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These Are The Workers Who Took on Amazon, and Won

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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.


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The Campus Workers Withdrawing Their Consent

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A conversation with student and graduate employees about why workers are simultaneously on strike at two universities.

Right now, a majority of residential advisers at Kenyon College, organized with the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee, are on an indefinite strike over unfair labor practices. At the same time, over 1,750 graduate student workers at Indiana University with the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition are on strike, demanding that the university administration formally recognize their union, pay graduate workers a livable wage, and eliminate costly student fees. In this extended mini-cast, we talk about these important struggles with three worker-organizers across the two campuses: Molly Orr, a sophomore at Kenyon College who works at the Kenyon Farm and the Writing Center; Nora Weber, a fourth-year PhD candidate in Sociology at Indiana University; and Anne Kavalerchik, a third-year PhD candidate in Sociology and Informatics at Indiana University.

This blog was originally posted at In These Times on April 21, 2022.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe?se?Times?.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.


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The Amazon Union Campaign Won By Following the Lead of Workers

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Amazon Labor Union shows us an essential ingredient of successful union campaigns: democratic autonomy.

Amazon.com: Shaun Richman: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle

Jeff Bezos has been brought back down to Earth. No boss is invincible. The workers at Staten Island’s JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center proved it by beating the massively rich and powerful corporation 2,654 to 2,131 in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election on April 1. Meanwhile, a rerun election campaign by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala. facility remains too close to call when challenged ballots are considered. That the workers in Staten Island organized themselves into an independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is profoundly heartening and begs for some introspection from labor leaders and organizing directors. Maybe, just maybe, workers are ready to organize on a massive scale. What are existing unions doing to make the most of the moment?

One of the first lessons from JFK8 is that the workers did a pretty good job of organizing themselves. It was a worker-led movement with a leadership group that sought out the existing workplace leaders (co-workers who are respected, trusted and listened to). They read books, they had worker-to-worker conversations, and they engaged in job actions and demonstrations to cut through some of the fear. They were transparent about their aims, built trust and kept themselves accountable to each other. This is pretty basic stuff, but far too many unions cut corners to get a quick election before the boss can chip away too much support, instead of organizing for a long-haul struggle. We have decades worth of scientific research about effective organizing model tactics, yet too many union organizing directors still justify their campaigns as exceptions to the rules. This goes a long way to explain why the workers in Staten Island and in many other parts of the country have chosen to go it alone. 

I’ll be honest. I didn’t think ALU would win their NLRB election. The rigged rules of union certification campaigns, permitting bosses to spend hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars on 24/7 campaigns of psy-ops, lies, threats, targeted harassment and retaliation are too stacked against workers to typically win the high-stakes, winner-take-all elections. This is the main reason why while 68% of the public supports unions, and half of all workers say they would vote for a union tomorrow, private sector union density hovers at around 7%. (I’ve been encouraging Amazon workers who are organizing elsewhere to consider filing for minority union certifications to win themselves a form of meet-and-confer recognition and build from there.)

Partly, what makes boss campaigns successful is that they tap into fear of the unknown, and what comes the day after an NLRB election is a huge unknown for too many workers. Bosses will threaten that everything you like about the job could be bargained away, or that nothing will change unless the union ?“makes” you go on strike, and that if you go on strike you could lose your job. The fear they’re stoking is not only of their own dictatorial power, but also the fear of losing agency to the authority of a new boss?—?the ?“union boss.” The workers at JFK8, all on their own, could turn to each other and state the obvious: ?“How the hell am I going to make you strike? We can only go on strike if enough of us agree that it’s necessary and its time has come.” Mind you, this is true of any union and any organized workplace, but too many union campaigns don’t address this crucial piece of inoculation by centering the workers’ own agency in such a life-or-death decision. Similarly, too many unions don’t build bargaining and representation decisions into their new organizing campaigns, despite the research that shows that building for the first contract through surveys, meetings and other democratic practices—before the election?—?is one of the 10 union tactics most correlated with NLRB election wins.

Some people may look at the success of ALU, and at the continuing frustrations of RWDSU’s efforts in Bessemer, and draw the conclusion that organizing independently of the established unions is a key to success. That would be a mistake. Only a major international union can muster the resources to take on Amazon across the continent and win a coast-to-coast union contract covering workers at all fulfillment centers. I may be confirming my priors, but the victory on Staten Island does provide an argument that unions need to be way more open to chartering new locals for new union organizing campaigns.

I’ve argued that labor’s ambitious ?“organize or die” era (basically, from the election of John Sweeney in 1995 until Change to Win petered out about a decade ago) was frustrated by institutional tensions that went unaddressed. International unions have an existential need to organize new industries and employers. But in order to maximize financial resources, most unions tried to organize new members into their existing locals, where leaders have very different motivations: namely, to win good contracts for, and be re-elected by, the existing union members that they know. Those tensions led to a lot of good campaigns getting spiked because of internal disagreements and political sabotage. Workers pick up on these tensions, and it adds unhelpful noise to a campaign. Workers want to know where their contract priorities and workplace leaders will fit within a union whose bread and butter has been, say, UPS drivers or workers at Macy’s department store. No existing international union?—?not the RWDSU nor the Teamsters nor even the UAW if they decide the ?“A” stands for ?“Amazon”?—?will successfully organize the workers at Amazon or any other large anti-union company without guaranteeing the workers a significant degree of democratic autonomy and agenda-setting on the front-end.

