In his first year working at an Amazon
warehouse in 2015, Chris Smalls made a lot of friends
, but most of them were gone within a few months.
“That’s the name of Amazon’s game: hire and fire,” Smalls, 32, explained. “They know people
don’t want to be here for long, that these jobs
break you down physically and mentally.”
Smalls knows better than most. Amazon fired him in March after he led a walkout at his Staten Island, New York, warehouse over safety concerns. Now, Smalls has launched an independent effort to organize a union at that facility, battling the same force he witnessed from the inside: Amazon's high turnover rate.
“It’s unquestionably one way to avoid a union,” he said.
After successfully rebuffing a union drive at its Alabama
warehouse in April
, the world's largest online retailer is now facing a wave of worker activism in the United States
and abroad, with both established labor unions
and other worker groups attempting to organize employees inside Amazon's ever-expanding network of fulfillment centers and delivery hubs.
Whatever strategies the organizers use, they will have to deal
with the company's alarming churn rate.
Amazon does not release data on warehouse turnover and declined to do so for this story; however, the observations of workers like Smalls align with a 2020 analysis from the National Employment Law
Project, which found that when Amazon comes to town, the turnover rate in the local warehouse industry increases significantly. Warehouse churn more than doubled in several California
counties after Amazon arrived.
You can't rely on that when you're trying to put together a committee and track leadership, map out the area, and figure out where your good connections are.
Long-time labor organizer Gene Bruskin
Times examined Amazon's workforce data last year and found that the company's turnover was 111% during the pandemic
, while a New York Times investigation
published this week found that the figure was 150%, indicating that Amazon was shedding 3% of its workers every week prior to the pandemic.
A turnover rate greater than 100% does not imply that every single worker quits or is fired in a year; rather, it means that the number of workers who leave is greater than the average number of workers employed during the same time period; thus, while some workers may last years, others may only last days. With a turnover rate of 100%, every theoretical position inside the warehouse would turn over once a year on average.
This has far-reaching consequences for organizing.
Before the National Labor Relations Board
schedules an election, a union must obtain signed union authorization cards from at least 30% of the workers in an expected bargaining unit; in reality, a union wants far more, ideally two-thirds or greater, because they will need to win a majority of votes
cast, and the employer may launch an anti-union campaign that weakens support.
At an Amazon warehouse, high turnover means a union would be losing cards every day as workers leave and new employees unfamiliar with the campaign replace them. Even if the union wins an election, high turnover could harm its bargaining position if some of the most active organizers have quit or been fired.
'It's On Purpose'
Unions have struggled with high turnover for as long as they have been organizing U.S. workers, but Amazon's massive workforce presents extreme challenges.
“It takes a big commitment for a worker to decide to start organizing with their coworkers,” said Irene Tung, co-author of the NELP report, “and it may take years before they see their first contract.”
On a more fundamental level, high turnover makes it more difficult to build solidarity. Those who come to see the warehouse as just a place to get a paycheck for a few months will be less invested in the job, or a campaign to improve it, and workers who barely know each other will be less likely to trust or take risks together.
According to Gene Bruskin, a long-time labor organizer, Amazon's turnover creates basic logistical challenges as workers try to establish networks. Bruskin is in regular contact with Amazon workers who are attempting to organize their warehouses.
“You just can’t count on that when you’re trying to build a committee and sort of track leadership, map the place out and figure out where your good connections are,” Bruskin said. “The best you can do, knowing that you’re going to lose a lot of folks, is to try and create a culture of solidarity and activity... so that when somebody [new] comes in, they sort of pick up the vibe.
Bruskin said that one worker he knows recently lost a longtime organizing ally when he left Amazon, and she was devastated because he had so much Amazon experience in comparison to other workers.
“People who have been at Amazon for a long time are people who have been there for more than a couple years,” Bruskin explained.
The seasonal nature
of the business
contributes to the high turnover in Amazon warehouses. Amazon fills the majority of orders in the run-up to the holidays
, a period known as "peak," and staffs up accordingly, then drops workers as post-peak volume dictates.
Many workers, however, quit or are fired because they are unable to keep up with Amazon's pace. The company tracks workers' productivity through scanners and enforces a time-off-task policy that penalizes them for time away from their duties. (Amazon recently tweaked that contentious policy in a way that the company claimed would make it less punitive.)
One worker at a Midwest fulfillment center, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said a lot of workers at their facility end up quitting because of inattentive managers and unreasonable expectations, and it appears that relatively few workers who opened the facility several years ago remain on the job.
Amazon openly encourages some of the turnover, offering employees annual buyouts to leave the company if they believe Amazon isn't the right fit for them. Under the pay-to-quit program, workers with a year under their belts are eligible for $2,000 or more to leave with the condition that they never return.
According to a recent Times report, Amazon founder and outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos
believed that a long-tenured workforce amounted to a "march to mediocrity," and preferred that hourly labor at the company's foundation be done on a short-term basis.
