Essential Workers Unite for a May Day Strike. Is It Enough?

Workers from Amazon, Instacart, Shipt, Target, and Whole Foods are protesting company responses to Covid-19. But as one organizer says, they’re fighting against giants.
Friday’s strike follows individual walk-outs at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores, as well as protests from delivery workers at Instacart and Shipt.Photograph: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

On Friday, front-line workers from Amazon, Instacart, Shipt, Target, and Whole Foods have organized to walk out of their jobs together over demands that their companies provide better pay, benefits, and protections. Some of these workers deliver packages; others deliver groceries. Some stock shelves in warehouses, and others ring up customers in stores. Some of them are classified as independent contractors and others as employees. But all of them claim that the companies they work for have denied them basic protections on the job, even as the pandemic poses greater risks to their health and safety. Despite being classified as essential workers in a crisis, they say, their companies treat them as disposable.

Worker dissatisfaction at these companies has been simmering for years. But the pandemic, which has placed these workers under a spotlight, has raised the temperature significantly. Friday’s strike follows individual walk-outs at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores, as well as protests from delivery workers at Instacart and Shipt. It marks the first time workers from all those companies will strike together as one united force with similar demands.

“An Amazon warehouse worker has different rights and protections than an Instacart shopper,” says Vanessa Bain, an Instacart worker who helped plan Friday’s strike. “But at the end of the day, our organizing should be interconnected. We're all in this struggle as workers who are deemed essential, on the front lines, and we’re struggling against giants.”

Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, and Target, which owns Shipt, are among the nation’s largest retailers. Instacart, too, is valued at billions of dollars. Each company has hundreds of thousands of workers across the country; Amazon and Instacart are hiring thousands more, as shutdowns dramatically increased demand. In press releases and statements, all three companies say they take workers’ safety seriously and have spent millions of dollars to support their workforces during the pandemic.

The protesters share many of the same demands, including increased hazard pay, expanded sick-leave policies, and stricter cleaning and social distancing measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus in facilities. Companies announced new measures as the number of Covid-19 cases in the US grew, and with it safety concerns. Amazon and Target both raised wages by $2 an hour, expanded sick leave, and increased cleaning at facilities. But some of the policies have been temporary: Amazon, for example, provided unlimited unpaid leave for workers but only until the end of April. And the workers who have spoken out—along with groups with names like Target Workers Unite, Amazonians United, Whole Worker, and Gig Workers Collective—say their companies should do more.

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That workers are now looking outside their own company isn’t surprising, some experts say. “The problem isn’t unique to Instacart, or Target, or Whole Foods. The problem is across essential work,” says Benjamin Sachs, a labor law expert at Harvard Law School.

Even several groups of workers banding together may not be able to effectively withhold labor enough to force companies to meet their demands. Organizers say their bases number in the tens of thousands, but that represents a minuscule part of the overall workforce of these companies. And even reaching that level of participation may be difficult. One Instacart worker, who was asked by WIRED about Friday’s strike, said she’d never heard it was happening; another said she had seen shoppers talking about it on Reddit but had no intention of participating, “because Instacart won’t even blink.”

Instacart workers already staged one nationwide strike on March 30, which Bain says had thousands of participants. Instacart says that had “absolutely no impact” on its operations; in fact, it reported 40 percent more workers picking up groceries that day than one week before. The company did announce it would supply its shoppers with safety gear, but dozens of workers have since complained about the availability and quality of those products. Organizers say their other demands, like hazard pay and extended sick leave, have gone unmet.


Shoppers for Shipt made similar demands and say they got similar results. Willy Solis, an organizer of that strike, says the company publicly acquiesced to workers’ demands for hazard pay and protective gear, but “the reality on the ground has been much different.” He says he hasn’t received a mask from the company and that the company’s claims that Shipt workers received a pay increase of 30 percent refers to the order volume, not the base pay per order. “We’re working more than ever,” he says. “That’s not a pay increase.”