I keep thumping on the organizing model, but the truth is that it badly needs reevaluating in a way that hasn’t been done since the 1990s. Then, the AFL-CIO under the new leadership of John Sweeney initiated a thorough look at the priorities and practices of union organizing. Academics and labor educators were engaged, research reports were commissioned, left-wing organizers who were shunned during the Lane Kirkland years were put on payroll and contributed to the so-called ?“theory of the win,” new organizing training were developed, and strategic corporate research departments were staffed up. Although the unions that take organizing seriously have learned, evolved and added to their best practices, some of the unspoken assumptions from that long-ago era that undergird the organizing model need to be reconsidered. In particular, we need to question the assumption that the boss can and will fire workers and launch a reign of terror (still true, but); that no one in power will stop them or care; that it will have a chilling effect on the workers striving to win a union for themselves; and that support for a union drive can only decline after going public?—?assumptions that default to a limited number of staff-driven campaigns organized in secret. It would be wonderful if the AFL-CIO again took leadership and convened an all-stakeholders review of what we’ve learned and what’s happening in worker attitudes to develop effective union organizing strategies two decades into this new century.

This blog was originally printed at In These Times on 04/04/2022.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College and author of Tell The Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century.


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No, Striketober Is Not About Vaccine Mandates

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The recent wave of militant labor action has been over workers demanding better pay and working conditions—not opposing Covid vaccine requirements.

This month, the United States has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of strikes by fed-up workers at companies like Kellogg’s and John Deere—a phenomenon many are calling “Striketober.” As a result, the U.S. labor movement is getting an unusual amount of attention. 

But because of the corporate media’s often spotty or ideologically slanted coverage of workers’ struggles, combined with the fact that only a small minority of Americans have any personal experience with unions, there appears to be some confusion among the general public over what Striketober is really about. 

A troubling number of Americans seem to have the false impression that tens of thousands of underpaid and overworked employees are going on strike in order to resist Covid-19 vaccine mandates—when they are actually walking off the job to win decent raises, equitable pay structures and relief from mandatory overtime.

Some of this confusion was on display last week as HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson appeared on C-SPAN to discuss the current wave of strikes. When host John McArdle opened the phone lines for viewers to call up, the vaccine-specific questions started to roll in.

“I wanted to know how much the vaccine mandates are playing in these strikes? What is the role of the vaccine mandate?” asked the first caller, a woman from South Carolina. 

About fifteen minutes later, another caller from Kentucky asked, “Do you think this vaccine is causing most of the strikes?” 

In response, Jamieson patiently explained that, “the vaccine is essentially a non-issue in these strikes we are seeing.”

“As someone who’s been following these strikes closely, I was a little surprised by the assumption that vaccines might be at the center of this,” Jamieson told In These Times. “But I probably shouldn’t have been. There’s been outsized media coverage of workers defying vaccine requirements, even though they seem to be quite a small share of the workforce.”

Indeed, since this summer there have been numerous news reports about unions “opposing” vaccine mandates, and many similar stories about individual workers who would rather get fired than be vaccinated. But in reality, employers across the country are reporting that 90 to 100 percent of their workforces are complying with vaccine mandates. 

And then there’s media coverage that collapses the distinction between workers walking off the job to demand better working conditions and resistance to vaccine mandates, such as this CNN story titled, “Here comes the anti-vaccine requirement solidarity movement,” which spends dozens of paragraphs recounting opposition to mandates before stating that the recent strikes have actually not been over such objections. At the end of September, Fox News published a story falsely claiming that healthcare workers at Valley Health in Winchester, Va., went on strike over their employer’s vaccine mandate, when in fact only a small number of workers protested the requirement, rather than taking part in an official or large-scale walk out. 

Much of the media hype about supposed union opposition to the mandates stems from general misunderstandings about the nature of collective bargaining. Unions that have asserted their right to bargain with employers over the implementation of vaccine mandates have inaccurately been accused of opposing the mandates altogether.

Reacting to news that public sector unions in Portland, Oregon were demanding to negotiate implementation of the vaccine mandate, journalist James Surowiecki tweeted: “Organized labor has been on the wrong side of the vaccine issue almost across the board.”

“Maybe some unions have been captured by the cranks in their ranks,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell opined in response to unions wanting to negotiate vaccine mandates. “If ‘Big Labor’ obstructs this effort, it will fail not only its own members, but also the many admirers and political allies it worked so hard to win over,” she warned.

But as the Economic Policy Institute’s Dave Kamper explained, “Demanding to negotiate the impact of something isn’t the same as refusing to do it, or even being opposed to it.”

