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Amazon strike: Employees want safer working conditions, more permanent positions

The strike is poised to happen on Amazon's upcoming "Prime Day."

Amazon strike: Employees want safer working conditions, more permanent positions

Amazon employees strike at Shakopee, Minnesota warehouse in March 2019.

The Awood Center
  • Amazon workers at a Minnesota fulfillment center organized the strike, which is expected to last 6 hours on July 15.
  • The workers consist mainly of East African Muslim immigrants, who've clashed with the company in the past.
  • Amazon, Target and Walmart are all racing to offer customers the quickest shipping, a move that will likely worsen worker conditions at fulfillment centers.


Amazon employees at a fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, plan to go on strike for six hours on July 15, the first day of the company's promotional Prime Day.

The workers — led mainly by East African Muslim immigrants — want Amazon to ease productivity quotas and convert more part-time workers into permanent employees. They hope to use the publicity of Prime Day — a two-day event during which Amazon offers deep discounts — to raise awareness about what they perceive to be unsafe and unjust working conditions.

"Amazon is going to be telling one story about itself, which is they can ship a Kindle to your house in one day, isn't that wonderful," William Stolz, one of the Shakopee employees organizing the strike, told Bloomberg. "We want to take the opportunity to talk about what it takes to make that work happen and put pressure on Amazon to protect us and provide safe, reliable jobs."

It's not the first time workers in the Twin Cities area have clashed with Amazon. In 2018, Amazon workers chanted "Yes we can" in Somali and English, demanding things like reduced workloads during Ramadan.

Amazon granted some of these wishes — by, for instance, relaxing quotas during Ramadan and converting a conference room into a prayer space — but some workers still feel the general productivity quotas make the job unsafe. In March, workers went on a three-hour strike, according to Bloomberg. A complaint against Amazon, filed with the federal government, claimed that the company retaliated against those striking workers by docking their allotted unpaid time-off hours — a move that might have violated federal law.

"It's a violation of labor law when an employer punishes workers for striking, and one way of punishing workers for striking is to take some of their leave away," Seattle University law professor Charlotte Garden told Bloomberg.

Amazon's Newest Robotics Fulfillment Center Holds Grand Opening In Orlando

NurPhoto / Contributor

Amazon, which in 2018 raised its minimum wage for warehouse workers to $15 per hour, responded by saying it's already met most of the Minnesota workers' demands.

"The fact is Amazon offers already what this outside organization is asking for. We provide great employment opportunities with excellent pay – ranging from $16.25-$20.80 an hour, and comprehensive benefits including health care, up to 20 weeks parental leave, paid education, promotional opportunities, and more. We encourage anyone to compare our pay, benefits, and workplace to other retailers and major employers in the Shakopee community and across the country – and we invite anyone to see for themselves by taking a tour of the facility."

The upcoming strike would come just months after Amazon announced one-day shipping, an offer that would likely only worsen tensions between the company and its warehouse workers.

"With two-day Prime shipping, Amazon fulfillment workers currently face speeds of 200-300 orders per hour in 12-hour shifts," Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, wrote in a statement. "They struggle already to maintain that pace. If Amazon plans to effectively double the speed, it must also address existing workforce needs and ensure its workers are safe. Increasing fulfillment speeds means they need to hire more workers, under more sustainable speeds that don't put worker's lives in jeopardy."

Walmart and Target have also begun to offer next- and same-day shipping in some form. Along with Amazon, these major retailers are locked in a battle to see which company can provide the quickest shipping, and this battle is unlikely to end anytime soon. So, as long as they continue to battle, and as long as customers continue to choose quick shipping, worker conditions at fulfillment centers are unlikely to improve much.

But then again, political pressure could do the trick. After all, Amazon's move to raise fulfillment center workers' minimum wage to $15 came after repeated criticism from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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