• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Limiting Non-Compete Agreements is Key to a Just Recovery?

Share this post

Najah Farley

As tens of millions of workers—more than one-fifth of the U.S. workforce—were losing their jobs at the start of the pandemic, worker advocates sounded another important alarm: In many states, being laid off would not release workers from “non-compete” agreements they had signed with their employers, which would restrict what future job offers they could accept.

The prospect that employers could hamper workers in their return to work by using non-competes seemed like a far-off possibility in March 2020. But now, with many seeking to return to work, the possibility of workers being bound by past non-compete agreements or agreeing to new ones is deeply concerning. Non-competes limit workers’ power and autonomy and exacerbate existing inequities that disproportionately harm workers of color.

What Are Non-Competes?
Non-competes are contracts, signed by employees when they accept a job, that restrict them from taking a job in the same industry for a set period of time after they leave their position. Restrictions may be defined by industry or geography, and some may list specific rival competitor companies that employees are prohibited from joining. Research suggests that nearly one in five U.S. workers is currently bound by a non-compete. The types of workers bound range from chief executive officers to security guards to sandwich makers, as in the infamous Jimmy John’s case that first brought this issue to the fore.

Nearly one in five U.S. workers—from CEOs to security guards to sandwich makers—is currently bound by a non-compete.

Employers usually present non-compete provisions in a “take it or leave it” fashion. They may require workers to sit out of the labor market for a year or even longer. Not surprisingly, non-competes have been shown to depress wages by reducing competition. This is what economists refer to as the problem of monopsony, where employers have greater market power and are able to continue to offer lower wages due to lack of competition.

Non-competes may exacerbate the wage gap that workers of color face.

Push for State Reforms
Many legislatures are successfully taking on the challenge of non-compete reform. New laws have been passed or are advancing in several states. Bills were introduced in West Virginia, Minnesota, Connecticut, Colorado, New York, and Iowa. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul included a non-compete provision in her budget proposal, and the State Senate also introduced a bill. Both the West Virginia and Iowa bills proposed banning non-competes for workers in low-wage industries.

Many legislatures are successfully taking on the challenge of non-compete reform.

The Minnesota non-compete proposal would limit agreements to an annual salary equal to the median family income and also provide for “garden leave”, i.e., an employer would have to pay 50 percent of the employee’s highest annual base salary during the restricted period. Connecticut’s bill, had it passed, would have set the non-compete threshold close to $100k. Colorado’s bill would be an important improvement of the state’s previous non-compete law. Although many legislative sessions ended without passing the non-compete laws under consideration, the bills in New Jersey, New York, and Colorado are still being considered.

Movement Nationally
President Biden’s initiative to improve competition through his Executive Order on Competition, released on July 9, 2021, has also helped fuel the push for these bills. As a result of this directive, federal agency work in the area has increased.

On March 7th, the Treasury Department, in partnership with the Labor Department, the Justice Department, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), released a report on “The State of Labor Market Competition.” The report found that the lack of competition results in wage declines of between 15 and 25 percent. It also highlighted the power differential that exists between companies and workers, based on information asymmetry as well as labor market forces, that leads to employers exerting market power and offering lower wages and worse working conditions. Now that the FTC has a full complement of commissioners, advocates are pushing for the agency to pursue rulemaking in this area. The Open Markets Institute initially submitted a petition to the FTC in 2019, joined by 60 signatory organizations, including NELP.

Coercive waivers, such as non-disclosures, arbitration agreements, and non-competes, work together to reduce worker power.

Where We Go From Here
In the wake of the “Great Resignation,” management-side lawyers have become even more aggressive in their tactics to keep employees bound by these coercive agreements. In a recent blog post on a human resources site, management-side lawyers stated that they have seen an uptick in employers wanting to sue employees because of the talent shortage; they not only want to retain the employees but also prevent them from going elsewhere. Such articles highlight the abusive way in which non-compete agreements are used to block workers from going elsewhere to use their talents and skills.

In the wake of the “Great Resignation,” management-side lawyers have become more aggressive in their tactics to keep employees bound by coercive agreements.

State law advocacy will hopefully help level the playing field for workers seeking to be free from onerous non-compete agreements imposed by their employers, but advocates still have more to do.

While many states are moving in the right direction, federal legislative reform and rulemaking remain crucial.

The Workforce Mobility Act, sponsored by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Todd Young (R-IN), would eliminate non-competes for the majority of workers, keeping them only for workers involved in the sale of a business. This bipartisan bill would go a long way toward ensuring that workers can chart their own careers; it would take power away from employers that abuse the use of non-competes. A federal bill that bans non-competes for workers could, like Oregon’s non-compete law, have a positive impact on the wages of hourly workers. Now is the time to continue to push for broad non-compete reform, creating the just recovery that workers need.

This blog is a shortened version of one that originally appeared in full at NELP on May 19, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Najah Farley is a senior staff attorney at NELP, who focuses on workplace standards and wages.


Share this post

From fake customer accounts to fake job interviews, Wells Fargo is just the worst

Share this post

Laura Clawson

Wells Fargo is once again making headlines for being a terrible, unethical company even by the poor standards of the financial industry. Just over two years after the bank paid a $3 billion fine for opening millions of fake accounts in the names of actual customers, current and former employees are alleging that they were told to conduct fake interviews to fulfill Wells Fargo’s diversity policies.

Wells Fargo now has an official policy that for every open job paying more than $100,000, at least one “diverse” candidate—a woman or person of color—must be interviewed. But the company had apparently been doing what the NFL faces a lawsuit over: interviewing “diverse” candidates only after jobs had been promised to other (white, male) candidates.

From fake accounts to fake interviews, fake is very big at Wells Fargo.

Former Wells Fargo executive Joe Bruno says he was fired after telling superiors that the fake interview practice was “inappropriate, morally wrong, ethically wrong.” Wells Fargo says Bruno wasn’t the one retaliated against, but was fired for retaliating against a fellow employee. But whatever the reason for Bruno’s firing (and company claims that they didn’t retaliate against workers should always be viewed as suspect), The New York Times found seven current and former Wells Fargo employees who were instructed to carry out fake interviews and another five who were aware of the practice.

So the fact that a company spokeswoman told the Times, in an emailed statement, “To the extent that individual employees are engaging in the behavior as described by The New York Times, we do not tolerate it,” rings false. Because unless all seven current or former employees who had been told to conduct the fake interviews had the same superior telling them to do so, it’s not remotely a thing being done by “individual employees.” For that matter, if there’s one Wells Fargo executive senior enough to have multiple direct reports who are senior enough to be the ones conducting interviews, it’s also not an “individual employees” kind of problem.

The spokeswoman also said that maybe this had happened in the past, but not under current leadership, which came in following the fake accounts scandal. But three of the Times’ sources said they had conducted or been aware of the fake interviews happening this year.

Wells Fargo told the Times that 77% percent of the people hired in 2020 and 81% of the people hired last year were not white men, but refused to say what those percentages were for people being paid more than $100,000.

Discrimination is not a new issue at Wells Fargo, either. Twice in recent years, it has paid out millions of dollars over discrimination claims, once paying nearly $8 million in back wages and interest after a Department of Labor claim that it had discriminated against more than 30,000 Black job applicants, and once paying a $36 million settlement in a lawsuit by Black financial advisers who said they had been steered into poor neighborhoods and away from opportunities.

Wells Fargo’s credibility is low across the board. It sounds like they should be doing less issuing statements about how they did not do fake interviews and more assessing their exposure and getting ready to pay another fine or settlement. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 19, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 


Share this post

These Are The Workers Who Took on Amazon, and Won

Share this post

Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

Against all odds, Amazon workers in New York organized a successful union against one of the biggest companies in the world. Here’s how.

Hey, Jeff Bezos, I’m going to let you know something today: We are just getting started,” Chris Smalls declared at an August 2020 protest in Washington, D.C. August 2020 was the month Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the richest person in recorded history.

Outside of his $23 million, 27,000-square-foot pied-à-terre, a group of Staten Island Amazon workers and a crowd of supporters erected a mock guillotine.

“Give a good reason why we don’t deserve a $30 minimum wage when this man makes $4,000 a second,” Smalls went on.

