Amazon Concedes an Earbud
Sometimes workers just want to listen to music to escape the drudgery of repetitive work. But until recently, Amazon prohibited workers in all its facilities to use earbuds while stuffing boxes—and handed out write-ups to workers who defied the ban.
Sure, managers would blast music on the loudspeakers—but then workers couldn’t hear each other talking across the conveyor belt. And what if workers wanted to hear their own music, or an audiobook on organizing?
“We shouldn’t let management dictate what we listen to with a loudspeaker,” said Dylan Maraj, a worker at Amazon’s DBK4 warehouse in Maspeth, Queens, who likes to listen to podcasts and anime songs.
“People want to listen to their music,” Maraj said. “People need to feel that sort of comfort to get through this work. You can’t tell people no when it comes to that.”
He’s an organizer with Amazonians United NYC, an independent union. The union also wanted to challenge management’s tyrannical control.
So Amazon workers organized to change the policy, and won. They’re now allowed to wear one earbud at select sites—though it has to be one of two Amazon-approved earbuds, which workers can buy using their own money or “swag bucks,” the company reward system for perfect attendance and other markers of overwork.
The company had claimed listening to music would hinder productivity and cause injuries. But that seemed arbitrary; Maraj had worked at other Amazon facilities across New York where management didn’t enforce the no-earbud policy, or did so only selectively.
“The only reason they took earbuds away from us [at DBK4] was so they could have a horrible level of control over us,” said Maraj. “I worked at a site in Bethpage [where earbuds were allowed] where we were the highest-volume and most efficient site in New York. You give us an earbud, we can work better.”
“You couldn’t tell when the policy was going to be enforced or not,” said Nate Gosweiler, a worker at Amazon’s delivery station DDP9 in Philadelphia and a member of Amazonians United Philly. In December 2022, he and his co-workers delivered a petition demanding the right to wear earbuds to Amazon managers with 90 people signed on, out of a workforce of 120.
“Up until we delivered the petition, Amazon had been enforcing the policy with relative frequency, and afterwards they didn’t,” Gosweiler said.
“They came to the realization: ‘I don’t want to be the one in the manager’s office when angry workers deliver a petition that 75 percent of the building signed,’” he said. “They didn’t want to poke the bear.”
INJURED FROM OVERWORK
In early 2023, Maraj and his co-workers ran a similar petition—which also demanded pay raises to $22 an hour and voluntary rather than mandatory overtime during peak season. The third demand was to allow workers to listen to their own music.
“Amazon workers are injured from overwork, not listening to music,” the petition said. “At UPS, workers are allowed to wear one earbud and they have a lower injury rate than Amazon. Each of us getting to choose what we listen to improves everyone’s mood.”
Three-fourths of the 200 workers at DBK4 signed the petition. A group marched to the supervisor’s office to hand-deliver it.
Eventually, half a dozen Amazon warehouses ran petitions with the earbud demand. Of these, only DBK4 was selected for the pilot program.
SAFETY CLAIMS HOLLOW
The company’s argument about safety fell flat with workers, especially given Amazon’s abysmal record. An October survey by researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago found that half the company’s warehouse workers with at least three years on the job said they had sustained injuries.
“The Amazon line that wearing earbuds at work is unsafe is a slap in the face to a lot of people at my site,” said Gosweiler, who has worked at Amazon for two years at various facilities.
“I’ve never encountered a situation where someone got hurt on the job because of wearing their earbuds,” he said. “But I’ve known a dozen co-workers who have had to go on medical leave or have gotten injured at work from repetitive stress injuries because of the pace and the productivity demands that the company imposes on people.”