Updated at 10:17 a.m Wednesday.
Inside the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Shakopee Monday, hundreds of workers pack, package and organize. Robotic machines buzz, boxes echo as they hit the shelves, and one woman lies down a prayer mat at her work station.
Inside the facility, you’d never guess it was one of Amazon’s busiest days of the year. You’d also never guess hundreds of protesters were preparing to march outside the facility, chanting, sweating and collectively chugging hundreds of plastic water bottles to combat the 90-degree heat.
For the second time in seven months, workers at the massive fulfillment center in Shakopee planned to walk off the job — this time on Prime Day, a two-day event in which customers flock to the retail giant for big savings.
The workers' demands? Safe and reliable jobs, respect for workers and their right to organize for better working conditions, opportunities for advancement for the predominantly East African workforce and concrete action to address issues like climate change, according to The Awood Center, a nonprofit founded last year to advocate for East African workers in Minnesota. An Amazon spokeswoman said last week those allegations are "baseless."
The Awood Center created an event page on Facebook for the strike. An estimated 300 people could attend the strike, full-time Amazon employee and leader of Monday's Amazon protest Mohamed Hassan told the Shakopee Valley News. In the days leading up to it, the strike has drawn media attention from local, major and niche media outlets from across the country, putting Shakopee on the map — again. It's at least the second time in seven months workers have protested working conditions at the local Amazon warehouse and the second time eyes from across the country have focused on the southwest corner of the Twin Cities.
Amazon spokeswoman Donna Beadle said "roughly 15 associates" took part in the demonstrations Monday, although many more participated.
"Roughly 15 associates participated in the event outside of the Shakopee fulfillment center," Beadle said. "It was obvious to the 1500-full-time workforce that an outside organization used Prime Day to raise its own visibility, conjured misinformation and a few associate voices to work in their favor, and relied on political rhetoric to fuel media attention. The fact is that Amazon provides a safe, quality work environment in which associates are the heart and soul of the customer experience, and today’s event shows that our associates know that to be true. We encourage anyone to come take a tour anytime."
Monday turned out to be a scorcher in Shakopee with afternoon temperatures hovering in the low 90s and a heat index hitting 105 degrees. Despite the sluggish weather, the protest was scheduled to last more than six hours, from 2-8:30 p.m. at the fulfillment center on Fourth Avenue, but the crowd dispersed around 6 p.m. with the onset of rain.
Workers and supporters shouted things like, “The people, united, will never be defeated!”
“I know it’s hot, people, we got this!” One protester yelled. “Come on, louder!”
“We work! We sweat! Amazon workers need our rest!”
‘I’ll be here every day until Amazon changes’
Faizal Dualeh is a former Amazon employee who says he was fired Feb. 8 for joining 20 fellow employees in a strike in the middle of the night. He said he was always unhappy with how Amazon treated its employees — particularly its high packaging expectations.
“I’ll be the last one here. Maybe I’ll be here every day until Amazon changes,” Dualeh said, laughing.
Mohamed Hassan, the leader of the protest and a full-time Amazon employee, said employees are expected to “do the job too fast,” adding they’re supposed to package 84 boxes per hour, and their 30-minute break counts as part of that hour.
“There’s no respect,” Hassan said. “Whether you’re working 10 years or a temporary, it’s the same.”
“That’s the main reason we’re here,” Dualeh said. “Amazon’s expectations are too high.”
Hassan, who supports his wife and eight children, said nothing has changed within the company since the last strike in December 2018 and he's looking for other jobs.
Another Amazon employee, Muhamed Hassan said he has worked at Amazon almost three years and has been injured multiple times on the job, with no paid time off. When he went to the health center, he claims he was told to "put ice on the injury" and keep working.
Supporters traveled to the now infamous Shakopee fulfillment center from as far away as Seattle, where Amazon is headquartered.
Amazon software engineers Rajit Iffikhar, Kaylan Lee and Weston Fribley flew in from Seattle Sunday night to participate in the strike. Sweating and caked with SPF 50, they said back home in Seattle, it never gets this hot.
They participate in a movement for Amazon to pay more attention to climate justice, but on Monday, they said they were mainly protesting in solidarity with Minnesota East African workers. An Amazon spokesperson told the Shakopee Valley News approximately 30 percent of the workforce at the Shakopee fulfillment center is East African.
“We feel it’s very important to take responsibility for how Amazon treats its employees,” Fribley said.
Several speakers and Amazon employees presented at the protest, including Minnesota representatives Brad Tabke and Aisha Gomez, Executive Directive of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Minnesota Chapter Jaylani Hussein and Amazon Fulfillment Center employees Meg Bradley and Mohamed Hassan.
Hussein roused loud cheers from the crowd when he stepped onto the stage.
“It’s not uncommon that some of the most important resistances are happening right here in Minnesota,” Hussein said. “Change is going to start right here in Shakopee.”
“Yeah!” Protesters yelled, raising fists into the air.
Hussein said when he visited the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, the prayer rooms were designated to “literal doorways.”
“I have worked with companies in this state who have created more welcoming spaces for their employees who have less than 50 employees who are Muslim, because they value every single member of their team,” Hussein said.
A woman from the back of the crowd shouted sarcastically, “But where would they find the space?”
Hussein pointed to her and said, “Exactly. They got a lot of space in (the fulfillment center). They got too much space.”
