Spencer Soper for the Pulitzer? Yes, Please!

Spencer Soper’s award-winning work on the deplorable conditions at an Amazon fulfillment center here in the Lehigh Valley has earned the Morning Call writer a  nomination for journalism’s greatest honor:  The Tribune Co. is nominating Soper’s Amazon exposé for a Pulitzer Prize. 

I’ve talked about Spencer’s work a good deal in this space, and it’s not just because mindless abuse at the hands of the world’s largest online retailer is happening in my backyard.  It’s a global story, and a globalism story.  Many of the people I’ve shared it with have responded in encouraging ways, pledging to swear off Amazon not just because of the violations Soper uncovered, but because of what Amazon’s very model says about the corporate ethos.  Let’s be clear: getting things to you as quickly and cheaply as Amazon does means Amazon caring as little as possible about worker rights, local economies, brick and mortar small businesses, communities, and fairness.  Oh, how grand it was when these realities were only hypothetical.  But the abuse here in the Lehigh Valley brings things we should have all realized long ago directly to the fore.  Amazon is a machine built for speed, and if people get caught in all those moving parts, it’s fine with Amazon so long as the clean up doesn’t take too long.

Going to the MATS for Air Quality in Pennsylvania (and Look For Me in the Morning Call Next Week)

Jon Geeting has a cost/benefit quote from Paul Krugman about the new Mercury and Air Toxins Standards (MATS) announced by EPA this week, and some thoughts about the GenOn issue here in our backyard.

As I commented on Jon’s blog:

Jon, thanks for posting on this.  In my capacity as Outreach Director for the Air Quality Partnership of Lehigh Valley – Berks, I have [a] piece running on related issues in the forthcoming Tuesday, Dec 27 edition of The Morning Call.

We’re applauding the president for the new MATS (Mercury and Toxins Standard), but we’re still looking for leadership on the new Ozone standards EPA proposed, based on the best available science, this past year.  In September, the President disappointed everyone by failing to enact these standards, leaving 2008 Bush guidelines in place that have been widely derided by the scientific community and advocacy groups.

Some of these groups have been pushing hard for GenOn to be forced to clean up sooner than the three year window that now seems to be codified.  My personal preference would be for a quicker total clean up.   Clean air is a fundamental legal right of all residents of the Commonwealth (Section 27 of the PA Constitution).  Krugman is right about the health benefits and cost/benefit of MATS, even as President Obama was wrong about the negative economic impact of better Ozone standards.  It makes one wonder why MATS got greenlit and responsible Ozone standards got punted to a presumptive second Obama term.

As you’ll see in Tuesday’s piece, “political realities” aren’t a good answer on the Ozone failure.  Check out what the President’s frenemies at the American Lung Association had to say about it.  They’re very pleased with the President this week about MATS, and they should be.   But my primary charge as a representative of the Air Quality Partnership is to advocate for and educate about ways we can reduce smog-causing ozone pollution and the production of deadly soot (often called particulate matter).   Mr. Obama, why, exactly, were the crucial updates to the Bush standards (so widely scorned in the progressive community) abandoned without a fight?  Why did you cede the cost/benefit narrative on better ozone protection when the science (and economics) were clearly in the favor of protecting public health?

Amazon Workers Left Out In the Cold: Excuses Expose Amazon’s Sustainability Issues

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

How To Make Enemies and Exploit People

I’ve heard some people in this here Valley saying that Amazon was justified in keeping warehouse workers, often clad in nothing more than t-shirts and short, outside in the wee hours of the morning in the freezing cold for ridiculously long periods of time.  Oh, they’re not saying it exactly that way.  Remember, the evacuations at the warehouses were caused by fire alarms being pulled, and the alarms were pulled so that these workers could steal, so the narrative goes.  Sometimes people with throw the word “lazy” in there before “workers,” or maybe the occasional “thieving.”  So, you know, because some workers are allegedly stealing, everyone has to be exposed to extreme cold for close to two hours so some middle managers can get some iPod Nanos back.  Some of the workers, by the way, have been saying that the managers are the ones doing the stealing.

Amazon and Amazon fans can spin this however they want. The fact remains that these procedures, and the culture that breeds them, are the definition of unsustainable business.  There’s really no better to handle rogue alarm-pulling (if, indeed, that’s what happened) than to let your workforce freeze in the early hours of a November or December morning in Pennsylvania?  That’s atrocious and unacceptable.  Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, really has no better way of cooling their facilities in the summer than farming out heat-sick workers to local ERs via a veritable concierge ambulance service?  Please.

Strike a blow for sustainability and stop buying from Amazon until they figure out how to run an ethical business on the supply side.

