• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

American Workers are Transforming the Economy

Share this post

Liz Shuler

In just one second, Amazon’s executive chairman Jeff Bezos makes nearly $2500. That’s four times the weekly pay of an Amazon delivery or warehouse worker toiling in the sweltering summer heat.

Last year alone $6.5 trillion flowed from the bottom 90% of wage earners to the top 1%. That means the janitor who cleans our child’s school, the nurse who cares for our sick father and the grocery clerk who always greets us with a smile are struggling, while the wealthiest among us literally skyrocket into space with bottomless bank accounts.

Upward mobility seems out of reach for most Americans. Young people are backsliding with low wages, out-of-control housing prices and crushing health care costs.

But our story—the American worker’s story—will not be written by billionaires.

This Labor Day, working people are writing a new chapter infused with hope for a brighter future. We’re no longer tolerating being called “essential” one minute and treated as expendable the next. Whether on a manufacturing shop floor, in a high-rise office, in a corner cafe or Amazon warehouse, workers are transforming our economy.

Recent data shows that workers won 639 union elections already this year, the highest win total in nearly 20 years. What’s notable is that those victories occurred in many different industries. The heroic organizing efforts at Starbucks and Amazon have captured our imagination.

And there have been worker victories big and small across the economy this year. Like the 19,000 graduate researchers in California who won a union for more equitable treatment at universities and nurses in Maine and North Carolina who wore trash bags as makeshift protections against COVID before organizing unions to win safety protections every worker deserves.

All across America, workers’ power is growing by the day as more demand the rights and democracy on the job that the laws of the United States promise us all.

But too many corporations haven’t moved with the times. At every turn, working people meet resistance from our employers when we try to form a union. Public approval of unions is the highest in my lifetime, a 57-year peak according to a 2022 Gallup survey released this week. Nearly 60 million workers would vote to join a union tomorrow. But far too few get that chance.

As president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of America’s unions, I am elected by everyone from soccer players to construction workers to educators to help all working people make our voices heard. My favorite part of this job is being on the frontlines of these fights with the workers who are leading them.

I see a lightbulb go off when people realize we don’t have to accept abysmal working conditions. Instead of quitting jobs in frustration, we can stand together as part of a union, and have the power to demand change.

Some corporate executives are evolving, like Microsoft President Brad Smith, who is respecting workers’ freedom to join a union. Microsoft worked with the Communications Workers of America to enter into a labor neutrality agreement at Microsoft and Activision Blizzard, because the company knows allowing workers to join a union is the best way for employers to count their employees as true partners.

But Microsoft is the exception, not the rule. Most CEOs still revert to a decades’ old playbook of stifling worker voice, often breaking the law to do so. When employers use retaliation, harassment and illegal firings to try to stop organizing, they reject the best path forward for an equitable economy and basic fairness on the job.

No worker should have to stand alone in the face of the power and ruthlessness of billionaire CEOs. That’s why the AFL-CIO is launching an effort this year to resource helping workers unionize at an unprecedented level, making organizing the center of everything we do as a movement.

Our new Center for Transformational Organizing aims to level the playing field by uniting our unions in strategic support of workers who are simply fighting for the American Dream of a better, more secure life.

Standing together, working people are raising wages that lift up entire communities. We’re solving climate change while creating good jobs with clean energy. We’re investing in the infrastructure that builds our nation’s future. We’re developing technologies like semiconductors to keep America globally competitive. We’re fighting for social and racial justice so economic gains are broadly shared. And we’re making workplaces safer, healthier and free from discrimination.

A more democratic workplace is coming. If you are one of the majority of America’s workers who are thinking about joining a union, now is the time.

This Labor Day marks the dawn of a new era of worker power. And we’re never going back.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 8, 2022. Published with permission.

About the Author: Liz Shuler is president of the 58 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO, and the first woman leader of America’s labor movement. 


Share this post

The Amazon Labor Union Victory Shows That Jurisdiction Is Dead

Share this post

Hamilton Nolan

When news spread April 1 that the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) had won its union election at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York, the initial response from anyone who supports the labor movement was exultation at this unprecedented — and unexpected — victory for the working class.
he secondary response was a collective “In your face!” to mega-billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who was shown that all the money in the world can’t crush the will for a union.

