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Before the dust could even settle in Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon went in for the kill. Just a few hours after the widely covered union drive failed on April 9, an Amazon-sponsored coalition of major tech companies put out a press release calling the outcome a “progressive success story.” It was a line Amazon repeated throughout the campaign, even as it engaged in vicious union busting tactics. Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer unit, went so far as to tweet, “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”
Amazon has been honing its progressive image for years, notably raising its minimum wage in 2018 after Senator Sanders unveiled the Stop BEZOS Act to get major corporations to pay higher wages and taxes. This time, though, Amazon’s public relations effort has fallen painfully flat, unleashing an avalanche of social media satire that raised the profile of its labor abuses and even forced it to admit that its workers pee in bottles and suffer from musculoskeletal disorders. Careening between doubling down, issuing apologies, and proposing health and safety measures that involve algorithmically micromanaging workers even more, the company appears lost in its attempt to manage a legitimacy crisis.
For those of us who have organized alongside Amazon workers during the pandemic, this crisis has been brewing for some time. It began in the early moments of viral spread, when workers challenged the idea that the company was protecting them and the public, and it deepened as management punished organizers for protecting their communities themselves. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly forty Amazon workers have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board for being fired or otherwise penalized for organizing during this period. Several of these cases have already been decided in their favor.
As more of these cases come to trial, and as a litany of postmortems of Bessemer debate organizing methods and legal reforms, it is important also to grasp how workers have been not only unmasking Amazon but situating the goal of unionization within a broader vision for fundamentally remaking it. Organizing during the pandemic achieved important successes, as logistics workers on the ground joined with tech workers in corporate headquarters in cities around the world to build the kind of global power that can disrupt corporate supply chains. Amazon fears this interracial, cross-class, international solidarity precisely because it imagines a radical alternative to corporate power: a democratically controlled infrastructure that serves the common good. The story of these coalitions, forged amidst a year of crisis, points the way forward to a more just future.
Within three months of surfacing in China’s transportation hub of Wuhan, the novel coronavirus had spread along trade routes to over 100 countries, taking over 100,000 lives. Amid the chaos Amazon claimed the hero mantle. With growing scrutiny of its unchecked size and influence, the online commerce giant repurposed its core brand of convenience into a humanitarian narrative of “working around the clock to get necessary supplies delivered directly to the doorsteps of people who need them.” The “everything store,” as Jeff Bezos had conceived of the business decades before, was now an “essential store.”
In a trade of closely guarded secrets, the public had to take the company at its word. Executives wouldn’t reveal how they decided which orders were essential, nor would the state compel them to. The only other people with possible insight—the workers—were bound to nondisclosure agreements and divided by the barriers that the owners of the network erected to prevent knowledge transfers among its operators. Tech workers ran the servers, logistics workers shipped the orders, and no one except management could access the flows.
Some things, though, were hard to hide. Day in and day out, Amazon’s “heroes on the floor,” as the company called its logistics workforce, could see bowling balls, prom dresses, rubber chickens, and other nonessential goods moving through their warehouses. The “significant process adjustments” for safety that Amazon had touted in promotional materials turned out to be flimsy cardboard dividers between workstations and tape on the ground intended to keep workers distanced. Meanwhile, the “preventative health measures” that Bezos had announced at the start of the pandemic amounted to unpaid sick days and temperature checks. Fevered workers were sent home with half their pay, and those diagnosed received promises of quarantine pay that remain unfulfilled.
Even as it faced pressure from attorney generals and senators, Amazon refused to release a tally of coronavirus cases in its logistics network, calling the number “not particularly useful.” But workers persisted in their efforts to access this information. In one instance, a grassroots network assembled by Jana Jumpp, a warehouse worker in Indiana, estimated that a third of Amazon’s then 400 U.S. warehouses had experienced cases of coronavirus by May 1. In October Amazon finally disclosed the number: nearly 20,000 of its U.S. workers had contracted the virus within six months of its first reported case.