After leading a walkout over Covid-19 safety at Amazon’s mammoth JFK8 warehouse in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, Smalls and his coorganizers took their rebellion on the road that summer. Outside Bezos’ mansions?—?a $165 million Beverly Hills home, a waterfront estate outside Seattle and a Fifth Avenue Manhattan penthouse?—?the group staged demonstrations denouncing income inequality and demanding wage hikes and protections for workers given the pandemic designation of ?“essential.”

At each stop, they quietly grew the ranks of supporters who also sensed that the scrappy movement was the start of something big. 

Those early supporters included Cassio Mendoza, then 23, who decided to show up to the October 2020 protest in Beverly Hills after connecting with Smalls on Instagram. 

“Wow, this is really different,” Mendoza remembers thinking at the protest. 

“Talking about billionaires, ?‘They gotta go.’ Damn! This is really radical.” 

Mendoza would soon move across the country to take a job at JFK8 and ultimately help win the first-ever union at any of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses. 

Since the Amazon Labor Union’s stunning win in April, much of the media analysis around the victory has been centered on Smalls. Just as important, however, is the collective story of the workers who charted their own path against one of the world’s biggest companies. 

What became the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) brought together an organic group of leaders demanding safety and dignity at Amazon?—?some with prior union experience?—?and a diverse, roving band of socialists in their 20s seeking to join a righteous labor fight. After setting their sights on a union election at the JFK8 warehouse, the group was joined by veteran warehouse workers who brought a deep bench of experience and relationships to the campaign. All of them were essential to the ALU’s upset win to represent more than 8,000 warehouse workers. 

In May, Amazon’s union-busting efforts dealt the ALU a defeat in its second union election, this time at LDJ5, a smaller sort center across the street from JFK8. Out of roughly 1,633 employees eligible to vote in the election, nearly 1,000 cast ballots, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. 

The outcome is disappointing but not entirely surprising for ALU leaders, who say they faced even steeper odds at LDJ5, a newer facility comprised largely of part-time workers. After the union’s first win sent shockwaves through the U.S. labor movement, the ALU says that hundreds of Amazon workers nationwide have reached out for support in their own organizing efforts. There’s every reason to think that the ALU is still just getting started.

ESSENTIALLY DISRESPECTED

It’s fitting that the last day of voting at JFK8 fell on March 30, marking the two-year anniversary of the walkout that jumpstarted the organizing effort there. 

Staten Island’s first case of Covid-19 case was confirmed March 9, 2020. Things escalated quickly in the following weeks. 

While infections rose, ?“They weren’t giving us masks,” says Gerald Bryson, a warehouse picker in his 50s who had been a union member at previous jobs. 

Instead of responding to the pandemic, Amazon organized what Derrick Palmer, 33, describes as a ?“mini-carnival” to recruit workers to racial and ethnic affinity groups, crowding employees into a small room and handing out plates of food while people milled about maskless. 

“They totally disregarded Covid,” Palmer remembers. Worker Jordan Flowers, then 21, has lupus and was awaiting a kidney transplant, which put him at high risk for Covid complications. As Flowers saw stories of people dying across the country that March, he grew increasingly concerned about the lack of personal protective equipment at work. 

“I’m my mom’s only child,” Flowers says. ?“I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” Amazon had already fired him once anyway, when he took short-term disability in 2019, but the company reinstated his employment shortly after he challenged the termination.

Chris Smalls’ job as a process assistant at the warehouse, a training role adjacent to management, gave him responsibility for approximately 60 people. Alarmed that managers weren’t properly notifying employees when someone they’d worked with tested positive for Covid, Smalls took it upon himself to warn workers of their possible exposure. 

Jason Anthony, 36, was one of the workers under Smalls. ?“Our relationship evolved from a worker-supervisor thing to a brotherhood, a bond that will never be broken,” Anthony says. ?“We call each other brother and sister. We care about each other. That’s something that Amazon doesn’t even do?—?care about their own people.” 

In the afternoon of March 30, 2020, workers filed out of the New York warehouse, led by Bryson, Palmer, Flowers and Smalls. They demanded Amazon close the facility for cleaning and offer employees paid time off in the meantime. 

“Alexa, please shut down and sanitize the building,” one of their protest signs read. 

Amazon fired Smalls that day, claiming he violated the company’s quarantine rules. Amazon fired Bryson the next month, though an administrative law judge ordered the company reinstate him two years later in April 2022. Amazon gave Palmer a ?“final warning” and put Flowers on medical suspension. 

According to a leaked memo, Amazon’s chief counsel denigrated Smalls soon after, calling him ?“not smart, or articulate” and suggesting a press narrative of ?“us versus him.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. 

This narrow focus on Smalls ultimately backfired on Amazon, elevating Smalls to the status of a martyr while underestimating the depth of worker anger. The more that Amazon singled out Smalls, the more organizers could focus on talking to their coworkers and bringing new people into the union campaign. 

Meanwhile, Smalls’ story reached workers far and wide. Brett Daniels, 29, got in touch with Smalls via social media after the walkout. At the time, Daniels was working at a dine-in movie theater in a suburb of Phoenix. When he was laid off due to pandemic-related closures, he picked up a job as a seasonal hire at an Amazon facility in Arizona with the hope of organizing among fellow workers. The child of a union firefighter and flight attendant, Daniels hoped to organize a union after years of community organizing experience, including the Fight for $15 in Tucson, Ariz.“We know the ins and outs of the company. Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?” — Chris Smalls

Inspired by the pandemic walkout, Daniels moved to Staten Island in November 2021 and was rehired at Amazon. ?“Almost all?—?if not all?—?of the organizers here were inspired by Chris, Derrick, Gerald and Jordan leading that walkout,” Daniels says.

Connor Spence, 26, also relocated from New Jersey to take a job at JFK8 in May 2021, shelving his aviation training to become an organizer instead of a pilot.

Smalls’ story ?“was emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Amazon?—?everything that’s wrong with society at the time,” Spence says.

Instead of backing down after his firing, ?“Chris was motivated to take the momentum and use it to fix the things he saw that were wrong with Amazon,” Spence says. ?“That was inevitably going to attract other people who wanted to actually step up, take action and change things.”

A UNION IS BORN

On May 1, 2020 —International Workers’ Day?—?Smalls, Bryson, Flowers and Palmer launched the Congress of Essential Workers, a predecessor to what would become the Amazon Labor Union. The group’s original goal was to unite frontline workers across industries in the fight for better conditions and pay. Jason Anthony joined up after he was fired from Amazon in July 2020.

The group envisioned a broad working class struggle against billionaires profiting from the pandemic?—?and they didn’t mince words. 

“The capitalist economy of the U.S. is built off the backs of a class of underpaid people who are degraded to wage laborers and valued only for what they produce, not for their intrinsic value as humans,” reads the Congress of Essential Workers’ website.

As they traveled the country to protest at Bezos’ mansions, the group forged stronger bonds with each other while welcoming newcomers, an approach Smalls describes as ?“all-inclusive” with a caveat. 

“It is Black-led, and we’re gonna keep it that way,” Smalls says he would explain as people joined. ?“Once we have that understanding, we let them in. And they’ve been with us ever since. There’s loyalty, and there is trust. They’re family members.”

In summer 2020, Spence traveled from his home in New Jersey to the Manhattan protest outside Bezos’ penthouse. ?“We really only talked for about two minutes,” Spence says of his first time meeting Smalls. Nonetheless, Spence was quickly added to an organizer chat group. He is now the ALU’s vice president of membership.

“One of the signs of a good organizer is believing fundamentally that working-class people are smart and capable,” Spence says. ?“So building an organization where you tried to make everybody have a part in the democratic process, let everybody have a role in it?—?that’s going to be a successful organization of working-class people.”

That’s the same ethos that drew in Cassio Mendoza at the October 2020 rally outside of Bezos’ Beverly Hills home. 

A committed socialist and the son of a videographer with Unite Here Local 11, Mendoza was skeptical of staff-led organizing. He saw in Bryson and Palmer genuine rank-andfile leadership and was especially impressed that Palmer had flown to Los Angeles after finishing up a shift at Amazon. The Congress of Essential Workers ?“didn’t seem manufactured in any way,” Mendoza says. 

A Los Angeles native, Mendoza typically wears a blue L.A. Dodgers hat, loose black T?shirts and beige khakis?—?wardrobe choices that match his understated personality. Despite his attempts to fade into the background, Mendoza became a pivotal campaign organizer. By June 2021, he had packed up and moved to New York. He began working at Amazon a month later, with the intention of helping the organizing effort. 

