John Hopkins co-founded the group Bay Area Amazonians to help warehouse workers and drivers advocate for themselves. Credit: Harvey Castro

Just beyond Oakland’s border, in an industrial stretch of San Leandro, sits a large, unremarkable grey warehouse. If trucks emblazoned with a distinctly smiling logo weren’t constantly coming and going, a passing observer would have no idea what it is: a major Amazon distribution center. The majority of workers at the warehouse have connections to Oakland; they live here now, or used to, got priced out, and commute in from Hayward, Stockton, and other places with lower rents.

Inside the warehouse, employees sort a seemingly infinite array of consumer items on giant conveyor belts, before loading them onto trucks and vans headed for people’s homes. Workspaces are thin and don’t allow for much social distancing. When there’s a “flyby”—someone misses a package on the belt— workers often have to squeeze past each other to grab it.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Leandro warehouse, like hundreds of other Amazon operations across the country, was deemed an essential business and allowed to continue operating. But many employees have complained about safety. They say Amazon hasn’t done enough to protect them from getting sick and has discouraged workers from organizing for safer conditions. 

There have been at least seven confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff at the San Leandro warehouse. Workers suspect there have been more, but Amazon doesn’t provide testing to its San Leandro workers.

Workers say they want Amazon to temporarily shut the facility—which operates around the clock and never closes—to conduct a deep cleaning and ensure germs aren’t being spread. They also want two weeks of paid leave any time a worker is exposed to COVID-19. 

Some Amazon employees around the country are organizing for more sweeping changes. Somali immigrants who work at a Minnesota Amazon warehouse spoke out against the company last year over grueling schedules and productivity requirements that prevented them from taking bathroom, water, or stretch breaks. They organized a 6-hour strike on “Prime Day,” an annual two day sale where Amazon Prime subscribers get exclusive discounts, which drives up sales. It’s happening today and tomorrow this year. Last fall, workers at a Sacramento distribution center petitioned for part time employees to receive paid time off. Last April, workers in a Chicago Amazon warehouse walked off the job to demand paid medical leave. 

Now, some workers at the company’s San Leandro warehouse have joined this national movement, demanding full healthcare benefits, a $30 per hour wage, and more. If they succeed, it will be the first Amazon warehouse in the country to unionize. Since it was founded, Amazon has resisted efforts by some of its employees to unionize.

Workers rallied over the summer for safety improvements

Over the summer, the conflict between Amazon and its employees escalated at the East Bay warehouse. On August 1st, a few workers and around 100 supporters arrived at the warehouse’s entrance and blocked delivery trucks from leaving the center for several hours. Participants at the rally spoke from the back of a flatbed truck to loud cheers.

Damien, an Amazon warehouse employee in his 20s who lives in East Oakland, took part in the protest. He’s gotten several small pay raises after working for the company for two years, but still makes only about $15 an hour working the night shift. Damien, who asked that we not use his real name because he fears retaliation by his employer, said he thinks the company needs to close its warehouses to clean them, and take other steps to protect workers. 

“Does somebody gotta die for them to close the warehouse down?” he said.

Amazon warehouses were dangerous before COVID-19. Many workers are injured and the company has been criticized for cutting corners on safety. A recent report from The Reveal points to internal data from Amazon showing that injuries have increased every year between 2016 and 2019. In 2019, there were 7.7 serious injuries per 100 warehouse employees.

Joining Damien at the August protest was his neighbor, John Hopkins, 35, who works the same job at a similar salary.

“Amazon blatantly disrespects our rights on a daily basis to prevent us from organizing to have collective power and be able to bargain for a better wage,” said Hopkins at the rally.

Amazon responded to questions from The Oaklandside about demands and complaints shared by workers at the protest in an email, writing, “The fact is Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry leading pay, a variety of benefit packages, and opportunity for career growth, all while working in a safe modern environment.” 

When The Oaklandside asked Amazon specific questions about COVID-19 safety in the San Leandro warehouse, a spokesperson said that in warehouses across the country, they’ve provided handwashing stations, masks, sanitizing wipes, gloves, thermometers, and increased janitorial staff. The company has also set up pilot COVID-19 testing sites at some warehouses, but not at the San Leandro warehouse. Amazon also said it provides two weeks paid time off to any employee who is diagnosed with COVID-19, but did not respond when asked if other workers exposed to the virus are also given time off.

“Part of the demand to shut down is in defense of Black and Latinx lives,” said Hopkins, who is Black. In an interview with The Oaklandside he noted that many Amazon warehouse staff are Black and Latinx. Their workplace, according to Hopkins, is a prime example of environmental racism in the East Bay. The San Leandro Amazon warehouse itself sits less than 2000 feet from businesses that make the air workers breathe on the job more polluted. These include two truck repair shops, a plastic factory, and a company that manufactures steel and aluminum goods. 

Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that fewer than one in five Black workers and one in six Latinx workers are able to work from home, making them disproportionately exposed to situations where they could contract coronavirus. This helps explain the disproportionate rates at which Black and Latinx people have been dying from COVID-19. 

Amazon has used its corporate brand to promote a message of racial justice. The company displayed the words “Black Lives Matter” and “We stand in solidarity with the Black community” on its website earlier this summer. And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has taken to Instagram to defend the movement. But Hopkins sees these moves as signaling without action.

“We’re trying to ask Amazon to put their money where their mouth is,” said Hopkins. “If they stand in solidarity with the Black community, then they should actually show it by being willing to give up some of their profits for a little while to protect our lives.” Hopkins said Amazon never responded to the demands made at the August rally.