That Amazon’s labor process makes workers sick wasn’t exactly new knowledge. In Germany, where I worked at a warehouse several years ago, striking workers rallied under the slogan Amazon macht uns krank: “Amazon makes us sick.” The pandemic only heightened these contradictions. Working at Amazon was now not simply detrimental to the health of workers but a matter of life and death, and efforts to demonstrate this fact exposed the bankruptcy of the company narrative. Workers weren’t being treated like heroes, and their work didn’t seem so heroic either: they were being imperiled to deliver rubber chickens.
Along with the imposed category of essential work emerged the capacity to shape it from below. In April workers walking out of a Michigan warehouse chanted, “Until it’s essential, shut it down,” while in France workers did precisely that, shutting down operations until essential shipments were prioritized. By articulating a politics of essential work, logistics workers advanced a perspective first put forth by Amazon’s own climate activist tech workers, who argued that a company owning half the global public cloud and domestic retail markets could and should decarbonize its operations—and, in moments of disaster, relieve communities lacking basic protections and supplies. As the tech worker group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) put it, “This pandemic is a blueprint for how we will handle the increasing crises of the climate emergency; we need long term changes that support the most marginalized in our inequitable economic system, and that leverage Amazon’s infrastructure toward providing emergency relief.” Having organized to change the company’s climate policy several months before, the group was now supporting their coworkers on the other end of the supply chain as they fought for “control over our work, our lives and our collective future.”
In expanding the horizon of who Amazon could protect and serve, workers across its infrastructures advanced a powerful alternative vision: the democratic control of production and distribution in service of social need. But to establish this counternarrative, workers first had to prove that they weren’t going to accept business as usual.
When the virus surfaced in Italy, the nation’s industrial federation and chamber of commerce, Confindustria, lobbied to keep essential businesses open, and on March 14 the country’s main unions agreed in exchange for workplace safety measures. But these measures were worse than unspecified; employee representatives weren’t even allowed to inspect conditions on the shop floor. At Italian Amazon warehouses, management cancelled standup meetings and dispersed the seating layout of cafeterias—an extremely mild attempt at social distancing, counteracted by its push for workers to meet even higher productivity quotas than during the peak holiday season. Adequate bathroom breaks and personal protective equipment were not provided.
Workers pushed back against these dictates on the shop floor, and within three days of the first Amazon worker testing positive in the Torrazza warehouse, their unions called a strike. On March 17 workers in two Italian warehouses walked out, and a day later workers walked out from three French warehouses. In both countries, absenteeism rose to between 30 and 50 percent across the board while workers called on the company to shut down the warehouses with pay. What managers and union officials deemed outside the realm of possibility—having to make worker and public health a real priority—was put on the table by workers themselves.
The precedent set by Italian and French workers affected the conversations workers and allies were having stateside, starting in Queens, New York. It wasn’t the first time the multicultural borough would take on Amazon. In February 2019 community pressure had forced the company to cancel its plans to locate a second headquarters there. That following summer, the company opened DBK1 delivery station in Queens to get packages to customer doors in the city. It was a typical U.S. delivery station: around 200 workers, majority people of color, many of whom worked several jobs. During the grueling winter months of November and December, workers at the station shared empanadas in the break room and helped each other out on the shop floor amid the heightened workloads of the holiday season. Soon after the peak, in January 2020, they formed an organizing committee and collected signatures for their first petition as Amazonians United (AU) New York City. Workers demanded that the company give them legally mandated sick leave and the paid time off promised in its handbook, building on a campaign that originated in Sacramento and Chicago. Almost immediately they got sick leave, and within a month they won paid time off. In between came the virus.
While officials delayed closing schools and nonessential services, New Yorkers braced themselves in what became an early U.S. epicenter of COVID-19. With the support of local activists, AU NYC built on the gains of its first petition by creating a new one for COVID-19 protections. Against supposedly pragmatist murmurs, they followed the precedent of Amazon’s rank and file in Europe and demanded the temporary shutdown of facilities where workers tested positive for coronavirus, paid sick leave regardless of diagnosis, paid care leave in the event of school closures, hazard pay, and the suspension of write-ups for not meeting productivity targets.
