Labor Notes Panel Highlights Organizing Drives at Retail Giant Across U.S.
By Mark Satinoff
About 4,000 unionists from across the country and 200 international guests from around the world attended the Labor Notes conference the weekend of June 17–19 in Chicago. The size of the gathering was noteworthy as was the participation of many young workers. For over forty years, Labor Notes has been a voice of trade unionists who want to “put the movement back in the labor movement,” says its website. The group serves as a resource for union members, leaders, and activists that promotes “organizing [and] aggressive strategies to fight concessions.”
A conference panel titled “Amazon Workers in Motion” highlighted some of the union organizing efforts that mark new developments in the U.S. labor movement. Among the most important is the Amazon Labor Union’s (ALU) stunning April 1 victory in the union election at JFK8, Amazon’s giant fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. The panel brought together four Amazon workers from four different geographic regions, each with its own history and demographics. These union organizers shared their experiences while outlining differing views on strategy and tactics.
This reporter was unable to attend the conference but watched the video of this panel available online here.
Chris Zamarron, a cofounder of Amazonians United (AU), has been working at an Amazon delivery station in Chicago since 2017. AU started in 2019. It is based out of several delivery stations in Chicago. The group has chapters at Amazon delivery stations around the country, including in New York City; North Carolina; Sacramento, California; and Jacksonville, Florida. AU describes itself is a “self-organized union.” It has no affiliation to established trade unions.
Rev. Ryan Brown, President of the Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment (CAUSE), spoke next. Founded in the fall of 2021 in Raleigh, North Carolina, CAUSE also is not affiliated with any established trade union. This group credits the AU, ALU, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, for inspiring its members to form their own grassroots union.
“CAUSE is an entirely worker-led committee made up of current and former Amazon associates,” states the group’s website. “Our aim is to unionize the Amazon fulfillment center (RDU1) in Garner, NC and to have CAUSE at all Amazon warehouses throughout North and South Carolina.” For now, the organization is focusing on Amazon fulfillment centers in Raleigh-Durham (Garner) and Charlotte, NC.
Next up was Angelika Maldonado, the 27-year-old interim ALU vice president who works at JFK8, Amazon’s 8,300-worker warehouse in New York. Maldonado started work at Amazon in 2018 and joined the ALU in October 2021. Since the ALU’s decisive victory at JFK8, Amazon has refused to recognize the union as the workers’ legitimate representative. (See “Amazon Seeks to Prevent Certification of Union at NY Warehouse” and “Union Power Can Break Employers’ Obstruction.”)
The final panelist was Isaiah Thomas, a young dock worker at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama (BHM1). He has worked at Amazon for two years and is a member of the BAmazon organizing committee. BAmazon is a campaign of RWDSU’s Mid-South Council.
The RWDSU lost a representation election in Bessemer in April 2021. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), however, ordered a second vote after it found that Amazon improperly interfered in that election. The outcome of the second union vote, held in March, is too close to call with more than 400 contested ballots, enough to overcome the union’s current deficit. The NLRB has yet to hold a hearing on the challenged ballots.
The AU’s approach sets it apart from the other three organizing groups. The AU rejects as “reformist” the process of going through NLRB-sanctioned elections and certification by the labor board. It declares itself a union and demands recognition from the company on that basis, backing up its demands with direct action on the shop floor.
“A lot of people’s conception of a union is that we need to call up the Teamsters or another union so that they can come and unionize us,” stated Zamarron. “We need to flip the narrative. We are the union. We are the ones that can fight for ourselves. We don’t need union elections. We don’t need anyone’s permission to be a union. We give ourselves the permission to be a union by forming it ourselves.”
AU is a network of shopfloor “worker committees” concentrated at Amazon’s delivery stations. “We began in Chicago,” Zamarron said. “We’ll continue growing in Chicago to the point where we’ll be able to strike all the delivery stations in this city and stop the distribution of goods. That is how we will have any sort of bargaining power.”
Rev. Brown described CAUSE’s strategic three-step plan. First, the group launched a petition. “It creates a conversation,” he said on the panel. “It makes us relevant. It shows us our weaknesses and strengths. The ALU victory inspired us to come out publicly and ride this humongous wave that’s coming from New York. Before that we were hiding in the shadows.” Following the petition, CAUSE plans to collect signatures for a union election. The goal is to “make history by becoming the first Amazon warehouse in North Carolina to vote for a union.”
CAUSE collaborates with and has the support of the Southern Workers Assembly. According to its website, the Southern Workers Assembly seeks “to organize the unorganized working class across the South.” It is a network of local unions, worker organizations, and organizing committees, “committed to building rank-and-file democratic social movement unionism (unionism with a social justice agenda).”
Maldonado described the importance of the culture the ALU created. Organizers encourage fellow workers to become part of the ALU family, she noted. At the bus stop outside JFK8, Maldonado said, “we blasted music — Spanish music, hip hop music, R&B. We ate soul food. We ate baked ziti. We respected each other, coming from different backgrounds and different ages. At that time, we [union organizers] weren’t allowed in the building.”
