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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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Alabama Amazon organizing drive is a case study in why it’s so important to pass the PRO Act

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The recent organizing drive by workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse has drawn an unusual amount of attention to a union representation election, and for good reason—Amazon is a massive employer that has successfully beaten back multiple organizing efforts in the United States. Even the possibility of a union win, in Alabama of all places, is worthy of the headlines. But it also draws attention to just how much the deck is stacked against workers and unions in this country. Amazon management has carried out an aggressive anti-union campaign, texting workers multiple times a day, posting anti-union messages in bathroom stalls, and more.

What could make it easier for workers to build power in the United States? In March, the House passed the PRO Act—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—which would provide a much-needed update to labor law after decades of erosion of collective bargaining and rising economic inequality.

Much of the discussion of the PRO Act, both on social media and here at Daily Kos, has centered on one provision of the bill applying to freelancers and independent contractors. I’ll get to that. But it’s one provision, so let’s refocus for a bit on parts of the bill that would affect far, far more workers.

The PRO Act protects worker-activists from being fired during organizing campaigns—something that’s technically illegal now, but employers do it all the time anyway, facing few penalties. The PRO Act creates penalties with real teeth. 

Under the current system, workers regularly face captive audience meetings in which they’re barraged with anti-union messaging and speaking out can put a target on them. The PRO Act would ban such meetings and allow union organizers to contact workers at their work email accounts (unless there was a strong business reason against it). The bill would also force companies to disclose what anti-union consultants they’ve hired. Delay is a common tactic to intimidate workers (often by firing outspokenly pro-union workers); the PRO Act would streamline the process and give workers more of a say in what their bargaining unit would look like.

These provisions would have made a significant difference in the Amazon organizing drive, as Brandon Magner writes at Jacobin. Amazon wouldn’t have been able to hold the many captive audience meetings it did hold. It wouldn’t have been able to force a vote by virtually all the workers in the building in one bargaining unit rather than accepting the significantly smaller bargaining unit the workers wanted. The election would have been held with much less delay and with the option of electronic voting. 

Once workers do vote to join a union, employers frequently continue using delay as a tactic. They drag their feet on bargaining a contract, they refuse to negotiate in good faith, they lock out workers or unilaterally impose their own proposals. The PRO Act would prevent those things, including with a mediation and arbitration process for first contract negotiations and a ban on “offensive lockouts” in which an employer declares that bargaining is at an impasse and locks out workers to put pressure on them.

And the PRO Act repeals state “right to work” laws, which weaken unions by allowing workers to freeload on their union coworkers, refusing to pay even a fee to cover the costs of their representation, which the union must nonetheless provide even for nonmembers.

But about that provision that’s drawing controversy from unexpected places:

Markos recently wrote about—and invited a guest writer to expand on—concerns that the inclusion of the so-called ABC test in the PRO Act would hurt freelancers. ABC is a test used to determine whether someone is an employee or a legitimate independent contractor. In the PRO Act, it would be used for assessing whether people had the right to organize as workers at a company; Markos, however, points to concerns that if the ABC test is made federal law for one purpose involving freelancers, it will be a slippery slope to its use for other purposes.

Opposition to this provision of the PRO Act is very sincerely coming from some freelancers concerned for their ability to make a living, following the failure of California’s AB5 to carve out an adequate exemption for their work when that law—since repealed by Proposition 22—used the ABC test to determine employment status much more broadly. But the opposition is also coming, Alex Press reports, from organizations like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others who are less concerned for the rights and livelihood of freelance writers than they are with opposing any bill that might give unions or worker organizing efforts any additional leverage.

The Authors Guild, which supports collective bargaining rights for freelancers, earlier echoed the concerns expressed by Markos and Kim Kavin, writing that it “does not agree that it is the right test to determine whether creative freelancers have the right to collectively bargain” and was drafting alternative language for amendments to the act. However, the Authors Guild is now supporting the PRO Act, planning a webinar on the bill that will “address misinformation fanned online about how the PRO Act would ‘nationalize’ California’s AB5 law and make freelance writers employees—which in reality is not the case.”