When our group extended the petition to workers around the world on March 9, we thought a couple hundred might sign. We ended up getting five thousand signatures, including two thousand from Europe and, thanks to the support of AECJ, almost six hundred from corporate headquarters. There was an outpouring of support from elected officials, including Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Julia Salazar, as well as from fellow activists who participated in a national volunteer outreach effort to help workers in less organized facilities take action. The campaign went on to be cited in the paper of record, the boss’s paper, and a letter to Amazon’s executives from leading senators. We found legitimacy for what until very recently were considered utopian demands.
Just a day after the first batch of signatures was published, workers in Queens won the most utopian demand: shutting down Amazon. In the early afternoon of March 18, dayshift workers informed the DBK1 organizing committee that a coworker from their shift had tested positive. Management had closed the building for cleaning but planned to reopen it for the night shift. The committee notified most of the night shift through a phone tree system they had developed in the months prior, advising coworkers not to go in. With no word from management and just an hour to go, committee members went to the warehouse to warn those they hadn’t yet reached. They found a group of thirty workers who had made their way to the break room, past the security desk, without being informed of the risk of exposure. Once the committee told them, they all went outside. Several managers followed them, and a confrontation ensued.
“Everybody was expected to come in at 10:15 when people knew there was an issue with coronavirus!” yelled a committee member. “Whether you’re gaslighting us about our legal right to paid sick leave or about coronavirus . . . we know what you’re doing! We can see that there’s an absolute disregard for our lives.” With just twenty minutes to go before the start of the shift, managers finally agreed to cancel it with pay. When they reopened for the morning shift, the committee went back to the warehouse and led another walkout. In less than a day, DBK1 became the first Amazon warehouse in the United States where a coronavirus case was confirmed and where workers won its temporary closure, realizing a slogan they had adopted from the prison abolitionist movement: “We keep us safe.”
These early experiences exposed and challenged Amazon in its attempt to run operations at all costs. As workers across the country found out about cases of coronavirus in their warehouses days or even weeks after diagnoses, resistance to this model grew.
At DCH1 delivery station on Chicago’s South Side, for example, managers told workers about a confirmed case only after they had processed most of the volume for the night. Shock spread as an underlying truth was confirmed—that “they don’t think our lives matter as much as theirs.” Elsewhere, when workers pressed for tallies of COVID-19 cases, managers said the counts were with offsite teams. A leaked memo would later show that site managers had access to data about cases in not only their warehouses but on each shift, which the company then centralized. Numbers were shared, just not with workers.
Before the pandemic, Amazon logistics workers sought recourse for grievances through human resources and other formal channels, to little avail. Onsite medical units often denied workers treatment, while managers responded to queries about vacation and personal time off policies as though workers were “stupid and couldn’t read.” Isolated and demoralized, workers gave up, forced to accept some ice and ibuprofen and get back to work. But when the pandemic hit, the danger of COVID-19 and the deceit of management were too blatant to ignore.
In most warehouses where workers took action, it was in the form of spontaneous walkouts. Where organizing committees existed, workers built on earlier victories around access to clean water, pay when the company shut down warehouses during extreme weather events, and productivity quota restrictions for prayer breaks. In early April AU’s Chicago committee organized multiple safety strikes at DCH1, leading to a reduction in the volume of orders processed and the immediate provision of personal protective equipment. Later that month in Minnesota, workers who’d been organizing for several years with the Awood Center, a community organization based in Minneapolis’s East African community, went on an unfair labor practice strike after facing retaliation for their safety strikes. They won the reinstatement of one of their members.
Meanwhile, ongoing strikes in Europe began to yield gains, too. Through April workers in one of the Italian fulfillment centers established a committee to oversee the enforcement of safety measures such as PPE provisions. That same month in France, courts upheld unions’ case that Amazon should suspend nonessential shipments. The courts also forced Amazon to stop making unilateral decisions impacting workers’ health and safety, effectively compelling the company to include unions in its management of the virus. And in Germany, increased coordination among shop stewards empowered their works councils—through which workers negotiate working conditions with management—to extract lists of confirmed cases, suggesting that if the company could disclose them there, it could do so elsewhere. This victory emboldened the Polish grassroots union Inicjatywa Pracownicza in its longstanding battle to make the company bargain in good faith: it took up the demand of its German counterpart for hazard pay and deepened its commitment to an internationalist campaign to eradicate massive wage disparities in the company’s network, particularly between German and Polish workers.