Unions seeking to bargain over vaccine mandates want to determine specific policies like whether workers can use paid sick time to get vaccinated, what they will be expected to show as proof of vaccination and whether those working remotely will also need to be vaccinated.

“Even when an employer offers something unmistakably good to employees…unions still can, will, and SHOULD demand to negotiate it, get it down in writing, formally agree to it,” Kamper wrote. “At its very heart, collective bargaining isn’t about money. It’s about power. It’s about WHO DECIDES. The principle of collective bargaining is the boss is not and should not be the unilateral decision maker. That’s what a demand to negotiate means.”

Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Tyson Foods recently hammered out an agreement on implementation of the mandate, and now report that 96 percent of the company’s workers have been vaccinated, exemplifying that negotiating over vaccine mandates does not mean opposition to them.

“Working together, the UFCW and Tyson set a new standard with this vaccine mandate and have proved what’s possible when we listen to workers and negotiate the implementation of vaccination mandates fairly and responsibly,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.

Meanwhile, it is true that some unions have been extremely vocal and adamant in their total opposition to vaccine mandates—but these are almost entirely right-wing police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which are already pariahs to many in the labor movement. Importantly, while these police unions may be holding protests and making noise, they are not on strike and are therefore completely unconnected to the current wave of work stoppages.

“I think people are conflating the labor strife they see with these highly politicized mandates,” Jamieson said. “Unfortunately, that can overshadow the important labor story that’s unfolding: workers finding their leverage and demanding a better deal.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke


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We Are Zoomers and We Want the PRO Act

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Gen Z and Millennials are facing a bleak economic future. The answer is to massively expand union membership and democratize workplaces.

Like so many other recent college graduates of Gen Z who are trying to enter the workforce, become financially independent and grow our families, we’re seeing the promised ?“American dream” drift further and further out of reach. 

The economy our generation enters today is defined by rising inequality and stagnant wages. Debilitating student debt and astronomically high costs of living in metropolitan areas have dwindled our chances of achieving the same economic prosperity as previous generations. Our parents worked jobs that didn’t require a college degree and allowed them to purchase homes at a fraction of today’s price. Now that dream feels more like a fantasy for our cohort of younger workers.

Today, Millennials and Gen Z collectively make up 40 percent of the U.S. workforce but own only 5.9 percent of household wealth, while Baby Boomers account for just 25 percent of the workforce but own 53 percent of household net worth. When Baby Boomers were Millennials’ age, they owned more than double the wealth of Millennials today. Our generations won’t have the same stability as our parents and grandparents unless systematic changes are made to reinvigorate a key tool in the workplace that helped generations before us enjoy more economic security: labor unions. 

Congress is currently devising a solution that makes it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain through unions. In March, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill that would allow gig workers to unionize, legalize solidarity strikes and ban various union-busting tactics that keep workers underpaid and overworked. By expanding access to unionization, the PRO Act strengthens avenues for workers to improve their wages and working conditions. It’s a necessary long-term policy for Millennials and Gen Z to remedy endemic economic inequalities. 

Union membership used to be far more common in America, with unions helping workers bargain for fair wages and expansive benefits. But, as union membership declined from 27 percent in 1979 to 10.3 percent in 2019, income inequality soared with the top one percent increasing their income by 160 percent during this period, compared to just a 26 percent increase for the bottom 90 percent. While the average CEO salary has grown by 940 percent since 1978, worker pay has only increased 12 percent over the past 40 years. Our Boomer parents and grandparents aged into the workforce when unions had high levels of membership, giving them power to hold employers accountable for living wages, safer conditions and robust benefits. 

Today, meanwhile, Millennial and Zoomer integration into the workforce is characterized by low union membership and stagnant wages, making it significantly harder to afford an education, buy a home and start a family. Even as Millennials and Zoomers become America’s most educated generationsresearch shows that real wages for high school graduates are 5.5 percent lower than in 2000 and the wages of young college graduates are 2.5 percent lower. These trends raise the stakes of younger workers in the fight to pass the PRO Act. 

The PRO Act would help offset weak labor laws that have historically stifled labor organizing. A full 48 percent of non-union workers say they would join a union, but less than 11 percent of workers are unionized because many employers utilize aggressive tactics to squash any organizing efforts. Employers can legally bar union organizers from talking to workers in the workplace and during union elections, nearly 90 percent of employers require workers to attend captive audience meetings where they deliver anti-union messages. The PRO Act would prohibit such tactics, making it far easier for workers to organize.

But what difference would unions make? Examples of organized labor’s successes are all around us. Striking teachers’ unions in West Virginia won a 5 percent raise in 2018, and teachers in Los Angeles won a 6 percent raise in 2019. During the pandemic, when large corporate grocers reaped record profits while refusing to pay their workers hazard pay, UFCW locals led the fight across California to pass $5 hazard pay mandates for essential workers in cities like South San Francisco.

