Madison picked a disastrous time to welcome Amazon

The plan for a new distribution center imperils the future of Milwaukee Street, just as the retail giant’s labor practices reach new lows.

The plan for a new distribution center imperils the future of Milwaukee Street, just as the retail giant’s labor practices reach new lows.

Illustration by Shaysa Sidebottom.

Dane County, much like the rest of the world, has experienced massive, swift changes to its landscape in the past two months. Time is an elusive and fickle beast these days, but the world’s worst modern public health crisis apparently can’t stop the wheels of Madison’s favorite past-time activity: development. Just six days after state officials issued the initial “Safer at Home” order for Wisconsin residents, the Madison Common Council held a virtual meeting, during which alders approved with a 14-6 vote the final logistics needed for a parking lot to pave the way for a proposed Amazon distribution center at 3630 and 3650 Milwaukee Street. This vote will likely change the future of Milwaukee Street, making way for a 228,100-square-foot, two-building facility owned by the behemoth online retailer. 

Amazon plans to build a distribution center on the site of Colony Brands’ former fulfillment center on Milwaukee Street. Image via City of Madison.

Amazon plans to build a distribution center on the site of Colony Brands’ former fulfillment center on Milwaukee Street. Image via City of Madison.

In a previous public hearing on January 27, the City of Madison Plan Commission denied the development company, Leo Ritter and Company, permission to go ahead and carry out its plans for the 3630 Milwaukee Street part of the project. Local zoning codes would have already allowed Amazon to create a distribution center there, but the company still needed permission from the city to carry out demolitions and convert a smaller parcel of land for a driveway, additional parking, and stormwater management

This development attempts to tick a few of the boxes that the 2018 Milwaukee Street Special Area Plan proposed for the future of this stretch of the east side. The 2018 plan, introduced in early March of that year, took nearly 9 months to complete, coming full circle with recommendations and meetings, before officials finalized it in December of 2018.

To get a better sense of how the Amazon facility aligns with the goals of the 2018 plan, I talked to Dan McAuliffe, a planner at the City of Madison Department of Planning, Community & Economic Development. 

“What happened with Amazon is that it is an industrial-zoned property, and found a new industrial use as a result. It was a permitted use, not really something that was seen as a change,” McAuliffe says. 

If there is a “change” here, it’s a step backward for the future of Milwaukee Street. 

“Our plans are really designed to provide a framework for change on properties that we are likely to see change in the future,” McAuliffe says. “We use the plans as a guide for the city policymakers for when property owners elect to change the use of their properties to do something different.”

A dramatic change of plans

Simply put, another big industrial operation wasn’t part of the vision of this special area plan. The plan lays out a robust vision of mixed-use housing, greener spaces, and increased transit efficiency. The Amazon facility would be more in line with the area’s industrial past, and doesn’t move the needle on Milwaukee Street.

The distribution center conflicts with city officials’ long-term plans for Milwaukee Street. Image via City of Madison.

The distribution center conflicts with city officials’ long-term plans for Milwaukee Street. Image via City of Madison.

“We didn’t draw an industrial building in the plan because we were looking at how the area could transition in the future, but results like this could occur,” McAuliffe says. “Longtime, is this the best use? We showed a couple of different alternatives on that site, housing was a big component as well, but short term the property owners elected to stay with an industrial use that they were allowed to do within that zoning code.”

With the Common Council’s most recent May vote, the months of planning are now out the window for the first bid that comes to the property.

“District 15 residents have been overwhelmingly in opposition,” says Grant Foster, Alderperson for District 15, home to the proposed Amazon facility.

In addition to ignoring the results of a long planning process, local officials have invited an employer into Madison that should be stopped at the city limits. Adding a malevolent beast like this company into the mix of Milwaukee Street will degrade the worker prosperity and outlook while clogging this already busy street with more freight trucks.

“There have been some concerns about the impact the truck traffic will have, but the biggest concern is that many residents were quite involved in that planning process and the proposed use really flies in the face of the adopted plans,” Foster says.

The Milwaukee Street Special Area Plan reflects an extensive effort to analyze the traffic flow of Milwaukee Street and how it could be best improved for bikes, cars, mass transit, and pedestrians, especially if mixed-use housing is planned for the parcel. Milwaukee Street is currently congested by the Madison Metro bus service’s East Transfer Point, heavy traffic flow coming in and out of Woodman’s East, and a United States Postal Service facility. Now, you know what would be great for this already busy and deteriorating street? Multiple, 40-ton freight trucks filled with even more tons of plastic that have to reach consumers’ doorsteps within a matter of minutes. 