Across borders, workers consolidated their networks. In May a group of shop floor organizers from Poland, Germany, Spain, France, and the United States launched Amazon Workers International (AWI). The group sent an open letter to Bezos in six languages, affirming the transatlantic demands for workplace improvements and transparency around both the rate of infections and criteria for assessing nonessential shipments. As a nod to future ties with workers in Amazon warehouses in Italy, Brazil, India, Egypt, and elsewhere, AWI also created “postcards from the pandemic,” a May Day comic strip in nine languages that showcased struggles from various regions.
But it was among Amazon’s elite ranks where events unfolded most dramatically. It had been a tense winter at the company’s headquarters in Seattle. Several workers were threatened with dismissal for their activism with AECJ, which over the past year had pushed the company to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2040. Despite the intimidation, tech workers refused to stay silent, and when the pandemic hit, they responded to calls for solidarity from their coworkers on the logistics frontlines. They also drew connections between the climate and COVID-19 crises: not only did warehouse workers live in communities most affected by climate change and COVID-19, but Amazon was intensifying the suffering of these communities by polluting their air and raising their risk of COVID-19 infection. As AECJ put it in a March 27 email to corporate workers, “Both crises threaten everybody, but not equally.” The email also invited tech workers to sign the AU petition demanding coronavirus protections that had originated from DBK1. A week later, AECJ circulated another email inviting tech workers to a virtual teach-in with warehouse workers and Naomi Klein. And on April 10, the Friday before the teach-in was supposed to be held, two of AEJC’s leading members—Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa—were fired, bringing the total number of retaliatory terminations of Amazon workers during the pandemic to ten.
Disciplined for speaking out, tech and warehouse workers now faced shared attacks on job security and the right to free speech at work, with AECJ and AWI both demanding that the company reinstate fired workers and agree to just cause. As AECJ put it, “Amazon must never silence workers who speak out on matters of life and death. The essential workers who run its digital and physical infrastructures deserve respect, not punishment, for speaking up and caring for each other.” The group held its warehouse worker teach-in as planned and organized a tech worker sick-out, inspiring a solidarity campaign from their German coworkers, support from prominent elected officials, and even the resignation of Tim Bray, a vice president and one of about twenty distinguished engineers in the company, on May 1. Attuned to the warehouse workers’ struggles through his longstanding support of AECJ, Bray raised complaints with senior leadership. Facing the same wall of corporate secrecy as workers many tiers below him, he walked out, too.
A revealing pattern emerged as Amazon workers challenged managerial authority. The company fired Black logistics workers who led efforts to disrupt operations, and it fired activists at headquarters who leveraged the power they built through their climate organizing to support logistics workers during the pandemic. As a microcosm of a social order that segregates and polices those whose needs it systematically denies, Amazon revealed its acute sensitivity to the combination of militant Black leadership and interracial, cross-class solidarity between elite and nonelite workers. Even though the company could do more to support its essential workforce and their communities, it refused to do so, because protecting workers might threaten the inequalities on which its business runs.
This contradiction crystallized in the summer, when protests against racist policing unfolded around the country and world. As demands to defund and abolish the police grew, Amazon’s leadership encouraged its corporate employees to cancel meetings on the Friday afternoon of June 19 in commemoration of the end of slavery. The mood at headquarters had been uneasy that month. Still recovering from Bray’s resignation, executives received a report from tech workers detailing patterns of racial discrimination. Though focused on the corporate division, the letter began by citing racist comments made by the company’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, about warehouse worker Chris Smalls, who was fired in late March after leading a walkout to protest the quickly rising case count at JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island. Shortly after Small’s dismissal, it was leaked that executives had strategized how to turn him into the “face of the entire union/organizing movement” that they could then discredit. In those conversations, Zapolsky called Smalls “not smart, or articulate,” revealing to the public how the company sees and treats its Black workforce.
Inside the warehouses, managers passed out Juneteenth T-shirts, served fried chicken and waffles, and stopped production for eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence, the amount of time it took officers to kill George Floyd. These gestures rang offensively hollow to workers. “Amazon mocks us with this racist form of ‘celebration’,” noted AU Chicagoland. “We demand a paid holiday, not some damn chicken.” The workers were pointing to another contradiction: by the summer Amazon had revoked hazard pay and unpaid sick days, yet the company still considered workers essential enough to make them come in after curfew at the height of protests, leaving Black workers on the night shift vulnerable to police harassment.
