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Athena, a new anti-Amazon coalition, comes together to fight the e-commerce giant

The group is made up of dozens of immigrant and labor organizations who have often criticized Amazon's business practices.

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At an anti-Amazon protest in New York during Prime Day.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Just ahead of Amazon's important Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, the company now faces a new, larger threat from its many critics in the labor and immigration movements.

Over 40 groups said Tuesday they've created a new coalition called Athena to push back against Amazon on a variety of fronts. These groups include the immigrant-focused organizations Make the Road New York and Awood Center in Minnesota, as well as the digital rights group Fight for the Future and the advocacy group Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Just about all these groups have been well-known Amazon critics, with different organizations fighting against the e-commerce giant over its HQ2 development subsidies, work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, treatment of its warehouse workers or alleged monopolistic practices.

The new Athena coalition works to encapsulate all these issues in a broad message against Amazon's business practices, though it specifically mentions that it has no plans to represent employees or negotiate on their behalf, so its campaigns for now may not involve worker unionization.

"Amazon monetizes our suffering," Dania Rajendra, director of Athena, said in a statement Tuesday, "from injuring working people on the job, to providing material support to racist immigration and policing regimes, to crushing local businesses, to corrupting our politics with money, to poisoning our environment."

Amazon shot back, saying it's been a "force for good" in communities, mentioning its $270 billion in US investments since 2011 and the hundreds of thousands of jobs it directly created.

"It's no coincidence to us that this group would emerge now because large shopping events have become an opportunity for our critics, including unions, to raise awareness for their cause – in this case, increased membership dues," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "These groups are conjuring misinformation to work in their favor, when in fact we already offer the things they claim to be able to provide."

The announcement of the new coalition comes as Amazon is already under investigation from Congress for alleged antitrust practices, so Athena will likely add to the negative attention Amazon has been facing this year. Still, the world's largest e-commerce company has withstood plenty of tough criticism and its customers so far have stuck with the company. That makes Athena's job of pressuring Amazon a lot harder.

The groups making up Athena can already point to one successful campaign in their fight against Amazon's HQ2 campus in New York, which the company canceled amid heavy local criticism.

Amazon has worked to bolster its reputation as a good employer by raising its minimum wage last year to $15 an hour and unveiling a new $700 million worker retraining program this year. However, these organizations have called for far more significant action to improve working conditions and restrain Amazon's dominance in both e-commerce and cloud computing.

Athena's announcement was part of a flurry of activity on Monday to raise attention to the new group's work. Those efforts included a demonstration outside Amazon's Staten Island, New York, warehouse, and a forum for East African workers hosted by Awood in Minnesota. 

Athena said Tuesday that more activities are planned for Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

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At the Awood event Monday night, workers at Amazon's warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, announced the next step in their ongoing campaign to improve working conditions there. After already gaining national attention for several strikes, the group is now calling on Amazon to create a new workplace safety committee at their fulfillment center.

The warehouse already has a safety committee, but the employees on it aren't selected by fellow workers and the committee has failed to address significant longstanding concerns, such as worker injuries, William Stolz, an organizer at the Amazon warehouse, told CNET Monday night.

He added that workers at Shakopee plan to take additional action to push for the new committee, though he wouldn't specify what those plans are. The group has already organized several worker demonstrations at the warehouse, including one on Prime Day this year.

"The injuries continue," Stolz said. "I've known many people who have left with pretty serious injuries they'll have for the rest of their lives."

He said he's known several workers who have suffered back, knee or leg injuries on the job due to the fast pace of the work, repetitive movements and requirements to lift heavy objects.

Mohamed Hassan, a fellow Shakopee worker, said he's suffers from a persistent shoulder injury from lifting heavy objects. "I feel that pain always," he said.

The Amazon spokesperson said Tuesday that the current safety committee is voluntary and any employee can join it at any time. Amazon has said it has several layers of safety protocols in its warehouses to protect employees.

Added to that, Amazon expanded its work to offer warehouse tours to the public and recently launched an ad campaign specifically highlighting fulfillment center employees and the benefits they receive.

The call for a new workplace safety committee is another sign of growing worker discontent at Amazon, with several groups of warehouse employees around the country now agitating for better working conditions. Other organizations include Amazonians United Sacramento and DCH1 Amazonians United in Chicago.

Amazon workers aren't unionized in the US. That's brought out several critics of its working conditions, specifically from unions looking to organize employees. However, Shakopee workers have said they aren't trying to unionize and are only pushing for improved the work environment.

In Staten Island on Monday, Amazon employees at the warehouse there held a demonstration outside the fulfillment center. They handed management a petition calling for longer breaks and better bus service, according to Twitter posts from Make the Road New York and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, two critics of Amazon.

The Amazon spokesperson said fewer than five of its employees participated in the Staten Island demonstration, adding that "an outside organization" was using the upcoming holiday shopping season and its building to raise its own profile.

"The fact is that Amazon provides a safe, quality work environment in which associates are the heart and soul of the customer experience," the spokesperson said in a statement Monday, "and today's event, and the notable lack of Amazon employee participation, shows that associates know this to be true."

Plus, The Atlantic on Monday published a lengthy investigative piece highlighting workplace injuries at Amazon warehouses. Amazon called the story inaccurate and misleading.

Stolz pointed to that story Monday, saying it backs up many of the claims his group has been trying to highlight. Now, he's hoping employees will work together to push for the new committee.

"The pressure is going to have to come from workers together in the warehouse," Stolz said, "saying this is what we need for safety."

Originally published Nov. 25.
Updated, Nov. 26 at 11:12 a.m. PT: Added information about Athena; 12:52 p.m. PT: Adds more Amazon responses.