The AFL-CIO and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argue those concerns are misplaced. The EPI spells out what the PRO Act does and doesn’t do with regard to freelancers and independent contractors: “The PRO Act would provide workers with the right to join unions and band together no matter where they live if they are deemed employees because the legislation would be federally regulated and enforced.” However, “The Act would not impact rules or laws in states that determine whether workers are employees or independent contractors for the purposes of determining a workers’ state income tax status or whether they’re entitled to workers’ compensation benefits or unemployment benefits.” That’s what’s in this act, and while some opponents of the ABC test have argued that putting it into federal law in this context would create a slippery slope to laws replicating AB5, the reality is that there are few slippery slopes to new labor laws in the U.S.

The National Writers Union and its Freelance Solidarity Project agree, supporting the PRO Act in part because “Under current labor law, freelancers can form unions like ours, but our attempts to organize are not protected—and employers are even able to file legal charges against us for some of the very same activity protected for our W-2 colleagues. This means we are forced to walk a very narrow line, and in some cases avoid certain types of organizing and advocacy entirely. The PRO Act would change this, and make it easier for us to exercise our civil rights to come together for our common good.”

Again, though, wherever you come down on this specific provision in the bill, it’s a small part of a larger law to strengthen workers’ right to organize, a right that exists in law already but in practice is constantly compromised and under attack. It would benefit workers in Amazon warehouses, and in hospitals and nursing homes and meatpacking plants. 

The political reality, of course, is that while the PRO Act has passed the House, it is not going to get through a Senate in which the filibuster is intact. Filibuster reform or abolition is the prerequisite to getting almost anything done for workers, from raising the minimum wage to passing this bill. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 2, 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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For union battling Amazon, victory could bring a stalemate

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For the union trying to organize nearly 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, a successful election in the coming weeks could only be the beginning of the struggle to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the company.

Workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb, have been voting since late February on whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — an election that has drawn nationwide attention because it could result in Amazon’s first unionized facility in the U.S. The National Labor Relations Board will begin tallying the votes on Tuesday.

But initial collective bargaining agreements usually take years to hammer out at the negotiating table. More than half of workplaces that form unions are unable to reach an initial contract within a year, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and 37 percent of newly formed private-sector unions still have no contract after two years.

“It’s so difficult to hold an employer accountable,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at EPI. And even if the union engages in “this protracted legal battle, you know the penalty that the employer is facing is quite frankly minimal.”

The outcome of the election is being so closely watched because the stakes go far beyond this warehouse. If the campaign in Republican stronghold Alabama is successful, it could spark more organizing efforts at Amazon and other large retailers across the U.S. If it fails, it could galvanize Democrats’ fight to push through one of the broadest expansions of collective bargaining rights in nearly a century. At the same time, it could embolden many companies to take an even harder line against organized labor.

That’s why the Amazon organizing effort has taken on such broad significance politically. Even before the votes in Bessemer are counted, President Joe Biden, other Democrats and their labor allies are using the election to push for their union-friendly overhaul of federal labor law.

If Amazon were to drag its feet on an initial contract, the union could call on the NLRB to order management to bargain with the workers. However, that legal process can span months, even years, especially if the company were to appeal any enforcement moves from the labor board.

Amazon can legally refuse to bargain with the union if it challenges an issue related to the election. The company already sought to delay the union vote and require that ballots be cast in person rather than by mail. The NLRB approved a seven-week mail-in ballot election, instead of an in-person election that typically takes place over a few days, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heather Knox, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in response: “RWDSU membership has been declining for the last two decades, but that is not justification for its president, Stuart Appelbaum, to misrepresent the facts. Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote and hope they did so.”

The company declined to say how it would respond if the workers voted to unionize.

Union leaders said they are prepared for Amazon to dig in for a fight and are already using their effort in Alabama to promote the legislation in Congress, known as the PRO Act, that would make it easier for unions to organize.

“I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to try to come up with any excuse that it could find to overturn an election where workers win,” said Appelbaum, the union president. “There has never been a greater argument for labor law reform and the PRO Act than this election.”

Whether the e-commerce giant could go as far as to shutter the facility in response to a successful union election is murky.

“The law is clear about one thing, and that is that a business can completely, completely, 100 percent go out of business, even just to avoid a union,” said Andrew MacDonald, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia. “But there’s a less clear line, more of a gray area, where the company, partially, says shut down a plant or shut down one facility while others remain open.”

Amazon could also face trouble if it were to transfer some operations from Alabama to a non-unionized fulfillment center elsewhere.

MacDonald pointed to a 2011 labor dispute with Boeing Co., which decided to transfer a second production line for its 787 Dreamliner from a unionized facility in Washington to a non-union shop in South Carolina. The acting general counsel of the NLRB issued a complaint against the company, alleging the move violated federal labor law.