After the ALU won the right to campaign inside the warehouse in December 2021, Maldonado noted, “We took the attitude from the bus stop and brought it into the building. We took our pamphlets, we took our tables, we took our Bluetooth speaker, petitions, signup sheets. Building our own culture within the JFK8 warehouse was central to our strategy.”
Thomas reported that BAmazon uses petition campaigns and organizes workers to “march on the boss” to present their grievances. “If someone is unjustly fired you band together and march to HR to demand their job back,” Thomas said. House visits proved to be pivotal. “When meeting people and talking to them in their homes they’re more likely to open up and have a conversation about what they would like to be changed,” he explained.
The challenge of organizing in the South
The panel — featuring workers from four different areas of the country — emphasized the unique challenges facing each organization.
Brown pointed out that North Carolina is the second least unionized state in the country. South Carolina is first. “Martin Luther King had a strategy for the South that was different from Malcolm’s strategy for the North,” said Brown, referring to African American revolutionary leader Malcolm X. “We take from the ALU, Bessemer, and AU and put it in our context. We can’t take for granted that our coworkers have a union consciousness.”
Brown described talking to workers who had tears in their eyes because they had just gotten paid on Friday and didn’t have enough money to buy food for the weekend. The starting pay at the RDU1 facility is $15.50 per hour. Following the long tradition of Black churches in the South serving food every Sunday, “We are going to adopt a Black Panther model of a food program,” he said. “If Jeff Bezos can’t provide for his workers, we will.”
Maldonado said the workforce at JFK8 represents a diverse demographic. The ALU is sensitive and responsive to the many cultures and languages of the workers there. She talked about the importance of organizers being “vulnerable,” describing to other workers their own difficulties in their personal journeys and experiences on the job and what they did to overcome them. Maldonado explained that when she told her own story about growing up in public housing and being the single mother of a four-year-old, other workers felt comfortable opening up to her, and trust built between them.
“Listening is 90% of having conversations,” said Thomas. “You become family to them. The moment you build that relationship with that worker is the moment you build trust and the moment they become more comfortable with the idea of collective action. We hold union meetings inside the breakroom to show that we’re here to stay. Organizers need a sense of humility.”
The challenge of recruiting organizers
Maldonado said the conditions at Amazon made it “incredibly difficult” to recruit organizers. She reported there were only 10-12 solid organizers when she joined the ALU in October 2021 and 22 by the time of the election six months later. “The shifts last 10-to-12 hours and many workers have long commutes,” she explained. “Many have second jobs, working as Door Dash or Lyft drivers. Many are immigrants sending money back home to their families and are afraid of losing their job if they come out too publicly for the union. It’s hard to get an organizer and sometimes it’s hard to keep an organizer,” she continued.
“Amazon instills fear and targets organizers with [disciplinary] write ups, cross-training — who wants to go from pack to pick?” she said. “Sometimes they’ll even go so far as to fire a friend in retaliation.”
The ALU recruited Maldonado at the bus stop. She had just gotten off her shift after a grueling ten hours and had missed the bus. The next bus would not come for another hour, which left her nearly in tears, she said. She thought back to when she first got hired and Amazon had promised shuttle buses, but they never made good on that promise. ALU members invited her to the union’s bonfire, told her they were starting a union, and asked if she wanted to join. “Hell yeah,” she said. “I want a union!” She joined on the spot and volunteered to become an organizer.
“There are a lot of supporters out there and we try to identify rank-and-file leaders,” explained Rev Brown. “A lot of people who you think may be that rock, fizzle out real quick, and some of the people who you think might not do so well turn out to be some of your strongest rank-and-file people. In the South we look for old-school Black women who go to church. They already have organizing skills because the Black church experience is all about organizing. And they can reach young people.”
“As an organizer you realize you cannot do this alone,” Thomas emphasized. “You need to recruit workers who will take on organizing responsibility. And they, in turn, will recruit other workers.”
“By going through struggle people become more politicized,” Zamarron added. “The fight becomes more important to them. They become more committed. By building community — food, potlucks, picnics, barbecues — the union becomes your family.”
Organizing around concrete demands and Amazon’s response
Regardless of whether it’s a fulfillment center, sort center, or delivery station, and no matter its location, the conditions workers are organizing around are often the same, so their demands unsurprisingly are similar: higher pay, longer breaks, more unpaid time off (UPT), and elimination of “Time Off Task” (TOT).
TOT is Amazon’s measure of a worker’s productivity. Workers are pressed to “make rate,” sometimes having to pack hundreds of boxes per hour. If workers break from scanning packages for what Amazon says is too long, the system automatically generates warnings, and eventually the employee can be fired. Amazon warehouse workers have reported skipping water and bathroom breaks because they fear being disciplined or terminated.
