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Inflation and Your Next Union Contract

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Samir Sonti

What’s going on with inflation? It’s a question that everyone is asking, and one that is particularly important for anyone entering bargaining this year.

We can’t predict what is to come, but the evidence from the past year hasn’t been good for workers. The Consumer Price Index rose by more than 8 percent, its fastest pace in 40 years. Essential expenses like housing, food, and gas have climbed especially fast.

Despite all the talk of labor shortages and a tight job market, wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. Since April 2021, inflation-adjusted hourly earnings have fallen by more than 2 percent. Any stimulus savings that people had accrued have largely dried up by now, and there is currently no plan for federal relief for working people facing the affordability crisis posed by historic inflation rates.

ENORMOUS PROFITS

Profits, on the other hand, have boomed. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, pre-tax corporate profits rose 25 percent in 2021, the largest annual increase in 45 years. Another recent study of 22 corporations including Amazon, McDonald’s, and Disney showed that their shareholders reaped $1.5 trillion in wealth during the first two years of the pandemic—almost triple their earnings in the two years prior.

Oil and gas companies, for their part, have made a fortune since the war in Ukraine began. The largest producers collected nearly $100 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2022 alone, some 127 percent more than last year.

These enormous profits help explain much of the increase in prices since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not to say that price gouging by big business caused the inflation in the first place. Pandemic disruptions in supply chains, as well as energy and food markets shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are at the root of the problem.

But corporate pricing decisions have certainly taken advantage of the inflationary environment, and probably made it worse. In any case, the bottom line when it comes to bargaining is that employers can afford to pay.

RECESSION COMING?

What is less clear is how long this profit bonanza is going to last. Walmart, Target, and other retailers reported lower-than-expected profits for the first quarter of 2022. This is largely due to the ongoing inflation; the rising cost of food, fuel, and housing has forced households to cut back on expenditures like TVs and patio furniture.

Of course, we don’t need to feel bad for Walmart and Target. But given that consumer spending is a key driver of economic activity, this could be a warning sign of an impending downturn.

And there is an even bigger reason to be concerned about the health of the economy over the next year or so: the Federal Reserve. As the central bank of the United States, its official mandate is to help the economy achieve stable prices (that is, low inflation) and maximum employment. When push comes to shove, however, central bankers tend to be more concerned about inflation than unemployment—and those two goals often run at cross purposes.

A quick look at the mechanics makes this clear. The Federal Reserve tries to accomplish its objectives by using monetary policy, or adjustment of interest rates—lowering interest rates to give the economy a boost, raising interest rates to slow it down.

Why would they want to slow the economy down? Their reasoning is that inflation is the byproduct of economic overheating, or “too much demand chasing too few goods.” From this perspective, high inflation calls for high interest rates, which in theory will bring “demand” back to where it should be.

Beneath all the technical terms and concepts, what this means is quite simple: the Federal Reserve fights inflation by engineering recessions and intentionally raising unemployment. Monetary policy, when used this way, is a blunt weapon of class war.

GET IT WHILE YOU CAN

Early this year, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell announced plans to begin doing just that—raising interest rates and ending other Covid emergency monetary measures. Since then, Powell and other central bankers have only become more hawkish, increasing the pace and size of scheduled interest rate hikes.

In addition to being an objectively anti-worker policy, this approach is also plain wrong-headed: current inflation is the result of pandemic shut-downs and war in Ukraine, not the result of an overheated economy. Monetary policy will not do anything about the supply chain problems, food and energy market volatility, or corporate pricing decisions that are driving prices upward.

What this new monetary policy may do is produce a recession. This is where inflation and the Federal Reserve’s response becomes most relevant to those entering bargaining in the coming months.

Corporate America has just had one of its best runs on record. And thanks to federal aid, state and city governments are in a better financial position than any time in recent memory. But because of the Federal Reserve, conditions may not remain favorable for long. So there is every reason to take advantage of this opportunity to lock in the most that you possibly can before things take a turn for the worse.

THE FED’S CLASS WARFARE

It is also worth taking a moment to step back and consider inflation for what it is: an issue of class politics. Why is the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy the only tool on offer for controlling inflation? Why does the burden of inflation control fall on workers, and not on corporate shareholders?

What if we limited corporate profits and controlled the prices of key goods rather than suppressing wages—would businesses stop investing? Let’s say they did. If so, couldn’t the government step in and provide more goods and services publicly?

There are no correct technical answers to these questions. They can only be resolved politically, through struggle over the kind of society we hope to call into being.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on July 8, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Samir Sonti. Samir teaches at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.


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These Are The Workers Who Took on Amazon, and Won

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESSENTIALLY DISRESPECTED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A UNION IS BORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE DRIVING FORCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLIDARITY & INDEPENDENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Amazon Labor Union Victory Shows That Jurisdiction Is Dead

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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.