Traffic congestion aside, let’s look at the economic opportunities. Amazon boasts that this project will bring 120 part-time jobs and 25 full-time positions, with potential third-party delivery jobs as well. In a letter supporting the project, the law office of Carlson Black O’Callaghan & Battenberg LLP stated that during “this critical time in our lives and for our City, it does not make any sense to turn away new blue-collar jobs for our citizens in an easily accessible location.”

So during this critical time, what does it mean for the City of Madison to open its congested streets and job-seeking citizens to Amazon? The multinational conglomerate has no plans of slowing down, despite the ongoing global pandemic. More recently, Amazon has hired 700 new employees for its closest distribution center, located in Kenosha. With the growth has come a slew of firings related to employees organizing for better conditions during the pandemic. Amazon workers in New York, northern Illinois, Indiana, and California have died of COVID-19. Business Insider has reported that Amazon-owned Whole Foods is quietly tracking employees via location signals and heat mapping to prevent unionization, a dystopian and hostile move for a company that should be worrying about how to protect its workers from a deadly virus.

But Amazon has its local supporters, including the Urban League of Greater Madison, a non-profit organization that centers itself around empowering minority workers. The ULGM hopes to collaborate with Amazon to provide a career pathway for those who use the organization’s services. 

“There will be an opportunity for the ULGM to customize training programs to prepare under-served job seekers in the Madison area for the various jobs that will be created,” says President & CEO Dr. Ruben Anthony, Jr. in an email. “The ULGM supported Amazon, because we believed that Amazon would bring sustainable waged jobs to the City of Madison.”

The optimism Anthony expresses doesn’t really align with Amazon’s record.

“Anyone that was arguing that this proposal would be good for the Madison economy or provided good quality jobs is inconsistent with everything we’ve seen and know with Amazon and their labor practices,“ says Alder Grant Foster.

In an appeal filed with the city on February 6, Leo Ritter & Company’s attorneys, Daniel O’Callaghan and Angela Black of Carlson Black O’Callaghan & Battenberg LLP, drove home the facts of permitted use in a letter to the Common Council, guiding the way for the March 26 approval. O’Callaghan is a board member for the Urban League of Greater Madison, highlighting the closeness of nonprofits and private industries in the economic development process.

The pandemic meets already tough working conditions

Amid the ongoing health crisis, Amazon workers are fighting more and more for safe conditions, hazard pay, and the ability to protect themselves. “Many of these issues were known before we had the appeal in front of us,” Foster says. 

Long before COVID-19, Amazon had a long history of overburdening its workforce in hazardous conditions, and working with third-party companies and temp agencies to avoid accountability. 

When asked if the current working conditions in Amazon facilities have affected the ULGM’s support of the Milwaukee Street development, Dr. Anthony said: “Worker safety is the highest priority for the ULGM. That is an explicit expectation of the ULGM as we build partnerships with businesses.”

One worker in Amazon’s Kenosha distribution center talked to me about their experience working in fulfillment during the Coronavirus pandemic. For fear of retaliation and/or job loss, this worker has asked to remain anonymous. 

“There’s definitely a heightened level of stress,” the worker said. “Starting May 1 our regular attendance policy is back in order, but this past month and a half everyone has basically been allowed to show up to their shifts when they want to without penalty.” 

“We’ve been told that violating social distancing will lead to write-ups or getting sent home/termination, but I’ve yet to hear of anything like that actually being enforced,” the worker says.

“They have also waited at least a week to inform us of every new confirmed COVID-19 case at the building. We are up to 4 as of now,” the worker says. “They say that they are telling all known associates with each employee to quarantine, but I’ve yet to hear about anyone being forced to stay home because one of their friends has it.”

Social distancing is hardly enforced within the facility, as the Kenosha facility is more focused on the incoming and outgoing employees than on enforcing tighter restrictions amid the work that goes on inside. “They need to understand their employees’ health and well being are infinitely more important than their two-day delivery will ever be,” says the Kenosha center employee. “You can’t deliver a single package without your workforce.”

The scale of Amazon’s workforce is massive and the company’s ability to appropriately respond to the ongoing pandemic is crucial for workers’ health. On May 1, Amazon workers across the country organized strikes—alongside workers from Instacart, Target, Walmart and other retail and warehouse workers who are deemed essential—to demand better working conditions and protective equipment. In early May, Kenosha became a hotbed for positive COVID-19 cases. The Kenosha facility—along with the rest of the company—is back on a regular attendance policy that requires workers to use accrued time off if they want to stay home. That will likely spell more danger for already compromised and encumbered workers. 

Amazon has stated that it plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on protective measures in the face of the pandemic, but with the company’s track record, how are workers, community members, and local representatives supposed to trust these assurances? 

Why can’t Madison keep out bad employers?

