently announced their intention to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). One worker at the Staten Island facility, in a protest outside New York’s City Hall last week, expressed concern over long shifts, non-functioning smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, and inhumane temperatures. “We have asked the company to provide air conditioning,” she explained to the crowd, “but they told us that the robots inside can’t work in the cold weather.”
One worker getting off his shift at MSP1 (we were unable to get his name) told Gizmodo that the rate of the work continues to climb while the workers remain utterly expendable, toiling in poor conditions. “If you work with me,” he said, “you will be sick within a week.” Another MSP1 worker, Khadra Kassim, told the crowd through a translator that due to a workplace injury she nearly miscarried her unborn daughter.
We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment on the MSP1 workers’ demands and claims of unfair treatment and harsh working conditions. We will update when we receive a response.
Joining the group of protesters outside MSP1 was Representative-elect Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American representative in the U.S. Congress. “Amazon doesn’t work if you don’t work,” she said to wild cheers, “and it’s about time we make Amazon understand that.” Minnesota Lieutenant Governor-elect Peggy Flanagan also passed on words of encouragement to workers through an unlisted video on the governor-elect’s Youtube channel, stating, “Today, my hope for you is that you can organise in partnership to create jobs at Amazon that are fair, safe, and reliable.” She stressed the importance of collective bargaining, something Amazon has been widely viewed as hostile toward since Gizmodo obtained an internal anti-union training video in September.
Just before 5pm, the crowd of protesters moved from the footpath in front of MSP1—where they had set up a massive prayer rug as well as an amplification system from the bed of a pickup truck—and marched on the building itself.
Police officers, who had not been present earlier in the day, lay in wait in the parking lot and were joined by additional units including Minnesota State Patrol officers and the Scott County sheriff, approximately 16 vehicles in total. The Shakopee Police Department confirmed in a phone call with Gizmodo, “no arrests, no property damage, no injuries.” In the moment, officers seemed confused as to which individuals were protesters and which were simply leaving work.
The crowd, meanwhile, dispersed peacefully, chanting, “Amazon—we’ll be back.”
Update 12/14/18 8:42pm CST: Amazon are truly pulling out all stops in attempting to spin this action, going to far as to describe the protest as an affront to non-participating workers.
“The majority of the people participating in today’s events are not Amazon associates because most Amazon associates are at work today sending out thousands of holiday packages for customers. We are disappointed in today’s efforts to undermine the dedicated and hard-working people who are the life and soul of our business. For them, it was business as usual,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement to Gizmodo.
Amazon also pushed back against characterizations of working conditions, stating “We have a great safety record” and stating that “We employ 16 safety professionals in this building alone whose sole job is to ensure the welfare of our employees.”
With regard to community engagement, one of the goals of the protest, Amazon stated that, “Since we started employing people here in the region, we’ve paid more than $US84 ($117) million just on compensation alone for employees identifying as East African.” Rare is the day a company acts so petty as to want kudos for paying wages for services rendered—but today is that day! “Just this week we held a recruitment event in the Cedar-Riverside community to meet with interested candidates for managerial positions,” the statement continued. “This type of ongoing community engagement is something we have been doing and are doing every day in every community where we work.”
Finally Amazon generously noted that: “Prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and productivity expectations are not adjusted for such breaks. Associates are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted.”
In emails with Gizmodo, Amazon claims to have dispatched a member of their public relations team to the protest to interact with media and provide statements as well as tours of the MSP1 facility. Despite being the first to arrive and last to leave, Gizmodo was not informed or approached.