In that case, “the union in Washington and the labor board saw that as being motivated to avoid the union, not just making a business decision of where to make the plane,” MacDonald said.

The union later withdrew its complaint against Boeing after striking a new deal with the company governing other production in Washington.

If a company and a union are unable to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement after a successful organizing effort, provisions in the PRO Act would require them to go to mediation and arbitration.

“The law permits an employer to bargain essentially in bad faith,” said McNicholas. “The remedies are so weak that you can essentially drag your feet through the bargaining and frustrate the workforce such that they’re not getting any contract in the first year.”

Opponents of the PRO Act, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the legislation tilts too far in favor of unions and would harm the economy by costing jobs.

The unusual public attention on the Bessemer union drive has put both political and consumer pressure on Amazon that could keep the company in line, union and worker advocates say.

“Unlike most collective bargaining, this attempt to achieve a first contract is going to be the focus of a lot of public attention,” said Appelbaum. “I think that Amazon is going to be held accountable under the glare of the public spotlight. And that’s going to restrict what it is going to be able to do to prevent workers from getting a contract.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Colectivo Could Soon Become the Largest Unionized Coffee Chain in the U.S.

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On March 8, Lauretta Archibald marked her three-year anniversary as a baker for Colectivo Coffee Roasters, an upscale Midwestern coffee chain based in Milwaukee and Chicago.

In her years at Colectivo, Archibald had been responsible for making artisan bread in bulk, sometimes baking 1,000 loaves a night. It was arduous work, and Archibald says that she did not always have the support?—?or even materials?—?that she needed: the bakery was understaffed for stretches of time, there weren’t enough cooling racks and one of the ovens leaked the smell of gas through the kitchen.

When workers at the coffee chain first announced their plan to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Archibald?—?who eventually became a strong supporter of the union?—?wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea. ?“I didn’t know enough about unions to really say one or the other.” Still, she says, ?“I knew that something had to change.”

Workers say that last-minute scheduling, chronically broken equipment, and rapid expansion of the company brand spurred the union drive?—?while issues around Colectivo’s handling of Covid-19 popularized the campaign. 

Now, Colectivo’s staff of about 375 workers faces an election that will decide the fate of a union drive nearly a year in the making, with ballots due on March 30 and counted in the first week of April. If the campaign is successful, the workers will make history: the industry is almost entirely unorganized, and Colectivo would become the largest unionized coffee chain in the country. But as bakers, warehouse workers and baristas mobilize support for the union, the company has responded with open hostility, hiring the Labor Relations Institute (LRI)?—?a well-known union buster?—?during the campaign. 

“There are paid staff meetings where they’re asking us, individually, to vote no,” says Caroline Fortin, a shift lead at a location in Chicago. ?“So they’re very explicit.”

In These Times has also obtained copies of anti-union emails, ?“vote no” stickers and anti-union flyers drafted by Colectivo. 

Management communications have invoked the anti-labor trope that unionization invites a harmful ?“third party” into the fold, and charge that the IBEW should not be representing the coffee workers. (In fact, most historic trade unions now represent a wide range of professions; many members of the United Auto Workers, for example, work in the nonprofit sector.) 

One email from management goes so far as to highlight the high rate of attrition from the company for pro-union workers. ?“Of the 18 original organizing committee members, 10 remain employed today,” reads the email. The email goes on to list union organizers by job title and work location, with red slashes through those who no longer work at Colectivo. 

Indeed, workers say that the anti-union campaign has gone beyond propaganda and disinformation.

When the union drive went public in August 2020, Zoe Muellner, a café worker, attached her signature to a letter notifying Colectivo of the plan to organize. She says that after the letter was released, upper management?—?with whom she interacted regularly as a barista trainer?—?stopped answering her emails and cut social ties. 

A career barista, Muellner had worked in the coffee industry for six years?—?and Colectivo, for two?—?when the company cut her position as a trainer in October 2020.

“I asked if that meant I was done with the company in general, or if I could essentially take a demotion as a café coworker until they needed me back on in my position. And they said there were no positions available for me … but go ahead and file for unemployment, kid.” 

Muellner and the union say the layoff amounts to retaliation. 

Also in October 2020, Robert Penner?—?a specialized machine operator in the Milwaukee warehouse?—?was abruptly let go. Penner had taken part in ?“union talk” since 2019, and like Muellner, had come out in public support of the campaign in early fall of 2020. 

