Essential workers across the U.S. went on strike today — here's why

At the end of May Day, workers around the United States report back on the coordinated strikes

Published May 1, 2020 11:02PM (EDT)

People protest working conditions outside of an Amazon warehouse fulfillment center on May 1, 2020 in the Staten Island borough of New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
People protest working conditions outside of an Amazon warehouse fulfillment center on May 1, 2020 in the Staten Island borough of New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Workers from Amazon, Instacart, Target, Shipt and Whole Foods launched a nationwide May Day strike Friday, protesting treatment and working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic essential workers were subjected to exposure in our workplaces due to the lack of PPE [personal protective equipment], flawed policies, and dense safety guidelines. Because of the failings of our employers, many of our fellow employees have contracted this deadly virus and some have died," the organizers said in a joint statement.

The workers, whose indispensability was thrown into sharp focus at the onset of the pandemic, are demanding more robust sick leave and hazard pay policies, in addition to personal protective gear and safer and more sanitary working conditions.

High-profile Democratic politicians supported the strikes, including Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)

"On this #MayDay2020, I stand with the workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart and Target who are on strike," posted Sanders, a longtime workers' rights advocate who suspended his presidential campaign earlier this month. "Essential workers are putting their lives on the line and deserve protection and hazard pay. The endless corporate greed has got to end!"

"Front line workers at large corporations like Amazon and Instacart deserve PPE," Harris tweeted."They deserve paid sick leave. They deserve a safe working environment. But many don't have these protections. I stand with those on strike today for safe working conditions."

The strike also comes amid a period of historic unemployment, which works against organizers.

Ally, who has delivered for Instacart for five years in Austin, Tx. and who spoke to Salon under the condition that we not print her surname for fear of employer retribution, told Salon that she was working on Friday, as were all of the co-workers she knew. Ally said that the Whole Foods flagship in the same city was alive with workers and shoppers through the afternoon. Whole Foods is a subsidiary of Amazon. 

A store manager told Salon that no employees had walked out, and all workers interviewed told Salon, through their surgical masks, that this was the first they'd heard of the protests.

One worker, passing another in the store, reminded him, "Don't forget — you can get a burger today."

The United Food and Commercial Workers International union says 72 of its members have died and more than 5,000 are not at work due to circumstances surrounding infections. (This week Amazon reported what was at least its second employee death.)

Though worker absentee numbers for the day weren't immediately available, the strike, billed as historic, doesn't seem to have met organizers' hopes.

The Washington Post reported that a group of protesters posed beside body bags outside New York governor Andrew Cuomo's office, chanting, "This is our future if you don't act." A handful of people showed up at a Bay Area Amazon warehouse. A car protest took place outside an Atlanta-area Target.

A slightly larger group gathered at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse, led by Chris Smalls, a worker who was fired after organizing a strike at the warehouse in March.

"This is a matter of life or death," said Smalls. "The virus is killing some of our employees."

Amazon maintains Smalls was fired for violating safety policies, not in retaliation.

Earlier this week Salon confirmed that the New York Attorney General's (NYAG) office notified Amazon that it is probing the firing. The NYAG asked the company to temporarily shutter warehouses in the state until it addresses "inadequate" worker protections, citing multiple alleged violations of federal safety standards.

This week Amazon reported another employee death.

The aforementioned companies are pulling in massive profits as entire industries collapse. National unemployment claims topped 30 million for the first time Thursday, but Instacart is hiring thousands. Amazon reported first quarter revenue jumped 26 percent that same day.

Amazon also expects to spend more than $800 million in the first six months of 2020 on pandemic-related expenses. This includes expanding sick leave and extending until May 16 a $2 an hour pay raise set to expire April 30. Target has taken the same steps.

Instacart has said it would give workers health and safety kits, but some workers say they haven't seen anything.

"Instacart hasn't done enough to protect any shoppers, in my opinion," said Ally, the Instacart driver in Austin, who says she has been through several protests against the company. "They sent out a notice saying they would provide us with masks and sanitizer but I haven't received anything from them yet."

"I have been doing [driver delivery gig service] Amazon Flex almost every day since this whole mess started and I feel safe with them," she said.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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