Amazon has plans to get bigger in Greater Boston. A lot bigger. That has local labor groups pushing the e-commerce giant to do better by its workers.
A coalition of Massachusetts labor groups — led by construction unions in the Merrimack Valley — is launching a campaign to urge Amazon to use local and union labor to build a wave of warehouses it is planning in the region. And then, crucially, it wants the company to improve safety and working conditions for the thousands of people who will eventually staff and deliver packages from those facilities.
The campaign is centered on an enormous fulfillment center — 3.8 million square feet, more than twice the size of Amazon’s already-huge facility in Fall River — that the company is planning in North Andover. It comes as Amazon faces growing demand for its swift delivery of nearly anything, as well as growing scrutiny of the human costs — in worker safety, wages, traffic, and even environmental pollution — of that convenience.
It’s the brainchild of the Merrimack Valley Building Trades, an umbrella group of construction unions in the northern part of the state. President Chris Brennan acknowledges he’d like his members to work on building the $400 million distribution facility, but he also sees a chance to spark a broader effort to make Amazon a better corporate citizen, long after the building is complete.
"We’re trying to draw a line in the sand. Someone’s got to stand up to Amazon,” Brennan said. “They come in and do what they want, when they want, and pay very little attention to the little guy. We’re up to the task.”
So with the help of other statewide unions, they’re launching a website, gathering letters from supportive lawmakers, and even buying TV ads to run on ESPN, CNN, and other major TV stations later this fall. The blitz will highlight concerns about Amazon’s record on environmental, labor, and community issues. They also want to tap into broader worries about the ever-larger company’s impact on the US economy, pointing to how Amazon’s pandemic-driven sales have surged while many small business owners struggle to stay afloat.
In a statement, Amazon said no decisions have been made on who would build the North Andover facility, and the bidding process — open to union and non-union contractors, local or national — was still underway.
“Amazon is proud to support the creation of job opportunities for area residents even prior to the launch of our new fulfillment center,” said spokeswoman Rachael Lighty. “We are following all local and state labor policies.”
The company has so far thwarted efforts to unionize its warehouse workers, but labor advocates say the winds may be changing.
Amazon caught heat and negative headlines as COVID-19 outbreaks broke out at its facilities at a time when online orders were surging. Striking warehouse workers in some parts of the country have found support from the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, the Teamsters, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a group which has been actively campaigning to organize Whole Foods and distribution center employees. (Amazon is the parent company of Whole Foods Market.) These actions are also increasingly gaining support from within the ranks of the company’s white collar workers, who have recently taken steps to hold the retailer accountable for its business practices, push for environmental justice, and align themselves with workers' rights.
At the same time, Amazon is adding warehouses in Massachusetts at an astounding pace.
Beyond North Andover — which would serve as a regional sorting center — the company has recently opened, is building, or is planning at least 10 smaller distribution centers across Greater Boston, places from which drivers pick up packages for delivery to doorsteps. Just in the last three months, Amazon has signed lease deals for four such centers ― in Norwood and Salem, Milford and Hingham — according to real estate firm Hunneman. More are in the works.
Labor groups hope this is an opportune moment ― with Amazon growing fast and scrutiny of its labor practices amplified ― to exert influence that might lead to improvements in worker safety, wages, and other areas of concern.
“We’re going to make this a statewide, Massachusetts campaign, and we hope to involve all of these workers,” said Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “With COVID, people are suffering and unemployed. We want good jobs.”
This kind of broad campaign by labor groups is becoming more common, said Tom Juravich, a professor of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Historically, construction unions have negotiated simply to get members hired to a building, with less concern for what happens once construction is completed. By allying with other unions that want to boost wages for ― and potentially organize ― warehouse workers, truck drivers, and others, they can have a greater impact over a longer period of time.
“The building trades could set some basic standards and Amazon could agree and everyone could win,” Juravich said. “It’s a real possibility here."