Why Amazon’s Delivery Network Is Vulnerable to Labor Strife

Is there a more familiar sign of corporate dominance than the Amazon delivery van?

As recently as four years ago, the blue-gray vehicle with the smiley arrow was a relative novelty among fleets of brown and blue-and-white delivery trucks clogging the streets. Today, the Amazon vans are almost inescapable. Between 2020 and 2022, their numbers more than doubled, to roughly 100,000.

But this symbol of Amazon’s strength may hint at something else: an underappreciated vulnerability.

The vans are just the most visible piece of ‌the company’s vast delivery network. When you place an order for cat toys or razor blades or vacuum bags, Amazon employees typically pluck them off a shelf in a warehouse, then ship them to a succession of buildings, known as sort centers and delivery stations, where they are grouped by destination and loaded onto vans.

The system, which also includes planes and air hubs, has enabled ever-faster delivery, according to data from NIQ (NielsenIQ). It has also made Amazon susceptible to a potent form of labor organizing — choke point organizing — in which workers threaten to hobble a company’s operations by shutting down key sites, known as choke points.

In September 2019, workers at an Amazon delivery station in Sacramento began campaigning for paid personal time off, which many part-time employees in such buildings lacked. With no progress on their demands, the workers walked off their shifts just before Christmas, and the campaign gained momentum at delivery stations in Chicago and New York. In March 2020, Amazon announced that it was providing a paid-time-off benefit that affected more than 10,000 part-time employees at buildings nationwide.

While it is rare for employees to pry loose costly concessions from Amazon, workers who threaten choke points within its delivery network appear to have won concessions multiple times.

Following walkouts over pay and working conditions at two Chicago delivery stations just before Christmas 2021, hundreds of Chicago-area workers received raises of about $2 an hour. After about half of the roughly 1,500 employees at an air hub in San Bernardino, Calif., submitted a petition seeking higher pay last summer, Amazon raised hourly wages for night workers by nearly a dollar. The workers had discussed striking, and dozens later walked out.

Amazon said it made changes to wages, paid time off and other policies on its own, unrelated to the activities of small groups of workers. “Nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of our teams,” said Lisa Levandowski, an Amazon spokeswoman.

But experts argue that the organizing has gotten results. Choke point organizers “have had some success building worker power, challenging the boss, getting some gains,” said Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, and an editor of the book “Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain.”

Amazon’s recent growth helped create the choke points that workers have sought to exploit. During its first two decades, the company stayed out of the delivery business and simply handed off your cat toys and razor blades to the likes of UPS, FedEx and the Postal Service.

On the evening of Dec. 30, 1936, a local leader of the fledgling United Automobile Workers flashed a red light outside the union’s office, across from a massive General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., summoning the plant’s shop stewards. As plant conditions had deteriorated — not least, the grueling “speed-up” that required some workers to make thousands of hand motions per hour — the union decided it was time to strike for recognition. When the stewards returned to the plant, employees stopped working and refused to leave.

The so-called sit-down strike at the Flint plant and another in Cleveland nearly paralyzed the company because they were known as mother plants: the sole producers of many parts for G.M. assembly plants. After several tense weeks, G.M., which had been hostile to unions, recognized the U.A.W.

But it would not soon forget its vulnerability to strikes. As the sociologists Joshua Murray and Michael Schwartz observed in their book “Wrecked: How the American Automobile Industry Destroyed Its Capacity to Compete,” General Motors and other U.S. automakers spent the next few decades dispersing production across a much wider number of plants. Thereafter, Mr. Murray and Mr. Schwartz wrote, “even if the union mobilized enough workers to shut an entire plant down, the companies now had the option of ramping up production at one of the parallel plants.”

Amazon has moved in a different direction from the automakers in the last century — in some ways making itself more vulnerable, not less, as its business has ballooned.

Some workers hope to take advantage. After organizers at a sort center on Staten Island lost a vote on whether to unionize last year, they focused on building enough support to force a shutdown at the building, which sorts packages for 15 delivery stations in the New York area.

“It’s not enough to get someone to go and vote yes,” said Madeline Wesley, a worker involved in the organizing. “What we’re going for here is a fundamental shift in the power dynamics.”

Delivery stations, where sort centers send packages so they can be loaded onto vans, can be similarly vulnerable. In the fall of 2021, the company declined to increase pay for many workers in the Chicago area.

“We were told our pay was reviewed in September of 2021 and there would be no raise,” said Ted Miin, a worker involved in organizing at a delivery station there.

While mobilizing hundreds of workers at a fulfillment center may be daunting, a walkout of several dozen delivery station workers could delay tens of thousands of packages that are supposed to end up on vans by late morning.

And a longer shutdown at one delivery station could take a toll on other buildings.

“It’s not like the I.T. world, where there are multiple redundant systems — one server goes down, and another pops up,” said Chris Freimann, a former manager at a St. Louis-area delivery station. “When one goes down, the others feel the impact of it. The margin of error gets very, very tight.”

Amazon denied this, saying it had the capacity to reallocate packages to other delivery stations with little disruption.

On the last Friday in December, Amazon suspended a San Bernardino air hub employee, Sara Fee, who has helped organized co-workers at the site.

The next week, workers wore “Hello, my name is” stickers on which they wrote, “Where is Sara?” They discussed plans to strike if Ms. Fee was fired. The company asked her to return to work by the end of the week.

There is arguably no bigger target for organizers at Amazon than the company’s air hubs, which it uses to move more than one million packages each day across large distances. The San Bernardino hub is one of a handful that increasingly form the backbone of the company’s air transit system.

Workers may not even need to win a union election in Kentucky in order to extract concessions from the company.

During each shift, dozens of tug drivers move hundreds of package containers, known as cans, between the warehouse and the planes. If the tugs don’t move, neither do the packages.

The company clearly understands the stakes: Workers say managers frequently urge employees who aren’t tug drivers to become “tug-trained” so they can operate tugs in the event of a driver shortage. Amazon said that it was common to cross-train workers and that managers provided support and coaching to employees if the tugs got backed up.

The drivers are aware of their power, too. And many support the union effort.

“Any time there’s a delay, it’s always blamed on the tug drivers — management doesn’t take any responsibility for it,” said Steven Kelley, another worker active in the campaign. “That’s honestly why most of them are in favor.”

If enough tug drivers got fed up and simply refused to move, Mr. Kelley added, “it would shut the whole operation down.”

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