Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Amazon’s automated convenience store became a meeting point—physically and philosophically—for climate and labor protesters on Friday.
On Friday morning in downtown San Francisco, activists huddled on the sidewalk outside an Amazon Go store on Market Street. The local Climate Strike march—part of a day of global student walk-outs ahead of the United Nations summit next week in New York City—was about to pass by, and the anti-Amazon contingent was creating unique signs and props to join in the youthful crowd of strikers.
ICE Isn’t NICE, read one woman’s poster, styled with an upside-down Amazon smile. The climate is changing. Can we?, read another. Sporting T-shirts and hats from pro-worker and immigrant rights organizations, the group sang protest songs and chatted with local media. Near the curb, a stack of empty shipping boxes mimicked the now-ubiquitous urban sight of Amazon’s package debris. They were also spray-painted with faux cautions: WARNING: Contains Jails + Cages. Contains worker abuse.
How did Amazon’s automated convenience mart become a rallying point for multiple justice movements? For many, the powerful mega-retailer serves as a one-stop shop for climate, immigration, and labor rights concerns. “We see all of these issues as intertwined,” said Kung Feng, an organizer for Jobs with Justice San Francisco, a pro-labor coalition. “Our health as families, our health as workers, and the health of the planet—these things are all connected.”
Amazon has made other news ahead of Friday’s global strikes. Last week, more than 1,500 Amazon workers announced plans to join the climate protest, as part of their ongoing call to executives to reduce the company’s carbon emissions and cut ties to oil companies. In 2017, package deliveries to Amazon consumers added up to 19 million metric tons of carbon to the planet’s atmosphere—nearly equivalent to five coal power plants, according to an estimate by 350 Seattle, an environmental justice group. Each of the 50-plus global data centers that support Amazon Web Services consume as much power as a small town, Gary Cook, an environmental analyst for Greenpeace, told CBS News earlier this year.
Apparently in response to workers’ demands, CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday that Amazon would commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2040, meeting the emission reduction targets outlined by the UN Paris climate accord a decade early. This ”Climate Pledge” describes the company’s plans to power operations with all renewable energy sources, purchase a fleet of 100,000 electric delivery vans to transport packages, and back major reforestation initiatives.
But the sweeping commitment is short on details about how the company would accomplish such a massive remit in a brief time window. And while protesters at Friday’s climate march saw carbon neutrality as a desirable goal for Amazon, it was not the only one they believe the company needs to set. Amazon’s relationship with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fuels the deportation of undocumented immigrants, said Lindsay Imai Hong of the Bay Area Family Solidarity Network, as well as the government’s practices of separating families and caging children attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border.
Besides denouncing these policies, and calling for Amazon to cancel its web storage contracts with the agencies, Hong pointed out that the wave of migrants from Latin America is related to the global climate crisis.
“We know that so many people are leaving their homes because they can no longer make a living as farmers, because of climate change,” she said. “There’s desertification happening. The soils are eroding. We know there are clear connections to the inability of farmers to support their families and the need to migrate to find work.”
Labor activists were also on hand to condemn working conditions inside Amazon fulfillment warehouses, describing the pressures to meet the company’s famed one-day shipment promise as inhumane. “It’s not even that they’re automating jobs,” said Feng. “They’re automating workers. They feel like they’re treated like robots.”
Behind the demonstrators, shoppers were exiting with paper bags from Amazon’s convenience market, where an intricate system of cameras, AI, and smartphone payment software allowed them to purchase goods without any human interaction. As a physically accessible place, the store serves to highlight the power that consumers have to push Amazon to shift its behavior, Hong said.
But for Feng, the automated bodega feels like a postcard from a world that he doesn’t want to see. “Is that representing our future?” he asked. “Is Amazon’s treatment of workers our future? Are its shipping business model and carbon footprint our future? We envision a different, healthier planet.” Making the connections between environmentalism, labor rights, and immigration issues more explicit will help get there, he said.
As the marching masses drew nearer, the anti-Amazon group began to chant: Close the camps! Close the camps! Inside the Amazon Go store, managers locked the doors, and a handful of San Francisco police officers appeared in front of the property. An older gentleman who said his name was Ertan was left outside, holding a small box covered in Prime tape. He had hoped to to return an online purchase he’d made, but now he’d have to wait. Despite the inconvenience, he approved of the climate strike.
“It isn’t good, all of these packages, and the plastic inside of them,” Ertan said, shaking his box. “But we’re all still using them somehow.”