BUSINESS

Amazon’s Greatest Weapon Against Unions: Worker Turnover

The churn inside Amazon’s warehouse and delivery network has created a formidable barrier to organizing.
A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, in F
A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, in February 2019.

Chris Smalls made a lot of friends in his first year working at an Amazon warehouse in 2015. But within a matter of months, most of them were gone.

“That’s the name of Amazon’s game: Hire and fire,” said Smalls, 32. “They know that people don’t want to be here long, that these jobs break you down physically and mentally.”

Smalls would know better than most. Amazon terminated him last March after he led a walkout at his Staten Island, New York, warehouse over safety concerns. Now Smalls has started an independent effort to organize a union at that facility, battling the same force he saw from the inside: Amazon’s high turnover rate.

“It’s definitely one way to avoid a union,” he said.

After successfully beating back a union drive at its Alabama warehouse in April, the world’s largest online retailer is facing a wave of worker activism in the U.S. and abroad. Both established labor unions and other worker groups are trying to organize employees inside Amazon’s ever-growing network of fulfillment centers and delivery hubs. 

But whatever strategies the organizers deploy, they must contend with the company’s intimidating churn rate. 

Amazon does not release data on the turnover in its warehouses and declined to do so for this story. But the observations of workers like Smalls square with a 2020 analysis from the National Employment Law Project, which found that the turnover rate in the local warehouse industry increases significantly when Amazon comes to town. Warehouse churn more than doubled in several California counties after Amazon facilities opened, averaging more than 100%.

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, you just can't count on that. Gene Bruskin, longtime labor organizer

The Seattle Times conducted its own analysis of Amazon’s workforce data last year, putting the company’s turnover at 111% during the pandemic. A New York Times investigation published this week put the figure even higher, at 150%, showing that Amazon was shedding 3% of its workers every week before the pandemic began.

A turnover rate above 100% doesn’t mean every single worker quits or gets fired in a year: It means the number of workers who leave is greater than the average number of workers employed during the same time period. So while some workers may last years, others last days. Under a turnover rate of 100%, every theoretical position inside the warehouse would turn over once in a year, on average.

That has huge implications for organizing. 

Before the National Labor Relations Board schedules an election, a union must secure signed union authorization cards from at least 30% of the workers in an expected bargaining unit. In reality, a union wants far more than that ― ideally two-thirds or greater ― since 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 manages to win an election, high turnover could hurt its position at the bargaining table if some of the most active organizers have quit or been fired. And churn could even help the employer purge the union from the facility by convincing newer workers to decertify it.

Inside Amazon’s fulfillment center in Staten Island. Christian Smalls led a walkout there last year before he
Inside Amazon’s fulfillment center in Staten Island. Christian Smalls led a walkout there last year before he was fired.

It Is By Design’

High turnover has bedeviled unions for as long they’ve been organizing U.S. workers, but the vastness of Amazon’s workforce presents extreme challenges. 

“It’s a big commitment for a worker to decide to start organizing with their coworkers,” said Irene Tung, who co-authored the NELP report. “And it may take years before they see a first contract.”

On a more fundamental level, high turnover makes it harder to build solidarity. Those who come to see the warehouse as just a place to get a paycheck for a few months would feel less invested in the job, or a campaign to improve it. Workers who barely know one another would be less likely to trust each other or take risks together. 

Gene Bruskin, a longtime labor organizer, said Amazon’s turnover also creates basic logistical hurdles as workers try to establish networks. Bruskin is in regular touch with Amazon workers who are trying to organize their warehouses. 

“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, you just can’t count on that,” 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. You just can’t be as dependent on a particular group of people.”

Bruskin said one worker he knows recently lost a longtime organizing ally when he quit Amazon. She was devastated by his departure because he had so much Amazon experience relative to other workers.

“A ‘long time’ there in Amazon is people who’ve been there more than a couple years,” Bruskin said.

The turnover in Amazon warehouses stems partly from the seasonal nature of the business. Amazon fills its greatest share of orders in the runup to the holidays, during the period known as “peak.” The company staffs up accordingly, then drops workers as post-peak volume dictates. 

But many workers quit or get fired because they can’t keep up with Amazon’s pace. The company tracks workers’ productivity through scanners and enforces a time-off-task policy that dings them for time away from their duties. (Amazon recently tweaked that controversial policy in a way the company said would make it less punitive.) Plenty of others likely leave because they get hurt.  

One worker at a fulfillment center in the Midwest, who spoke on 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. It seems that relatively few workers who opened the facility several years ago remain on the job. The worker said their facility seems to lose as many “pickers” a week as it can manage to bring on board.

People protest working conditions at the Staten Island fulfillment center on May 1, 2020.
People protest working conditions at the Staten Island fulfillment center on May 1, 2020.

Amazon openly encourages some of the turnover, offering employees annual buyouts to leave the company if they believe Amazon isn’t right for them. Under the pay-to-quit program, workers with a year under their belts are eligible for $2,000 or more to leave under the condition they can never return. 

But the turnover is also part of the company’s founding ethos. According to the recent Times report, Amazon founder and outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos believed a long-tenured workforce amounted to a “march to mediocrity,” and preferred that the hourly labor at the company’s foundation be done on a short-term basis.

