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Union Coalition: Amazon On Top For Injured Workers, Even In Tulsa

Amazon is slated to build a new sortation facility at Mingo Road and 36th Street North

According an article published in The Washington Post yesterday, workers in Amazon warehouses are injured at nearly double the rate as workers in other warehouse jobs. The Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, contributed data to the article and says Tulsa also has a high injury rate.


KWGS’s Elizabeth Caldwell spoke to Eric Frumin, SOC’s health and safety director, about why Amazon has such high injury rates. He started off the conversation saying that Amazon has a digital discipline system he thinks pushes people too hard. 


Both the audio and text have been edited for length and clarity.


Other recent coverage on Amazon’s expansion in Tulsa here.


Eric Frumin: Other companies obviously can have very strict discipline systems, but no other company that we're aware of has a discipline system that is so driven by computers and algorithms and is so unrelenting in how hard it pushes workers. 

And then combined with that, they care only about one thing, which is the speed of getting their packages to customers. They designed their physical equipment with only that in mind, without the bodies or the health of the workers in mind. There are a lot of different ways to design a warehouse, and they have only chosen to design it for one purpose. So they have people picking things up off the floor. They have people reaching too far and, of course, moving too fast. 

And of course they're able to do this because workers are not organized. They don't have the power to push back. 


So instead we have a huge company whose business model at the core of the company is to work people too hard and then to throw them out. And if you look around at other media reports and so forth, you'll see that it's not unusual at all for the turnover in an Amazon warehouse to reach a hundred percent per year. They just push people too hard, use them up, get rid of them. And if it injures a lot of people, the managers who run this company obviously don't think it's their problem or their responsibility. 


But those are the basic elements to it. And it's really extraordinary in our industrial history to see a company this big take on this kind of a role with as little competence to deal with the human effects. 


Elizabeth Caldwell: So when I've questioned the mayor here, Mayor Bynum, he says, ‘well, I haven't heard about any problems in Tulsa. I haven't heard about any problems.’ And that's probably what he will say when I mention this report to him. What would you say to that? 


EF: Uh, and who was the person who gave you that answer? 


EC: The mayor, the mayor of Tulsa. 


EF: Oh, the mayor. 


EC: Yeah. I've asked him, I said, ‘what would you say about these safety issues?’ And he said, ‘well, in Tulsa, I haven't heard of anything in Tulsa.’ And I think he would probably say that again, but now The Washington Post article at least mentions Tulsa several times. Why do you think the leaders of cities aren't hearing about it? Because like you said, they aren't organized? 


EF: Uh, well, when you say they aren't organized, you're not referring to the leaders of the cities, you're referring to the workers?


EC: Yeah. Right. Why aren't we hearing more about it?


EF: Because, because our labor laws and our management structures are designed to suppress the voices of workers. 


Was the mayor of Tulsa hearing about the effects of slavery or racist working conditions in 1890? Probably not because the system was set up to suppress the voices of people who were suffering these horrendous abuses. 


I don't know, you know, I'm making all sorts of assumptions about the historical accuracy, about working conditions in Oklahoma, eastern Oklahoma, in the late 1800’s. But if it was like the rest of the South, it was pretty bad. And yet mayors could probably claim they didn't know anything about that either. 


So if a system is set up to shut down worker voices, then the mayor has to be concerned enough to go look into the situation and find out. So when the mayor talks to a company that wants to come into town, does he ask them what their injury rates are? Does he ask them what their safety program is? Does he ask, ‘what's the system for helping workers who were injured speak up when the conditions are bad?’ Probably not. 


Well, if you don't have a system to help workers report dangerous problems, and you don't ask the management about those problems, then you can make sure you're never going to hear about it. And that's what most mayors in places like Tulsa do, they make sure they never hear about it.


And that information is available. You know, the company has it, and the public now has it. And a mayor or a governor who cares about workers would take the time to find out. But unfortunately they don’t.


And are they good jobs or bad jobs? And if they’re not good jobs, how are they bad? And if you look around the country, around this company, and all of the information that's available about them, what you see is hundreds of thousands of really bad jobs with a hundred percent turnover rates and injury rates that are off the charts. 


So it's not just a question of saying, ‘well, we want jobs.’ You’re allowed to say, ‘we want jobs.’ If you're a good mayor, you do that. But if you don't ask the question, ‘what kind of jobs?’, then what you're doing is saying, ‘we don't care what kind of job you bring in, just do what you're going to do.' And the workers be damned and the families be damned.


EC: So what can we do? So you say that there's these laws in place, or there's a system in place that doesn't allow workers to speak out. What is the remedy? 


EF: Well, there are multiple things that need to change, but things don't change on their own. The first thing that has to change is Amazon itself. Putting aside mayors and governors and senators, Amazon itself has to change. Excuse me, Amazon leadership has to change. Amazon controls this company, not the mayor, not the governor, not Congress. Workers and public officials throughout the country need to join together and demand that change. Amazon's not going to change on its own. 


And I encourage workers in Tulsa and other places who are sick of these terrible conditions, and their families, and their communities, and the leaders in communities, to realize this company can change because there are other companies who never created this mess in the first place. 


EC: Yeah. So just a couple of more questions. So Eric, what would you say? They failed to unionize in Bessemer. Amazon’s responses is that people don't want the union. So how do you respond to that? 


EF: Yeah, Amazon legally suppressed a union in Alabama, and we've had laws and systems in place for decades and decades to make it extremely difficult for workers to organize a union. And it would help if that law would change, but Amazon could change its working conditions tomorrow because it knows how dangerous these conditions are. 


It knows that it's disciplining workers with this silent whip that keeps them working beyond their bodies. Amazon knows that it's assigning workers to pick up heavy packages, 15 times a minute or whatever the ridiculous number is. This is not rocket science. It's not a big secret, and could change tomorrow. And that has to happen. And whether these workers have a union or not tomorrow that change has to happen.