But at that point, the labor fight was still solely about garnering more respect for workers, and the group mostly wanted to convene Amazon workers across the country for a national conference. ?“They didn’t even say the word ?‘union,’” Mendoza remembers of those early conversations. 

“The idea was to have us all come together under one banner,” Spence says.

As members of the Congress of Essential Workers began reaching out to other worker groups through social media, they learned that most didn’t have a real organizing presence inside Amazon. One exception was Amazonians United, a loose network of worker committees in the United States and Canada. That group’s organizing model is based on ?“solidarity unionism,” in which workers begin acting like a union without any official, government recognition.

The organizers on Staten Island opted for a different approach when they formed the Amazon Labor Union, although members of Amazonians United have lent support to the union drive at LDJ5.

Bryson had been a member of multiple New York City unions, including the Service Employees International Union Locals 32BJ and 1199, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37. And Smalls had once been a Teamster before working at Amazon, leaving what he describes as ?“a bad contract.” 

While the Congress of Essential Workers at first resisted the idea of a formal union, that changed after the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lost its campaign to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in April 2021. (As of press time, the outcome of the second election in Bessemer is still pending.) Put off by RWDSU’s approach, which leaned on politicians and celebrities to gin up support among Amazon employees, Smalls and the other organizers thought they could do better.

“We know the ins and outs of the company,” Smalls explains. ?“Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?”

As they discussed the idea of a new, independent union to keep workers in the driver’s seat, they looked for examples of other militant unions. Mendoza was especially inspired by William Z. Foster, a Communist organizer in the steel industry in the 1930s. Spence turned to Labor Law for the Rank & Filer from Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd, and he distilled lessons from labor studies and copious online research into presentations for the organizing committee?—?including how to take on union-busting consultants on the shop floor. For language on inclusion, the group referenced Unite Here’s national constitution. For union democracy structures?—?including how union officers’ salaries should be pegged to the average wages of the union membership?—?they looked at the United Electrical Workers. 

“I’m my mom’s only child. I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” — Jordan Flowers

All of these ideas would be reflected in ALU’s constitution. 

“Let’s combine the union model with the rank-and-file committee model,” Spence recalls discussing with Smalls. ?“Each building has a worker committee that is the main decision-making body of the union.” 

Ultimately, the group eschewed abstract theories and rigid methods and looked to workers to act. 

“Screw it,” Spence recalls saying. ?“Let’s just go to JFK8, Chris’s old building, and organize workers there. It’s probably the best building to start a union campaign.”

THE DRIVING FORCE

It’s hard to overstate the odds stacked against an independent union taking on Amazon.

It’s not just that Amazon has a storied union-busting record. The company’s size and ubiquity make it an unavoidable part of modern American life, compunctions of conscience about the welfare of its workers aside. Amazon’s sprawling warehouse and logistics network delivers billions of boxes of stuff annually to its 153 million Amazon Prime members, with 40% of all online purchases in the country originating through Amazon, compared with just 7% at Walmart. More than 1.1 million people now work at Amazon’s more than 800 U.S. warehouses, and Amazon is projected to employ 1% of all U.S. workers in the next few years. 

What’s more, employee turnover inside Amazon facilities is constant. Amazon’s annual churn rate?—?representing the number of employees leaving the company each year compared to their total number?—?is about 150%, which Bezos has said is by design to prevent what he called a ?“march to mediocrity.”

That high turnover made Amazon warehouse veterans, like Michelle Valentin Nieves (who’s been there three years), invaluable organizers. Inside the JFK8 warehouse at the height of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves was growing increasingly frustrated. Managers would reprimand her on the shop floor while she was risking a Covid infection. 

In the first months of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves watched CNN for live updates on infections, hearing false reassurances from former President Donald Trump. ?“Then, come to find out, there were people actually coming up with Covid-19 already in the facility. And they were trying to keep it a secret.”

As Valentin Nieves waited to get vaccinated in 2021, ?“I was just losing my mind,” she says. ?“I’m like, ?‘I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna bring it back to the house. I’m gonna give it to my family.’ ”

When Palmer approached Valentin Nieves to sign a union card in 2021, she didn’t skip a beat. Valentin Nieves would go on to read Martin Jay Levitt’s Confessions of a Union Buster and become a fierce worker organizer, connecting especially with Latino workers for whom she was a familiar face.

Valentin Nieves, who is from Puerto Rico, says good organizing entails good listening, so she would take her time to hear workers’ grievances and provide feedback. During one of these chats, she talked with a worker who had foot spurs from standing for prolonged hours at Amazon. Eventually, Valentin Nieves helped the worker file multiple requests for medical accommodations until they finally got approved. 

Brima Sylla, 55, a widely respected immigrant worker from Liberia with a doctorate in public policy, started working at Amazon in January 2022 and joined the union campaign in March. He had come to Amazon after 10 years of teaching at a small private school on Staten Island, which laid him off during the pandemic. He quickly grew tired of the ambulances blaring to the warehouse entrance to ferry an injured worker to the hospital. Nationwide, workers at Amazon suffered 27,700 injuries in 2020 and 38,300 in 2021. The company accounts for nearly half of all injuries in the warehouse industry— a rate of 6.8 per 100 workers. 

Sylla says he organized to build the union to make Amazon a dignified workplace, because ?“the company just wants money, money, money. They forgot about the human side of the workers. The job is damn hard.”

Pasquale ?“Uncle Pat” Cioffi, a former longshore worker with the International Longshoremen’s Association for about nine years, had been reticent about supporting the union when he was first approached. He scolded organizers for making promises about wage hikes before even securing a contract. 

But when he saw cops arrest Smalls, Daniels and Anthony for trespassing as they delivered food to workers in February, Cioffi changed his mind. 

“At the end of the day, they were dropping off food,” Cioffi says. 

Cioffi occasionally wears Nike tracksuits and a yellow Amazon vest adorned with pins and the words ?“Italian G.O.A.T.” emblazoned on the back. Like Smalls, he is a process assistant. When he speaks, he jabs his fingers at your upper body to punctuate a point, evincing a self-confidence that enraptures listeners. Workers say he personally flipped hundreds to support the union

“People tend to go with people that they trust,” Cioffi explains. ?“Everybody knows me from day shift, any shift, any department. They know who I am because I’m always making that extra effort to help them out in whatever the situation is.”

“Amazon didn’t make this about the ALU,” Cioffi adds. ?“They made it about Chris Smalls. But this wasn’t really about Chris Smalls. This was about the people.” 

Karen Ponce, 26, is one of those people. She had started working at an Amazon delivery station in 2020, intending to save up money for a master’s degree in social work. After a layoff without warning, Ponce was rehired at JFK8. 

Though she had been active in immigrant rights causes in college, Ponce says she didn’t understand unions and initially bought into Amazon’s anti-union propaganda. ?“I was brainwashed, even scared,” Ponce says.

Her thinking began to shift after reaching out to her college sociology professor, who encouraged her to talk to the organizers. Connor Spence answered Ponce’s list of questions about dues and the union election, and they talked about working conditions. 

“They understood the toxic work environment because they were workers themselves,” Ponce says. 

As Ponce learned that some of her coworkers were living in their cars and homeless shelters, she began to connect the organizing drive to her social work calling. She began studying labor history and read Jane McAlevey’s A Collective Bargain. Not only did Ponce eventually join the union effort, she became the ALU’s secretary in December 2021.

Arlene Kingston, meanwhile, supported the union effort from the get-go. She grew up talking politics and had strong municipal unions in her native Trinidad and Tobago. 

Kingston and another coworker aided the union effort by offering free food in the break room, cooking peas and rice, chicken and macaroni pie to give out. ?“And if we have to do it again, we’re gonna do it again over and over,” Kingston says. 

She relishes how ?“a little person that you underestimated” defeated Amazon. ?“And that is just the beginning.”

SOLIDARITY & INDEPENDENCE

The Amazon Labor Union had no time to waste after the victory at JFK8. As messages of support poured in from Amazon workers nationwide, the priority quickly shifted to the vote at the next warehouse, LDJ5, where roughly 1,500 workers sort packages for delivery to the New York City metro area.

Less than a month after voting wrapped up at the first facility, workers at the second facility began casting ballots. In a May 2 vote count conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union came up short. 

