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Amazon workers leave jobs at major West Coast airline hub

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Dozens of Amazon employees at the company’s airline hub in San Bernardino, Calif., abandoned their mid-shift workstations on Monday due to low wages and thermal safety concerns.

The Southern California walkout marks the first coordinated industrial action in Amazon’s growing air cargo division, which uses Prime-branded planes to transport packages and goods across the country, much like UPS or FedEx. The employees, who are independently organized, said they did not plan to return to work on Monday, in a bid to pressure Amazon to raise wages and improve safety.

Organizers said more than 150 people walked out on Monday afternoon and officials had already slowed some operations ahead of the action. While a small fraction of the 1,500 employees who work at the hub in various shifts have left, such a work stoppage can create headaches and logistical disruptions.

Amazon spokesman Paul Flaningan disputed that number, saying the number of company workers who participated was around 74.

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Monday’s walkout is the latest sign that pro-union sentiment is spreading through Amazon’s ranks – this time at a particularly vulnerable point in its logistics network. Amazon relies heavily on a few airline hubs to move millions of packages every day, meaning the effect of a strike or work stoppage at any of these facilities would have a bigger impact than a similar action in a regional warehouse.

Even as Amazon, the nation’s second-largest private employer, weighs its weight against organized labor — trying, for example, to overturn the results of the Amazon Labor Union’s historic Staten Island election victory — the walkout in California shows how hard workers are continuing to organize independently across the country.

Anna Ortega, 23, said she hoped the San Bernardino walkout she participated in would force Amazon to “stop and think about what they are doing and why.”

“With the rising cost of everything in our lives, it’s getting hard to make ends meet,” said Ortega, who earns $17.30 an hour. “It doesn’t make sense that the people who work here have food stamps or are struggling financially.”

Workers are also calling for better heat safety measures, as the temperature has often topped 100 degrees this summer, causing heat-related illnesses, especially for workers loading and unloading planes outdoors. Federal occupational health and safety officials recently investigated the deaths of three Amazon workers in New Jersey and expanded an investigation into safety issues at Amazon warehouses nationwide.

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“We appreciate and respect the direct relationship we have with our employees to discuss and respond to feedback,” Amazon’s Flaningan said before the walkout. “Through this open-door policy, we use many communication channels, including All Hands meetings, which help us address employee concerns.”

Flaningan added that full-time employees in the San Bernardino hub and throughout the region have a minimum wage of $17 an hour and can earn up to $19.25 and receive health care, benefits retirement and up to 20 weeks of parental leave. Asked about the walkout on Monday afternoon, Flaningan said the company respects workers’ right to walk out.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

The San Bernardino work stoppage is part of a broader wave of organizing drives across the country at Amazon warehouses — marked so far by a union election victory in Staten Island. The results at a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse are too close to know and they are disputed. A warehouse in Albany, NY, is also about to cast a ballot.

The coordinated work stoppage in San Bernardino is the culmination of months of organizing by an independent group of workers, calling itself Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, which formed earlier this year. The workers said they have been meeting in airline hub break rooms, worker homes, restaurants and a community center in San Bernardino in recent months to discuss working conditions.

The group’s seeds were sown this year at a facility-wide meeting when a handful of airline hub workers spoke out and circulated a petition about the hardship caused by hundreds of dollars of lost wages for individual workers during unexpected holiday closures at the end of 2021.

In response, Amazon’s Flaningan said the company had changed its overall policy on temporary closures, limiting any impact to one unpaid shift per vacation period.

After months of organizing inside and outside the warehouse, the group delivered a petition to warehouse management in July with more than 800 signatures from factory workers. They demanded wage increases of $5 an hour and a series of smaller increases for workers with specific job titles and night shifts.

“As Amazon associates, we work hard to ensure the building achieves the numbers it strives to achieve and work together to satisfy all of our customers,” the petition reads. “[But] we can barely afford to live in today’s economy.

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According to the workers’ petition, the average rent in San Bernardino is $1,650 a month, which means full-time workers at Amazon’s airline hub who earn a starting wage of $17 an hour must pay about 75% of their monthly income after rent taxes. The legal minimum wage in California is $15 an hour; according to MIT researchers, a living wage in the San Bernardino area would be closer to $18.10 for someone without children.

“We don’t earn enough to save anything,” said Sara Fee, a lead organizer with Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, who sorts packages at the airline hub. “If something goes wrong with my car, I don’t have any savings. I can’t afford to eat healthy food. I have to buy chicken nuggets or noodles.

Amazon called full meetings at the facility on August 3 and 5 to respond to the petition. Managers suggested workers save money by using public transit and signing up for a ride-sharing benefits program. They also offered a $1.50 per hour raise on weekday night shifts and a $2 per hour raise on weekend night shifts.

Four workers involved in organizing the facility described grueling working conditions to The Washington Post. Two workers said they had heat-induced nosebleeds this summer and another described hitting his head against a shipping container and sustaining a concussion.

“It’s been really hot every day this summer,” said Daniel Rivera, a walkout leader who unloads cargo from planes. “They say there is air conditioning, but you can only feel it in certain sections.”

Amazon’s Flaningan said the entire air hub campus has indoor air conditioning, and to date, no heat-related illnesses have been reported in active charging areas.

Marc Wulfraat, an industry consultant who tracks Amazon facilities around the world, said the San Bernardino airline hub is one of the most logistically important in the country for Amazon. The facility is a regional hub that routes orders from customers across the country to outposts on the West Coast. Recent data shows the facility oversees about seven flights a day to and from the East Coast, Midwest, Texas and Pacific Northwest.

San Bernardino and neighboring Riverside County have more than 35 Amazon facilities. The company is the region’s largest private employer.

Airline hubs are more important to Amazon for entire regions, compared to a warehouse the company could bypass in the event of disruptions, Wulfraat said.

Workers at the San Bernardino Air Hub have received organizing assistance and space to hold meetings from local labor organizations, including the Warehouse Worker Resource Center and Teamsters Local 1932, but prefer to remain independent.

Workers who left the Amazon plant on Monday have no immediate plans to file a candidacy for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, but said they would consider filing a formal election in the future.

“Staten Island was absolutely inspiring,” Fee said. “Organization is not out of place for us.”

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