Now is the time for Millennials and Zoomers to demand that the Senate follow the lead of the House and pass the PRO Act. Make calls, send emails, and organize your community. No senator from either party can claim to care about young people or working Americans if they don’t support this bill. A version of the PRO Act is reportedly included in the $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package that Democrats plan to pass through budget reconciliation, meaning it could be closer than ever to becoming law. We can help make that a reality. 

The fight to pass the PRO Act is not just about democratizing the workplace, it’s our best shot at building a fair economy and reviving the American dream?—?for our generation and all those who follow. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: James Coleman is a 22-year-old City Councilmember for the City of South San Francisco, and graduate from Harvard University.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council Rallies for Union Organizer/Teacher

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council recently organized a rally in support of Jared Hutchins (CTA), a teacher and union organizer who was fired by High Tech High.

In late April, some 400 educators at the High Tech High charter school network filed for union recognition with the California Public Employment Relations Board as High Tech Education Collective (HTEC), becoming the newest members of the California Teachers Association family.

With 16 schools on four campuses and more than 6,000 K–12 students, High Tech High is the largest operator of charter schools in San Diego County.

A virtual rally on Zoom garnered nearly 50 supporters for Jared Hutchins. Hutchins said, “I fought and was fighting for teachers to have an equal voice at the table. It was because I was unapologetic about my purpose of bringing anti-racist practices into our schools.”

The California Teachers Association filed an unfair labor practice charge against the High Tech High charter school network for firing Hutchins, who has been helping to organize a union throughout the network.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on June 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnel is a senior writer at AFL-CIO.


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The Roots of Today’s White Collar Union Wave Are Deeper Than You Think

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

At UAW Local 2110, Maida Rosenstein has quietly organized the most prestigious group of cultural institutions on the East Coast.

Before the recent wave of organizing among media workers, adjunct professors and nonprofit workers set the world talking about the promise of white collar unions, there had already been decades of quiet organizing among the white collar creative underclass. A surprising amount of that organizing has been done by a single local union: UAW Local 2110 in New York City, which with little fanfare helped to pioneer the sort of unionizing that routinely draws headlines today. 

Beginning in the 1980s, the union organized workers at a list of cultural institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Village Voice and HarperCollins Publishers. More recently, Local 2110 has been organizing the museum and culture industry at a furious pace, at places like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York City Tenement Museum and the Children’s Museum of the Arts. In just the past year, the union has added the Portland Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, among others. (They also found time to help lead a strike against a pricey private school.)

Local 2110 is led by Maida Rosenstein, who joined after leading a campaign to unionize administrative staffers at Columbia University in the 1980s. She has spent more than three decades assembling what may be the most prestigious collection of cultural institutions in America in a single union local, all with a resolutely anti-elite organizing model of keeping the door open to everyone. In an interview, Rosenstein offered the long view on the white collar union trend that continues in earnest to this day. 

On the reason the UAW doesn’t just organize autoworkers: 

“UAW calls itself an industrial union, and they’ve long had a view of trying to organize companies broadly. There were always a certain amount of office workers, even in the Chrysler plant or whatever. When District 65 [the union she originally joined] affiliated with the UAW, they affiliated more on the ground of progressive politics than anything else. Walter Reuther took the UAW out of the AFL-CIO during the Vietnam War era. That was really where the affiliation came from. We in District 65 actually brought in a lot of the white collar organizing.” 

On the recent popularity of unions:

“I do think there’s a generational thing. The millennial generation is a lot more pro-union than my generation was. At least in the blue cities, it seems like there was a wave of people who after Bernie Sanders, and after Trump was elected, embraced the idea of organizing. People went from Occupy Wall Street, where everybody was doing their own thing, to saying ?‘We have to get organized politically.’ I feel like that did carry over?—?unions made [sense to] a lot of people when they thought about their disgruntlement at work. The millennial generation have been so much more open towards it.”

On unionizing the museum industry:

“In museums, there have been these big shifts, with the expansion of the number of employees, and a lot of money flowing in as they’re very involved in land expansion projects, etc. They have these very corporate boards and much more highly paid leadership, and then they bring in a ton of younger, educated people and pay them really low wages. Most of them are working there for idealistic reasons, and in large numbers.

“I thought the pandemic would put a stop to that, would kill our organizing. And it didn’t. In some ways it made it easier. Museums and all these institutions were shut down, and a lot of people were furloughed or laid off. Their institution betrayed them. A lot of people saw that and felt they had no recourse, and it was very disappointing. They wanted to do something about it. Also, we found a way of organizing virtually, too. There were certain things about it that made it more accessible. All these people got on these Zoom meetings, because really they had nothing to do. They were home, they were upset and they were isolated. This was something to really make a difference. And it really took hold.

“The pay issue is a really big one. Especially in larger institutions, they have these trustees who are just like dripping with money. Museum leadership is starting to be like university presidents, where it’s very obviously out of whack, and you have people who are paid really poorly. Museums are absolutely terrible at having large numbers of staff being very precarious, like the front line staff who do visitor services and the store. A lot of them are part time, some of them are seasonal. They get paid like minimum wage or a little above. In almost every museum it’s like that. Very few of them have full time jobs. And even the more skilled positions?—?art handlers, museum educators?—?those have been converted into per diem positions, on-call positions, intermittent work. They basically work the way a freelancer would work.

