A pilot for the airline that delivers Amazon’s packages said that he attended Monday’s much-publicized strike to ‘stand together and show that solidarity’

Amazon workers striking outside a fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota. Courtesy of Michael Russo
  • Amazon workers at the company’s Shakopee, Minnesota, fulfillment center marked Prime Day 2019 with a strike.
  • Business Insider spoke to Atlas Air pilot Michael Russo, who travelled to Minnesota to support the protesters.
  • “The strike seemed like a success to me – lots of support,” Russo told Business Insider on Tuesday.
  • Atlas Air is one of the airlines contracted to transport Amazon packages, and Russo said that he wanted to express solidarity with the workers.
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

Amazon employees at the retail giant’s fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, walked out of work on Prime Day to protest working conditions.

Organisers led a six-hour strike on Monday, in the wake of similar protests in the UK, Germany, Spain, and Poland. The Amazon location in Shakopee was previously the site of worker complaints regarding racial and religious discrimination.

The Shakopee warehouse employs a large contingent of members of the local Somali community. The strike was organised by the Awood Center, which advocates for the rights of Somali and East African workers.

Amazon protest signs
Protest signs for the demonstration in Shakopee. Courtesy of Michael Russo

The Minnesota workers were joined by pilot Michael Russo, who has flown for Atlas Air for 15 years and serves as the strike chairman for the Airline Professional Association, Teamsters Local 1224.

“It takes a lot of bravery, courage, and moral fortitude to stand up to a really powerful corporation like Amazon,” Russo told Business Insider before the strike on Monday. “They may feel that they’re putting their jobs on the line, but I think that’s just a statement of how important it is to them and the strength of their convictions.”

Russo participated in the march and stayed for the rally afterwards.

“The strike seemed like a success to me – lots of support,” Russo said on Tuesday. “The energy was strong despite it being 91 degrees in the sun with no shade. “

Russo said that the event was a testament to “solidarity” and diversity, featuring chanting in English, Spanish, and Somali.

Russo added that he “wouldn’t be able to identify exactly who was a worker” in the crowd, but that the group was of a good size.Amazon has said that 15 of its employees attended the protest.

“It was obvious to the 1500-full-time workforce that an outside organisation used Prime Day to raise its own visibility, conjured misinformation and a few associate voices to work in their favour, and relied on political rhetoric to fuel media attention,” an Amazon spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement sent out on Tuesday. “The fact is that Amazon provides a safe, quality work environment in which associates are the heart and soul of the customer experience, and today’s event shows that our associates know that to be true. We encourage anyone to come take a tour anytime.”

Read more: People are calling for boycotts of Amazon on Prime Day – but you might be supporting the company money without even realising

Business Insider previously spoke to 13 different pilots who described concerning conditions at Atlas Air and the Air Transport Sevices Group, the two major airline corporations contracted to operate the Amazon Air fleet. Complaints at the third-party airlines mirror reports of problematic and intense working conditions for associates and contracted Amazon drivers.

‘We all need to stand together’

Before the strike on Monday, Russo said that while they might not all technically work for the same employer, he viewed the Amazon employees as “linked” to the company’s third-party truck drivers and cargo pilots.

Amazon protest picket
Workers and supporters march outside the Shakopee fulfillment center. Courtesy of Michael Russo

“We all need to stand together and show that solidarity,” Russo said, before the strike took place on Monday. “It’s just all about showing solidarity with the Amazon workers, and making sure that Amazon does take the time to ensure safe working conditions there.”

Amazon has defended its working conditions, saying that critics are “conjuring misinformation” that paints the company in a bad light.

“We can only conclude that the people who plan to attend the event on Monday are simply not informed,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider on Monday. “If these groups – unions and the politicians they rally to their cause – really want to help the American worker, we encourage them to focus their energy on passing legislation for an increase in the federal minimum wage, because $US7.25 is too low.”

In a second statement to Business Insider on Monday, an Amazon spokesperson specifically addressed Atlas Air’s dispute with its pilot union.