Target, in a statement emailed to WIRED, said that the concerns raised in the strikes came from “a very small minority. The vast majority of our more than 340,000 front-line team members have expressed pride in the role they are playing in helping provide for families across the country during this time of need.” Kristen Kish, a spokesperson for Amazon, condemned the “irresponsible actions of labor groups in spreading misinformation and making false claims about Amazon during this unprecedented health and economic crisis. The statements made are not supported by facts or representative of the majority of the 500,000 Amazon operations employees in the US who are showing up to work to support their communities.” A spokesperson for Instacart pointed to the company’s new safety supply kits, shopper bonuses, and sick-leave policies and said that “Instacart has invested nearly $20 million in the last few weeks to support the health and safety of shoppers.”

As tensions between these companies and some of their workers intensify, organizers like Bain hope that they can find more success by working in solidarity. After the wave of protests a month ago, Bain reached out to organizers from Amazon and Target through Twitter DMs—a “huge organizing tool,” she says—and began to draft plans for the May 1 strike. The demands go further than pandemic protections. The workers say they are rallying for a voice in determining the conditions of their jobs, both at the companies they work for and more generally across the sector.

In other countries, there’s ample precedent for industrywide organizing among workers with similar jobs, like a delivery workers union, but not in the United States. “In fact, under existing law, it’s almost impossible to form unions and bargain at the level of the sector,” says Sachs. As a leader on Clean Slate for Worker Power, a project at Harvard Law School, he recently called for a change in labor law that would allow people who do similar types of work to band together and demand industrywide changes, either as a union or an official collective of workers. “You don’t fix cross-sectoral health and safety problems with just a group of workers at Whole Foods,” he says. Friday’s strike, Sachs says, highlights the pressing need for that kind of change. So far, companies like Amazon have successfully fought off efforts to form unions within their workforce.

Withholding labor is only one part of a strike’s goals. The other part is rallying consumer action. “Even a small strike with a lot of attention can hugely influence consumers—and these are all entirely consumer-dependent companies,” says Sachs. Denting consumer demand is no easy task, especially as these companies report higher-than-usual sales. Amazon’s sales were up 25 percent in Q1, compared with 12 percent last year; Instacart has said that it sold $700 million in groceries each week for the first two weeks of April—a 450 percent increase from December. Organizers are hoping that shoppers will join them and boycott the companies Friday.

Simply getting the public’s attention has helped labor movements in the past. In the 1990s, Justice for Janitors, which focused on the rights of janitorial workers, engaged in a series of strikes in the 1990s not primarily to withhold labor but to bring attention to a workforce that was otherwise invisible. “There’s a long history of these strikes being very effective,” says Anastasia Christman, the director of the Worker Power Program at the National Employment Law Project. In the 1960s, farmworkers struggled to change their working conditions—including long hours with a lack of shade and adequate water—until they tried a public education campaign. “As long as there was this wall between the end consumer and the people who were producing it, it became impossible to get the farm employers to do anything to change the conditions,” says Christman. After a combination of worker strikes and consumer education—“standing in front of a grocery store, sharing leaflets about working conditions, and urging people to consider that as they shopped for produce”—a collective of farmworkers managed to gain a combination of improvements, from mandatory breaks to paid overtime, both on individual farms and through regulatory standards.


Since the 19th century, Christman says, strikes have been effective ways to raise awareness—and they work best when workers can come together to highlight systemic problems. On May 1, 1886, various trade unions gathered in Chicago to rally behind one such cause: the need for an eight-hour workday. Workers from many industries felt overworked, underpaid, and exhausted by their labor. What began as a peaceful protest turned into a violent affair, intensifying tensions between workers and their employers. Later, when the eight-hour workday became standard, May 1 became memorialized as International Workers Day (although it’s not a national holiday in the US).

It’s not a coincidence that the workers from Amazon, Instacart, Shipt, Target, and Whole Foods chose the day for their strike. Essential workers at other companies have reportedly planned actions for May 1, too. The spotlight may be trained on them for now, but Bain says the organizing efforts won’t stop when the pandemic ends. “We crafted our original demands to be very focused—what’s necessary in an urgent capacity,” she says. “But the power that we’re aiming to build goes far beyond just that, and more than just saying, ‘In an emergency we need PPE.’ It’s the power that’s required to not have to beg at the feet of millionaires and billionaires. That’s the power that workers need.”

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