Penner says that the company requested that he come back on board following a voluntary pandemic-related furlough in the summer?—?but before his first shift back, he was told that Colectivo no longer needed him. Since his departure, the company has resorted to filling Penner’s position with baristas. 

“They were pulling in café workers who weren’t trained to work in the warehouse,” says Kait Dessoffy, a shift lead at a Chicago café. 

Archibald says that she had a similar experience after speaking up at an anti-union meeting held by an LRI representative.

“Me and another coworker specifically, we challenged everything he said,” Archibald says. ?“After that night, that guy knew we were for the union.”

In the weeks following the anti-union meeting, she noticed changes at work. Archibald was required to quickly train her coworkers in braiding Challah bread?—?a job that was formerly one of her specialties. At the time, Archibald thought it was ?“weird” that managers had requested to inspect her coworkers’ practice loaves. ?“Normally, when we did practice stuff, it was really just practice,” she says. In retrospect, she believes management was getting things in line for her departure. 

About six weeks ago, Archibald was abruptly moved off of her usual duties and instead instructed to prepare English muffins, a job for which she says she was never properly trained. She adds that management rapidly increased the number of biscuits she was required to bake?—?400 one night, then 500, then 900. 

“It felt like they were setting me up, you know, hoping I fail,” she explains. 

Finally, on March 16, Archibald reports that she was fired for taking a smoke break. She left Colectivo just a week after her three-year anniversary with the company.

LRI, whose website brags that the firm ?“literally wrote the book in countering union organizing campaigns,” has been identified by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) as one of the largest union-busting firms in the United States. The company made a popular debut in the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary ?“American Factory,” which follows a union-busting campaign by a Fuyao Glass Company factory in Ohio. 

According to company disclosures to the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), Colectivo pays LRI $375 an hour for services retained. 

Even absent the involvement of a ?“labor consulting firm” like LRI, employer retaliation is endemic in union campaigns. In 41.5% of union elections in the United States, employers receive Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges— and surveys of labor organizations suggest that the number of instances of employer aggression during union campaigns is much higher. 

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which was passed by the House of Representatives on March 9, attempts to curb this kind of union busting by banning ?“captive audience” meetings and instating stricter penalties for retaliatory firings.

In total, Colectivo has received six ULP allegations alleging retaliation and coercion during the ongoing union drive.

Still, union-busting tactics are not always straightforward, and can be difficult to prove. One Colectivo barista says that she has faced a subtler form of retaliation for her involvement with the campaign.

“I’ve always been, like, an over apologizer-type of person,” says Hillary Laskonis, a barista at Colectivo, explaining why her leadership in the campaign came as a surprise to some. ?“I think the owners take the whole thing personally.” 

Laskonis says that managers have pulled her aside for multiple tense and vaguely disciplinary meetings. Recently, she says managers warned her that they had received multiple complaints about her attitude and performance. This took Laskonis, a Colectivo barista of three years, by surprise. 

“[The meeting] was framed all around my mental health, and ?‘what can we do to help you succeed, because you’re clearly struggling,’ and all this.” Coupled with the accusation that a coworker had been complaining about her, Laskonis says that the managers’ apparent concern for her mental wellbeing led her to question herself. 

“It wasn’t until I talked to the other [union] members on a group chat,” says Laskonis, ?“that I was able to realize that, like, I was so majorly gaslit at a corporate level.”

Colectivo management did not respond to multiple requests for comment about allegations of misconduct by workers, but instead said in a statement, ?“We and our and leadership team recognize the complexity of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and turned to professionals who specialize in the law to ensure the company and its co-workers are fully informed.”

Workers, meanwhile, say that solidarity among staff has remained strong during the campaign, allowing them to continue to organize despite the ongoing anti-union rhetoric and activity.

“I think perhaps what management doesn’t realize about these [anti-union] meetings, or maybe about their staff, is that we’re really smart?—?we’re together. We are more than capable of forming our own opinions about our working conditions,” says Dessoffy.

“We work in service,” they add, ?“We know when someone is gaslighting us.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed the number of Colectivo employees as 500, based on figures from October, 2020. That number has been updated to reflect the current workforce. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a 2020?–?2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.