Compared to the first warehouse, relatively few of the ALU’s key organizers work at LDJ5. That posed a tougher challenge for those who do, including Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, who first sent Smalls his resume after reading an article about the ALU in the socialist magazine Jacobin.“When it comes to organizing, you. have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.” — Julian Mitchell-Israel

Mitchell-Israel had been involved in electoral politics, including Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, but says he learned a crucial lesson about organizing over the course of a high-stakes campaign at LDJ5.

“When you’re up against misinformation, when you’re up against people that are violently anti-union, you have the instinct to sort of get on the defensive, to go?—??‘Screw you, you don’t understand you’re being brainwashed, whatever,’?” Mitchell-Israel says. ?“When it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.”

Madeline Wesley, another LDJ5 employee, arrived from Florida in August 2021. Wesley, 23, had been a student activist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was there that Wesley met ALU’s pro bono lawyer, Seth Goldstein, who was representing the university’s physical plant workers and clerical workers. After stints working for Unite Here union locals in Boston and Miami, Wesley joined the Amazon campaign on Goldstein’s urging and soon became ALU’s treasurer.

After the upset victory at JFK8, ?“some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win,” said Wesley before the vote. ?“And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything they’ve got here at LDJ5.”

Wesley says she and her fellow workers at LDJ5 faced a bruising campaign in which Amazon doubled down on its union-busting tactics. The company is also seeking to overturn the election results at JFK8 through an appeal to the NLRB.

On April 24, the day before voting began at LDJ5, national labor leaders rallied at Amazon’s Staten Island campus in a bid to boost support

The mood at the ?“Solidarity Sunday” rally was jubilant. Surrounded by Amazon workers and hundreds of their supporters, Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.) also delivered fiery speeches.

Many union leaders pledged their full support of the ALU?—?including Mark Dimondstein, president of the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union; Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Earlier in April, Sean O’Brien, new president of the Teamsters, met with Smalls and Derrick Palmer, ALU vice president of organizing, in Washington, D.C.

“We work in the same industry as all of you?—?and we’re either going to rise together or we’re gonna fall together,” Dimondstein said at the rally. 

Smalls welcomes the support but remains unequivocal about the union’s independence. ?“Everybody knows that we’re gonna remain independent,” Smalls said at the rally. ?“And these bigger unions know?—?every time I meet with one of their presidents, I let it be known?—?there ain’t no strings attached.”

With hopes of unionizing a second facility postponed for now, the ALU still has another momentous task before it: winning its first collective bargaining agreement with Amazon. If the new union can channel its broad national support and deep connections inside JFK8 into improved conditions at that warehouse, it will make a clear case to Amazon workers elsewhere that they should join up.

“There’s no way we’re going to stop or let this bring us down,” said ALU’s co-founder Derrick Palmer at an impromptu press conference following the May 2 loss. ?“It’s going to do the complete opposite. We’re going to go 10 times harder.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 23, 2022. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


Share this post

The Amazon Labor Union Victory Shows That Jurisdiction Is Dead

Share this post

Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

No more arguing over territory or industries—we need multi-union coalitions capable of organizing on a national scale.

When news spread April 1 that the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) had won its union election at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York, the initial response from anyone who supports the labor movement was exultation at this unprecedented?—?and unexpected?—?victory for the working class. 

The secondary response was a collective ?“In your face!” to mega-billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who was shown that all the money in the world can’t crush the will for a union. 

Now, we can all move on to what should be the next response: Forcing the union establishment to take a long, hard look at what it needs to change. 

The ALU?—?a project of current and former Amazon workers as well as committed volunteer organizers?—?succeeded in organizing Amazon before any big, well-funded union could. That fact has produced a million insta-analyses: ?“They were in New York City, not Alabama?—?so they had the easiest target!” ?“The ALU was led by cool younger people?—?old union bureaucrats must be purged!” Etc.

Rather than indulge in that particular argument, I propose an adjacent conclusion that I think will hold true no matter where anyone lands on the specific tactical questions about the ALU victory. This is the lesson the union world should take from the ALU’s accomplishment: Jurisdiction is dead. By this I mean that all of the time unions spend arguing with one another over who has the right to organize which workers, in which industry, at which company is one gargantuan waste of time. Stop it. It’s useless. It is, in essence, a bunch of drivers arguing over a single parking space in one corner of a vast, empty parking lot. While an asteroid is approaching. It is not something that should be on the list of top 100 priorities for labor, given the current situation.

Who cares about jurisdiction in the first place? Well, many major unions consider this parochial concern to be the most important reason for the AFL-CIO to exist?—?to serve as a traffic cop, arbitrating petty arguments between unions that want to organize the same place. Inherent in this perspective is the belief that other things the central body of the labor movement could be doing?—?like, for example, building multi-union coalitions capable of organizing powerful employers like Amazon?—?are less important than this traffic cop role. 

What has this approach gotten us?

It has gotten us a nation in which barely one in ten workers (including barely 6 percent of private sector workers) are union members, while economic inequality has been rising for decades. The idea that unions should have the right to lay claim to particular industries where 90 percent of workers are not union members is farcical. A perfect illustration of this absurdity is the fact that, in March, new Teamsters president Sean O’Brien told Bloomberg he ?“wants the Teamsters to be the only union that organizes workers at Amazon’s fulfillment centers and sorting hubs.” Less than two weeks later, the independent ALU had actually unionized an Amazon fulfillment center, which is one more Amazon fulfillment center than the Teamsters have unionized. 

Unions serve workers. Not the opposite. What serves workers best is having a union now, not the abstract concept of a single union that owns their industry and may get around to organizing them years from now. Until union density in America reaches, say, 50 percent or more, we don’t need to hear any more jurisdictional arguments from unions about whose territory is whose. Instead, we need to see successful union campaigns in which millions of new workers are unionized.

Want to claim ?“jurisdiction” in an industry? Then organize it. Otherwise, make way for those who will. 

To the credit of America’s union leaders, their public reaction to the ALU victory has uniformly been one of support. But that same victory throws into relief how pressing it is for those same unions to change the way they’ve been doing business for the past half century. No more individual fiefdoms jealously guarding their own shrinking islands of union territory, while the majority of working people flounder with no support from organized labor. The ALU inspired us all by unionizing the first 8,000 Amazon workers in the United States. Organizing the next 800,000 will require the combined efforts of many unions, and then some.

Rich, ruthless, and omniscient companies like Amazon will not be organized solely with GoFundMe donations, as the Staten Island warehouse was. Now is the time for the labor movement to start building multi-union coalitions capable of tackling employers on a national scale, and keeping up the fight long enough to win contracts in the face of endless litigation?—?think something like the Change to Win coalition, but more active, and aimed at individual companies. 

Building multi-union coalitions requires unions to recognize the futility of arguing over jurisdiction, and instead do the opposite: Combine forces and organize without freaking out over who gets to put their label on the end product.

ALU leader Chris Smalls, whose vision made the Amazon union victory a reality, has already become a celebrated figure. In the end, his greatest contribution to the labor movement might be that he’s served as a blaring wake-up call. There is no room for egos or territorialism in a country of 10 percent union density. This fight is going to be expensive. Everyone, ante up.

This post originally appeared at In These Times on May 18, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


Share this post

Unionized nursing homes were safer in the pandemic, this week in the war on workers

Share this post

Laura Clawson

Unions have increasingly bargained for the common good in recent years, as when teachers negotiate lower class sizes and more school nurses or counselors, or nurses negotiate for improved staffing ratios so they can give every patient the attention they deserve.

Union opponents often try to claim that these are really self-interested measures that only benefit workers (as though there’s anything wrong with benefiting workers), not also students and patients. These are of course the same people who always come up with excuses for how larger classes and more patients per nurse are reasonable, as they are hostile not just to workers but to investments in the public good.

All of which is to set up why this study of resident mortality and worker infection rates in union versus nonunion nursing homes in 2020-2021 is interesting and important.

As the study, by Adam Dean, Jamie McCallum, Simeon Kimmel, and Atheendar Venkataramani notes, “nursing home residents have accounted for roughly one of every six COVID-19 deaths in the United States,” making nursing homes a major site of mortality.

So, how did union and nonunion nursing homes compare? After a lot of data and statistics, “we found that unions were associated with 10.8 percent lower resident COVID-19 mortality rates, as well as 6.8 percent lower worker COVID-19 infection rate.”