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Amazon Bites Back in Vote at Second New York Warehouse

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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.


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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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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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Unionize Goldman Sachs

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Unionize Goldman Sachs. I do not say this to be cheeky. I do not say this ironically, nor with a winking sneer. I do not say it as a fantastical absurdity. In fact, if the employees of Goldman Sachs were as smart as they think they are, they would have unionized a long time ago.

Last week, the beleaguered first-year analysts of the fancy investment bank made news when they circulated a slide deck and survey complaining of 100-hour work weeks and inhumane working conditions that are destroying their mental and physical health. Such stories crop up regularly, and reflect the fact that even the most prestigious Wall Street banks tend to operate exactly like the most prestigious college fraternities, complete with hazing rituals and fanatic demands for loyalty in exchange for the promise of being served by future generations of slavish recruits. This sort of built-in mistreatment makes perfect capitalist sense. It selects for the people willing to endure any outrage in order to get rich, and simultaneously inculcates in them a feeling that they have ?“earned” their riches because of what they endured. The way these pathetic young Ivy League try-hards are treated is indefensible on human rights grounds, but then again, if they cared very much about human rights, they wouldn’t be working on Wall Street in the first place. 

Yes, a union could mitigate these abusive working conditions. But that is only a secondary reason for these budding masters of the universe to organize. Goldman Sachs is the pinnacle of high finance, the place with the strongest reputation for controlling every nuance of the economic world. Yet, incredibly, in the past 150 years, none of its employees have realized the basic truth that bargaining collectively with your coworkers will always get you more, in aggregate, than bargaining alone. The bankers who work for Goldman have been leaving money on the table every single year because they do not have the leverage inherent with being able to negotiate together as a single group?—?the only leverage that allows the labor force of any employer, even a Wall Street bank, to extract the maximum possible share of the proceeds of a business. You would think that they would have learned this rudimentary fact during their early days at Harvard Business School, but apparently their ignorance is the price they pay for going to a school that considers labor only a cost to be controlled, rather than an identity that encompasses almost everyone. 

I do not need a red-faced banker in a fleece vest to condescendingly explain to me why Goldman Sachs has never unionized despite the overwhelming logical case for doing so. I’m quite sure I can recite their explanations already: ?“We’re paid a lot, unions aren’t for us.” ?“There are a thousand people who would love to have my job.” ?“I can make a ton of money by rising up through the current system.” ?“I plan to run this place one day.” All that I hear in these excuses is a business that benefits greatly from the fact that it has successfully indoctrinated its employees to believe that they are not labor. Congratulations, Wall Street! Over the past century the management and shareholder classes of Wall Street banks have reaped countless billions of dollars in profit for themselves that they would have had to distribute to their employees, had those employees had the power of collective bargaining. Instead, each of those employees were convinced that they were the superstars, and would eventually win this race to the top, and that joining with their coworkers would only hold them back. Mathematics tells us that for the vast majority of employees, this belief is untrue. And yet it persists, because believing otherwise would make you a traitor to capitalism (even though it would also make your salary higher). It’s sad, really. 

Goldman Sachs, and the entire class of well-paid, competitive white collar jobs like it, represents the purest distillation of the lie that American businesses have gotten millions of workers to swallow for decades: that solidarity is the enemy of success, and the key to winning is to compete with your fellow workers, and defeat them in a cutthroat battle for advancement. Suffer through these 100-hour weeks now, and live like a Senior VP one day in the future! Corporate America has pulled off this con by waving around the particulars of a job (Good salary! Free meals! Expense account!) to argue that it is not like regular jobs, while concealing the unavoidable structural reasons why it is, indeed, subject to the same basic dynamics as other jobs, in which the workers always benefit by being able to exercise collective power. 

Many in the labor movement will say: Fuck ?‘em. Who cares if Goldman Sachs people aren’t smart enough to organize? The reason why this matters is not that these bankers will starve without a union?—?it is that part of building a truly powerful labor movement is getting everyone into that movement. In the sort of coherent, well-functioning labor movement that America desperately needs, the dues money would flow not just from workers on the bottom, but from those on the top. It can then be directed towards the area of greatest need. You get the dues money from the bankers, and use it to organize the janitors. Everyone is in it together. Let the peons of Wall Street turn their allegiance away from the owners and towards their fellow working people. That’s how a strong labor movement should work. 

Brothers and sisters of Goldman Sachs: join us! You have nothing to lose except your goofy fleece vests, execrable work hours, and lack of a union wage premium. And we’ll even let you keep the vests. Union democracy is real. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 23, 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 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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Tate’s Bake Shop threatens workers with deportation, this week in the war on workers

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Workers attempting to unionize at Tate’s Bake Shop are getting hit with an all-too-common, and totally vile, union-busting message: They say they’re being threatened with deportation

Yes, Tate’s—now owned by Mondelez International—hired an anti-union consultant, who apparently looked at the company’s many undocumented workers and went for the threat that would scare them the most. It’s an illegal threat—undocumented workers are explicitly allowed to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act—but a potent one.