Hell Freezes Over: Amazon.com’s PA Sweatshop Workers Endured Extreme Cold During Late Night Evacuations

amazon.com

Image by soumit via Flickr

Thank you, Spencer Soper, for staying on Amazon.  An excerpt from yet another Amazon expose filed by Soper at The Morning Call:

On Nov. 27, someone activated the fire alarm in the Amazon warehouse at 3:26 a.m., forcing an evacuation, according to court documents. Amazon maintains the evacuation lasted approximately one hour and 45 minutes. The fire department responded and no fire was discovered.

As is routine in most emergency evacuations, workers were not permitted to get their coats when alarms sounded unless they happened to have them within reach. Many warehouse workers don’t have a regular work station and store their coats in a break room, so they had to leave in what they were wearing. Because of the physical nature of their jobs and warm temperatures in the warehouse, many employees wear only T-shirts and jeans or shorts while working, several employees said.

Multiple warehouse workers suffered injuries as a result of cold exposure that night and were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, according to Amazon’s account filed in response to Grady’s lawsuit. Those employees returned to work the next day, Amazon said in court records.

A warehouse worker complained to OSHA about workers being exposed to cold during a fire alarm evacuation that night, according to an OSHA file of the incident.

“There were people passing out, having asthma attacks and I do believe a man had a seizure,” said the worker, whose name was redacted in OSHA records.

The same worker and a second one complained about another fire alarm evacuation Dec. 4 that lasted roughly two hours.

“There were pregnant women, men and women in T-shirts and shorts, some with sleeveless shirts and shorts,” one complaint states. “People were passing out and feeling ill left and right. … I am absolutely disgusted with this company’s practices and I do believe OSHA should visit this building and give them some sort of coaching on how to better handle the situation before there are more people suffering from hypothermia.”

I’ve been boycotting Amazon since Soper’s first investigation in September.  I tend to believe workers claiming injury at the hands of giant, careless corporations.  I tend to believe that bureaus like OSHA are well-intentioned and ineffectual.  As a progressive, I tend to distrust the intentions of big business and the deliverability of meaningful correctives by many well-meaning (and many ass-covering) agents of our government.  I have some progressive friends who need to believe at an ontological level that if OSHA doesn’t find anything at Amazon, everything must be fine.  I get all the reasons for that. I get why so many progressives still find it hard to admit Big Labor’s own part in undoing the early advances of the unions.  But being politically honest and being truly progressive means moving past that and realizing the degree to which the agencies we’ve authorized to protect us from unchecked greed have failed in profound and simple ways.

Amazon, you can bet that this story isn’t over.  Plaudits, loud, loud plaudits to you, Spencer Soper, for staying on this.

Lehigh Valley Families Earn Less, Drive More

The PPL Building (seen here in the distance) i...

Allentown, the heart of the metro region.

I hate when people say  “I told you so.”  I also hate when people say “I hate to say ‘I told you so.'”  Since lots of people have been saying a lot of what follows for a long time, let’s get right down to it.  Beyond anecdote and intuition, Matt Assad, Scott Kraus and Eugene Tauber give it to us straight in today’s Morning Call:

Lehigh Valley families earn less than they did 10 years ago and commute a heck of a lot more.  We know it. We’ve sensed it. We’ve sat on 22 and 78 far too long far too many times, always, in these last four years, for diminishing financial returns.  We know, don’t we, that these commutes are bad for our mental health, bad for our social life, bad for our family time, bad for our wallets and bad for the air?  But we drive more and more for less and less, because, really, what choice do most of us have?

I talk about this a lot in my work with the Air Quality Partneship of Lehigh Valley – Berks.  We can save money, time, and quality of life by abandoning outdated, unhealthy commuter practices.  We can carpool and we can carpool more.  We can take mass transit.  We can pressure our employers to incentive transit and commuter programs that have already been established.

Not even two weeks ago, we learned that the air quality in the Lehigh Valley metro region is even worse than the federal government is telling us, according to the latest scientific standards.  More single-car, single-rider commuting means more smog and, in long and short terms, greater health care costs.  Increased costs of living and decreased qualities of life. When are we, as consumers, commuters, voters, and employees going to get serious about this issue? When are we going to demand that our employers and elected officials do the same?

Assad, Kraus, and Tauber also report on the widening economic gap the 2010 Census confirms.  Kraus and Tauber offer more analysis here.  It just so happens that the Lehigh County Conference of Churches is presenting a one-day learning experience on October 29 called “The Growing Economic Divide: Which Side Are You On?”  Steve Schnapp, a nationally recognized educator with United for a Fair Economy, will be leading interactive educational experiences around these issues.  Please register for this event, which is sponsored by Lehigh Valley partners including Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV); Penn Northeast Conference of the United Church of Christ; Peace & Justice Committee (Mennonite: EDC/FMC); Congregations United for Neighborhood Action (CUNA), and the Peace and Justice Committee of First Presbyterian Church of Allentown.

