On May 1, employees at some of the country’s largest companies will be staging a strike to protest the lack of protections and benefits frontline workers have been provided in the face of a pandemic. The Intercept reports that Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Shipt and Target employees will be walking off the job or staging “sick outs” on Friday, and are encouraging customers to boycott those businesses.
Whole Foods, Amazon, Target, and Instacart workers are striking on May 1st pic.twitter.com/nwnMhxxffy— Michael Sainato (@msainat1) April 22, 2020
In a pledge for workers to walk out, Whole Worker — the grass roots collective of Whole Food workers seeking to organize — wrote, “It is impossible to properly follow social distancing guidelines in stores when interacting with customers, Amazon Prime shoppers, and other employees both on the floor and in the back of the house. As a result, Whole Foods team members are putting their lives at risk by coming to work. At least two Whole Foods team members have already died from coronavirus.” In another announcement, they write they are striking for the same protections they demanded on their “sick out” on March 31, including guaranteed paid leave, health care for part-time and seasonal workers, and adequate sanitization equipment. Instacart workers also already went on strike on March 30 to demand things like safety gear and hazard pay.
Grocery and delivery work remains dangerous, and many employees find it difficult to adhere to guidelines about social distancing and sanitation while also serving customers and stocking shelves. Target workers say that rather than coming in for essential shopping, customers are “occupying our stores out of boredom and for fun,” increasing chances of contact and transmission. And while many grocery, delivery, and retailers have changed their benefits and pay, it’s often not enough. For instance, many companies only allow for paid leave if an employee has tested positive for the disease, even though tests are notoriously hard to come by.
What’s more, employers have actively fought against workers’ attempts to keep themselves safe. Managers at several Trader Joe’s reportedly asked employees not to wear masks and gloves, as it might make customers feel uncomfortable. Amazon recently fired warehouse worker Christian Smalls after he organized a protest demanding that the company sanitize the facility after several workers became sick. In a statement, Amazon counters that Smalls was fired for “violating social distancing guidelines” after having “contact with a diagnosed associate,” his coworker at the warehouse. (In leaked notes from a meeting obtained by Vice, Amazon executives discussed a similar PR strategy, “strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety.”) Smalls is now one of the lead organizers of the May 1 strike, and tells Vice, “We formed an alliance between a bunch of different companies because we all have one common goal which is to save the lives of workers and communities. Right now isn’t the time to open up the economy.”
Because Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Amazon have also firmly resisted attempts by their workers to unionize, planning collective actions like strikes are more difficult. When Whole Workers walked out on March 31, many customers reported things were business as usual at their nearby locations. But a month makes a big difference. Grocery workers have already died of COVID-19. Whole Worker calculates 254 Whole Foods employees have contracted the new coronavirus, resulting in two deaths. And the lack of protections and benefits look even worse compared with corporate profits. Instacart reportedly made $10M in net profit in April, its first profit ever, because of the increased reliance on delivery services.
While the U.S. celebrates Labor Day in September, in many other countries and among labor activists, May 1, known as May Day or International Workers’ Day, is the real day to honor laborers. Started to commemorate the Haymarket affair, the Chicago strike for the eight-hour workday. It’s a fitting day for a cross-company strike. “Our companies have failed us in these unprecedented times,” the groups write in a statement. “This is a matter of life or death.”
Update: April 30, 9:45 a.m. This article was updated to include perspective from Amazon on Small’s termination.