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This Summer, US Workers Are Organizing to Beat the Heat

Workers — both union and non-union — are winning AC, safety breaks and, in one groundbreaking case, heat pay.

Amazon warehouse workers and members of Teamsters Union protest Amazons unfair labor practices and shameful response to workers demands for better, safer jobs with fair wages and an end to retaliation at Amazon Air Hub on October 14, 2022, in San Bernardino, California.

If you’re dreading summer on the job this year, you’re not alone.

Every month last summer was the most scorching on world record. Trapped under heat domes, dozens of metro areas busted their longest streaks ever of highs over 100 degrees. Phoenix afternoons were over 110 for a month straight.

On asphalt yards nearly hot enough to melt, bonus-hungry managers forced workers to keep up the usual pace. The results were lethal.

In 2022, the latest year for which we have data, 43 U.S. workers lost their lives to heat on the job. That’s up from 36 in 2021, and we can expect this cruel number to keep climbing.

But from warehouses to coffeehouses to construction sites, workers using solidarity and creative action — even without the protection of a union contract — have won shop floor fights to keep their co-workers safe and cool.

Weekly Chats

Nosebleeds and heat exhaustion had become eerily normal at the massive Amazon San Bernardino air hub, east of Los Angeles. Outdoor workers on the tarmac had it worst. But when even an indoor worker was taken away in an ambulance last year, that was the final straw.

“The on-site medical department tried to say he just had lingering effects of Covid,” said warehouse worker Anna Ortega. “The paramedics told him it was heatstroke. That really kicked us off. We didn’t want it to get any worse, because people can even die from heatstroke.”

Workers were starting an organizing drive as Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, with support from the Teamsters. Before the day of the ambulance, “we had already made our own kind of health and safety committee,” Ortega said. “We’d meet weekly or biweekly, after work, and talk about what’s going on at the facility, what our co-workers are experiencing and saying to us.”

They realized the bosses weren’t following their own safety rules, like allowing workers to take short breaks if they felt early symptoms of heatstroke. “A lot of times, management announces these changes just once, and doesn’t keep track of who they need to get the information to,” Ortega said.

After the indoor worker collapsed, the committee realized enough people were ready to act. “We handed out flyers to co-workers on breaks. We marched on the boss with over 20 people. It was after that they finally installed fans.”

But workers wanted more than fans — they wanted those safety breaks. They kept up the breakroom conversations and public flyering, and they put in a complaint to the state job safety board — which sent inspectors and eventually cited the company for unsafe heat exposure.

“We won breaks and cold drinks,” Ortega said. “Our annual training got updated to say if we’re feeling symptoms of heat, we have the right to take a five-minute break. That’s something we pushed forward. It showed that we really could win, that they could have done it from the beginning. They didn’t have to wait until something terrible happened.”

Management Neglect

Bosses ignoring their own safety rules is a problem across industries. In steamy Jacksonville, Florida, the Electrical Workers (IBEW) won contracts that require bosses on construction sites to supply cool water all day. But contractors often conveniently forget.

When managers brought no water to a job wiring a Navy hangar last summer, tempers boiled. “One journeyman told the foreman he wasn’t working until there was water — and did so publicly in front of the entire crew,” said an apprentice from the site, who requested not to be named. “The crew refused to work. [The foreman] immediately folded and left to go get some.”

Meanwhile at a Starbucks in Prosser, in eastern Washington, overheating became the spark for a union drive.

Managers claimed the AC had been fixed, but “we put a fridge thermostat out on the counter and it’s reading over 80 degrees,” said barista Anthony Warwick. “This was in March, not the height of summer. It was hotter inside than it was outside, because we have 500-degree ovens, water boilers going all the time, fridges giving out heat. It goes up exponentially.”

His Starbucks co-workers (called “partners” in company lingo) were hesitant to come out in open conflict with management, but last August “the heat of the moment” changed everything, Warwick said.

Soaring temperatures were combined with severe wildfire smoke, even inside their cafe: “We were all choking, wearing masks but still suffocating as we worked. I talked to other partners, and we decided we couldn’t work.”

A callous store manager struck the final blow. When she came in to respond to workers’ request to close at least half the shop, Warwick said, “her first thing was to call out one of our partners for wearing something off-code. That’s when partners started walking out.

“There was nothing she could do. It was very spur of the moment.”

Since they all walked out together, “nobody got a write-up,” Warwick said. “That got people realizing, we don’t have to suffer through unworkable conditions.”

The group won a union authorization election the following month — and the manager finally hauled in fans.

Heat Pay

For the budding union at Homegrown, a Seattle chain of sandwich cafes and caterers, heat was the clear unifying issue

In organizing committee meetings, “we found out every single person working can feel the heat, in front or back of house,” said Kai Ortiz, who preps pastramis and runs the register up front. “People going back home after a long day in the heat, you’re totally exhausted. Nobody wants to live like this.”

So the workers started using creative tactics to make management sweat. “At my store, we did a march on our boss,” said Ortiz. “We did flyering [of customers outside the store] on our breaks — in front of our managers. Pretty badass. We did sidewalk chalking. We asked an industrial hygienist to come to check out our conditions, and they set up a medical station in front of the store to interview people.”

After Homegrown managers responded with “Gatorade, visors, cut fruit, and a few more breaks,” Ortiz recalled, “we said, ‘That’s not enough.’” After a near-unanimous strike vote, in August 2022 they shut down the stores with a series of one-day strikes over heat.

Getting to that unanimous vote took time. “Workers who were on the fence, we brought them in,” Ortiz said. “These were intense conversations, not the easiest. We’ve got high schoolers and college students working in front, then often immigrants and older folks working in back.”

The committee had to build enough trust among these groups to take a big risk together. And while heat was a unifying issue for the store workers, it turned out the catering workers already had decent AC and fewer ovens in their production area.

Still, they joined the strike wave after adding a demand to end a pay gap between distribution and catering drivers with similar jobs — “equal pay for equal work.” “Our student workers came out of school to cheer them on,” Ortiz said.

In the strikes, the workers won their most ambitious demand: the discretion “to close the stores if we had to, to keep us safe — if it got too hot, or smoky from wildfires.”

That fall, Homegrown workers won union recognition with UNITE HERE Local 8. And after a long contract battle and a three-month strike to reinstate a fired co-worker, they finally won their first union contract this March.

The contract locks in an innovative idea: heat pay. After an hour above 82 degrees in the shop, they earn 150 percent wages for the rest of the shift; above 86 degrees, double wages or the right to leave work with no punishment.

The point is to make management “cave and give AC so they don’t have to give double pay,” Ortiz said. And if management doesn’t, “we won the right to picket, flyer [customers] even [while we’re] under contract — to take the fight to the public.”

Those might be the most important wins, since these battles aren’t going away. “The company can get AC, but heat waves are going to get hotter and hotter,” Ortiz said. “Wildfires are going to get worse. This is going to be a workplace issue forever.”

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