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Workers bear the brunt of Amazon Prime Day, Labor union rep argues

Adam Obernauer, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Director of the Retail Organizing Project joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel with the latest on Amazon unionization efforts.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Of course, on the flip side of this coin is the actual workers who are working to make these orders possible to make Prime Day possible. As many of us look forward to the event, worth focusing in a bit more on the worker issues tied to Amazon and now Prime Day, as orders pick up, given the fact that it has been a few weeks since that failed union vote in Bessemer, Alabama. A lot of things still not solved when it comes to the issues workers raised around Amazon's employment.

And for more on that, I want to bring on Adam Obernauer, Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Director of the Retail Organizing Project. And Adam, I mean, your guys' union have been at the forefront of kind of this union battle around the issues at Amazon. Talk to me about maybe how much has still gone unsolved or maybe if any of the efforts in kind of added efforts on Amazon's side to kind of bring attention to these issues, has anything changed?

ADAM OBERNAUER: Well, I'd actually say that things have gotten a little bit worse as you're leading into Prime Day. You have the constant working conditions that Amazon pushes through the surveillance and the monitoring of every worker's work product, how fast that they're working, and the rate that they have. And then the mandatory overtime that you have during Prime Day, which forces workers to have 12-hour long days in hard working conditions, fast working conditions, high temperatures. There is a cost to getting a product this quickly. And there's a cost to all of it. And the workers are bearing the brunt of it for sure.

AKIKO FUJITA: I mean, take me inside the fulfillment centers. To what extent does this two-day event really elevate the intensity and the working conditions you just pointed to? I wonder if you can elaborate a bit more.

ADAM OBERNAUER: Sure, well, the working conditions are always extreme at Amazon. You have to pack a certain amount of boxes per hour. It's called your rate. And then you end up working against yourself. So if you average a certain rate over a period of time, you're held accountable to the rate that you average. So the person next to you could be working slower than you. You're both being pushed to go as fast as you possibly can.

And so when you're already at your extreme, and you're already at your limit, when you add an event like Prime Day and you add mandatory overtime to get ready for Prime Day, then you're just making these conditions worse. You're making it more difficult to work at a certain speed. You're pushing workers to the point where a lot of them don't go back to work.

I mean, you look at the turnover rate at Amazon, and it's extremely high. In "The New York Times," they recently reported it's 150% turnover per year, which is more than double what you see in other industries that are comparable in the warehouse industry. So I would say that it seems just like a two-day event. But the lead-up to the event, the blackout periods where workers are forced to work longer hours actually are pretty extreme.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and Adam, we should note, we reached out to Amazon to talk about the allegations around working conditions or union busting claims in Staten Island. And we did not hear back yet in regards to those questions. But when we kind of think about the union vote and when it came amid kind of, you know, protection or maybe support here from President Biden, it's not often you hear a president in the White House talking about unions and supporting them against the second largest employer in the country. But when you think about how the union vote went and how much of a blow it might have been to kind of the rallying cry for workers at Amazon, I mean, how do you kind of recover from that in the mission to improve things?

ADAM OBERNAUER: That's a great question. I think that workers themselves feel like they're being surveilled all the time. Obviously, Amazon has the capability to do so. And I think that there were many, many workers that stood through and voted to become a union and have become unionized at Amazon, many more than have ever done so before in the United States. And so I think that taking on an organizing campaign is a very difficult process. And it's very scary.

But when you're doing it at a place like Amazon and the campaign that Amazon ran to vote against the union, meaning the severity that they put in how important it was to vote against the unions so that they can keep productivity up as if they're polar opposing things, I would say that the workers are still resilient and still are-- want to see things change.

I mean, you can't work at Amazon on the day-to-day and not want to have a safer working-- a workplace, safer working conditions, and to feel safer overall at work. And so, I understand the question. I think it's great. But I think that at the end of the day, I think you see Amazon workers that are rising up all around the country, not just in Bessemer, not just in Staten Island, and also all around the world.

AKIKO FUJITA: And Adam, of course, we've got founder and CEO Jeff Bezos stepping down later next month. In his last shareholder letter, this came on the back of that vote over in Alabama. You know, he seemed to suggest that the company was thinking about the treatment of employees, essentially saying we have to do better for our employees. That was back in April. And I wonder if you've had any conversations since then. Have you seen the company shift at least in tone? Do you get any signs here that they're willing to move on some of these critical issues?

ADAM OBERNAUER: I think that a lot of it's very performative. And so what you saw during the union election was managers were appeasing workers. They were telling workers that they just need another chance. Let them fix it. They didn't realize things were so bad. And what you then see is you see this performative reaction from people like Jeff Bezos that say, well, we realize-- we recognize working conditions aren't great. We'll do a safety study.

But at the same time, crushing your workers' voice that are trying to voice their opinion that they want to have a union in Bessemer, they're polar opposing views, right? So it's easy to fight against your workers that are trying to take their own agency of the workplace and fight for better working conditions while they're doing it at a specific location, and then to make these broad generic claims that you want to look into to better working conditions at the same time. You are not really willing to listen to the workers that were organizing in first place.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, it's a very interesting dynamic when we talk about Prime Day and the other side that doesn't get talked about maybe as often. But Adam Obernauer, I appreciate you joining us to walk us through all the issues there. Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Director of the Retail Organizing Project, thanks again for the time.