The repression, of course, didn’t stop once they got to work. For months, the company policed Black workers fighting for their lives. One of the Queens organizing committee’s most visible leaders, Jonathan Bailey, a Black abolitionist who had led several walkouts that first month of the pandemic, was pulled aside one day and interrogated by a manager who identified himself as a former FBI agent. The manager worked for Global Security Operations Center, the same group that ran Amazon’s COVID-19 containment efforts. Later, workers found out that the agent was brought in after corporate deemed the warehouse’s existing team of managers responsible for enforcing COVID-19 safety measures too sympathetic to worker efforts. In Minnesota and Staten Island, where workers organized to show that management knew that the warehouses’ infection rates exceeded the community rates, activists were simply fired.
In the midst of a countrywide revolt against racialized policing and exploitation, workers connected the disregard for their lives on and off the shop floor, drawing a line from the indignities of slavery to Amazon’s labor practices. In the Bay Area and in Queens, workers held Juneteenth vigils to “remember and celebrate the lives lost under the exploitation of slavery and those lost to the exploitation of Amazon and the police violence Amazon supports.” Delivery driver Adrienne Williams put the point more explicitly: “On this day of emancipation, I argue that our government never ended slavery. They merely passed the whip to the titans of industry like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.” Even before the pandemic, workers often would say that Amazon is a plantation. That phrase now had become a rallying cry.
Workers came out of the early months of the pandemic having discredited Amazon’s hero narrative: the company wasn’t protecting the health of workers or prioritizing the public interest. Yet following Bray’s resignation, executives continued to argue that Amazon couldn’t have handled the pandemic any differently.
Amazon “has responded more nimbly to this crisis than any other company in the world,” wrote Vice President for Amazon Robotics Brad Porter on LinkedIn. Porter cited his team’s introduction of temperature checks, thermal cameras, employee testing, and the use of artificial intelligence to review social distancing compliance—which, of course, subjected workers to more surveillance.
Porter’s post received praise from fellow managers and considerable pushback from others. One comment came from Maren Costa, a principal user experience designer who first joined Amazon in 2002 and one of the two climate activists whose firings prompted Bray to quit. “It just seems,” Costa responded, “that the mandate from the top was ‘keep production at peak while we quickly but gradually get protections in place’, rather than ‘slow production as necessary . . . and make staying home both easy and paid until we really get this stuff figured out.’”
Amazon could have introduced paid sick leave regardless of diagnosis, knowing that testing would be mostly inaccessible. It could have given parents paid care leave as schools closed. It could have closed exposed sites for two weeks, sanitized, retrofitted, and reopened them with reduced working hours and hazard pay. It could have created task forces to incorporate protective equipment beyond tape and cardboard into its labor processes. It could have developed a robust and transparent protocol for tracking viral spread. If it had the foresight to stockpile goods, it also could have begun supporting its workers.
Amazon wanted to protect its bottom line, of course. But in a period when Amazon increased its profits by nearly 200 percent, the restructuring these steps required would have undermined more than just Amazon’s immediate returns. Implementing these measures threatened to weaken management’s control over the production process in the long run. For executives, rewriting Amazon’s blueprint during the pandemic posed the risk of rewriting its future.
During the pandemic Amazon’s core business needs of increasing sales volume and speeding up inventory turnover faced two strategic dilemmas. The first was technical: the company needed to preempt shortages from abroad while depleting stockpiles in its fulfillment centers, so that it wouldn’t lose money by sitting on inventory. It thus issued additional, off-cycle orders to its suppliers in February, hoarding goods in order to brand itself as an essential company while also relaxing the definition of essentials. This way Amazon could continue shipping electronics and other items high in demand, which not only turned over inventory but had the bonus of being more profitable than selling medicines and foodstuffs.