For a city that touts its support for small businesses and progressive values, Madison sure has rolled over easily for Amazon. The Common Council’s decision to sign off on the distribution center indicates the local government’s growing tendency to kneel before development and shrug in the face of corporate abuses. 

“The city does have the leverage to say, ‘We know what kind of employer you are and that we know that these facilities can be a blight on the local economy,’” says Andy Sernatinger, a steward for Teamsters Local 695. “Is this the type of employment the city of Madison wants to promote and why? Why condone it?” 

Amazon maintains its dominant position in the economy and as an employer by racing to the bottom. “First, it forces other businesses to keep up with their standards,” says Sernatinger.  “It makes it harder to win improvements at existing union shops because employers feel the pressure from competing with Amazon and are much more reticent to make concessions to workers.” 

Much like the City of Madison, employers wanting to maintain relevance and profitability will have to roll over to Amazon’s demands if they want to keep up with the company’s local footprint. The effect will be harmful to workers, harmful to the community now affected by Amazon’s expansion into District 15, and business as usual for the e-commerce colossus. 

Renderings of Amazon’s planned facility on Milwaukee Street. Images via City of Madison.

Renderings of Amazon’s planned facility on Milwaukee Street. Images via City of Madison.

“I think it’s clear that this is part of a large initiative to create their own delivery capabilities to no longer have to pay other entities like UPS, FedEx, or USPS to deliver their packages. I think this will assist them in carrying that out,” 15th District Alder Grant Foster says. “Today all these packages are getting delivered by the USPS and once this is up and operational, instead of USPS doing this, it will turn into, many or most of them will be independent contractors for Amazon, in that worst model where they don’t have access to benefits or worker protections at all. I think this is part of a larger dynamic to weaken worker protections and shifting what has been family-supporting jobs to the quote-unquote gig economy. I think it’s a really negative move for workers in Madison.”

In the face of Amazon’s expansion into Madison, opponents of the development will have to face a reality. Amazon’s reach is truly inescapable. That laptop charger cord your cat chewed through the night before your big presentation? It will be here in the morning via instant delivery. That video game streamer you love to watch? Hosted on Twitch, now owned by Amazon. The killer fruit tart at the University Avenue Whole Foods? Owned by Amazon. Your company’s web and file hosting? Supported by Amazon Web Services. 

While meaningful government intervention in the spread of the Coronavirus within warehouses sounds satisfying, and could be modeled after a battle currently underway in France, the on-the-ground response to Amazon in Madison will likely take a much different form. 

“It requires a different model to organize that the labor movement is going to have to come to terms with,” says Sernatinger. “Given the scale of the company, it’s going to require really activating the rank and file of unions to be organizers and build out large networks and committees that can put the pressure on Amazon together.” 

Even one of Amazon’s own executives has become tired of the company’s labor practices. VP Tim Bray resigned in May and called the company “chickenshit” for retaliating against workers who are organizing. Bray is the highest-ranking now-former Amazon employee to go on record opposing the company’s practices. In an open letter, Bray highlighted how the tech company is “exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them.” The fact that a former Amazon executive openly said that the company’s leaders “lack vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power” should jolt members of the Common Council who voted to approve this development into reconsidering and fighting Amazon’s expansion into our community. 

Standing up to Amazon in Illinois

One organization, based in Joliet, Illinois, has been pressuring Amazon to clean up its act since 2013. Warehouse Workers for Justice is a non-profit organization dedicated to fair wages, increased safety, and advocacy tools for Chicago-area warehouse workers. In the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Associate Director Roberto Clack doesn’t see an end to the fight against Amazon. 

“With the public health crisis and economic downturn looking to last months, if not years, we expect labor unrest to remain a major issue at Amazon for the foreseeable future,” Clack says.

The WWFJ began advocating for change long before the pandemic shed a harsh new light on Amazon’s labor practices. Operating out of Will County, Illinois, home to one of the nation’s major freight hubs, the organization has watched blistering-fast growth take its toll on workers and communities as Amazon has become the largest employer in the county. ”Even before the COVID-19 crisis, health and safety were already major issues in Amazon warehouses,” Clack says in an email, citing incidents of injuries in Amazon’s Illinois facilities. 

“With COVID-19, safety is of paramount concern, but hazard pay, access to paid time off, and a sustainable rate of work are also serious concerns. With the public health crisis and economic downturn looking to last months, if not years, we expect labor unrest to remain a major issue at Amazon for the foreseeable future,” Clack says. 

So what does it mean to us, 160 or so miles away from Joliet? It means opponents of the Amazon development have to keep informed and organize around future Amazon workers. The wheels of development are not slowing down and neither is Amazon’s encroachment into every aspect of our lives. Meaningful action comes in the form of an organized workplace. Canceling your Prime membership and shopping local is an added bonus, but we need to be vetting incoming employers and not giving away the future of this east-side parcel to the first fat check that rolls through. 

