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Amazon Workers In Northern Kentucky Fight For Translation At Work

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Workers at Amazon’s largest Air Hub in the world, called KCVG but known in the upper echelons of Amazon management as the “Death Star,” have now been organizing for nine months. What started as a small handful of workers collecting signatures on a petition to reinstate their $2/hr “Peak Pay” during the busy holiday season last year quickly turned into a wider campaign to form a union after Amazon refused to meet their demand. Now, three and a half months after Amazon Labor Union KCVG’s official launch rally in the ramp employee parking lot on March 18, workers are going all-out to collect union authorization cards to get an election at KCVG.

While the union’s three core demands are for a $30/hr starting wage, 180 hours of paid time off, and union representation at disciplinary meetings, they’re fighting for much more. Both their website and new monthly newsletter, “Voice of Our Union: From Your Coworkers, Not a Third Party,” contain a longer list of demands ranging from minimum staffing levels to better retirement benefits, paid parental leave, and free, on-site childcare.

Starting in mid-June the union took up a new issue that most directly affects immigrant workers not fluent in English, but which by extension affects all workers at KCVG: translation.

Many of those who make Amazon’s largest Air Hub in the world run every day and every night are not from the US. Many of these workers are not confident English speakers. Despite this, and the fact that working with airplanes weighing half a million pounds (without cargo) requires clearly understood safety policies, nearly all work-related communication takes place in English only. Amazon looks the other way because they know they can pressure immigrant workers to do more dangerous jobs, and create divisions among workers, by not offering translation.

As the union is saying, this is disrespectful and discriminatory toward workers not fluent in English, and a major safety hazard for everybody. Seeing the urgent need to unite all workers behind the union – no matter what language they speak – and to make work safer for everybody, the Organizing Committee launched a petition (translated, of course, into several languages) calling for three demands:

  • Easily accessible translation for ALL work-related communication, written and verbal.
  • Guaranteed interpretation at all disciplinary meetings with HR/management, alongside union representation.
  • Free, widely advertised, on-site English language classes during paid work hours available to all workers who want to further their English proficiency.

Collecting signatures on the petition, titled “Translation for All Languages: Don’t Let Language Be a Safety Hazard,” is not separate from the union’s efforts to collect union cards but intimately connected to it. The petition is being circulated in English, French, Spanish, Somali, Amharic, and Arabic, and so far it’s a big success.

In recent weeks, union organizers have met many workers who hadn’t yet signed a union card, but after seeing the translation petition were convinced to sign and attend a union orientation. Even more starkly, Organizing Committee members report that at recent card collection activities in the KCVG parking lot, some English-speaking workers who’d previously cursed them out are now stopping to talk, signing the petition, and are walking away with union literature in hand, because these workers know it’s their body on the line if their coworkers are being improperly trained.

A petition like this stands in stark contrast to the “business unionist” strategy of many union leaders today that prioritizes vague talking points like “respect and dignity” and “democracy at work” over concrete demands like those of Amazon Labor Union – KCVG, around translation and many other issues. It provides a bridge to link English and non-English speaking workers by connecting the fight for immigrants’ rights to the question of safety, and it shows the union can improve conditions at Amazon before it is formally won. 

Just like every other corporation, Amazon relies on immigrant labor to churn out their unfathomably high profits. Companies think they can take advantage of immigrant workers and keep them subservient by abusing the language barrier, workers’ fear of losing their jobs, and outright racism. The lack of translation at KCVG, the way it affects all workers, and the strategy employed by ALU-KCVG to fight it gives modern-day life to the century-old union slogan: an injury to one is an injury to all. The labor movement nationally can take inspiration from this initiative by Amazon workers in northern Kentucky.

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