Over 100 Amazon workers in San Bernardino walked off the job on October 14 to demand better working conditions and a $5-an-hour wage increase.
The move to strike came just three days after another Inland Empire Amazon warehouse, in Moreno Valley, became the first Amazon warehouse in California to file for a union election.
The San Bernardino facility, also known by the code KSBD because of its location in an airport, is not a standard warehouse or “fulfillment center.” It’s one of the country’s largest Amazon Air hubs — facilities across the country where over a dozen of Amazon’s own planes filled with products take off every day.
The facility opened in the spring of 2021 despite community protests and two lawsuits attempting to halt the project due to inadequate analysis of the irreparable damage it could cause to the environment. One of these lawsuits was filed by Attorney General Xavier Becerra on behalf of the state of California and stated the project would “hurt low income, disadvantaged communities.”
The Inland Empire, made up of the areas surrounding San Bernardino and Riverside, regularly ranks as having the worst ozone pollution in the country. Physicians call the area a “diesel death zone” due to pollution from thousands of warehouses. Several cities there have attempted to slow pollution by issuing moratoria on building any more warehouses.
‘A More Human Point of View’
Within a year of KSBD’s opening, workers had organized to win some concessions from the behemoth corporation.
In December 2021, the entire operation closed for a few days without warning or explanation, leaving workers without pay for those days. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the closure.) Workers were anxious and angry, and they let management know at a company-wide all-hands meeting.
Sara Fee had been working at KSBD for about six months at that point. She told me the entry-level job — mainly “filling big boxes with smaller boxes” and loading and sorting trailers — wasn’t so bad at first. Because she was a hard and smart worker, management told her she’d soon be promoted. So Fee took on extra work and extra leadership roles, identified and corrected inefficiencies in the system, and waited for this additional work to be rewarded.
Things changed for Fee at this all-hands meeting. She heard co-worker after co-worker talk about how losing hours had affected them. One young mother said the reduction in hours caused her to lose her home.
“After that, I looked at things not like Amazon, but with a more human point of view,” Fee said. “I wanted to make things better for the people, not just to make things move faster and for Amazon to make more money.” She helped collect hundreds of petition signatures, and within a few months, management agreed to offer voluntary overtime to make up for the work lost in December.
Unsafe and Underpaid
Amazon took in $470 billion in revenue in 2021, and has received $4.1 billion in US government subsidies over the past decade. While the company does not appear to have received subsidies for this particular facility, which it leases from Hillwood Enterprises, Amazon has received at least $1.5 million in government subsidies for its other Inland Empire warehouses.
Even before KSBD opened, Amazon was the largest employer in the Inland Empire, with over a dozen warehouses and more than 40,000 workers. Over 150,000 people in California work for Amazon. With over a million workers nationwide, the company is the second-largest private employer in the country.
Compared to warehouse workers in other companies in the United States, Amazon workers receive an average of 15% lower wages and experience double the number of work injuries. In 2021, Amazon workers in the United States suffered over 34,000 injuries.
Six workers died in a warehouse in Illinois last December when a tornado hit the area. The facility’s beams weren’t anchored to the ground, likely making Amazon structurally responsible. Before he died, one worker texted his girlfriend, “Amazon won’t let us leave.”
‘We’re Controlling What’s Happening and I Don’t Think They Like That’
In September, when Southern California suffered a historic heat wave, San Bernardino warehouse worker Sara Fee and her co-workers were worried for their safety. “You’re seeing all this stuff on the news about Amazon workers passing out or passing away,” Fee said. “We were like, we’re getting a heat wave. We need to protect the people we work with. We’re taking this seriously because Amazon is not.”
Temperatures topped 100 degrees for over 30 days. KSBD workers brought thermometers to work and measured indoor temperatures of up to 90 degrees and tarmac temperatures of up to 121 degrees. Around 500 people at KSBD work outdoors.
Excessive heat at work kills between 600 and 2,000 Americans per year, but there are currently no federal requirements to protect workers from this hazard. California passed a law in 2016 promising to develop indoor heat standards by 2019, but the state has yet to do so.
California does, however, have heat safety standards for most outdoor workers. During break times and before and after shifts, Fee and her co-workers collected signatures demanding Amazon adhere to Cal/OSHA heat safety standards, like adequate break times and trainings on emergency response.
“We are appalled by the dismissiveness, misdiagnoses, and dangerously inadequate responses we have received when reporting heat illness symptoms in recent months,” the petition read in part. “Without these standards in place, KSBD is an unsafe workplace, and every day Amazon is knowingly putting employees at risk of illness and even death.”
