The death of Amazon workers in tornadoes underlines the need for workers to organise and confront the bosses’ disregard for human life, argues Shabbir Lakha
At least six Amazon workers have been killed after the warehouse they were working in was hit by tornadoes in Edwardsville, Illinois on Saturday. The authorities have said the recovery operation is still underway but they have given up hope of finding any more survivors.
At least 18 tornadoes ripped through the South and Midwest of the US, in one of the largest tornado outbreaks in US history that has killed at least 80 people. The largest death tolls came from factories, such as the candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, which had 110 people working at the time the tornado hit (around midnight). Only 40 of have been rescued so far.
Despite the advance tornado warnings, workers in the Mayfield candle factory and the Edwardsville Amazon factory were made to come in to work.
Amazon, owned by the second richest man on the planet, has spent millions on anti-union campaigns and union-busting tactics precisely to stop workers organising over health and safety concerns that could have prevented this completely avoidable loss of life.
In Bessemer, Alabama earlier this year, when workers tried to unionise, Amazon unleashed an aggressive anti-union campaign which was ultimately successful. The company sent letters, posters and videos to employees with misinformation about the union, held anti-union meetings at work which employees had to attend, changed the remit of how many votes were needed to win, and even got the county to change the traffic light timings outside the factory to stop union organisers being able to speak to employees.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker in New Jersey, was fired for leading a walk-out in protest over the inadequate health provisions and sick pay which had led to himself and a number of employees at the warehouse catching Covid.
As we can see with the disaster in Edwardsville and a litany of unsafe practices that have cost lives and caused injury, Amazon does not care about the lives of its employees. For Jeff Bezos, whose wealth increases by an average of $300 million per day, profit is the only thing that matters, no matter the cost to the workers.
This tragedy reminds me of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911, where 146 workers were killed. Sylvia Pankhurst described the fire as “fatal because ordinary means of exit were inadequate, fire escapes were too short to reach the factory’s monstrous height”. The only exit the workers on the 9th floor of the building could have taken was locked by the bosses to prevent theft and to keep union organisers out.
After the fire, union organiser and garment worker Rose Schneiderman said: "Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience that it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working class movement."
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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