Imagine if 1 in 10 of the nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 … hadn’t.

Laura Clawson

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 14, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 


Share this post

The New Labor Movement Is Young, Worker-Led and Winning

Share this post

Katie Barrows

This year, May Day was celebrated during a historic moment for the American labor movement. Nearly every day, news reports announce another example of workers exercising their rights as nonprofit professionals, Starbucks workers, and employees at corporations like Amazon, REI and Conde Nast announce their union drives. The approval rating for labor unions has reached its highest point in over 50 years, standing at 68 percent, and petitions for new union elections at the National Labor Relations Board increased 57 percent during the first half of fiscal year 2021.

Three years ago, we (In These Times) wrote an op-ed about how young workers in historically unorganized occupations — such as digital journalism, higher education and nonprofit organizations — were beginning to rebuild the labor movement. Today, Covid-19 has changed the way that we relate to work and created new sources of economic anxiety, while exacerbating old ones. Yet, young workers continue to fuel the new labor movement as they form new unions to win back a degree of control over their futures in a world fundamentally altered by a global pandemic. With momentum in union organizing and worker activism still growing, it is important to recognize the ways that workers in every industry are helping the labor movement live up to its values and reverse the years-long decline in union density. 

Through organizing campaigns at the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, we’ve learned that successful new organizing campaigns must be member-led. Recent organizing victories at Amazon in Staten Island and at Starbucks stores across the country have reinforced the importance of workers themselves being empowered to be the drivers of their own organizing campaigns. We’ve also seen this in other traditionally unorganized sectors, such as political campaigns, digital media and tech.

There are a variety of reasons why member-led organizing campaigns tend to be more effective. One is the commitment that worker-led union organizing requires — leading a union organizing campaign is not for the faint of heart. Worker-leaders must be dedicated, and their time and energy investment means they have more skin in the game. Additionally, these workers build genuinely supportive relationships with their coworkers through one-on-one conversations, working in teams on union materials, and happy hours that bring more workers into the organizing drive. The relationships built during a worker-led organizing campaign helps workers to feel supported, as they know that their coworkers have their back. This collective approach also solidifies workers’ resolve to push back on empty rhetoric from their employer.

Member-driven campaigns are also key to combating bosses’ anti-union campaigns. When workers are active in setting campaign strategy, reaching out to their coworkers, and driving the narrative of the union campaign, they can successfully push back on corporate union-busters’ messaging that the union is a “third-party” or “outside agitator” — because workers know that they are their union.

The significance of momentum can not be understated. In all of these newly organized industries, we’ve seen the power a single union victory can have when it sparks a new consciousness among workers who previously didn’t know they could join a union, or didn’t think unions existed that understood and could address their specific concerns. Union wins years ago at Gawker, the Center for American Progress and Kickstarter helped incite the momentum for new organizing, and laid the groundwork for the campaigns we are seeing today. 

We’ve also learned the importance of publicizing our unions’ tangible contract gains. Workers want to be a part of a union that’s effective at improving their pay, benefits, and working conditions, so we as a labor movement need to make the public aware of our wins. That’s why our union and others in newly organized spaces will shout our wins from the rooftops with press releases, social media posts, news stories, and through any other means that will spread the word.

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards.

Katie Barrow and Ethan Miller

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards. For example, members of our union at the Center for American Progress recently won a new contract that raised starting salaries by 20 percent over three years, secured annual raises of between 2-2.5 percent, and codified junior staff’s right to be credited on research and policy publications that they work on. Union members at G/O Media ratified a new contract that raised the organization’s salary floor to $62,000, includes trans-inclusive healthcare and prevents forced relocation for remote staff. At NPR, union journalists won 20 weeks of paid parental leave, a hiring process that commits to interviewing more candidates from underrepresented groups, and regular pay equity reviews. The more folks outside of the labor movement know about these victories, the more they will want to learn more about forming a union in their own workplaces. 

Millennials and Gen Z are excited, energized, and winning new gains and a new sense of power at work. For the labor movement to continue to grow, we must learn from each other, continue implementing the strategies that are winning union organizing campaigns, and support new, young leaders. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katie Barrows and Ethan Miller are the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70, which is made up of the staff of 49 organizations in Washington, DC and across the country.


Share this post

Amazon Bites Back in Vote at Second New York Warehouse

Share this post

Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

The Amazon Labor Union, after making history in April when it won the first-ever unionized Amazon warehouse, JFK8 on Staten Island, New York, was routed in May in a second election at LDJ5, another warehouse in the same complex.

Amazon waged a fierce union-busting campaign, and it worked. Out of 1,633 eligible voters, 998 cast ballots: 380 yes and 618 no. There were no challenged ballots, and two ballots were voided. The ALU’s lawyer, Seth Goldstein, has said the union will challenge the outcome.

Worker organizers faced an uphill battle in replicating their success at the second warehouse because it is relatively new, having opened in 2020, and its workforce is largely part-timers. LDJ5 also had fewer worker organizers than JFK8.

After the JFK8 vote, Amazon fired half a dozen senior managers. The company also fired warehouse workers and ALU organizers Tristan Dutchin and Mat Cusick. The union is launching a campaign to demand their reinstatement and that of other union supporters fired in what the union says is retaliation for their organizing.

Ahead of the vote count, I spoke with organizers Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, and Madeline Wesley, 23, for In These Times. At the time they were hopeful about the outcome, but acknowledged they were in a tough fight.

“I think that after winning JFK8, some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win,” Wesley said. “And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong.

“Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8; they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything that they’ve got here at LDJ5. They successfully rallied some anti-union workers, so we had to fight a lot of misinformation and rumors and lies.”

Mitchell-Israel said the campaign had lost ground when he and Wesley took three weeks off from their jobs at LBJ5 to help win at JFK8.

“In that time, Amazon planted a seed of a very deep anti-unionism in a lot of the workers here,” he said. “They riled up the people that were already against us to be more vocal. So when we came back into the warehouse, although some people were more on our side than ever, a lot of people were more against us than ever. It was one step forward, one step back.”

‘UNLIMITED CHANCES’

Nonetheless, Mitchell-Israel said these organizing drives have reinforced in him the lesson that, “when it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. It takes discipline, and it takes a sort of militancy and love.

“The one time I snapped during this entire campaign, I said to a worker, ‘Why are you bootlicking Jeff Bezos right now?’ And I saw the hurt in his eyes after I said that, because I think he was genuinely curious about things and he was genuinely trying to understand.

“I went into my car and I cried after that, because I was saying to myself that that is the mistake that has stopped this movement from happening for so long.

“People need to have unlimited chances here. One of my favorite things that one of the other organizers said is that there’s no such thing as an anti-union worker—there’s just a misinformed worker. And I think that’s a fact, because you’re never going to work against yourself.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 13, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


Share this post

Rapid Grocery Delivery Service Buyk Accused of Wage Theft by Former Workers

Share this post

Amir Khafagy - Type Media Center

Before the Russian-funded delivery startup collapsed, Buyk sold itself as a way for workers to escape the gig economy. Former workers say it failed to deliver.

In early March, 28-year-old Michael Perez received an alarming email from one of his co-workers at Buyk, the Russian-funded, New York City-based ultra-fast grocery app.

Because of the severe sanctions against Russia, the letter announced, the company had lost access to its investors and was forced to furlough 98 percent of its workforce. For Perez, the letter was just one more disappointment in a long string he had experienced working for the company.

Prior to its abrupt closure, Buyk was one of the largest and most rapidly growing ultrafast grocery delivery apps in New York City, promising its customers deliveries in 15 minutes or less.

Three former Buyk workers said that the company delivered something else: wage theft and mistreatment. Two of the workers accused Buyk of misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees, stealing their tips, and failing to provide them pay stubs. The third accused the company of failing to pay his full wages and firing him when he complained.

Buyk’s PR representative, Tom Kiehn, and lawyer, Mark Lichtenstein, both declined to comment for this story.

Rise of an Industry

The pandemic has been a boon for ultrafast grocery delivery companies, which have exploded in number in New York City since 2021. Venture capitalists have showered billions on these startups, which promise to deliver everything from six-packs of beer to extra creamy cashew milk in 15 minutes or less.

When Buyk first entered the New York market, some observers raised questions about the viability of its business model, noting that the company relied on low-paid labor.