“Amazon needs and wants to be closer to markets like Madison. Don’t give away the farm to them,” Clack says. 

“The City will grab the money while it can”

Amazon is coming to Madison. The company has shown its true self throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as more and more economic inequalities are laid bare. The paramount concern for increased “blue-collar” jobs will be forgotten in time. 

The people working to fulfill orders placed with maximum convenience at a demanding pace will be undermined at every turn by a company whose executives have made unfathomable amounts of wealth during the 21st century’s most deadly health crisis. 

“As brick and mortar [retailers] decline, what we are seeing is some of those jobs shift to warehouse and driver jobs,” Clack says. “Communities should leverage fair taxation deals with Amazon. E-commerce is part of our reality, but communities should support workers organizing and pressure Amazon to do more for the community.” 

What will the area around Amazon’s facility on Milwaukee Street look like, as other industrial and residential developments come to the area? City planner Dan McAuliffe points to the Capitol East corridor—which is a formerly industrial area surrounded by residential along East Washington Avenue—as well as the longstanding Madison-Kipp Corporation tucked away in the Marquette neighborhood. 

“There are certainly things that we look at in terms that we look at such as how those are seated next to an industrial, transportation user, be it visual, or noise,” McAuliffe says. So Amazon’s impact on the street, visually and auditorily, will possibly affect future housing projects coming to the area, in addition to its impact on the existing residential neighborhood of Eastmorland. That will impact other major aspects of future development in the area, such as increased transportation access. 

“Milwaukee Street is a weird anomaly of a street that seems to have different characters throughout the past,” McAuliffe says. “We tried to set out a vision for street improvements in the future that really helped that area transition to a neighborhood that does a street that has to carry some traffic but also works really well for pedestrians, and bikes, and future transits use in the corridor. This proposal, I don’t think it necessarily harms that vision.” 

The future of the physical street itself is still undetermined, as development continues. “Certainly there could be some improvements that could occur on the City side within the right of ways that makes that access better,” McAuliffe said. 

The city’s long-term plan for Milwaukee Street shows the planned Amazon site amid a mix of residential development and parkland. Image via City of Madison.

The city’s long-term plan for Milwaukee Street shows the planned Amazon site amid a mix of residential development and parkland. Image via City of Madison.

Access was a big part of the 2018 plan, which recommended expanding sidewalks to “improve the safety of all users of the transportation system.” “There really aren’t any sidewalks because those areas aren’t really developed and some aren’t even in the City yet,” McAuliffe said. “Once those develop we can see improvements in that street’s character just to make it just a nicer street to be on, live on and travel through.” 

So we can hope to see the future of Milwaukee Street come to fruition when more mixed-use projects and the need for increased transportation access occurs. That will most certainly happen with a large distribution facility, another large parking lot, and increased congestion on the street. We can also surely expect to see that those looking for housing will love living on a congested street next to a 24/7 bustling distribution center. How long will District 15 residents have to wait for meaningful change to occur on this wonky and disjointed stretch of Milwaukee Street? Time will tell, as the parcel’s development plans aren’t really changing the future for the better. 

I hope I’m proven wrong and Milwaukee Street realizes plans for more greener space, mixed-use housing, and booming public life. But the outlook is grim and I don’t trust the tax-avoiding leviathan that is Amazon to make a positive footprint on the neighborhood. 

What is most frustrating about Amazon’s expansion to Madison is the pace at which this has all occurred. Few could have predicted, although some got rich off it, the scale at which the Coronavirus would impact our lives. But here in Madison, development meetings are continuing, and plans are being made for the future of sites across the city while Common Council members meet virtually. The details found within the 2018 Milwaukee Street Special Area Plan provided the groundwork for a robust change to a desolate industrial parcel, hoping to give residents a future filled with mixed-use commercial and residential facilities with streamlined transportation. Now we have sold the future of the street to the highest bidder. Madison is taking a step backward, settling for a degraded vision of what this east-side community can look like and how employers here should treat workers. 

Recently-resigned executives, labor experts, and local representatives aside, one Madison resident summed up the frustrations with this fast-tracked development this past January. In an email sent to the city’s Plan Commission as part of the public-comment process, Pat Malcolm, a retired teacher and Madison native living in District 15, wrote: “So many times it seems we have no real planning in Madison, but jump on every piecemeal project that comes along, and I fear this is another one of those. I sadly predict the Planning Commission will approve this project, that the City will grab the money while it can, and we will have no real plan once again.” Sadly, Pat, you predicted right. 

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