Brown described discrimination against minorities, women, disabled, and older workers at RDU1. The union is demanding the termination of a racist manager, he said. When CAUSE went public, he explained, “Amazon sent in all their regional people, walking around in suits. The next week they dropped in like one hundred people that are supposed to be managers-in-training. They all knew my name, even though I never met them before and they all wanted to talk to me, but I refused to engage them in conversation. I told them, ‘My mother always told me never to talk to strangers!’ ”
Amazon sent the same union busting “consultants” it employed in Bessemer and Staten Island to North Carolina, Brown reported.
The ALU’s focus now is its demand that Amazon “Recognize the ALU.” The victory at JFK8 gave workers hope, Maldonado said. Job security is a key demand because “what’s the worth of higher pay if you can’t keep the job?” she added. Since ALU’s election victory in April, Amazon has fired several union organizers at JFK8 and other Amazon facilities in Staten Island, Maldonado pointed out. The ALU is campaigning to get these workers reinstated.
Zamarron reported on the AU’s campaigns in Chicago. The group has succeeded in winning higher pay, increased shift differential, longer breaks, access to drinking water, and the termination of a hated manager, he said. These campaigns typically start out by gathering signatures on a petition, which can escalate to taking over a manager’s office to present the petition, and, if necessary, organizing a walkout.
The importance of solidarity
“What we have in common is that we’re all workers,” said Thomas. “Labor Notes is a place for us to come together and strategize. We’re going to show solidarity to everyone up on this stage.”
Maldonado reported the ALU is planning a national remote meeting of Amazon workers this summer that will continue and advance the discussion and coordinating efforts of the struggle to win union rights for all Amazon workers. “That can bring us together for a second time after Labor Notes,” she said.
Zamarron offered a different take. “As far as working together we have to emphasize we have different strategies,” he said. “It’s a different strategy to be pursuing an election, then recognition, and then a contract. We can have common campaigns, but it doesn’t mean we can have a high level of unity or communication,” he insisted.
“The one thing we do have in common is that we have truth on our side,” Brown commented. “When it’s all said and done, when historians pick up their pens, history will not be kind to Amazon. History will show that we spoke truth to injustice.”
The program ended with an Amazon worker from Germany in the audience who expressed “Solidarity greetings from all our comrades in Germany.” He gifted T-shirts from his union to all the panelists.
New union organizing campaigns
Soon after the Labor Notes conference, it became clear that organizing efforts at Amazon — the second largest employer in the United States after Walmart — are spreading to other parts of the country.
According to a July 9 report by ABC News, the ALU has thrown its support behind unionization efforts at two other Amazon warehouses: in Campbellsville, Kentucky; and Schodack, a small town near Albany, New York. The ALU is reportedly providing organizing and financial assistance to workers at these facilities.
“This shows workers are coming together,” Jordan Flowers, a cofounder of ALU, told ABC. “These workers want to see a union now, and they’re choosing ALU.”
Amazon workers at the company’s Campbellsville fulfillment center, known as SDF1, have announced plans to form a union. The facility employs around 1,000 people. For decades the site served as a warehouse for a nearby Fruit of the Loom factory which, at its peak, employed 4,200 people. It shut down in 1998. As reported in the June 27 issue of Jacobin, Matt Littrell, a 22-year-old picker at the warehouse, said some of the issues they are organizing around are the lack of proper fans or air conditioning, writeups for not making productivity quotas (TOT), and favoritism by the bosses.
At a recent pro-union demonstration Amazon called the sheriff’s office. Officers threatened Littrell with arrest. Amazon claimed the protesters were on company property. However, when the cops arrived, they determined there was no violation of the law. Littrell reports that about twenty workers are part of the recently formed organizing committee, and they are in contact with another one hundred fellow employees, according to the Jacobin article.
The one-million-square-foot facility in Schodack, NY, opened in Rensselaer Country in September 2020. It now employs 1,000 full-time workers.
“I didn’t take the job at Amazon in February with the intention of forming a union,” Heather Goodall, a single mother helping to lead the union campaign in the Schodack fulfillment center, told thestrikewave.com. “But if you have a union, you’re going to have that united voice. A union affords you the opportunity to live a better life, to have a better quality of life, and affords you the same protections that your employer has.”
Organizers have called for a rally in solidarity with the Schodack workers. The event is scheduled to start on Sunday, July 17, at 11 a.m. at the Washington Park Lakehouse in Albany, NY (see flyer posted below). Everyone is welcome. For more information, contact Alb1voicesunited@gmail.com. Here are organizing links the Shodack workers are promoting to expand support for their union organizing efforts: Union Campaign Fund and Change.org Petition.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions
American workers are starting to return to the concepts and power of unionization instead of depending on the the corporate parties to provide them with the human rights, housing, education, health care, and a decent wage. Bravo! I have been a union worker all my adult life. Even under the pressure of the last years, my union has stood strong. As a retired person, I have a sufficient pension and health care. I thank my union for making that happen.
Dee, thank you very much for your feedback! Something new seems to be brewing in the labor movement, indeed. The fact that so many young workers are involved is very encouraging.