Turnover can be costly for employers because they must constantly hire and train new workers who will be less productive than the ones leaving for at least a period of time. However, labor experts say that a company of Amazon's size and sophistication would not have high churn if it did not prefer it that way.
According to Joseph McCartin, a historian and the director of Georgetown University
's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, industrial titans a century ago were concerned about the toll turnover was taking on their operations, and it was a primary motivator behind Henry Ford's famous $5-a-day bargain with workers, which increased wages significantly in 1914.
However, McCartin believes that many companies' management philosophy has shifted in the opposite direction in recent years, as employers use turnover to better control the workforce; Amazon, he believes, may be an example of this calculation.
“For the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen an increasing number of employers return to the model that existed at the turn of the last century, the model that people like Henry Ford began to break from, [the idea] that turnover actually works for us,” McCartin explained.
According to Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, modern employers such as Amazon can mitigate the traditional costs of turnover due to technology that reduces the costs of training; after all, Amazon workers are largely managed by algorithms.
“It’s by design,” Lichtenstein explained, “because they want turnover. They don’t talk about it, but they want it.”
‘Larger Scale Exploitation’
The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union's unsuccessful attempt to unionize an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this year was influenced by Amazon's high turnover.
The union estimated that they were losing at least 60 cards per week — and possibly many more — due to turnover among the nearly 6,000-person workforce. This was one reason they did not oppose Amazon’s effort at the NLRB to greatly expand the bargaining unit, even though it would disadvantage the union: they feared that if litigation delayed the election, turnover would naturally whittle their support.
“You'll never deep-organize a workplace
with 100% turnover; you'll just chase your tail,” the lead organizer told Stardia at the time.
The Bessemer facility had only been open for a little over a year, and one worker recalled seeing an influx of new hires in the run-up to the vote, which would have helped diffuse union support inside the facility while also putting more work on organizers' plates.
“These new people came into a building full of [Amazon] banners,” the worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she supported the union effort, said. “I'm sure they had an orientation that told them how great Amazon was.”
Workers ultimately rejected unionization by a lopsided margin of 1,798 to 738, with many voters
stating that they saw no need for a union there. (An additional 505 challenged ballots went unopened, which may have favored the RWDSU.)
We've been in these workers' living rooms for 30 years, and we've seen the transition take place; Amazon is just taking advantage of it on a larger scale.
Teamsters Randy Korgan
The high turnover raises questions about whether traditional union elections
are worthwhile at Amazon warehouses, especially given the company's willingness to invest heavily in anti-union campaigns. In many cases, Amazon's lawyering could delay a union election long enough for turnover to erode union support and essentially solve the problem.
The Teamsters have made public their intention to unionize Amazon's workforce, but the union has stated that it is not bound by the traditional NLRB route of collecting signed cards and petitioning the labor board for an election. A Teamsters local organizing in Iowa has already stated that it is considering recognition strikes, in which workers who are not yet formally unionized would take work stoppages.
Randy Korgan, national director of the Teamsters’ Amazon campaign, said it is critical to consider the company’s high turnover in the context of the warehouse industry. Working conditions in the field were deteriorating long before Amazon’s era of dominance, Korgan said, citing the use of temporary workers in facilities operated by companies such as Walmart
, particularly in major logistics hubs.
Amazon, he claims, is hastening the company's decline.
“Those of us who have been in these workers’ living rooms for 30 years have seen the transition,” Korgan said, adding that Amazon is simply leveraging it on a larger scale.
Labor organizers can manage 100% turnover in a facility with a couple hundred employees, but in a workplace with thousands, “the math is the math,” according to Korgan, which is why the union is keeping all options on the table.
“The NLRB is one strategy, and recognition strikes are another,” he explained. “It’s getting workers to understand how much power they have, and what the next steps are.”
Some Amazon employees have been organizing under the banner of Amazonians United, which began in Chicago
and has openly eschewed the NLRB process in favor of building militant minorities willing to carry out job actions such as walkouts over safety issues. As one member put it, "For us, success isn't dependent upon a union election."
When Amazon fired Smalls after his walkout last year, the company accused him of violating the facility's safety rules; Vice later reported that, facing a public-relations disaster, Amazon officials devised a strategy to portray Smalls as "not smart or articulate."
Smalls has formed a new, independent union called the Amazon Labor Union in his long-shot bid to organize the Staten Island facility. Working without the resources of an established union, he and a handful of fellow organizers have been stationed outside the warehouse to catch workers as they come and go from their shifts, collecting union cards and hoping to someday be a union.
Smalls said he's been able to bring on some workers with fairly long tenures at the warehouse, and he believes a lot of those workers are more interested in unionizing because they've had more time to understand how Amazon operates. However, each day seems to bring more fresh hires whom Smalls meets for the first time, emphasizing the daunting challenge.
“We're seeing new faces,” Smalls said, adding, "and we're trying to catch them before they start."