An interview with Destiny Blackwell
By Mark Satinoff
Amazon’s massive two million-square-foot warehouse, called RDU1 Fulfillment Center, is located in Garner, North Carolina (NC), a few miles from downtown Raleigh. It opened in 2020 and employs some 6,000 people.
Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment (C.A.U.S.E.), founded in January 2022, describes itself as “a worker-led movement defending workers’ rights & organizing to battle the corruption and exploitation by Amazon.” It is not affiliated with any established union but seeks to form one at RDU1.
I interviewed Destiny Blackwell, a 25-year-old worker at RDU1, member of the C.A.U.S.E. Steering Committee, and chair of the Publicity Committee. She is a stower, which entails putting items into inventory. She works a twelve-hour shift, from 6:00 PM to 6:30 AM.
Blackwell has prior experience as a community organizer but not as part of the labor movement. While a student at Winston-Salem State University, an historically Black public school, she organized her first protest.
“It was around the police killing of Edwin McCray, a Black motorist, in Winston-Salem in 2018. We also organized campaigns that took down the Confederate statue, and we got them to make Black history available in all the high schools,” she said. “That’s the community organizing I was doing,” she explained.
When Blackwell moved to Durham in 2021, she got a job at Amazon’s RDU5 Fulfillment Center in that city. Inspired by the newly formed C.A.U.S.E. she transferred to RDU1 to join the fight there.
The RDU1 workforce is “sixty percent Black, thirty percent Latino, and the rest rural white people and immigrants from Southeast Asia and Africa,” Blackwell said. There is an even mix between male and female, young and old. Not so in management. “There’s a lot more white people in leadership, like in operations, assistant managers and process assistants, than workers on the floor.”
Building a network, recruiting leaders
C.A.U.S.E. is not yet at the stage of collecting the signatures that would be legally required for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to schedule a union election.
“We’re going for an election, that’s what we want. But we know we’re not ready for an election yet,” said Blackwell. “We’re getting ready, making sure that all of our organizing committees are functioning right, so that we have all of our pieces together to be able to reach out to the whole building. We’re trying to make sure we have leaders in every department. Right now we’re mapping our building.
“For example, we have the day shift downstairs locked down. We have a ton of support there. But we probably have half the floors covered upstairs. So we know we have to recruit more stowers and water spiders [another warehouse job category]. That’s why we haven’t launched our petition for an election yet. We are still building our network as an infrastructure.”
The C.A.U.S.E. steering committee has about fifteen members and meets every other week. There are four other committees – fundraising (which has created a GoFundMe page), public relations, recruitment, and grievance. General membership meetings are held weekly. Attendance varies from 15 to 60 or more workers.
Given the complexities of different shift patterns (days, nights, part time, full time, flex time, and reduced time), days off, and long commutes, most meetings, for now, are held on Zoom. “Occasionally people will call in while they’re at work. You’re not supposed to. There is a policy against using headphones at work and sometimes they randomly crack down on it,” said Blackwell. But that is all changing. “We’re just getting to the point where we have the capability to have regular external meetings, in person and away from the workplace. This will help us build rapport and plan better.”
Starting pay at RDU1 is $15.50/hour. Although double the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr, it falls below the living wage as calculated for Wake County, NC. There has been an influx of tech companies, such as Facebook, Apple, and Google, that have opened large operations in the Raleigh Durham area, which has contributed to a rise in housing costs.
“Very few people who work at Amazon can afford to live in Garner,” Blackwell said. This has forced many workers to find housing further out in the rural areas, which makes for long commutes. Blackwell explained, “Everyone working at Amazon knows that this is not enough money to live on. And that is the underlying basis that most people have for wanting to organize. We’re not getting paid enough to live to come to work at Amazon, and that’s really the overwhelming motivator for most people.”
RDU1 is massive. Amazon converted an old ConAgra food plant, which closed in 2011, into a dystopian world with thousands of robots on four floors. Blackwell describes it as, “a perimeter of workers around the building with the robots in the middle.” On her floor there are more robots than workers. Insufficient breaks are among the top grievances by workers.
“Our building is about a mile long by half a mile wide,” said Blackwell. “They call it The Green Mile, because there’s a green line going down the middle. And it is literally a mile. If you’re on one of the upper floors you have to walk around the perimeter to avoid the robots. It can easily take six minutes to walk to the break room. If you’re on the far side of the building it can take fifteen. You lose so much time walking to the break room and back that many workers end up sitting on the floor or a ladder at their work station to eat lunch.”