“Even the people who are in the full time professional positions are paid very low. You know this from journalism: You’re a writer, and now you’ve been busted down and people are making like $50,000 a year. And that’s what happened in museums: You’re a curator and you’re making $50,000 or $60,000 and living in Boston, New York or Portland. It’s not very much money.”

On why the publishing industry has been slower to unionize:

“You have corporations that are gobbling each other up. It’s like unbridled capitalism, and it’s very, very difficult. They can move, merge, subcontract, do all these things with no control. Nonprofits can do a lot?—?universities like Columbia are notoriously anti-union, and they do a lot of bad things?—?but museums and universities so far haven’t been able to move some place. They can’t really pick up and leave. We’re still doing better in the nonprofit sector than we are in the for-profit sectors.”

On the Village Voice, a media union pioneer:

“The union at the Voice was amazing when I first met people there. At that point the newsroom was like 175 people or 200 people. It was very, very vibrant. They really ran the paper, they had so much control.”

On craft unions vs. industrial unions:

“The arts unions, the craft unions, they have done a phenomenal job for their members, but they are very focused and deeply wedded to their occupations. I think administrative staff, for instance, have really been overlooked in a lot of these institutions. We were appealing to them in a lot of ways. In the museums they are [wall to wall unions that include everyone], but not all of them. We can’t always get wall to wall.

“No one is organizing museums in a [systematic] way?—?no one has targeted this and said, ?‘This is a strategic target, we’re doing all this research.’ We’re a local union. We have opportunities to organize, we’re taking it. We’re just trying to push the envelope forward where we’re able to.”

On the difference between the 1980s and today:

“When I was organizing, it was like, ?‘A union, in an office? What are you, kidding? That’s very blue collar.’ People said ?‘I don’t want to wear a uniform, I don’t want to punch a time clock.’ At Columbia, they did a full out anti-union campaign. They told us, ?‘With a union you’ll have to go to meetings downtown. The union will come between a secretary and her boss.’ It was really also sexist and elitist. It was hard. They ran an anti-union campaign, and we won our election at Columbia by eight votes out of 1,100 people. It was a total squeaker. People were terrified.

“One thing I’m noticing is that the anti-union campaigns [now] seem less effective. And there’s been more exposure. No one had ever heard of an anti-union campaign. It was like a secret that bosses did this. And now it’s out there. Everybody knows about Walmart, or Amazon or Delta. The fact that there was actual press on that stuff is amazing to me!”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Long Struggle Against Giving Up

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Watching on Zoom late last week as an NLRB official spent hour after hour pulling paper ballots out of a cardboard box and hollering ?“NO” at high volume was excruciating. But it was not the most excruciating part of losing a big campaign like the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. That would be right now, when the pundits descend to offer instant critiques of everything that went wrong, like fashion critics insulting what people are wearing to a funeral. Even as a pundit myself, the process is hard to watch. 

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union organizing the Amazon warehouse, lost the vote by more than a 2?–?1 margin. After the extreme publicity of the campaign over the past couple of months, such a definitive loss was crushing. More importantly, the workers in Bessemer still do not have a union, and Amazon and the rest of the anti-union world gains the talking point that those workers do not want or need a union. The reality on the ground after the loss is bad, and the narrative it produces going forward is also bad. When any union undertakes an organizing drive, it is good to win, and bad not to. Of these things there can be no doubt. 

But the Amazon campaign was extraordinary in so many ways that it needs to be seen in context, to avoid drawing all the wrong conclusions. The RWDSU’s attempt to organize more than 5,000 warehouse workers in the South?—?going up against the most deep-pocketed company imaginable?—?gained attention in the first place because it seemed so crazy. Everyone in the union world knew that every aspect of the situation?—?the size of the unit, the high turnover of the work, the fact that the job was considered a good one by local standards, the fact that it took place in a ?“right to work” state, the resources that Amazon could deploy against it, the fact that it was an attempt to crack an extremely tough union-free company?—?made success harder. From the beginning, every union veteran I spoke to about the campaign was hopeful, but skeptical it could succeed. 

That conventional wisdom turned out to be true. Reality bites. Looking back on the organizing drive and saying the union should have used different tactics obscures the fact that this campaign, with a unit of that size, in Alabama, under the awful labor law régime that we have in America, probably was not winnable, at least not in the short time frame in which it happened. But that, in turn, obscures a more important fact: It’s good that this campaign happened. 

Why would the RWDSU take up such a difficult effort in the first place? Because workers at the Amazon warehouse asked them to. There are many unions in this country that would have politely told those workers to fuck off. The RWDSU, though, tried. They spent many months and many millions of dollars and got the world to turn its attention to Bessemer. If they learned lessons about organizing tactics that could have been done differently, those lessons should be applied to the next campaign. Their effort should still be applauded. There are plenty of lazy people in the union establishment who would prefer to say that they should not be expected to do hard, audacious organizing, because it is a waste of time. They are wrong. 