The second dilemma was political: Amazon’s production process relied on keeping its workforce fragmented and replaceable, but the company also needed to retain enough workers for the first month of operations disrupted by the pandemic. And this is what its policies more or less achieved: nearly half of the workforce sat out while replacements were brought in, and the level of viral spread remained concealed. Rotating healthy workers for sick ones, obscuring just how many were getting sick, Amazon could keep delivering the goods.
From the early shock of the pandemic workers began to develop an alternative vision of Amazon. Though they haven’t had the organizational capacity to realize this “utopian counterfactual” just yet, its presence will be felt as workers continue organizing amid intensifying economic, social, political, and environmental crises. What might the process of remaking Amazon look like?
Most concretely, in making themselves and the company more essential, Amazon workers can overcome a key barrier to building power within the company—the structural divisions between them. Historically, capitalists have controlled the labor process by separating the conception of labor from its execution. Engineers were enlisted in breaking up tasks and studying how each could be performed more efficiently, while management retained a monopoly over this knowledge, assigning workers to a discrete number of tasks and, where possible, mechanizing tasks altogether. At Amazon the separation between conception and execution of labor has been especially extreme, occurring not just between categories of workers but across different nodes of its tech and logistics networks, from warehouses to trucks to data centers and corporate headquarters.
Whereas in factories of the last century, engineers and semi-skilled workers on site played critical roles in jumpstarting massive strike waves, Amazon engineers optimize how orders are picked and packed by workers from offices hundreds or even thousands of miles away. As I found in my research, this process is so optimized that no individual warehouse worker, or even warehouse, can significantly disrupt the fulfillment and delivery of orders. A few strategically placed workers can no longer shut down an entire warehouse or distribution channel, as they could in the golden days of manufacturing. Organizers will need to build majorities for strikes within warehouses and coordinate with logistics workers in other warehouses and trucks. Even more crucially, they will need to stand alongside tech workers in headquarters.
The organizing constraints within Amazon’s network, and the need to build solidarity across it, thus constitute an opportunity to bring about the informational access, political education, and strategic coordination needed for transforming the company. An early version of this dynamic emerged in the pandemic, when logistics workers shared information with their tech coworkers, who then exposed other elite workers to the realities of the conditions on the logistics end. Down the road, corporate workers could share information about network flows with their warehouse coworkers, who could then coordinate with truck drivers. Throughout this process, the various sets of workers will emphasize the issues animating their communities: among the most urgent of these is climate change, which links suffering in the communities where warehouses are located with the concerns elite workers have for future generations. It is through these interactions in the workplace and in communities that workers can situate the struggle to gain control over their work within the wider struggle to reimagine care infrastructures.
Consider the core demand to treat Amazon’s business and workers as actually essential. Workers already can leverage the formation of health and safety councils in Italy, or even the legal possibility of doing so in places like Los Angeles, as an organizing tool to push for higher standards—and enhance the leverage needed to codify those standards. In Germany workers could begin coordinating among the works councils of engineers and line workers through the codetermination model, in which workers exercise some say in company operations. And elsewhere, workers and their communities will need to forge these connections regardless of existing institutional mechanisms. Already community groups are securing wins, such as funds for residents facing traffic and air pollution as a result of Amazon’s disproportionate placement of warehouses in communities of color; tech workers have put forth shareholder resolutions bolstering these initiatives.
Popularizing the concept of controlling work for the common good through left policy agendas will further help construct a coalition of workers, communities, and advocates. In his resolution to strengthen the care economy, Congressman Jamaal Bowman has called for “mechanisms for democratic oversight of data, algorithmic, and technological systems, along with worker and community participation in the development and application of those systems, in service of expanding and improving care and social infrastructures.” Under such banners workers and their communities can vie for the fulfillment and delivery of essential orders along a decarbonized supply chain, and for a tech and logistics infrastructure that—instead of harming workers, their communities, and the environment—promotes their health and safety.
In the end, Bessemer was a moment in this larger arc of political action and political imagination—one that shattered what remained of Amazon’s legitimacy, cemented public support for unionization, and highlighted the need for labor law reform. But even more important, the period that gave rise to this campaign has forged a vision of what Amazon could be and who can bring it about. Organizing to control essential work helped build solidarity across Amazon’s tech and logistics networks during the pandemic, and this strategy can work again in the future—if held onto as a goal.
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