“A big challenge will be that it’s impossible to use such a cheap workforce in New York as they’re used to in Russia,” Boris Ovchinnikov, co-founder of the Russian research firm Data Insight, told Bloomberg.

Buyk promised that it would use a different model, investing deeply in labor development. Unlike Samokat and previous gig economy startups, which relied on contract workers, Buyk said it would hire full-time staffers and deliver them benefits like medical insurance, commuter compensation and a 401K plan.

Broken Promises

Perez first learned about Buyk last August, when he spotted an appealing online ad for bike couriers. The ad, placed by a company called Food Start, offered a flat rate of $17 per hour, flexible working hours and the opportunity to work from a single location.

Perez found the job more difficult than he expected. Management prioritized delivery speed over couriers’ safety, he said, and several of his co-workers were hit by cars as they were out making deliveries. Couriers were asked to deliver groceries that exceeded Buyk’s maximum order weight of 26 pounds, he added, which made it difficult for them to deliver the orders on time.

At the end of each week, Perez would text his manager with a timesheet showing his hours worked. According to a lawsuit Perez later filed against both companies, he routinely worked forty-five hours per week, but never received overtime pay. The lawsuit also alleges that Buyk improperly classified him as an independent contractor instead of an employee and illegally withheld his tips.

Regulating The Industry

The rapid growth of the ultra-fast delivery industry has led many small business owners and elected officials to fear that the industry could undercut the city’s bodegas and corner stores, the same way that Uber and Lyft devastated the yellow cab industry.

New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer has called for the city to investigate whether Buyk and other ultrafast delivery companies’ “dark stores” are violating zoning rules. She argues that since the stores are not actual stores but are mini-warehouses, they should not be located in commercially zoned districts.

Council member Christopher Marte recently announced his intention to introduce a bill to prevent grocery apps from advertising 15-minute delivery times, as well as to limit the weight of groceries workers have to deliver.

Upon hearing the allegations against Buyk, Marte stressed the importance of recognizing workers as employees of the companies they work for.

“We want to make sure their employers see them differently from gig workers because they’re employees, unlike Uber or Lyft workers that go to and from different points,” he said. “ They should be employees and have the benefits and protections employees have.” 

Now out of a job, Perez has found himself right back where he started. He still gets emotional when he reflects on how much he gave to Buyk and how little he has to show for it.

This post originally appeared at In These Times on May 11, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Amir Khafagy is a journalist, activist, organizer and performer. His work has been featured in CityLab, Jacobin, City Limits, The Indypendent, Counterpunch and The Hampton Institute. He is currently completing an MA in urban affairs at Queens College.


Share this post

Fact-Checking Amazon’s Bogus Workplace Health and Safety Claims

Share this post

Irene Tung

In response to public scrutiny of high injury rates and growing worker organizing efforts at its facilities, Amazon recently published a report on its workplace health and safety record titled “Delivered with Care.” In this blog post, we sort out fact and fiction in Amazon’s key arguments in that report.

False Claim #1: Amazon’s injury rates should be compared with injury rates in the “Courier and Express Delivery Services” sector, not “Warehousing.”

First, Amazon claims its injury rates should be compared to those of businesses in the “Courier and Express Delivery” category, which are generally higher than those in the “Warehousing and Storage” category. While Amazon’s workforce does span both industry categories, what Amazon fails to mention is that most of Amazon’s delivery drivers are not employed directly by Amazon. Instead, Amazon subcontracts to a network of companies, which it refers to as “Delivery Service Partners” (DSPs) who in turn employ the drivers that deliver Amazon packages. Even though these workers work for DSPs that exclusively deliver Amazon packages, their injury rates are not reflected in the injury rates that Amazon reports.

A recent report by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) showed that the injury rates for Amazon drivers employed through the DSPs were even higher than the rates at Amazon warehouses. The report compares these numbers with companies in the “Courier and Express Delivery Services” category and shows that they are 50 percent higher than those at a comparable business such as UPS.

In “Delivered with Care,” Amazon also cherry picks a few industries with which to compare injury rates (p 12). One of them is pet stores. While pet stores do indeed have high injury rates, what Amazon does not mention is that Bureau of Labor Statistic (BLS) data show that about 30 percent of the reported injuries at pet stores are “cuts, lacerations or puncture wounds.” These pet store injuries are most likely pet bites, but Amazon seems to suggest that the injuries at its warehouses are somehow analogous. Despite these random comparisons, the facts are clear that Amazon’s injury rate is higher than the average for the entire warehouse industry and over two times as high as the national average for all private industry.

False Claim #2: Amazon has already implemented effective solutions to bring injury and illness numbers down at its warehouses.

No effort to adjust the dangerous pace of work at Amazon is mentioned in the report. The pace of work and the stressful, forceful movements workers must make every day in the manual material handling jobs at its warehouses cause musculoskeletal disorders. The Amazon report instead expounds on the company’s ”wellness” program and its training on proper lifting. Washington State OSHA just cited Amazon for exposing workers to hazardous conditions and violating the OSHA law, because the job pace is so fast workers don’t have time to follow their safety training, including safe lifting methods.

In the entire 35-page “Delivered with Care” report, the only specific improvement mentioned to reduce the widespread ergonomic hazards in their warehouses is the introduction of pallet lift tables to lessen the need for bending down to pick up objects off the conveyors. While this is a positive step, it represents just one of the many measures to improve warehouse safety recommended by OSHA.

These include using powered equipment instead of requiring manual lifting for heavy materials; reducing lifts from shoulder height and from floor height by repositioning shelves or bins; adding pneumatic lifts, adjustable tables, turntables, and adjustable steps, to name just a few of the other recommended measures Amazon could implement.

Much of Amazon’s ”wellness” training program is about what it calls ”conditioning” for the job (p. 16), as if it is workers’ lack of conditioning that is causing these injuries—implying that the workers are to blame for their own injuries. However, as Washington State OSHA has noted, musculoskeletal injuries at Amazon are primarily caused by ergonomic risk factors including high repetition and lifting, bending, reaching, pulling, and pushing. The solutions must address those adjustments to the job that are needed to prevent injuries—redesigning the job to make the job fit the worker.

Most of “Delivered with Care” refers to 2020 injury rates to back up its claims. However, as a recent Strategic Organizing Center report points out, the “Delivered with Care” report also uses 2021 injury rates when it refers to Amazon’s “Huddle” program (p 16), implying that the company already had its complete 2021 injury data at the time that “Delivered with Care” was published. But the authors of “Delivered with Care” withheld a key piece of information: Amazon’s overall injury rate actually increased by 20 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Even after the publication of “Delivered with Care,” Amazon has continued to misrepresent its injury rates by using outdated and out-of-context information. As recently as April 2022, CEO Andy Jassy sent a letter to shareholders using 2020 data instead of 2021 data to support a claim that Amazon’s injury rates were “misunderstood.” In response, Business Insider published a thorough fact-check of Jassy’s misleading use of those statistics.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on May 11, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Irene Tung is a senior researcher and policy analyst for NELP.


Share this post

“It tears you apart mentally and physically”: The Health Crisis Afflicting Black Farmers

Share this post

Safiya Charles (@imsafiyacharles) / Twitter

At 43 and 45 years old, husband and wife farmers Angie and Wenceslaus Provost, Jr., hope they live to see age 70. 

They don’t fear terminal illness or a farm accident that could consign them to an early grave. 

Instead, they fear stress could do them in. Years of trying to protect family land from encroaching banks and government agencies have worn on them, despite their love of farming. 

After years of mounting debt with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a bank, the New Iberia, La. sugar cane farmers filed a September 2018 lawsuit against a USDA-approved lender. The suit alleges that Wenceslaus, known as “June,” was all but run out of the profession in 2015 after the bank reduced his crop loans over successive years, effectively underfunding his farm operation. June also claims that the lender regularly dispersed his funds well past planting season, which hampered his ability to compete against other, mostly white, cane farmers in the region. Angie has had a separate and ongoing civil rights claim open against USDA since 2017.

Both Angie and June have been hospitalized with symptoms of a nervous breakdown. They endure fatigue, racing hearts, insomnia brought on by nagging fear they could lose everything: their homes, their cane fields, their tractors, even their lives. They have sometimes feared the stress might literally kill them. In 2008, June, a fourth-generation sugar cane farmer, was in his second season of farming alone when his father died of a heart attack after helping him chop soil to plant fresh cane. June’s father had fallen behind because his crop loans were delayed by his banking institution; both June and Angie feel the situation had become bad enough to put his health at risk.