Some have said that this campaign, which received more press than any other union drive in many decades, was too media-focused. Though I fully endorse the idea that the media is annoying, this critique fails to understand the press did not cover this campaign because the union asked it to?—?we covered it because it had all of the ingredients of a great story. Readers, I can tell you from experience, want to read about labor battles at identifiable companies like Amazon much more than they want to read about labor battles anywhere else. An enormous union drive in an unlikely place full of scrappy, charismatic characters fighting the richest man in the country was going to get news coverage whether the union wanted it or not. It is more accurate to think of the press as an uncontrollable outside force to be managed rather than as an element of an organizing drive that a union can summon or shut down at will. The truth is that in almost every other case, the problem is that tough union drives get too little, not too much, coverage. 

Amazon warehouse workers are the single most important segment of the American work force for unions to organize, because they are what the future of work looks like. The effort to unionize Amazon will take decades. We are at the beginning. The attention created by the drive in Bessemer caused hundreds of other Amazon workers across the country to reach out to the union. With luck, it will spawn ten or fifty or a hundred more organizing committees inside other Amazon warehouses. Some of those will die out, and some will build towards a real union campaign. That’s how the work goes. One of the warehouses that continues to organize should be the warehouse in Bessemer. They are probably closer to winning than any other warehouse in America. The loss that just happened was the first round of what will be a long fight. 

Leaders of the civil rights movement would often show up in a Southern town, and spend months organizing. The press would show up too. The activists and the people would march, and get beaten up, and get arrested, and the local political establishment would denounce them, and after all that, no laws would change. Did that indicate that their movement had failed? No. They were engaged in individual battles in a war for justice that lasted many years. They, the activists of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, succeeded in their part of that war. Today we have our part. The labor movement, ground down for decades, must be at the center of this part of the war, which is a class war taking place after 40 years of widening inequality. The struggle of the labor movement today is not just against the bosses on the other side?—?it is also against the deadening forces of inertia inside unions, which makes many prefer to not even try. 

I’m sorry that the Amazon workers did not win their union. I’m glad they tried. I’m glad for every single news story that came out of it. I’m glad for every single working person at every other shitty job who saw it and wondered if they might do something similar at their own workplace. I’m glad that millions of people watched all this happen. The only thing left to do now is to keep on going. 

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Message from the Amazon Union Defeat in Alabama Is Clear: Keep Organizing

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On April 9, the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of a mail ballot certification election that concluded on March 29 for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. With 3,215 votes cast, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was defeated with at least 1,608 votes against the union, enough to crush the drive. The result was not shocking given the millions of dollars that Amazon spent and its power inside the facility to pressure workers to vote against forming a union. 

No matter how you spin it, the defeat is a significant blow to the multitude of organizing efforts occurring at Amazon. The election showed the clear limitations of pursuing union certification through a broken NLRB election process. However, due to the national attention and support that the campaign received, now more Amazon workers than ever are thinking about the possibility and potential of organizing. Hopefully, the campaign in Bessemer will encourage unions and workers throughout the company to consider alternative organizing strategies. 

Despite the valiant efforts of the workers, Amazon?—?which has more resources than nearly any company in the world?—?was able to blunt their momentum through its anti-union campaign. As expected, management engaged in the usual one-on-one and captive audience meetings to persuade workers to vote ?“no.” But management went further, using a barrage of email, texting and social media posts and even luring unhappy workers to quit with cash buyouts, messages posted in bathroom stalls, and changing the timing of traffic signals to gain advantage. The loss confirms what many of us in the labor movement already know?—?the balance of power is completely out of whack in this country, with big corporations twisting the rules to stay in charge and keep workers’ voices silent.

But this is hardly the last word on organizing Amazon. Management’s aggressive campaign illustrated to the whole country the need to fundamentally change the rules of the game so that workers everywhere can more easily form unions. The pressure on elected officials to enact long overdue labor law reform should increase.

The ?“BAmazon union” drive received more press and attention from the public than any other union election in recent memory. The focus on the campaign helped bring increased scrutiny to the reality of working conditions at Amazon?—?in Bessemer, across the country and around the world. Critical, in-depth reporting on the inner workings of Amazon increased as the drive gained national interest. For example, in February, The New York Times Magazine covered the community and labor organizing taking place in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, an important area to Amazon because of its proximity to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), has run several excellent exposes of Amazon’s anti-union conduct, including a March 9 storythat reported: ?“Many of the 5,805 employees in Bessemer …receive four or five emails a day from the company to discourage unionization. …The company has pressed its anti-union case with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls.” Labor Notes has already published more than 20 articles about working conditions and labor organizing at Amazon, and there were dozens of reports in all major news outlets leading up to the vote count.