So I’ll Be Boycotting Amazon.com Because of the Sweatshop they Put Up in My Back Yard (How About You?)

It’s bad enough that 100 years later, no collective labor rights exist for people now working on the site of Bethlehem Steel.  Now we have an in-depth report from the Allentown Morning Call about conditions at the Amazon.com warehouses in Breinigsville that make the Lehigh Valley sound like Shenzhen.

Please read the whole thing here.  Below are some highlights and commentary.

Amazon’s priority and key competitive edge is quick delivery of products at low prices. Its Lehigh Valley location on Route 100 near Interstate 78 puts one-third of the population of the U.S. and Canada within a one-day haul. And the weak labor market helps keep employment costs down.

“We strive to offer our customers the lowest prices possible through low everyday product pricing and free shipping offers … and to improve our operating efficiencies so that we can continue to lower prices for our customers,” Amazon says about itself in documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The situation highlights how companies like Amazon can wield their significant leverage over workers in the bleak job market, labor experts say. Large companies such as Amazon can minimize costs for benefits and raises by relying on temporary workers rather than having a larger permanent workforce, those experts say.

“They can get away with it because most workers will take whatever they can get with jobs few and far between,” said Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers. “The temp worker is less likely to complain about it and less likely to push for their labor rights because they feel like they don’t have much pull or sway with the worksite employer.”

Amazon warehouse workers interviewed come from a variety of backgrounds, including construction, small business owners and some with years of experience at other warehouse and shipping operations. Several of them said it was their worst work experience ever.

The Lehigh Valley’s prime location is being leveraged against us.  Our community ( let alone our national economic depression and our own desire to work) is being exploited, and a firm called “Integrity” is key to the process.   Isn’t it peculiar how the world “Amazon” itself still conjures images of “jungle,” and how the quintessential literary indictment of bullshit like what’s happening in Breinigsville was called The Jungle?

Their accounts stand in sharp contrast to the “fun, fast-paced” atmosphere described in online help wanted ads for the Amazon warehouse. Amazon and ISS both said they take the safety of workers seriously, but declined to discuss specific concerns current and former employees voiced to The Morning Call. Both companies had three weeks to respond to multiple Morning Call inquiries for this story.

Integrity. Got that?

Goris, the Allentown resident who worked as a permanent Amazon employee, said high temperatures were handled differently at other warehouses in which he worked. For instance, loading dock doors on opposite sides of those warehouses were left open to let fresh air circulate and reduce the temperature when it got too hot, he said. When Amazon workers asked in meetings why this wasn’t done at the Amazon warehouse, managers said the company was worried about theft, Goris said.

“Imagine if it’s 98 degrees outside and you’re in a warehouse with every single dock door closed,” Goris said.

Computers monitored the heat index in the building and Amazon employees received notification about the heat index by email. Goris said one day the heat index, a measure that considers humidity, exceeded 110 degrees on the third floor.

“I remember going up there to check the location of an item,” Goris said. “I lasted two minutes, because I could not breathe up there.”

Allentown resident Robert Rivas, 38, said he left his permanent Amazon warehouse job after about 13 months to take another job. He said he intensified his job search in May after the warehouse started getting very hot.

“We got emails about the heat, and the heat index got to really outrageous numbers,” he said, recalling that the index during one of his shifts hit 114 degrees on the ground floor in the receiving area.

Rivas said he received Amazon email notifications at his work station when employees needed assistance due to heat-related symptoms. He estimated he received between 20 and 30 such emails within a two-hour period one day. Some people pushed themselves to work in the heat because they did not want to get disciplinary points, he said.

This is an 11-page story in the paper and 9-page story online.  You get this gist, but you need to read the whole thing if you haven’t already.

If Billy Joel could see us now.

Sixth Street Shelter Expansion: A Mission in Allentown, A Call to Faithful Engagement

I want to thank Scott Kraus of the Allentown Morning Call for his reportage on the Sixth Street Shelter expansion. Alan Jennings, Marsha Eichelberger, Tony Sundermeier, and I are quoted in Scott’s piece in yesterday’s edition.  Please read it here, and whether you’re near or far to the locales and missions we’re talking about in Allentown, consider how you might help this project or projects like it near you.

We’re not doing this because it’s a “mission project” and churches “should do mission.”  We’re doing this because we are learning that missional living is the Gospel. The church, any church, exists for mission, and mission doesn’t merely touch everything we do.  Mission, being missional, is how we are learning to see.