KSBD workers then organized what they called emergency delegations. Over 50 people confronted managers with their demands in late August, and again in early September. “We told management: We’re here and you need to talk to us,” said Fee. “We got everybody together and presented the petition to the general manager and other management people. Then we had people tell personal stories about how the heat affected them and how they were treated by Amazon during their time of illness and need.”
She marveled at the feeling of worker power. “Management seemed really uncomfortable. In that time and space we’re controlling what’s happening and I don’t think they like that.”
Soon workers were taking more breaks from the heat and giving themselves more access to water, with fewer repercussions from management. “They changed some things but I think it’s for liability more than anything else,” said Fee. “I don’t think all of a sudden they decided to care.”
Surveillance and Retaliation
Over the following months, Fee and her co-workers noticed increased surveillance every time they organized petition drives or campaigns. One manager told Fee directly, “You’re being watched.” Outsiders started showing up, pretending to be Amazon workers and asking Fee and her co-workers a lot of questions. Fee calls these people “union busters.”
“Our security gave them a blue badge when they came to the building. That means you’re an Amazon employee. They’d ask about our issues and act like they’re there to help. It’s pretty sneaky,” said Fee. “One time I asked them if they were HR and they just avoided the question. At that point I already knew who they were. I just wanted to see if they’d be truthful, and they weren’t.”
Once her co-workers made it obvious they knew these people weren’t workers, the union busters’ badges changed from blue to yellow.
Motherboard reported last year that Amazon was paying union busters $3,200 per person per day. When a New York–based Amazon worker posted a picture identifying one of these people, Inland Empire Amazon workers said they’d seen the individual “lurking around” their site too.
Organizers say they’ve been interrogated about their campaigns and threatened with termination for actions like distributing flyers and wearing stickers calling for wage increases. On October 13, KSBD workers filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board for these and other retaliatory actions.
‘We Can Barely Afford to Live’
During Amazon Prime Week in July, over 50 KSBD workers delivered another petition to management, calling for a $5-an-hour wage increase for all workers. The petition also demanded “pay for all time working, waiting, and walking, including mandatory security checks, and an end to unlawful time clock and break practices that erode our pay.”
Amazon ignored their demands, and on August 15 over 100 workers walked off the job in protest.
When reached for comment, Amazon provided Knock LA with a statement that read in part: “Amazon jobs for front-line employees in customer fulfillment and transportation come with an average pay of more than $19 per hour, with employees earning between $16 and $26 per hour depending on their position and location in the U.S.” The statement also included a list of various benefits offered by the corporation — several of which are required by state law.
In September, Amazon agreed to pay KSBD workers a $1 raise. However, when Fee received her first paycheck after that raise, it was lower than her previous check. Amazon had “accidentally” doubled the cost of her benefits. “That has never happened in the entire time I’ve been there,” she said. “And it just happened to be right after we got a raise.” Several of her co-workers had the same problem.
Despite the small raise, KSBD workers remained firm in their demand for $5 more per hour. Living in California and earning a starting wage of $17 an hour means “over 75% of our income is going into rent alone,” they wrote in the petition.” We can barely afford to live in today’s economy.”
In late September, workers issued an ultimatum for management to meet their demands — a $5 wage increase, safer working conditions, and an end to retaliation — by October 10.
‘Now Everyone in Our Building Knows’
With none of the demands met, over 100 KSBD workers walked off the job again on October 14. They did so in concert with workers at facilities across California and in Georgia, Illinois, and New York, as well as unionized Amazon workers in Germany, all demanding higher wages and better working conditions. The walkout was preceded by hundreds of workers in Missouri signing a petition calling for better conditions and $10-an-hour raises in September.
Amazon has faced strikes and union activity in their European warehouses for about a decade, and earlier this year, workers in Staten Island formed the first labor union of Amazon workers in the US, independently of any large established union.
When the KSBD workers in San Bernardino walked off the job, hundreds of supporters joined them outside the Amazon facility, including local immigrant and environmental justice organizations, unionized steelworkers, grocery stockers, and delivery drivers from across California. Local businesses provided free tacos and fruit, and a unionized coffee shop handed out free coffee.
Community support could be crucial for workers in a business with a yearly turnover rate of over 100%. “They don’t want us to stay long term,” Fee said, because the longer a worker stays, the more they can learn about their rights, including leaves of absence, paid parental leave, meal breaks, bathroom breaks, and rest time. “Basic stuff,” she said, but explained that at first, “I didn’t know that heat breaks existed. I didn’t know that if you weren’t feeling well you could go ahead and take a break on your own. I didn’t know that was a thing. Now everyone in our building knows.”
After 18 months on the job, Fee is proud of what she and her co-workers have accomplished and excited about building worker power. “The coolest thing about my building now is people are talking more than ever before,” she said. “If someone knows some information that benefits associates, it spreads through the building relatively quickly now. And they can’t stop that.”