Public support from other labor unions, community groups and elected officials has also been impressive. On February 20, and again on March 20, dozens of actions took place nationwide in support of the Bessemer workers. The call for those actions went out from the Southern Workers Assembly, an organization founded in 2012 by veteran labor and Black Workers for Justice organizers. On March 2, the organization issued a statement summarizing its view of the importance of the organizing in Bessemer:

“The Bessemer workers launched their campaign at a time of increasing repressive government and the rise of a racist and divisive social movement that threatened to turn back the clock on basic democratic rights. Like the 1955, Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott during a similar repressive and divisive period, the Bessemer Amazon workers led by the 80-percent Black and women majority and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), stepped forward.”

Why is it so hard to form a union? 

The attention to Bessemer, and the extent that Amazon has interfered in the workers’ decision, has illustrated our broken labor relations system. Free choice by workers to form a union has turned into a corporate obstacle course where workers are subjected to both one-on-one and captive audience meetings, along with constant pressure via email, texts, social media, and physical postings?—?even in company bathrooms. 

A far simpler way for workers to gain union certification and their collective bargaining rights is through a procedure called ?“card check.” If a simple majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union to be their representative, then their employer would be compelled to recognize and negotiate with the union that workers chose. This provision was part of the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, died during President Obama’s first term. Unfortunately, card check isn’t part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) now pending in Congress. Although the PRO Act passed the House with bipartisan support, unless the Senate changes the rules around the filibuster, the bill faces an uphill battle.

On February 28, President Biden gave a powerful endorsement of the union effort in Bessemer. While not mentioning Amazon by name, his support for the union drive couldn’t have been clearer. This was an unprecedented move. Labor activists have long dreamed of a contemporary president mimicking what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reputed to have said in the 1930s: ?“The President wants you to join a union.” But it turns out that this history is actually a myth. Roosevelt never said such words in a fireside chat or in writing. John L. Lewis, the Mineworker leader and other CIO organizers just repeated it over and over until it became part of labor folklore. Biden’s speech was a reflection of the debt he owes to the labor movement for his narrow win in November 2020, and of the growing favorability towards unions?—?48% of workers now say they would join a union if given the opportunity. 

RWDSU’s effort at Bessemer was unexpected. It appears that not even its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was aware of the drive until the NLRB made the election filing public on November 20, 2020. However, successfully organizing workers at a company like Amazon with 1.3million employees and hundreds of fulfillment centers, sortation centers and delivery stations in the United States will require the massive resources of far more than one union. It also will necessitate the internal organizing efforts of tens of thousands of workers in networks like Amazonians United, which describes itself as: ?“A movement of workers fighting to end management’s domination in our workplaces. We organize with our coworkers to fight together for the dignified lives we all deserve.”

Internal organizing alone will still be insufficient. Community support is essential to create a supportive context for workers to take on their employer. Amazon workers received strong support from worker and community coalitions like the Southern Workers Assembly, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the political support of elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and many more. While the national support from celebrities and political leaders is welcome, it’s even more important to have the community’s civic and religious leaders and local elected officials in your corner.

Amazon’s business model is particularly challenging for organizers. With its inventory system and use of state of the art robots, a job that took 60 to 75 minutes can now be done in 15 minutes, and its warehouses can now hold 40 percent more inventory. The ?“random chaos” that Amazon uses to fulfill consumer orders creates built-in redundancy in its distribution network. Worker organization and actions at one isolated facility can be countered by shifting logistics to run work around that facility or simply closing it altogether. There’s nothing new about companies avoiding a problem union or an upstart workforce?—?UPS and other shippers have been doing it for decades. It will take many more drives like that in Bessemer?—?at points all along the Amazon delivery chain?—?to give workers the confidence and means to fight for their rights and win good wages and working conditions. 

None of these caveats should detract from the significance of this drive. Bessemer takes its name from the steel production process pioneered in Birmingham, England?—?the home of the modern steel industry and the name of the Alabama city next door which has historically been a mining and steel production center with considerable union density. While RWDSU was guarded about the degree of internal organization, there is a considerable organic connection between its sizable poultry processing membership in Alabama (about 6,000 members) and the largely African-American Amazon Bessemer workforce. To RWDSU’s credit, the organizing drive ranks among the largest single organizing efforts in the history of the American South.

Going forward, we are likely to see more unions joining in the effort to organize Amazon. The Teamsters have already begun building rank and file awareness with its UPS membership about the threat that Amazon poses to its contract standards with the hope that members will assist a broad campaign. It’s already resulted in local unions hearing from Amazon workers interested in joining. For many years now, the Service Employee International Union has supported the Awood Center which assists immigrants organizing at Amazon in the Twin Cities region. Now, RWDSU has entered the field in Alabama and gained many organizing leads at other facilities to follow up on. Aside from unions, Athena?—?a network of over 50 non-profits, worker centers and labor unions?—?is playing a high-profile role in the policy and legislative arenas advocating for Amazon workers and the communities impacted by its business. And Amazonians United has emerged as a burgeoning network of in-plant organizers dedicated to building strong workplace committees. A confluence of all of these forces, and much more, will be required to seriously take on Amazon.

