Don’t cross the virtual picket line by online shopping during a strike

An Amazon Go store in Seattle. Photo courtesy of SounderBruce.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

If my family wasn’t an online shopping household before COVID-19, we certainly are now. When I was at school, my mom had a bracelet loom — yes, a loom — shipped to my dorm in one day with her Amazon Prime subscription, despite my protests that I didn’t need one urgently enough to ask for next-day shipping from a company that severely overworks and underpays its workers. Back then, my mom’s quick online shopping trigger finger seemed ridiculous and unnecessary, but now, in the middle of a pandemic, her penchant for online shopping allows us to leave the house less often for essential items. 

Like many Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, my family tries to order as many essentials online as possible. As more non-grocery retail stores close and lay off swaths of employees, Americans are becoming increasingly dependent on Amazon, Walmart and Instacart to order everything from groceries and masks to Mother’s Day gifts. Yet while online retail and delivery services are experiencing a surge in business, their employees — who have been deemed “essential workers” — are struggling to access necessities such as protective equipment and hazard pay for shouldering the burden of this heightened consumer demand.

Because of this, those of us at home who rely on online retailers and delivery services should show solidarity with these essential workers by, at the very least, refraining from placing online orders during strikes.

Essential workers at Amazon, Instacart, Postmates and Walmart have gone on strike several times during the pandemic to protest the poor labor conditions and benefits that put their lives at risk without fair compensation. On May 1, essential workers at several major U.S. companies went on strike, but most of those retailers did not report a significant interruption in service. 

Online retailers have been able to negate the effects of the strike — the increase in online shopping hasn’t ceased during strikes, and they have an abundant labor supply to hire from, thanks to mass unemployment. While we can’t stop companies from hiring new employees, we can help those workers successfully pressure their bosses for better wages and conditions by curbing our shopping during strikes. 

As someone who unfortunately now relies on Amazon for food orders, I understand that refraining from crossing the (virtual) picket line can add another layer of complexity to essential online shopping. But I really don’t care. Strikes are meant to be disruptive. Can you really not refrain from using Amazon during a strike when warehouse workers are getting sick and dying in order to meet demand? 

Essential workers have always dealt with low pay, few benefits and difficult working conditions, but this pandemic is forcing them to risk their lives in order to keep these companies afloat. Seemingly overnight, workers who make minimum wage are now being labeled heroes for making sacrifices they never consented to. Yet their material conditions have barely improved, if at all

No matter how many feel-good “Thank you, essential workers” commercials air on TV, the reality is that essential workers are not cared for and will continue to be ignored until we force retailers to recognize that their lives matter. Companies are already engaging in surveillance and intimidation against essential workers who are demanding better treatment. According to United For Respect, a retail employee advocacy group, at least 20 Walmart associates have died from COVID-19 — yet the company still refuses to offer universal paid leave. 

Additionally, the few Instacart workers who received the protective equipment they demanded received flimsy masks and spilled hand sanitizer, and other Instacart workers still haven’t received any at all. After reading everything that essential workers have to deal with to fill and deliver our orders, is it really too much to support them when they go on strike?

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to choose which discomforts we’re willing to tolerate and which material needs we should prioritize. In many cases, these calculations have resulted in a surge of online shopping, but that can’t come at the expense of workers. When workers go on strike during this time, they put themselves at great risk, on top of all the other risks they deal with on the job. The very least we could do during future strikes is wait one day to place our orders.

Caterina Ieronimo is a sophomore government and politics major. She can be reached at ieronimocaterina@gmail.com.

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