“We’re very aware of the fact that the early death of our family members like June’s father and some of our other community members is due to that stress of being bankrupt and foreclosed on after going through such litigation like Pigford,” Angie said, referring to the class action lawsuits filed by Black Farmers against USDA for discrimination and failure to investigate civil rights complaints. “Those are issues of trauma. It’s a difficult thing, an almost impossible thing to live through, unless you have a support system.”

Owing the USDA more than $1 million, June at one point questioned his desire to live. “At my worst, I contemplated suicide,” he said. “I felt there was no one I could turn to.” The future seemed to be certain death by a thousand bureaucratic hurdles, racism, stress, and overwork. 

In some ways, the Provosts’ story is familiar to anyone working in agriculture. All farmers and ranchers know the standard hardships of their profession—from the high costs of doing business to being at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. The financial risks are high, and crop prices are always in flux. A devastatingly adept predator might make off with some prized livestock. Pests may gorge their way through rows of promising crops. The physical work is hard on the body; the pesticides are too. And while weather is always unpredictable, climate change’s unseasonable droughts, flooding, storms, and freezes add to the strain. Those problems make farming one of the most stressful occupations in the country.

But Black farmers have to contend with an additional menace: the systemic racism that has long marred U.S. agriculture. These producers face down all the typical hardships while also navigating other hazards, including legal battles with the government, discriminatory lenders, opportunistic land grabbers. These painful interactions tend to underscore the racist—and tragically long-standing—myth that Black people don’t belong in farming, and don’t deserve the tools required to succeed. 

“So many Black farmers—June’s father, his uncles, my aunts and uncles, our community members, our kin—have the same story: sitting there in a USDA office waiting to be serviced, and never being serviced properly; being told by local agents that you will not succeed,” said Angie. “‘You will fail.’ ‘You are not a farmer.’ Those types of things are told to you directly.”

These grinding forms of discrimination take a deeply personal toll, contributing to a mental health crisis among Black farmers that’s at once acute and yet hard to see. Help is not exactly on the way. While programs do exist to help farmers handle the stress of the profession, many existing lifelines are geared toward the approximately 95% of U.S. farmers who are white, downplaying or outright ignoring the specific forms of distress that stem from race-based prejudice. Though a small but vital body of research points to the need for a more inclusive approach, and at least one advocacy group is working to better understand the scope of the problem, few efforts are being made to address the problem on the ground. For now, too many farmers still have nowhere to turn, their suffering largely rendered invisible within the support systems that exist. 

“It’s that psychological impact that I’ve seen happen to many Black farmers,” Angie said. “You have to understand it’s a repeated pattern. It tears you apart mentally and physically.”

The research gap 

In 2021, the USDA announced $25 million to state Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Networks (FRSAN) to build crisis hotlines, establish anti-suicide trainings, and offer free or low-cost counseling, among other services. It was an important step toward recognizing the emotionally grueling, often isolating nature of farm work. But it did little to respond to the needs of Black farmers, who tend to operate smaller farms, face increased economic pressure, and are routinely exposed to racism in agriculture and beyond. Of the 50 FRSAN projects USDA funded in 2021, only seven programs—in MaineMassachusettsMinnesotaNew HampshireNew MexicoNorth Carolina, and Rhode Island—pledge to make efforts to accommodate the specific needs of communities of color. 

It’s yet another indication that the bulk of U.S. research on farming and mental or behavioral health and stress focuses on white farmers. And while that may partly be a function of demographics—Black farmers make up 1% of growers nationwide, a stat that itself testifies to the exclusionary force of systemic racism in agriculture—important research or diagnostic tools fail to be race-sensitive. Without these mechanisms, it’s difficult to provide informed treatment that responds to the specific needs of Black farmers and could improve their physical and mental well-being. 

The Farm/Ranch Stress Inventory, created in 2002 by Charles K. Welke, then a psychology doctoral student, is a tool that assesses stress, satisfaction and perceived social support among farmers and ranchers. It asks dozens of questions to assess a farmer’s anxiety level and is sometimes adapted for studies of farmer well-being. But its questions focus mostly on financial and family matters; while it inquires about conflict with relatives or community, no question mentions race or racism specifically. In another example, a 2021 Farm Bureau-commissioned study of 2,000 rural Americans found that farmers and farm workers were significantly more likely to have said their stress increased in the last year than their non-farming neighbors. But the insurance and lobbying giant told The Counter that it did not analyze its data by race. 

Laketa Smith manages the Farmers of Color Network of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA). In collaboration with North Carolina State University, she and North Carolina-based RAFI are conducting a study of farmer mental health and financial stress. Unlike many other studies, that research is intentionally oversampling farmers of color. Though the study won’t conclude until later this year, it will interview 15 Black and Indigenous farmers, respectively, in addition to the same number of white growers (a future iteration will include Latinx subjects). 

While final results aren’t in, Smith said that there’s no indication that suicide is higher among either group. Still, preliminary results suggest that chronic stress is a feature of life for many Black farmers, and that stress can manifest in a variety of ways, from family conflict or separation to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and ill physical health. 

“Pride is the flip side of shame, and [when money problems happen and land loss is possible], there’s a lot of shame over being in that position,” Smith said. “Farming is often not [simply] what they do. It’s who they are. They’re fourth or fifth generation. And sometimes they think ‘This land’s been in the family for years, and I got us in trouble.’” 

Racism as risk factor 

It’s a realm of lived experience that’s also established science: Being subjected to racism is unhealthy. Even encountering the more subtle, daily varieties can be stressful—and, over time, that stress can impact mental and physical health outcomes in concrete ways. A 2013 article in The Atlantic summarized the current state of the medical literature, which draws links between discrimination and increased rates of hypertension, the common coldcardiovascular diseasebreast cancer, and even general mortality. One study of 30,000 participants found that racism-induced stress is directly related to poorer physical and mental health. It’s a phenomenon that social psychologist Nancy Krieger calls “embodied inequality”—and these damaging linkages have only become better established in recent years.

“The perception of racism, that feeling can have an impact on psychological well-being,” said Telisa Spikes, a cardiovascular researcher at Emory University who has conducted studies on the impacts of financial and racial stressors on African American health. “Your body responds by going into fight or flight mode—blood pressure goes up, heart rate goes up. When you’re constantly in this hypervigilant state it can have a negative impact on health.”

Spikes describes hypervigilance as a heightened response to prior racial trauma that leads African Americans to anticipate negative or discriminatory experiences when they are in predominantly white spaces. 

“You have this stigmatized status as a Black person where you feel you always have to be constantly on watch,” she said. 

Epidemiologist Camara Jones has long made the case that racism is a public health crisis. Notably, she has called on fellow researchers to prioritize data collection by race, urging them to focus their attention on the root causes of racial differences in health outcomes. 

“When we collect data by race, our findings most often reveal significant race-associated differences in health outcomes,” Jones wrote in a 2001 article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.“The differences are so ubiquitous across organ systems, over the life span, and over time that they do not surprise us or seem to require explanation. Indeed, only when there is a white excess in disease burden, as with suicide, is our professional interest piqued.”

More recently, researchers have continued to probe the role that racism plays in lowering Black Americans’ life expectancy. A 2020 Auburn University study concluded that stress caused by experiencing racism accelerates aging at the cellular level; while a study published by Georgia State University in 2019 found that experienced over time, racism and long term anxiety could “wear and tear down body systems,” weighting the body’s allostatic load—the lifelong build up of stress—and putting African Americans at greater risk for chronic illness. 

“Health cannot be separated from the social environment. Many of the disparities that we see are a result of the social environment. And going back to clinical research, you cannot address problems without highlighting the racial demographic and the role that social determinants play in contributing to these disparities,” Spikes said. “Racism is now listed as a fundamental cause of disparities. It may not be experienced in the form of interpersonal racism—I’m going to charge you a higher price because of the color of your skin—but it’s more of the institutional and systemic racism. The trickle-down policies that derive from that is what has negative implications for health: not being able to afford housing in a good school district if you have children; not being able to get a loan for a mortgage,” said Spikes. 

Those risk factors are only magnified and exacerbated within the context of farming, where discriminatory individuals, processes and systems can continually threaten one’s livelihood and land. Combine U.S. agriculture’s institutionalized racism with the profession’s inherent volatility, and there’s an argument that Black farmers are at heightened risk for all manner of stress-related ailments. 

