Amazon workers on May Day: Protect us from this virus
David Bacon/PW

I was three when my mother and father took me to one of the last May Day marches and rallies in New York City’s Union Square. Police and rightwing golpeadores (beaters, as they’re called in Mexico) attacked the people in the square, mostly families like ours. I remember the fear and people running. Reading about it now, I know they held banners calling for freedom for Willie McGee and other Black prisoners, and protesting the Taft-Hartley law used to drive radicals out of unions and workplaces.

May Day started in the U.S., honoring the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago, executed because they hated capitalism and fought for the eight-hour day. But after those Cold War years of the early 1950s, in this country May Day was called the Communist holiday. In every other country but ours, thousands – even millions – of workers would take the day off and honor themselves – the working class. Here, if you used the words, “working class” and tried to celebrate May Day you were called a red. You’d lose your job.

David Bacon/PW

That all changed in 2006. Millions of immigrants in this country, from countries where May Day is the workers’ holiday, marched and defeated Congressman James Sensenbrenner’s proposal to make felons of every undocumented immigrant. I was there at the biggest one – two marches of a million people each in Los Angeles. I thank the immigrants who recovered May Day for us, in the land where it started.

Since then, I’ve taken my camera to May Day demonstrations wherever I found them. This year I went out to the huge Amazon warehouse in Richmond, to photograph the workers organizing for simple, basic things – a wage raise, a health plan and protection from being unjustly fired. Most important this year, people want protection from the virus. Workers in warehouses and meatpacking plants and labor camps around the country are getting sick and dying.

So people stood at that appropriate physical distance on the sidewalk on Giant Highway, across the parking lot from the warehouse. They called it Essential Workers Day, recognizing the essential nature of the work people are doing during the pandemic. It was a good name for May Day this year. But the hypocrisy wasn’t lost on anyone – calling people essential and then forcing them to risk their lives in unsafe workplaces for close to minimum wage.

David Bacon/PW

Dionte came out of the warehouse on break, spoke up, and then went back to work. It takes courage to do that.

“I’ve been in the Amazon warehouse here for a few weeks, but I’ve been working in warehouses for 15 or 20 years. They should be paying us more. We put our health on the line to work here. They just want to make sure the packages get out.  But we should be compensated for that.  Just $2 more an hour wouldn’t hurt the CEO. He wouldn’t even notice it. Why don’t they just give everybody what we’re asking for – $2 an hour raise, better safety precautions? A union would be great. They treat you a lot better if there’s a union.”

David Bacon/PW

Adrienne Williams used to be a teacher, trying to organize educators and parents at a charter school. She got burned out and took a job at Amazon because she wanted less stress. Instead, she found that injustice in the warehouse was the same as the injustice at the charter school.

“I was 42 on Monday, and I have a daughter who’s seven. I’m furloughed, but I worked here for Amazon for four and a half months. When I got here I saw there weren’t even the minimum standards. I saw the injustices and inequities. They promised me $21-26 an hour with benefits.  But I got $20 and no benefits. I have asthma and I need benefits. I thought I’d just keep my head down, but it unnerved me to see that people weren’t being treated right.

“I’m speaking up for all the delivery drivers. If you say anything about your job, Amazon will take away your contract. They say we don’t work for Amazon, but for a contractor.  So how come they can fire us?

“When I saw the things Bezos said about Chris Smalls [a worker fired for organizing, and then publicly denigrated by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos], I could see how he sees all the rest of us.”

Al Aloudi is a driver. He saw that whether you drive for Amazon or for Uber or Lyft, it’s the same exploitation.

David Bacon/PW

“I’ve been driving my car for Amazon Plus. Here you’re a self-contractor, like Uber, but instead of delivering passengers we deliver packages. I make $15 an hour, minus my expenses. I’m 36 and I have  four kids – 11, 8, 5 and three and a half. I’ve been out of work since February 15. My dad got the coronavirus and I couldn’t work with no healthcare. I had to volunteer to get healthcare for him, and fortunately he recovered.

“We need better conditions, and more safety. Fifty drivers for Uber have died already. When you die it’s like when you get terminated at work. The company just forgets you were ever there.

“I really like AB 5 [California’s new law that forces companies like Uber and Amazon to treat contract workers as employees with rights and benefits].  The big companies are paying $110 million to get people to vote no against it [in a referendum the companies are trying to put on the California ballot]. That would just deprive drivers of their rights. If they just used a quarter of that money it would be enough to give benefits to all the drivers for five years.”

Charles was driving a truck in my neighborhood, and we talked as I was getting ready to go out to the warehouse.

David Bacon/PW

“I heard about the walkout at the warehouse this morning. But the people are scared that they’ll lose their jobs. And this is the only job out there for them. I’m a cement mason. For me, what they pay to drive the truck is chump change.  I hear my work is starting up again, so I’m going back to it as soon as I can. This is a terrible job.

“Inside the warehouse it’s really crazy. I’ve heard that two people have the virus already, but they don’t really tell us anything. I don’t think they care about us at all. Be careful about the packages you get. I try to wipe down all of mine, but they don’t give you enough to do all of them.”

Jessica Etheridge isn’t an Amazon worker. She’s an activist in San Francisco’s hotel union, UNITE HERE Local 2. I’ve taken photographs of her many times over the years in the union’s strikes and street actions. Jessica was the person who called me, and got me out to the Amazon warehouse on May Day. “Come out,” she said, “document the workers standing up and speaking out, at the risk of their jobs.” Jessica is what union and worker solidarity looks like, what May Day really celebrates.

David Bacon/PW

It’s a mistake to think that just because the warehouse is huge, with hundreds of people inside, that a small number demonstrating outside doesn’t amount to much. But it takes real courage to speak your mind in a non-union company. I know. I was fired and blacklisted for it long ago. I learned, like Charles says, that people are scared because they need the job, as terrible as it might be. That’s the same need that gets people to go to work even knowing that other people there might be sick, or that they’ll meet people on their routes who are. Courage in the time of the virus.

But each person who speaks out is not only acting as a brave individual, she or he is giving a voice to many people who think the same way. Organizing is the job of turning that hidden and passive sympathy into workers ready to act in defense of their rights, ready to fight for the power to force the company to recognize them.

Out there on Giant Highway, I thought about those families in Union Square in 1951. Who would have thought they’d turn into a million people in the streets all over this country 55 years later? All organizing starts with a small group that expands to encompass the majority. That’s what scares Amazon.


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.