Decades of being treated like we’re disposable have led working people across the country to stand up for change–and we’re just getting started.
Working people need safe and healthy workplaces with livable wages that allow a thriving quality of life.
For too long, the largest employers in this country have run on the fumes produced by the frontline employees they work to exhaustion, injury, and even death.
For the past four years, I’ve worked at Amazon warehouses, where every day is brutal. The exploitative and dangerous standards enforced by Amazon’s corporate executives not only put us all at risk of injury, but they also make something as simple as using the bathroom an anxiety-inducing decision whether to relieve yourself or lose your job. I have co-workers sleeping in their cars because they can’t afford housing. It’s disgraceful that this is happening at one of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations.
These issues extend far beyond Amazon. Fast food and retail workers face violence on the job with alarming frequency. Essential workers struggle to afford basic necessities with the rising cost of living and low hourly wages. Without widespread access to paid sick leave, some of us have to choose between taking care of our health and paying our bills.
The pandemic has thrust the issues we face working at the country’s largest employers into the national spotlight. It has also given me–and millions of other essential workers–a greater grasp of the power we hold. As that power grows, we’re getting closer to a world where working people are able to thrive in safe, healthy workplaces with family-sustaining wages.
We’re fighting for change–and we’re winning. Workers, from retail to fast food to manufacturing to healthcare, have organized and gone on strike over the last year and won game-changing raises in pay and improved benefits. We’ve seen historic union victories at Starbucks and Amazon. Employees from Dollar General and Walmart are putting their jobs on the line to tell the world that what’s going on in their stores is wrong.
Now, we’ve taken our concerns and solutions to some of the corporations’ most influential decision-makers: investors.
As the annual shareholder meeting season begins, corporate boards should be ready to answer to our movement. Their shareholders are standing with us like never before and questioning whether business as usual is sustainable in the face of so much unrest on the frontlines.
A coalition of Starbucks shareholders have signed a letter encouraging the corporation to remain neutral in the face of union efforts. Apple investors have gone against the corporation’s recommendation and supported a proposal calling for a civil rights audit. Denny’s shareholders have filed a resolution calling on the brand to end the tipped subminimum wage.
At Amazon, investors representing five billion dollars in stock have launched a “Vote No” campaign against two directors who sit on the leadership development and compensation committee for their failure to protect worker safety. While workplace injury rates were going up at Amazon, these directors rewarded new CEO Andy Jassy with over $200 million in compensation. Now, even Glass Lewis, an influential advisory company, is urging shareholders to vote against reelecting the chairwoman of the committee.
Many of the shareholders who are pushing for action are also employees. I’m one of them. I have filed a resolution at Amazon calling for an end to dangerous productivity quotas and workplace surveillance in order to create a safe and healthy environment for employees and ensure the corporation’s long-term success. This week, I’ll make history by becoming the first Amazon warehouse associate to present their own proposal at the corporation’s annual meeting.
At Walmart, associate-shareholder Cyndi Murray has a proposal on the corporation’s proxy calling for the founding of a Workforce Advisory Council, which would give associates a voice in setting workplace standards for health and safety. I first met Cyndi at a meeting with the Democratic State Treasurers, where we shared details of the resolutions we filed this year and explained what it’s like to work for the two largest private employers in the country.
Together, with the support of the retail worker advocacy group United for Respect, we’re educating shareholders about how our proposals would help keep workers safe, fight turnover, and respond to growing public scrutiny and concern over workplace practices.
We’re finding that investors value our informed perspectives. They’ve seen the sanitized corporate reports, but only workers know what conditions are really like at Amazon and Walmart. We’ve answered questions about performance metrics that push workers to the limit, constant surveillance that wears us down, and the fear of retaliation for speaking up.
Shareholders are hungry for facts. They are worried about the long-term sustainability of their investments when a corporation’s profits are made on the backs of workers who are fed up, tired, and angry. They’re asking how they can support our resolutions.
Shareholder advocacy is happening outside of the traditional proxy process as well. Dollar General workers, who have made national headlines speaking out about severe understaffing, rampant violence, poverty wages, and unsanitary conditions in their stores, are planning a massive rally at the annual shareholder meeting where they will call on the board of directors to address unsafe working conditions and poverty-level wages.
Working people in this country have reached a breaking point. The boards of the country’s largest employers should be prepared to face their long record of worker abuses this shareholder season and make meaningful changes if they want their corporations to continue succeeding.
Daniel Olayiwola is an Amazon warehouse worker of over four years who lives in San Antonio, Texas. Daniel is a member leader with United for Respect and a father to a beautiful seven-month-old baby girl. Before working at Amazon, he was an EMT for a homeless shelter in Florida and a medic in the United States Army.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com Commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors, and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
More must-read commentary published by Fortune:
- California has an opportunity to shape how the world protects children online
- We should stop blaming workers for the Great Resignation–and start looking at the jobs they’re leaving
- These employers are helping workers achieve their dreams of homeownership
- We are not doing our best to solve the truck driver shortage
- I was a senior executive at WeWork before it imploded. Here’s the one behavior that could have saved the company
Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.