“They began threatening people based on their immigration status, telling them that if their documents are not in order and they attempted to join the labor union they would get deported,” said Cosmo Lubrano, president of the Eastern States Joint Board of the International Union of Allied, Novelty and Production Workers.

”People are scared to talk,” a Tate’s sanitation worker told Gothamist. “They’re scared to express themselves.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 13, 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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There Are No Make or Break Moments In a Movement

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The Amazon union drive in Alabama, we are told, is a ?“once-in-a-generation opportunity,” a battle which must be won now lest it slip through our grasp forever. That is not true at all. If the workers at that Amazon warehouse win their historic union, it will be a signal that the labor movement should unleash a broad campaign of similar organizing drives at more and more warehouses across the country. And if they lose? Same thing. 

The human mind is naturally wired to make us feel that we are, at all times, the stars (or, at least, best supporting actors) of a movie called ?“HISTORY,” and that what is happening at this very moment is both the culmination of, and the launching point for, all that has come before or since. We tend to recoil at the idea that we are but tiny insects borne along on mighty winds that were blowing long before we were here, and that will continue long after we are gone, and that the totality of our experience may be just a momentary glimpse of the sun before we are plunged once again into darkness. To the extent that these questions are philosophical or even spiritual?—?who cares? But when it comes to political action, well, these sorts of perceptions can really matter.

It is always tempting to tell people that the particular fight we are in today is a make-or-break one?—?that if we win this battle, total victory is ours, and if we lose it, all is lost, so buckle down and focus. But it is almost never true. You may have noticed that every single presidential election of your lifetime has been declared to be ?“The most important presidential election of our lifetime,” a historic appellation that is inevitably superseded by the next presidential election. Electoral politics, at least, has the excuse that it is composed of an endless series of regularly scheduled recurring events, only one of which is happening at any given time. But when we discuss movements—whether social justice movements pushing a specific cause, or the labor movement, pushing for general worker uplift?—?we are talking not about a series of things, but an ongoing process, which will never end until humans evolve into some higher form of being with no problems. Just as sharks die if they stop swimming, movements always have to keep moving. Preferably forward.

The temptation to see any given fight as a ?“make or break” moment has a steep downside. For one thing, it implies that we’ll have it made if we win; for another, it implies that we’ll be broken if we lose. Neither is true. The Amazon union drive is a case in point. It’s easy to see why we would play up something like this as an existential battle: it’s important! It is the single most important union drive of the past several years at least, and unionizing Amazon is an absolutely vital goal for the entire labor movement, to prevent millions more of us from being transformed into heavily monitored warehouse workers in order to further enrich Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. Convincing everyone that this is a chance that will not come along again has a strong motivational effect. But if it were actually true, it would be awful. If this union drive succeeds, about 6,000 Amazon workers will have a union?—?out of a million. Changing the practices of this monster company will require organizing ten times this number, and then ten times that again. The amount of work necessary to achieve the goal we are aiming for will make Bessemer look like a light warmup. A win just means that we have a formula for unionizing a warehouse that is proven to work. A loss just means that we have a formula that doesn’t work, that should be improved before the union world moves on to the next warehouse, and then the next. Events may succeed or fail, but movements just adapt and keep moving on. 

The labor movement is unfortunately susceptible to this counterproductive cycle of hyping itself up for a big campaign, and then losing and wallowing in despair, or winning and assuming that we can rest now. We can never rest! (I mean, any of us can rest when we get burned out, but there should be other people to take our place in the meantime?—?another great quality of strong movements is that they don’t depend on a single leader whose absence causes them to collapse.) You can discern this tendency in the union establishment’s all-or-nothing rhetoric right now about the PRO Act, a very good labor law reform bill that has zero chance of making it through the Senate as long as the filibuster exists. It is very easy to imagine unions spending the next two years maniacally focused on passing this bill to the exclusion of all else, only to melt into a puddle of regret when Republicans win the next midterms and the bill has still not been passed. Instead of falling into this trap, the labor movement needs to think like a movement: There are millions of workers to organize and thousands of unions to build every hour of every day in every state. None of them may individually make the splash of a brand-name campaign or a revolutionary bill, but collectively, they are the bulk of the substance that makes the movement stronger. 

Yeah, get hype for the Amazon union. Make those calls for the PRO Act. Just remember that this is a process, not a championship game to be won. This is a thing that was going on before we got here, that we check into for a while to do our part, and that will continue long after we are all dead and gone. Because the second we stop working, the thing that the movement was built to overcome starts creeping back into our world. Even if we get our asses kicked today, be sure to come back tomorrow. Movements only die when they stop trying. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 8, 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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