Video produced and edited by Jordan Zakarin, Paula Pecorella, and Josh Hershfeld-Kroen
Amazon has been hijacking working class communities across the country to build massive warehouses. Now, working people are fighting back — and winning. Here’s how three cities stopped Amazon from poisoning their kids, abusing their workers, and ruining their communities. Below is a full transcript of the video.
[Narrator]: What does it take to get an Amazon package to your front door? Well, a lot. But before any of that can happen, Amazon needs a warehouse. And for that, they need a host.
During the pandemic, an explosion in online shopping meant that Amazon had to build a lot of warehouses, fast. They went from averaging 75 new facilities each year to building almost 300 in 2020. Dozens of neighborhoods across the country have since become ground zero for a struggle with Amazon, over everything from low-wage jobs to pollution to traffic.
So, what does it look like when Amazon tries to plant roots in your backyard, and what can you possibly do about it? To investigate, we talked to three groups across the country who’ve been learning, firsthand, what it takes to stop Amazon from taking over your town.
Kate Carrigan Hill: I think it’s a fair statement that most of the residents in Churchill didn’t have any idea what was being planned for the site.
Elizabeth Casman: They approached the Churchill council to change the zoning code. for several months, they wouldn’t say who the client was.
[Narrator]: The residents of Churchill describe a pretty common experience. Community members are often the last to find out before a new facility goes up. Non-disclosure agreements allow developers to hide the name of the company until the last minute, and local lawmakers can even use code names to refer to plans – like “Project Granite” in Washington, and “Project Bluejay” in Iowa.
But with warehouses this big, it’s hard to keep the plans secret forever.
Sandy Fox: A 2.9 million square foot warehouse operating 24/7, 365 days a year with hundreds of diesel semi-tractor trailer trucks coming in and out of the facility.
[Narrator]: That was the blueprint for Churchill’s facility. The plan was to put it right here.
Anthony Wilson: The proposed route from the facility to travel west on 376 is this. This is the route that my sons take to walk to the school. Six or so trucks per minute that will be traveling on that route.
Sandy Fox: I have asthma and my husband has heart disease. We’re at high risk for premature death as a result of exposure to fine particulates, which are a by-product of diesel emissions.
Anthony Wilson: For the city council, the developers, I’d like for them to be in my shoes. And if the tables were turned, what would they do? How would they feel? Do they want these trucks driving in front of their home? Would they want their children to be encountering these trucks as they walk to school?
[Narrator]: That takes us to the first, and most obvious, thing you can do if Amazon starts coming into your neighborhood. Step 1: Uncover Amazon’s plan
Talk to your neighbors. Find out what an Amazon facility would actually mean for your community.
That’s been Shamann Walton’s approach. He’s the President of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, which recently voted unanimously to impose an 18-month ban on new facilities, allowing for an extended period of research and community evaluation before plans can go forward.
Shamann Walton: Our interim controls legislation on last mile distribution centers is put in place to make sure that businesses of that size and magnitude, when they come into our neighborhoods, into our communities, that there is a discussion with the community and that they’re going to benefit the community. You can’t just come into a neighborhood and change the entire fabric of that neighborhood.
[Narrator]: Without protections like this, Amazon can run roughshod over the needs of communities, building facilities when they want, how they want, and wherever they want. And the where…probably won’t surprise you.
A recent study found that Amazon’s warehouses are most likely to be built near low-income communities of color. Not only are those communities already exposed to pollution at higher rates; younger generations are viewed as a ready-made labor pool for the company.
Sandy Fox: Churchill used to be a predominantly white community, but that has changed over the last couple of decades and the school right across the street, Woodland Hills, is predominantly African-American. The state Senator Jay Costa came out on a talk radio show, talking about how this is a wonderful opportunity for the students from Woodland Hills.
[Radio show footage]: The relationship that they intend to build with Woodland Hill School district as a feeder system, so to speak, for young kids coming out of high school.
Anthony Wilson: It would be nice to ask me, rather than assuming that there gonna take our children from high school and turn them into warehouse workers.
[Narrator]: It wouldn’t be the first time Amazon tried to groom young people to work in its warehouses. In 2019, Vice reported that Amazon paid a high school in San Bernardino $50,000 to start offering a course titled “Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathway”. Amazon even had the room painted with its leadership principles printed on the walls.
Sandy Fox: This would not happen in a wealthy, affluent, predominantly white school district. There has been enough investigative journalism for us to know how harmful these warehouses are to people, with the 150% turnover rate; more than double the accident rate. Not only the physical damage, but the psychological damage to employees in these warehouses are horrible.
[Narrator]: And that brings us to another way you can hold Amazon accountable. Step 2: Force Amazon’s Hand
Terry Lawson: We don’t want sweatshops here in San Diego county. It’s not a job we want if it’s not a good enough job to put food on the table and pay the rent.
[Narrator]: This is Terry Lawson-Remer, the county supervisor in San Diego. She brought forward an ordinance that would require Amazon to pay its workers the prevailing wage and offer stronger protections, like paid sick leave.
Terry Lawson: This ordinance makes it very clear to companies that want to do business in San Diego county, that they’re going to have to play by the rules and they’re going to have to treat workers fairly. And that means that workers get paid time off to spend time with loved ones. They get paid time off for sick leave. It means that they know what their rights are.
[Narrator]: That all sounds pretty great. But, it didn’t sit right with Amazon.
Terry Lawson: When the contractor found out that the proposed Amazon facility would have to actually treat their workers fairly and provide those kinds of worker rights and worker protections, they decided that that was too much for Amazon. And they canceled it out and left town.
[Narrator]: Not all of us have representatives, like Terry Lawson, who are willing to stand up to a company like Amazon. But there is one solution that works for pretty much everyone. Step 3: Get Organized
In Churchill, the city council voted to move the project forward. So residents took it into their own hands – filing court challenges full of scientific evidence and legal objections. Eventually, Amazon decided to skip town.
Sandy Fox: It was remarkable how quickly the opposition of residents galvanized.
[Narrator]: Across California, coalitions of environmentalists, labor unions, and community groups have been organizing to stop Amazon’s destructive business practices.
Jacob Klein: You have a big green, like Sierra club, environmental justice organizations, and labor unions. specifically, we’ve been working a lot with the Teamsters. that’s really exciting to have that broad coalition coming together and figuring out how to respond to these issues and how to collaborate.
[Narrator]: The Teamsters were a major force behind the Working Families Ordinance in San Diego, and the moratorium in San Francisco.
Shamann Walton: This legislation was a direct result of labor coming together with community and saying that we’re not going to settle for less. When labor and community are on the same page, we can beat anybody.
Sany Fox: This is beyond Churchill. This issue is not just national, too. It’s global.
Shamann Walton: Ultimately if we have cities that come together and say, we’re not going to allow a company that doesn’t pay livable wages. We’re not gonna allow a company that doesn’t take care of the surrounding environment, to come into our community. Then they will have nowhere to go and they’ll have to be a responsible company.
Anthony Wilson: The people who are fighting it, like we are, I’ll say this much, don’t give up, do not give up. Yes, the developers have plans of doing what they want to do, and they’re not going to take in consideration your interest, what you stand for. So don’t give up, remain steadfast.