It happened to Lucious Abrams. The 68-year-old Georgia farmer was denied compensation as a claimant to 1997’s Pigford v. Glickman racial discrimination class action lawsuit against the U.S. government. He has filed numerous legal measures since then to delay foreclosure, and rents his farmland to neighbors to keep the taxes paid. After three decades wrangling with USDA, his body became a vessel of agony and apprehension. 

“I had kidney failure. I had a blood vessel burst up in my colon. My wife had a nervous breakdown. There’s no way to tell you the trauma that we have been through over the years. Through God’s grace and his mercy … that’s the only way I know how [we’ve survived],” said Abrams. “It’s been an absolute nightmare.”

Kentucky State University economist and rural sociologist Marcus Bernard worked with farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt region as the former director of a rural training and research center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit association of about 20,000 mostly Black farmers and landowners. While completing his PhD at the University of Kentucky, Bernard examined how racism, institutional racism, and class conflict affected Black male farmers. His research identified high levels of acute stress in both African American men and women farmers, typically wives of the male subjects he interviewed. 

The long and well-documented history of Black mistreatment at the hands of the USDA, its partners, and agricultural colleagues also produces well-founded anxieties that bias will put more roadblocks in Black farmers’ way. 

“When you think about a picture of whites farming [and] then think about a picture of Blacks in agriculture, those are two very different experiences,” said Bernard. “The picture with Blacks in agriculture is marred by stigma and labels: a feeling like ‘Someone is always out to get me.’ Like ‘I’m not going to get a fair shake.’ Either ‘I’m going to get shorted on my price,’ ‘Somebody is after my land,’ or ‘I may not get the financing that I need.’”

For decades, USDA and associated lenders withheld critical loans from Black farmers on the basis of race—only one factor among many that gave white farmers an unfair advantage, and a shorter path to profit. Today, countless hurdles remain, from fierce, hyperlocal cronyism that excludes these farmers, to price manipulation that drives down their profits and earnings, and excessive collateral required to secure loans that put them at risk of losing everything if they fall into debt—a shameful legacy that is literally written across Black farmers’ bodies. 

For 26-year-old farmer Tamarya Sims, the anxiety lies not in the fear of dispossession—but in the fear that she may never own land at all. Sims is a landless Black farmer in Asheville, North Carolina. By day, she works for a land trust, managing chickens and bees on a community farm. She runs her own business, Soulfull Simone Farm, on the side. The urban flower and herbal farm takes up less than half an acre of rented land. 

Sims, who experiences anxiety related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hopes to one day own 60 acres of forested land she envisions as a “healing space” where she can grow herbs and plants, and visitors of color can attend workshops and feel welcome. She describes the distress she deals with as threefold. 

“There’s the stress of being a farmer, then there’s the stress of being a Black farmer, and then of being a landless farmer,” she said. Added to the anxiety she feels, these stressors can make it difficult for her to focus, sapping her energy and ability to solve problems that may arise on the farm. 

As a Black female agriculturalist in an overwhelmingly white area, Sims has experienced strong feelings of alienation. When she spoke out in the wake of George Floyd’s death, she became instantly and uncomfortably recognizable in her community. 

But invisibility, rather than hypervisibility, has been the norm for her. When white visitors stop by the community farm, they often pass her wordlessly, seeking out the first white face they can find as an authority. When she was shopping for her own tractor, she brought a white male associate with her to the dealership, for fear she wouldn’t be taken seriously or get a fair deal. The sales agent spoke exclusively to the white man and refused to look her in the eye, she said. Knowing she must enlist the same tactic in her search to acquire land is upsetting and tiresome. 

“One of the main recurring things I’ve went through is being on land and folks seeing me and thinking that I don’t belong just because I’m Black. Even at my job, I’ve had people slowing down in their cars to see what I’m doing.” If they come onto the land, they ignore her just as the tractor salesperson did. “There’s nowhere I can go where people see me and think I belong, or where I feel safe.”

This feeling has been a primary motivator in Sim’s desire to carve out her own piece of land where she can enjoy the restorative benefits of nature that all farmers love: the joy and relief that comes from digging in the dirt, watching a tiny seed shoot out roots long before its verdant foliage begins to show.

“I work through a lot of my life issues in the garden, and I think that everyone should have the opportunity to do that… When you connect people with land, they see the mountains behind them, and they feel comfortable,” she said. It’s a feeling of ease she continues to chase and an irony many Black farmers experience: that working the land can relieve stress, while also exacerbating it. 

Community as coping 

Former cattle farmer Michael Rosmann is a psychologist who has worked with farmers and institutions for more than 30 years to raise awareness about the importance of behavioral health in agricultural communities. His work with the nonprofit AgriWellness, Inc., a partnership initiative between seven Prairie states facilitated by the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health, informed the framework of USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. 

“The traits that define successful farmers are a capacity to endure extreme hardship, the capacity to work alone, if necessary, self-reliance for making decisions, and keeping things to oneself. These traits cut across all races and cultures,” said Rosmann. 

However, these characteristics can have a downside: a reticence to divulge thoughts and emotions to behavioral health professionals or scholars who could document farmers’ individual or collective mental health needs. To combat this, Rosmann emphasizes a need for counselors and therapists who have a shared understanding of not only agriculture, but the complex racial and cultural histories these farmers hold. 

In practice, that’s not always easy. Rural communities, where most farms are, often lack the medical resources and services offered in major cities. At the same time, only about 3 percent of U.S. psychologists are Black. For farmers, these factors—the disparity in health care services and the lack of representation among health care professionals—mix with other forms of inequity to create barriers to relief from occupational stress. 

In the absence of doctors they can trust and enough rural mental health providers, many Black farmers like Abrams lean on religion to lessen their mental anguish. 

“There is still within this community of older Black farmers, deeply spiritual, deeply rooted ties to their churches. Their spiritual life is what I believe is the No. 1 thing that keeps them sane and grounded,” Kentucky State’s Bernard said. 

He speculated that faith may offset suicide risk among Black farmers. But because Black farmers are not often studied or written about outside the bounds of their racial experiences, there’s little to no information about the prevalence of suicide and self-harm among them. 

That most Black farmers turn to social networks for support bears out an aspect of Farm Bureau research: in general, farmers are far more likely to tap their friends and family for help than seek a doctor’s advice. 

Kaleb “KJ” Hill, 35, is a fourth-generation farmer from New Orleans and the founder of Oko Vue Produce Co., an agricultural business that specializes in edible landscapes and stormwater management. 

He looks inside and outside his community for assistance. 

“A lot of [farmers] are not very vocal with what they’re going through. They’ll speak in a lot of cliches, like ‘You know, it’s just part of the job.’ But the way I live my life, I share if I’m seeking additional support,” Hill said. 

Though he doesn’t presume to recommend mental health services to his peers, “we usually talk to each other,” he said. 

“That’s important,” he went on. “I won’t say it’s like traditional group therapy or anything that’s facilitated by a professional. It’s just us sitting around in a circle or gathering at the end of the season, and having a little dinner together with some of the things we have left over and just talking about how that was a rough year. It’s an ongoing conversation. You’re venting like ‘Man, that was frustrating, this insect ate up everything. What did you do about it’ That’s a therapeutic session in itself.” 

Still, traditional talk therapy keeps him “in touch with reality and it’s helped me grow as a man. … Sometimes you have these emotions that you don’t necessarily have a word for and that professional does,” he added. 

The Provosts also sought help to alleviate their feelings of despair. Both now speak with a therapist regularly. They say it’s had a marked effect on their ability to cope with the day-to-day stress incurred by attempts to preserve their livelihood. But the fight is long from over. What was once an almost 5,000-acre family sugarcane operationJune’s family owned about 300 of those acres and rented the remainder—is now a mere 36 acres, split between June and one of his brothers. Angie’s civil rights claim remains open, and Congress’s effort at debt cancellation, which would have offered them a much-needed reprieve, remains stalled.

This post originally appeared at The Counter on March 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Safiya Charles is The Counter’s future of farming fellow, covering the movement around justice for Black farmers and the pioneering agriculture work being done in communities of color nationwide. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Alabama capital’s daily newspaper. Her work has appeared in The Nation and The New Republic.


Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.