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

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

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

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

What has this approach gotten us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Share this post

These Are The Workers Who Took on Amazon, and Won

Share this post

Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESSENTIALLY DISRESPECTED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A UNION IS BORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE DRIVING FORCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLIDARITY & INDEPENDENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Share this post

The Amazon Labor Union Victory Shows That Jurisdiction Is Dead

Share this post

Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has this approach gotten us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Share this post

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

Share this post

Katie Barrows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie Barrow and Ethan Miller

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

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

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

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


Share this post

Amazon Bites Back in Vote at Second New York Warehouse

Share this post

Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘UNLIMITED CHANCES’

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

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

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

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

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

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


Share this post

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

Share this post

Irene Tung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Share this post

Amazon Workers Decide Not to Form Union at a Second U.S. Facility—But Organizers Pledge to Fight On

Share this post

One month after making history by organizing the first U.S. Amazon warehouse, workers voted against forming a union at another facility in New York.

Update (May 2, 2022): Following a hard-fought campaign, the Amazon Labor Union came up short at the LDJ5 complex, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. In response, ALU founder Chris Smalls wrote: “Despite todays outcome I’m proud of the worker/organizers of LDJ5 they had a tougher challenge after our victory at JFK8. Our leads should be extremely proud to have given their coworkers a right to join a Union. ALU will continue to organize and so should all of you.”

After a stunning victory last month when Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in New York became the first to unionize a company facility in the United States, the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is hoping to notch a second union win at a neighboring sorting center on Staten Island—the LDJ5 warehouse.

The results of the vote are expected Monday. More than 1,500 workers began casting ballots starting April 25 and ending on April 29. Worker organizers face an uphill battle in replicating their success at the second warehouse because it is relatively new, having opened in 2020, and is comprised of a workforce that is largely part-timers. The second warehouse also has fewer worker organizers than JFK8.

Organizers say that the company’s union-busting has been even more aggressive at LDJ5, attempting to wallop the nascent union movement at the corporate behemoth.

Ahead of the vote, In These Times spoke to organizers Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, and Madeline Wesley, 23, about their experience in the campaign and how Amazon workers are making history. 

Julian Mitchell-Israel:

Can you talk about why you are organizing inside the LDJ5 warehouse?

When it comes down to it, what we’re doing inside the warehouse is talking about what’s been taken from us. It’s listening to other workers, and it’s spreading the love. We are making everyone realize that the reason we’re fighting for this [union] is not some ulterior motive. It comes down to the bread and butter issues. And it comes down to the fact that we’re all being robbed in the exact same way. And the only way that we stop them is together.

From the time that you sent ALU founder Chris Smalls your resume to now, what have you learned in this whole process?

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to talk to people that I would never have talked to before. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, I know how to talk to New Yorkers. But there’s a difference in terms of speaking to people about the issues. There’s a difference in speaking to people about overtly political issues and speaking to them about their day-to-day life, about their workplace, because it becomes very personal very quickly. 

And one thing that got reinforced for me is that when it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. And that’s a hard thing to understand. But when 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.” The one time I snapped during this entire campaign, I said to a worker, “why are you bootlicking Jeff Bezos right now?” And I saw the hurt in his eyes after I said that, because I didn’t get it right then. I think he was genuinely curious about things and he was genuinely trying to understand. And it’s hard because, you know, Amazon has brainwashed all these people. I went into my car, and I cried after that, because I was saying to myself that that is the mistake that has stopped this movement from happening for so long. 

People need to have unlimited chances here. One of my favorite things that one of the other organizers said is that there’s no such thing as an anti-union worker, there’s just a misinformed worker. And I think that’s a fact. Because you’re never going to work against yourself. And so I think what I’ve learned here is that when you bring love to the table, and you focus on that as the prime motivator, there’s nothing that can stand in your way.

How do you feel about the vote? 

I think we could win this thing. I really do. I’m not confident, but I’m hopeful. We have an incredible amount of momentum on our side. I think if we had one more week, I would say we have it on lock. But we don’t. And so the question is just, “did we gain enough ground back?” 

Why do you think you’ve lost ground because of JFK8?