Bay Area Amazon workers self-organize with technology

Hopkins grew up in Oakland and takes pride in his city’s reputation for social justice. Until third grade, he went to school at the Black-led Shelton Primary Education Center in North Oakland, just down the street from the former Black Panther Party Headquarters.

“All of the pictures on the wall and the classroom decorations showed luminaries of the Black community,” said Hopkins. “It led me to believe I don’t need a co-sign from the establishment to feel that I can do something outside of the box that society wants to put me in.”

Earlier this year, Hopkins launched a company called BHANG Technologies Incorporated, which aims to provide technology services to cannabis companies. He wants BHANG  to serve communities most harmed by the war on drugs. But he still had to pay the bills while building his company, so he took a job at Amazon.

As Hopkins became more aware of all the problems he and other Amazon workers faced, he put BHANG on hold. He and Adrienne Williams, a Richmond resident former Amazon driver, started Bay Area Amazonians, an organization that pushes Amazon to create safer working conditions and pay higher wages. His tech skills have been essential to their organizing.

“It wasn’t a big transition for me to switch to organizing workers in my community and using my tech skills for that,” said Hopkins.

Amazon warehouse worker and Oakland resident John Hopkins. Credit: Harvey Castro

One tech challenge Hopkins had to overcome was designing a way for Bay Area Amazonians to communicate online in a way that prevents Amazon from infiltrating their group. Meeting online became necessary not just because of the pandemic, but also because of the ways Amazon oversees workers in its warehouses. Hopkins has created a digital system of decentralized identities, where workers are recognizable to each other but appear anonymous to anyone who isn’t authorized to enter their network. He wants the digital platform and systems that Bay Area Amazonians have built to become a “replicable model” that other warehouses can follow.

Hopkins said the company’s facility where he and others work is “like a police state” in terms of oversight from managers, especially if a worker encourages unionization. In February, he brought flyers to work encouraging his colleagues to organize, but he wasn’t able to hand them out because after placing them in his locker, which wasn’t locked, they disappeared. “I’d leave stuff there all the time,” Hopkins said. “Nobody would ever take stuff out. But the flyers went missing.”

Hopkins hadn’t thought to buy a lock for his locker, but the option of securing it soon disappeared, too. Shortly after his flyers went missing, Amazon replaced the lockers with ones that have electronic locks, which allowed the company to open them. “They can always get into them,” said Hopkins.

The Oaklandside asked Amazon if anyone searches employees’ lockers at the San Leandro warehouse, but the company did not respond.

Hopkins kept handing out flyers throughout March and April, storing them on his person or at home. On May 1st, he said, Amazon suspended him for two months for what they called a “social distancing violation,” even though the warehouse is crowded and Hopkins says social distancing is impossible during the ordinary course of work. 

“He was suspended for asking questions and passing out flyers,” said his coworker Damien.

‘The goal is to hopefully be able to unionize the first Amazon warehouse’

“Employers often fire worker activists, even though it’s illegal to discipline or terminate someone for engaging in concerted activity with co-workers, because it can take the national labor relations board years to reinstate a worker,” said Michael Rubin, a San Francisco-based labor attorney.

Rubin says there “are no legal limitations” for workers meeting in a digital manner as long as “it’s done for a lawful purpose.” But he insists labor groups like Bay Area Amazonians “have to protect their account from infiltration” to prevent employers from retaliating in ways that could be illegal but hard to dissuade. If the San Leandro Amazon warehouse is successful in achieving their demands, Rubin thinks their success is likely to spread to other Amazon workplaces.

“The goal is to hopefully be able to unionize the first amazon warehouse,” said Williams, the former Amazon driver who co-founded Bay Area Amazonians. Although she was a delivery driver and initially wanted to unionize other drivers, she and Hopkins agreed to try to unionize a warehouse first, where it could be easier because people see each other more often.

Williams quit Amazon because she felt overworked and did not feel safe or supported by the company. She said people regularly intimidated and sexually harassed her as she delivered packages. She remembers Amazon representatives telling her during orientation to learn to run, because if someone attacked her, and she fought back, she would be fired.

Since quitting, Williams has been connecting with Amazon workers across the nation and has heard reports of other workers experiencing sexual harassment. 

Hopkins has observed this problem at the San Leandro warehouse. He said that in a recent conversation with a female employee, she broke down crying while reporting the harassment she’s experienced. 

Amazon worker Damien said he’s experienced it himself. “Once one of the people in charge makes a pass, and you’re not going for it,” he said, “they put extra [work] on you and make it more tough.”

Damien said he rejected a supervisor’s advances, and the supervisor stopped rotating him to the less physically demanding job of labeling packages. Now, he spends his entire shift sorting boxes on the conveyor belt.

The Oaklandside asked Amazon if they have received sexual harassment complaints from workers in the past year, and, if so, how they’ve been dealt with, but the company did not respond.

Even though Williams no longer works for Amazon and doesn’t live in Oakland, she thinks it’s crucial to collaborate with Oakland workers to unionize the San Leandro site. She pointed out that if one of the biggest companies in the world is forced to provide their workers with healthcare, other companies will likely be pressured to as well.

“I’m not an activist,” said Williams, who has asthma and often can’t get medications and devices she needs to breathe properly. “I’m just a chick who wants healthcare.”

Hopkins said the Bay Area Amazonians group has helped East Oakland Amazon workers to have their voices heard, and it has unified Black and Latinx workers.

“For me, it’s about binding together the communities of East Oakland,” said Hopkins, “It isn’t that folks want to be silent. There’s not a forum for them to speak up…The value of organization is we get to speak with one voice, to be on more equal footing with those in power over us.”

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.