“We are disappointed with the current state of relations between Atlas and their pilot union,” the spokesperson said. “Neither side seems willing to work towards a reasonable compromise. This is contrary to the interests of Atlas, the pilots, and the customers they both serve. We have an obligation to deliver to our customers, and so do they.”

An Atlas Air spokesperson told Business Insider on Tuesday that the Prime Day strike was “completely unrelated to our company.”

“This protest is yet another effort to attract publicity as part of a larger corporate campaign waged by the Union to spread misinformation and gain leverage during the contract negotiations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Amazon protest picket
Workers and supporters march outside the Shakopee fulfillment center. Courtesy of Michael Russo

Russo said on Monday that he’d like to see Amazon acknowledge the concerns of the employees in Minnesota.

“These concerns are real and they need to be addressed,” Russo said. “Amazon could take an honest, authentic, genuine step toward resolving all of their issues, and I think that would be wonderful. I don’t know if we’ll get change today or tomorrow, but I think this is a great first step. Maybe it will happen at other fulfillment centres if the concerns aren’t addressed today.”

Russo said that he hopes the strike will at least shake up “complacent” and “disconnected” consumers used to seeing their orders “magically” appear in a day.

“There is a whole human network behind how that package conveniently arrives after the click of a mouse,” he said, hours before the strike took place on Monday. “Fast, free shipping comes with a cost, and the people behind the scenes are the ones that are paying that cost.”

Here is the full statement from Atlas Air:

Atlas is proud of our dedicated crew of 2,000 pilots, and we thank them for sharing our commitment to providing our customers with the high level of service they have come to expect.

While we respect the Union’s right to informationally picket, they do not have a right to strike or otherwise disrupt our operations. The Union has a history of engaging in extensive informational picketing and disruptive behaviours. In fact, a Federal Court found them to be in violation of the Railway Labour Act in 2017 by engaging in an illegal work slowdown. The Union appealed that ruling, and on July 5, 2019, the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with the Federal District court that an illegal slowdown had occurred.

It is unfortunate that the Union Leadership and a small number of pilots are using an issue that is completely unrelated to our company to further propagate false claims about their working conditions and our ongoing contract negotiations. This protest is yet another effort to attract publicity as part of a larger corporate campaign waged by the Union to spread misinformation and gain leverage during the contract negotiations. The reality is a different story, and we encourage you to visit AtlasAir5YPilots.com to get the facts.

Here are just a few facts to consider:

  • The Union claims our pilots are overworked. This is false. In fact, our pilots fly an average of 42 hours a month, compared to the industry average of 53 hours a month – which is about 20% less block hours a month than the industry average.
  • The Union claims they are being pushed to the limits. This is false. The schedules our pilots fly are governed by rules established in collaboration with the Union within their Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), all of which are well within Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).
  • The Union claims pilots are being put at risk. This is false. The safety and training of our pilots are the highest priorities for Atlas. We thank our dedicated crew of over 3,000 employees for sharing this commitment and putting it into practice every day. This has enabled us to safely operate nearly 60,000 departures to 425 destination in 105 countries, with 340,000 block hours a year. Both Atlas and our pilots have legal and contractual obligations to adhere to rigorous safety standards set forward by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Defence and the International Air Transport Association.
  • The Union claims they are underpaid. Unions are in place to protect their members and bargain on their behalf. A key role of any Union Leadership is putting forward a strong economic proposal on behalf of their members. The Union Leaders have not provided us with an economic proposal, despite our repeated requests. Had the Union followed provisions outlined in their contract, pilots would have a new contract by now. The Union’s refusal to adhere to their contract has resulted in a multi-year series of legal actions that have delayed the progress of negotiations since 2016.

It is time for Union Leaders to put pilots over protests, and focus on negotiating a new contract that rewards our pilots with the enhanced pay and benefits they deserve. Atlas is working toward that goal every day and we ask Union leaders to do the same.