Turnover can be expensive for employers, since they have to constantly hire and train new workers who, for at least a period, will be less productive than the ones leaving. But labor experts say a company of Amazon’s size and sophistication would not have high churn if it didn’t prefer it that way.  

Joseph McCartin, a historian and director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, said industrial titans a century ago were concerned about the toll turnover was taking on their operations. He said it was a prime motivator behind Henry Ford’s famous $5-a-day compact with workers, which increased wages significantly in 1914. According to McCartin, lower turnover eventually helped foment the pre-World War II union organizing boom, since it helped stabilize workers within their industries.

But in recent years, McCartin said management philosophy at many companies has moved in the other direction, as employers wield turnover to better control the workforce. Amazon, he said, may exemplify that calculation.

“For the past 20 years or so we’ve had more and more employers who’ve gone full circle to the model that used to exist at the turn of the last century ― the model that people like Henry Ford started to break from, [the idea] that turnover actually works for us,” McCartin said.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said modern employers like Amazon can mitigate the traditional expenses of turnover thanks to technology that cuts down on the costs of training. Amazon workers, after all, are largely managed by algorithms.

“It is by design,” Lichtenstein said. “They do want turnover. They don’t talk about it, but they want it.”

An Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where workers voted down forming a union earlier this year. 
An Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where workers voted down forming a union earlier this year. 

‘Exploiting It On A Larger Scale’

Amazon’s high turnover shaped some of the most critical decisions made by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in their unsuccessful effort to unionize an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this year. 

The union assumed they were losing at least 60 cards per week — and perhaps many more — due to turnover among the workforce of nearly 6,000. That was one reason they did not resist Amazon’s effort at the NLRB to greatly expand the bargaining unit, even though it would disadvantage the union: They worried that if litigation delayed the election then turnover would naturally whittle their support. 

As the lead organizer told HuffPost at the time, “You’ll never deep-organize a workplace that has 100% turnover. You’ll just chase your tail.” 

The Bessemer facility had been open for less than a year and one worker recalled seeing an influx of hires in the runup to the vote. The addition of new workers would have helped diffuse union support inside the facility and put more work on organizers’ plates.

“These new people came into a building full of [Amazon] banners,” said the worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she supported the union effort. “I’m sure they had an orientation that told them how great Amazon was.”

Workers ultimately rejected unionization by a lopsided count of 1,798 to 738, with many voters saying they did not see a need for a union there. (There were an additional 505 challenged ballots that went unopened and may have favored the RWDSU.)

Those of us who have been in the living rooms of these workers for 30 years, we’ve seen the transition happen. Amazon is just exploiting it on a larger scale. Randy Korgan, Teamsters

The high turnover raises questions about whether traditional union elections are worth pursuing at Amazon warehouses, especially when the company has shown its willingness to invest heavily in anti-union campaigns. In many cases, Amazon’s lawyering could delay a union election long enough that turnover would erode union support and essentially take care of the problem.  

The Teamsters have gone public with an effort to unionize Amazon’s workforce, but the union said it is not beholden to going the traditional NLRB route of gathering signed cards and petitioning the labor board for an election. A Teamsters local that’s organizing in Iowa has already said it is considering recognition strikes, where workers not yet formally unionized would carry out work stoppages in an effort to pressure the company into bargaining.

Randy Korgan, national director of the Teamsters’ Amazon campaign, said it’s important to view the company’s high turnover in the broader context of the warehouse industry. Working conditions in the field were deteriorating well before Amazon’s era of dominance, Korgan said, pointing to the use of temporary workers in facilities operated by companies like Walmart, especially in major logistics hubs like California’s Inland Empire.

Amazon, he maintains, is accelerating a downward trend.

“Those of us who have been in the living rooms of these workers for 30 years, we’ve seen the transition happen,” Korgan said. “Amazon is just exploiting it on a larger scale.”

Korgan said labor organizers can manage 100% turnover at a facility that employs a couple hundred people, but in a workplace teeming with thousands, “the math is the math.” That’s why the union is keeping different approaches on the table. 

“The NLRB is one strategy. Recognition strikes are another,” he said. “It’s getting workers to understand the influence they have, and what the pathways are after that.”

Some Amazon workers have been organizing under the banner of Amazonians United, which started in Chicago. The group has openly eschewed the NLRB process and appears focused instead on 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.”

Smalls speaks during the May 1, 2020 protest outside the Staten Island facility. He's still working to organize employees at
Smalls speaks during the May 1, 2020 protest outside the Staten Island facility. He's still working to organize employees at his former workplace. 

When Amazon fired Smalls following his walkout last year, the company accused him of violating the facility’s safety rules. Vice later reported that Amazon officials, facing a public-relations mess, hatched a plan to malign Smalls as “not smart or articulate.”

Smalls has created a new, independent union in his long-shot bid to organize the Staten Island facility, called the Amazon Labor Union. Working without the resources of an established union, he and a handful of fellow organizers have been posted outside the warehouse to catch workers as they come and go from their shifts. They have been gathering union cards and Smalls hopes they will someday be able to file for an election with the NLRB.

Smalls said he’s managed to bring aboard some workers with fairly long tenures at the warehouse. He believes a lot of those workers are more interested in unionizing because they’ve had more time to understand how Amazon operates. Yet each day seems to bring more fresh hires whom Smalls encounters for the first time, underlining the daunting challenge.

“We are seeing new faces,” Smalls said. “We’re trying to catch them before they even start.”