Maddie and I took three weeks of time off of work at LBJ5 to help run the campaign for JFK in the final couple of weeks. And in that time, Amazon planted a seed of a very deep anti-unionism in a lot of the workers here. They riled up the people that were already against us to be more vocal. So when we came back into the warehouse, although some people were more on our side than ever, a lot of people were more against us than ever. So it was sort of this one step forward, one step back kind of thing. 

Madeline Wesley:

Take me back to how you got involved in this campaign. And do you think you’re on the eve of, potentially, a victory?

Potentially? Yeah.

I got involved nine months ago or so. I spoke to Chris [Smalls] and I asked him a lot of questions. And he answered all of them. And so yeah, here we are.

What set of circumstances set you on the path to becoming a union organizer coming to New York?

I was a Wesleyan student in Middletown, Connecticut. And our dining hall workers are represented by Unite Here local 17. I got involved with a group called the United Student Labor Action Coalition. So that’s how I got involved with student labor organizing. And then I also got involved with Unite Here through that. I worked with local 26 in Boston and local 355 in Miami, and I was originally planning on staying in Miami. But I made a last-minute decision to switch gears and then do this campaign here in Staten Island with Amazon Labor Union after I got a call from my good friend, Seth Goldstein. Or, not one call—I got many calls from my good friend, Seth Goldstein, about this campaign. And I figured, at the end of the day, this is something that I probably only have one chance to be a part of. So I took it

What stood out to you about the campaign? 

I really saw the potential in this movement. I think one thing that really sold me was that it was a worker-led movement. This is the kind of thing that people like us only dream about—a truly worker-led movement against one of the richest companies in the world. It doesn’t come around that often. 

You wanted to be a part of history?

When I first started on the campaign, I figured that the odds were against us, and we probably wouldn’t win, but it was it was worth a shot anyways. And here we are.

How are you feeling about the vote today? I know the campaign has really heated people up. 

It was pretty intense for a while. But I’m so proud of my team. Because even though it was really discouraging a couple of weeks ago, and Amazon was throwing all of this shit at us, we stuck through it. And no one gave up. We all prevailed, and we chipped away at it one person at a time. And now we’re at this point where I feel like we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning. I mean, nothing’s certain. And it’s always kind of difficult to tell. 

What makes you feel confident about the win? 

Just people coming up to us and being like, “I was No [on the union], but then I saw that you guys weren’t just some outsiders, you were actually here in the building, you were actually Amazon workers.” And that made the difference for me, people coming up to us being like, I don’t say a lot, but I’m with you guys. I think over the past couple of weeks we’ve changed a lot of minds and hearts. And it’s the work of the whole team. 

Is there anything that has surprised you in this campaign at LDJ5? 

I think that after winning JFK8, some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win. And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything that they’ve got here at LDJ5. They successfully rallied some anti-union workers, so we had to fight a lot of misinformation and rumors and lies. You always have to change your tactics based off what’s going on. What we found is that we’ve had to fight for LDJ5 just as hard as we had to fight for JFK8.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 2, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

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


Share this post

Amazon moves its army of union-busters to the next warehouse over, this week in the war on workers

Share this post

Following the Amazon Labor Union’s huge win in Staten Island, they’re going for it again. Workers at another, smaller warehouse—called LDJ5—will begin voting on April 25, and Amazon is once again going hard with its union-busting campaign. 

“All those union-busters that were there to union-bust 8,000 workers at JFK8 have walked across the street and are in our little building of 1,600 people,” LDJ5 worker Madeline Wesley told reporters at a press conference last week. “They’re really fighting us, and they’re playing really dirty.”

The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over captive audience meetings being conducted by veteran union-buster Rebecca Smith. The workers at LDJ5 will face enormous intimidation in the coming 10 days, but they can also look at JFK8 and take their inspiration.

“I can’t believe the building across from us, JFK8, got a union,” 18-year-old Ursula Tomaszuk told Labor Notes. “I thought it wasn’t doable until now.”

This blog was originally posted at Daily Kos on April 16, 2022.

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


Share this post

The Amazon Union Campaign Won By Following the Lead of Workers

Share this post

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.


Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

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

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

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