As health concerns grow, Amazon and Target workers plan a strike

Workers at stores like Target plan to abandon the aisles on May 1.
Workers at stores like Target plan to abandon the aisles on May 1.
Image: Reuters/Lisa Baertlein
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Workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, and Instacart, as well as other US companies, plan to strike May 1 in demand of better protections and benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to organizers who spoke to The Intercept and Vice.

Organizers have also called for shoppers to boycott some of the companies, circulating a flyer on social media.

While workers have staged smaller demonstrations in the past, particularly at Amazon and Whole Foods, a strike uniting workers from several of the biggest retailers in the US would mark a new escalation. Many workers feel they’re still putting themselves at too great a risk as they keep grocery shelves stocked and online orders flowing. Their complaints have included a lack of adequate protective equipment and working in crowded spaces where following social-distancing guidelines is impossible.

Companies including Amazon, Walmart, and Target have responded with increased pay and other benefits, as well as stepping up protective measures. Walmart has made face masks mandatory for employees, for instance, and Target has said it’s distributing masks and gloves to employees at its stores and distribution centers at the start of every shift. Amazon says it has implemented more than 150 changes in its processes to protect workers while distributing protective equipment across its operations globally.

But frustrations continue among at least some workers. Right now it’s unclear how widespread the strike might actually be. Unlike in Europe, in the US workers at companies such as Amazon are frequently not unionized, which makes it more difficult to arrange a large, coordinated response among them.

The Intercept said it spoke to 20 organizers from several states, while Vice reported “dozens of organizers” have been involved in planning the action. One Target worker who is a lead organizer told Vice that workers at more than 100 stores had agreed to participate, and some stores should see enough workers call out to have to close.

One of the organizers is Christian Smalls, a former employee of Amazon who was fired from its Staten Island, New York, warehouse in March after organizing a small protest of the company. Amazon says it respects the right of its employees to protest and that it fired Smalls because he endangered other workers by repeatedly breaking social-distancing rules.

Meanwhile, Amazon is drawing legal scrutiny in New York over health and safety at its facilities. Last week, the state attorney general, Letitia James, sent a letter to the company saying its efforts were “so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.” OSHA is a federal law, but states are able to prosecute serious violations.

The bigger concern for Amazon and other retail giants might be how worker protests disrupt their operations. These companies have been inundated with online orders and struggled at times to keep essential groceries in stock in their stores. To keep up, they need business running smoothly. A large-scale strike is the sort of disruption they certainly don’t want to see.