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The Teamsters Hint at a Combative National Project to Organize Amazon

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As the drive to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama draws international attention to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that is leading the effort, other unions are planning their own strategies to organize parts of Amazon’s sprawling operations as well. The Teamsters, who see Amazon as a direct threat to their historic work organizing the trucking industry, are engaged in a concerted project targeting Amazon?—?and though they’re tight-lipped about the details, they appear committed to a long-term, nationwide effort that could make them one of the company’s most formidable union foes. 

The 1.4 million-member Teamsters are more than ten times bigger than the RWDSU. They see Amazon’s vast pool of non-union delivery employees as an existential threat to not only their own members, but to the ability of the trucking industry to provide living wage jobs. Randy Korgan, a goateed organizing veteran whose current title is Teamsters National Director for Amazon, frames the standoff with Jeff Bezos’ company as just the latest incarnation of a struggle that the union has been waging for more than a century. 

“We fought to regulate the industry because of the working conditions that were happening in the [19]20s, 30s, and 40s. We obviously find some similarities today,” Korgan says. Despite the popular view of the ?“roaring 20s” as a grand era, ?“history clearly shows that working people suffered greatly. And here we come back into the roaring 20s again. Is this a repeat of history? We’ve got to ask ourselves that.” 

Korgan is particularly angered by Amazon’s ongoing effort to portray itself as a good corporate citizen because it pays a $15 per hour minimum wage to its employees?—?a wage lower than what Korgan himself made as a union warehouse worker more than 30 years ago. Amazon itself is the primary driver of a process that is changing warehouse jobs that once paid a living wage into low-income, tenuous, temporary work. 

“At every level of the organization you see this high turnover rate, and then you see them introducing this rate of $15, $16 an hour and trying to claim that they need to be patted on the back,” says Korgan. ?“Aren’t they talking out of both sides of their mouth? Because what is the average wage of someone that works in a warehouse in this country, and is Amazon exploiting and capitalizing on that wage being reduced?”

Currently, the only Teamsters members with a direct connection to the company are workers at Atlas and ABX Air, two firms that do business with Amazon. But the union is eyeing a much larger pool of Amazon employees, particularly delivery drivers, many of whom work for subcontractors rather than for Amazon itself. Though this process serves to insulate Amazon, the Teamsters have in the past organized tens of thousands of workers at subcontractors throughout the trucking industry. Warehouses are also in the Teamsters traditional wheelhouse, and it was reported last month that the union has spent several months organizing hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers in Iowa, though the outcome of that campaign remains uncertain. 

The Teamsters have been chewing over the threat posed by Amazon for years. Various Teamster websites are rife with posts like ?“TEAMSTERS MUST TAKE NOTE OF THE DANGER ON THE HORIZON” and ?“TAKING ON AMAZON,” all of which note the direct threat the company poses to the stability of the entire transportation industry. But as the Alabama warehouse union campaign has drawn a tidal wave of press, the Teamsters are now loath to divulge too much of their strategy. Korgan is leading the union’s ?“Amazon Project,” and says he is engaged with workers across the country, and is ?“absolutely” working with other unions, as well. But he declines to discuss the project’s funding, timeline, or specific targets. He does, however, hint that the Teamsters may pursue a more radical and confrontational strategy when it comes time to seek union recognition from the famously intransigent company. 

The classic pathway of seeking an NLRB election to certify a union?—?the process that is currently underway for the Amazon workers in Alabama?—?has the benefits of being clearly defined by law, but it also enables companies to spend months bombarding workers with anti-union propaganda, and to throw money at legal challenges. Korgan implies that the Teamsters may seek other pathways to try to force voluntary recognition of unions. (In fact, a Teamsters organizer in Iowa said that the union would prefer to use strikes to pressure the company to recognize its union.) 

“There are many platforms to seek recognition, there are many platforms for workers to do concerted activities,” Korgan says. ?“Truth be told, that [NLRB] process is where corporate America wants organizing to be, and that’s how they want it to be defined. Because they clearly have more of an advantage there than they do in other spaces.”

The recognition that Amazon has become so powerful that allowing it to remain non-union is not a viable option seems to have finally become conventional wisdom within organized labor. It is safe to assume that the Teamsters are only one of several major unions planning ways to organize their own slice of the company. The union campaign in Alabama, where the votes will be counted at the end of this month, will likely be only the first step down a long and contentious road that will last for years. 

“No matter what happens in Bessemer,” Korgan says, ?“it doesn’t change the trajectory of anything that’s going on.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 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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