The workplace focus is key. And the newfound focus on organizing in the South will remain crucial. Saladin Muhammad, a retired UE organizer and leader of the Southern Workers Assembly, commented on this dynamic on March 11: 

“There is a recognition that the South needs to be organized as a part of building a stronger labor movement throughout the US. For a long time, the confidence of the working class in the South and the effort to organize has been very weak. Attempts to unionize the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi, are indications of organized labor’s recognition of the importance of organizing core industries in the South. This is a recognition that has not really existed probably since Operation Dixie in the late 1940s. …I think it is drawing even more attention than the Volkswagen and the Nissan campaigns. It has the opportunity to deepen the struggle around race as a part of the working-class struggle. I think there are some real possibilities with this campaign.” 

Despite losing the election, there needs to be continued focus on building solidarity with the workers in Bessemer. Management should be held accountable to the promises it made to deter support for collective bargaining and the key union leaders need to be protected from any retaliation for their efforts to support the union. RWDSU will hopefully stick with the workers in Bessemer and create a durable organization inside the facility. Then, building on its first effort, it could seek a second certification election which history shows have a much better success rate. 

Solidarity on a national level was impressive. Organizations like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution that stepped up during the campaign will be needed to help connect the Amazon workers’ struggles to other movements for justice. 

And groups like DSA will be crucial to supporting young cadres who take jobs at Amazon and want to help organize from within, either through Amazonians United or a specific union. The setback in Bessemer shows that without deep internal organizing and base-building, no amount of external agitation and support can overcome the power of a corporate behemoth like Amazon. Workers need to be steeled in the experience of confronting their supervisors on the warehouse floor, marching on the boss in the front office?—?and walking out when necessary?—?in order to prepare themselves to win a battle for union recognition. It is poetic that on the day before votes began to be counted in Bessemer, workers at an Amazon Chicago-area delivery station, ?“DIL 3” in Gage Park, staged a one day walk-out against the new ?“megacycle” schedules being imposed on delivery station employees.

If we are serious about organizing at Amazon, we have to redefine what ?“winning” means. If it’s about one election or even one contract, we are in for some serious disappointment. Instead, it must be about the uprising of tens of thousands of workers supported by unions and community groups and backed up by elected officials willing to use the levers of government to the workers’ advantage. 

One concrete step towards building that movement would be better coordination and unity among the logistics and transportation unions, especially the Teamsters, the longshore unions, and the railroad craft unions. Better results can also be achieved by strengthening the cooperation between in-plant worker organizing by groups like Amazonians United, formations like the Southern Workers Assembly, and the multiple labor unions that are prepared to assist. As the political and regulatory context for Amazon evolves, the workers’ movement should also anticipate?—?and where possible lead?—?major structural reforms to Amazon’s business model. 

The lopsided defeat of the Bessemer workers’ organizing effort is not the first setback for labor at Amazon, and it won’t be the last. The lessons from Amazon organizing initiatives?—?including the Bessemer drive and workplace actions?—?should be carefully analyzed and catalogued in a searchable format for future reference. As Amazon workers’ level of militancy and organization grows, our challenge is to make sure that each action strengthens the movement and builds workers’ confidence in the power of collective action. That’s what inspires workers to ?“ditch the fear” and expand their on-the-job support for unions.

Despite the outcome at Bessemer, the organizing campaign has already made a major contribution to public perceptions about Amazon and the urgent need for labor law reform. Amazon workers’ struggle for dignity and justice is only getting started. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike. 

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 


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Amazon defeats Alabama union effort after dirty, but predictable, campaign

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The union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, appears headed for defeat after the first day of counting ballots. There were 3,215 votes, with the count standing at 1,100 against unionizing to 463 in favor. Voting ended March 29, but before the counting began, hundreds of ballots were challenged, most by the company. If those could be decisive, they will be revisited.

But on the day counting began, we learned more about how far Amazon went to stack the deck in its favor. The National Labor Relations Board had refused Amazon’s request to have a ballot drop box in the facility, citing coronavirus social distancing precautions. But documents obtained by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Amazon defied that by going to the U.S. Postal Service and asking for a mailbox to be installed on Amazon property—which it was, unmarked, the day before voting started.

One critique of the campaign and the decision to press forward to an election after Amazon successfully expanded the bargaining unit involved in the vote from around 1500 workers to all 5800 in the warehouse: 

“We have not heard anything back on the install of this collection box,” a Postal Service account manager emailed Postal Service workers in Alabama on Jan. 14. “Amazon is reaching out again to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this.” 

Those emails directly contradict a Postal Service spokesman’s claim that the mailbox was “suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point.”

”Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.” 

When the mailbox was installed, journalist Kim Kelly and More Perfect Union showed exactly why it functioned to intimidate workers:

Assuming the vote counting continues as it has begun, this will become the basis for a challenge by the union. It was, of course, only one of a string of intimidation strategies and efforts to rig the vote in Amazon’s favor—most of which were allowed under current U.S. labor law. So much of what’s happened in Bessemer is a case study in why we need the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, but also in why big business is so determined to keep U.S. labor law weak and tilted in favor of management.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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