The warehouse, while outfitted with the newest worker-surveillance technology, had no form of emergency shelter. “My daughter was not expendable,” said Etheria’s father, Jeffrey Hebb, at a January 27 rally in front of the Edwardsville facility. “Amazon was supposed to keep them safe,” Hebb said. “They didn’t do that. How does a company worth over $1 trillion let this happen?”
At the rally, about 100 labor activists from across Missouri and Illinois huddled to keep warm while Amazon employees monitored the protest from the sidelines. The debris was mostly cleared, a month after the collapse, and the remaining Amazon buildings surrounding demonstrators bustled with activity. Arnetra Rhodes made the commute from St. Louis to Edwardsville to speak on behalf of her cousin and stand up to her employer.
One week after the tornado, Rhodes began working at one of the several other Amazon warehouses in the area despite her cousin’s recent death. Her previous job was at a McDonalds, where in mid-December a coworker was killed in a dispute over some fries. Amazon, she said, was “supposed to be different”—it was supposed to be safer and more stable. But, she told me, she’s scared to work at the facility.
On the evening of the tornado, local media broadcast tornado warnings and sirens wailed while the storm made its way toward Edwardsville. Yet Amazon workers were told to remain at the warehouse, where they were working overtime hours in the pre-Christmas rush. Instead, Hebb and at least two other workers were directed to shelter near the restrooms, as worker Jaiera Hargrove told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Larry Virden, one of the workers who died in the collapse, sent a text message minutes before the tornado reached him: “Amazon won’t let us leave.”
At the rally outside the destroyed Edwardsville warehouse, Rhodes found herself a part of a regionwide coalition demanding change from her new employer. The rally was organized by the Missouri Workers’ Center and the Athena Coalition, a group of progressive organizations standing against Amazon’s increasing cultural and economic ubiquity. Members of an array of workers’ unions—Teamsters, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists representatives, sheet metal workers, fast food workers, machinists—gathered in the gray cold. So did activists with Stand Up Kansas City and SEIU Local 1, fast-food workers’ organizing groups from opposite sides of Missouri. At the rally, the demands were clear: better safety protections for Amazon workers, full compliance with the OSHA investigation, explicit permissions for workers to carry their cell phones in the warehouses at all times, and better support for the families of the six dead workers.
Throughout the St. Louis area, advertisements for Amazon warehouse jobs are ubiquitous, particularly in Blacker and poorer parts of the city. These jobs, the advertisements assert, are gateways out of poverty and into a better life. Postings for local Amazon warehouse associate positions say that the jobs come with “great benefits,” including “ways to save for the future, and opportunities for career advancement—all in a safe and inclusive environment that’s been ranked among the best workplaces in the world.” For Rhodes, though, the job hasn’t even allowed her to save up enough money to stop living with her mother.
“Me and my boyfriend…got this job at Amazon, because we always thought it would be good,” she said. “I thought we was going to have an apartment, pay bills, get the food that we need.… I thought it was totally going to be different from what it is now.”
Instead, the job feels unsafe—like Amazon doesn’t want to provide the supportive and inclusive working environment that it promises.
The company has been making some efforts to appease the Edwardsville community by donating $1 million to relief efforts. But warehouse workers say there are no new safety protocols to ensure that this tragedy doesn’t happen again. The family of one man who was killed in the disaster is suing Amazon, and others are joining with local activists to air their grief.
Darryl Gray, a local civil rights activist and pastor, highlighted the fact that it is mostly people like Etheria and Arnetra—young Black and brown workers—whom Amazon is putting at risk in these warehouses. In 2020, when Amazon went on a recruiting spree and hired more than 300,000 new workers, 60 percent of those people were people of color hired for warehouse roles, according to data provided to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
About 19 percent of Amazon employees at the executive level in 2020 were people of color, compared with around 73 percent in warehouse and fulfillment center roles. Those workers in the warehouses are the ones who are at higher risk of injury as climate change increases the likelihood of severe weather events, and they are the ones whose communication is restricted and who don’t get to work remotely or take off time when a disaster is coming.
According to a statement released by Amazon, workers do have the right to carry their phones in warehouses, and the company said that on the day of the tornado, it was only taking the same level of precautions other local businesses did—which is to say, nearly none at all. “This was a new building less than four years old, built in compliance with all applicable building codes, and the local teams were following the weather conditions closely,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel in a written statement. “Severe weather watches are common in this part of the country and, while precautions are taken, are not cause for most businesses to close down. We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued.”
That’s not what Amazon workers themselves said. At least one delivery driver was told by her dispatcher to keep delivering through the tornado or risk losing her job.
Workers who attended the rally connected the conditions at Amazon’s warehouses to their own workplaces. Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker who traveled several hours from Kansas City to stand in solidarity with the Amazon workers, said that fast-food workers experience the same over-surveillance and lack of safety as warehouse workers. “My alarm goes off at 3 am. I have to be at work by 4 am. I race in…and as soon as I clock in, I’m supposed to take my cell phone and place it in a plastic box. Management has stressed we cannot have our phones on the floor. They tell us to stay in position, even if it’s an emergency.… we’re only allowed to use the bathroom before we clock in, on break, or when we clock out. You know to stay in your station, stay controlled.”
At his job, he was told that, even in snowstorms or other dangerous conditions, “if you don’t show up, you can be written up, terminated, or fired”—just like the Amazon drivers.
Both Amazon and McDonalds are among the top 10 largest private employers in the United States, with over a million employees each. “These companies have the most workers…so what happens to us is going to set the standard for what happens to workers throughout the whole economy.”
The fight for Edwardsville Amazon workers is happening at a time of increased organizing activity at the retailer’s operations nationwide—despite Amazon’s union-busting attempts. In Edwardsville, for example, one organizer told me that they have been asked to leave Amazon premises and that they suspect workers have been told not to talk to them.
On the other side of the country, a new labor group, Amazon Labor Union, is attempting to organize workers in warehouses on New York’s Staten Island. Amazon warehsouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., will get their second chance to vote on unionization after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company had interfered with the election process last year. Ballots are already being mailed out, and results of the revote are expected by March 28.
After the protest in Edwardsville, Rhodes went directly to work at an Amazon warehouse. With the limited number of hours she’s assigned and the low pay, she can’t afford to miss a single shift.
“I’ll do that shift, and make me some money,” she said. But Amazon knows “that they could do better. They know that we shouldn’t have to stand out here in this cold to make them do better. And no 18-year-old should have to tell you that.”