The Shakopee Police Department posted to Twitter Monday that it's "aware of a planned protest today," adding it has "met with Amazon officials and protest organizers to ensure as orderly a demonstration environment as possible." The department encouraged residents to avoid the area of Fourth Avenue and Shenandoah Drive.
'I see nothing wrong here'
The demands among Amazon workers aren't universal among all workers.
Asli Mohamed, a full-time Amazon employee who stores and stocks product, did not participate in the strike. She said she has no problem with Amazon’s expectations on the job, adding that she’s allowed to pray and go to the bathroom whenever she needs.
“(Protesters) have their right, but I’ve never had an issue with anything. And all my friends… nobody has a problem,” Mohamed said.
Boxes full of prayer mats are designated in multiple locations on each floor. There are also rooms designated for prayers, if workers choose. Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty said workers can also lie down mats and pray at their stations.
Khasin Abdi, an Amazon floor manager, said he’s never had an issue with the facility either.
“The majority of people I manage have no problem here,” Abdi said. “We have long hours, but it’s fun.”
Mohamed has been at Amazon for three years, and Abdi has worked there for two-and-a-half.
“The majority of people (protesting) are outside groups who don’t understand what it’s like to work at Amazon,” Lighty said.
Amazon: Claims are ‘baseless’
Amazon spokeswoman Brenda Alfred previously said in a statement to the Valley News that the allegations made against the facility are “baseless” because most of the Amazon associates at the Shakopee fulfillment center are full-time employees, and productivity metrics have not changed since November.
“Our policy is that more than 75 percent of associates are already exceeding rate expectations before any changes are considered,” the statement said. “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”
Alfred also said the facility provides “great employment opportunities with excellent pay – ranging from $16.25 to $20.80 an hour, and comprehensive benefits including health care, up to 20 weeks parental leave, paid education, promotional opportunities, and more.”
More than 2,500 employees work in the Shakopee fulfillment center, many of them Somalis who are bused in from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which the locals call “Little Mogadishu” due to the prevalence of Somalis.
In November, Amazon made some concessions in response to the East African group’s concerns about productivity expectations. No unions represent Amazon workers in the U.S.
Alfred invited anyone interested in Amazon’s working conditions to “see for themselves by taking a tour.” Facility tours are available Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tours can be scheduled at amazon.com/fctours.
Alfred said the strike will not affect customer shipments, since “Amazon has a well-developed fulfillment network across the country.”
More voices opposing Amazon working conditions take flight
Warehouse employees aren’t the only Amazon workers seeking to break ground with the company. An Amazon pilot’s campaign, called Pilots Deserve Better, was launched July 9, to “improve working conditions as contract negotiations continue to stall,” according to a press release. The website will be a resource for current pilots, investors and prospective pilots looking for a career with contracted Amazon carriers.
Amazon pilots feel bogged down with an increasing number of orders, while the number of pilots at the contracted airlines are decreasing, according to another Pilots Deserve Better press release. A recent survey showed 91 percent of pilots at Amazon and DHL-contracted airlines strongly disagree that their pay and benefits meet the industry standards for their peers doing the same job, and more than 60 percent of pilots said they are seeking employment at competitors like UPS and FedEx. The release also says dozens of pilots who fly for Amazon Air at contracted carriers including Atlas Air, Southern Air and ABX Air, protested outside Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting May 22, holding picket signs and running a mobile billboard that declares “Amazon Air pushing pilots to limit risks safety daily.”
Michael Russo, a pilot with Atlas Air, was at the protest Monday to represent pilots and show solidarity with workers. “Pilots are just another line in the chain,” he said.
Even though Russo said while he is not directly employed by Amazon, he wishes Amazon did a better job at “using its influence towards Atlas Air,” noting his airline doesn’t offer the same compensation and benefits as other airlines.
“We’re languishing under a substandard contract,” he said. “And we’re losing a lot of pilots.”
“With an alarming number of pilots at these carriers unhappy about their working conditions, management, benefits and more, it’s no surprise that they’re leaving for better opportunities,” Robert Kirchner, a long-time Atlas pilot, said in a press release.
Second strike in 7 months
Monday's strike isn't the first time eyes across the country have focused on Shakopee.
Dozens of Amazon employees, union members and supporters protested at the local fulfillment center in mid-December 2018, prompting dozens of police officers and state troopers to converge on the protest when the group headed toward the doorstep of the massive warehouse. "We're humans, not robots!" was a line chanted by protesters.
The workers said Amazon has raised its production expectations to unrealistic levels and has harsh working conditions that cause injuries to employees, especially during the holiday rush. They also called for more promotions of East African workers and called on Amazon to stop selling products that promote hatred and bigotry.
They chanted, played drums, prayed, and got words of support from Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar.
At the time, Amazon spokeswoman Shevaun Brown said like most companies, Amazon has performance expectations and their performance is measured over a long period of time, since “we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour.”
Muslim employees are allowed to take prayer breaks but still must meet their goals. Brown said Amazon sets the goal so “it’s very achievable, even if an associate opts to take a prayer break.”
Workers also walked off the job for three hours in March to protest working conditions.
The Awood Center claimed a majority of employees working the night shift in the stow department (where items are placed into inventory) walked off the job. An Amazon spokeswoman, however, indicated it was fewer than 15 employees, less than half of the department's night shift staff that left.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Emma Harville, Deena Winter and Rachel Minske contributed to this report.