Darren is an RDU1 worker confined to a wheelchair. “Amazon is supposed to accommodate him with a desk that is lower so he’s able to actually reach and do everything he’s supposed to do,” Blackwell explained. “They didn’t accommodate him and threatened to fire him when he didn’t make rate,” said Blackwell.
C.A.U.S.E. is circulating a petition making seven demands on Amazon management. It uses this as a tool to engage workers in conversation, answer questions, educate, and recruit new members. It is also a way to measure its growing support. To date 400 workers have signed the petition. C.A.U.S.E. follows up with a phone call to everyone who signs. “One of the jobs of the recruitment committee is to bring in people who have shown support and get them to circulate the petition too. That’s part of developing our coworkers into organizers as well,” said Blackwell.
Amazon has already given in on two demands, one of which is the formation of an appeals/grievance committee. “I don’t know if they meant to, but they put some members of C.A.U.S.E. on the appeals committee so when people get fired and they appeal their termination there’s now an employee appeals committee to present in front of,” said Blackwell.
When asked if they plan to present the petition to management Blackwell said, “We haven’t decided what we’re going to do. We are not affiliated with a union. We are all worker-organizers. And so we are all learning to be organizers at the same time we are organizing. So stuff like phone banking, we had all those people who signed up to say that they were interested.
“Nobody knew how to phone bank. We had to teach everybody how to do it. We don’t know if we’re going to end up doing a march on the boss with the petition or if we’re just using the petition as an organizing tool.”
C.A.U.S.E. holds targeted leafleting days. The flyer has a QR code that links to the petition. Blackwell explained that because of the high turnover rate Amazon tends to hire in blitzes. “When they hire more people, it’s time to flyer, because there are a whole new group of people who we haven’t talked to yet. Every time we leaflet, we find a bunch of new people who are interested. We follow up with interest meetings and training sessions to develop new leaders. After a few weeks we will have finished processing everyone who got in contact with us from the last leafleting. Then we’ll do it again.”
During the intense heat and humidity of a North Carolina summer day, while C.A.U.S.E. members were leafleting in the parking lot, senior management came outside offering popsicles to workers. “Keep your popsicles, we want a LIVING WAGE,” shouted Rev. Ryan Brown, C.A.U.S.E.’s president.
After the third or fourth time leafleting, Amazon called the cops. “Not on the workers, who were on company property,” said Blackwell, “but on our volunteers, who were on the sidewalk. The cops just came by and asked what was going on. Nothing happened. But it was clearly intimidation,” she said.
The relentless pace of work is one of the main complaints by workers. “Amazon monitors your productivity every second. The job entails a lot of repetitive motion that cause strains in your body, which is exacerbated by the long hours and not having a climate-controlled building. Everybody is kind of in pain in Amazon. There are a few little clip-on fans at your station. Sometimes we’ll have bigger industrial size fans in the hallways, but only in some departments. So heat, repetitive motion, and not long enough breaks, those are some of the issues,” Blackwell explained.
North Carolina has the second lowest union membership rate in the country, at 2.6%, only exceeded by South Carolina, coming in at 1.7%.
“One of our biggest challenges is fear based on a lack of information. A lot of people think that because NC is a ‘right-to-work’ state unions aren’t legal,” said Blackwell. (“Right-to-work” laws mean employees aren’t required to join a union or pay union dues where a union exists, even though they are represented by the union and protected under its contract.) “They’re afraid if they do anything to stand out, they’ll get fired,” Blackwell continued. “They don’t know what a union is. You have to explain what the benefits of a union are. But when we have these conversations, people are in favor of us because everybody knows that $15.00/hr is not good enough,” she explained.
C.A.U.S.E. collaborates with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), as well as two other organizations, BAmazon, and Amazonians United (AU). “They attend our steering committee meetings and membership meetings to talk about their experiences, talk about what they learned,” said Blackwell.
Organizing one facility at a time
Some C.A.U.S.E. members work at other Amazon facilities across the state, from Durham to Greensboro, and want to organize but for now the focus is on RDU1. “At first, we thought that if we organized a bunch of places at the same time we could coordinate actions across the state and all go into contract negotiations together. And we’d be stronger, right?” Blackwell said. “Well, the ALU thought the same thing, and then they told us that it didn’t work out.” Blackwell was referring to the ALU election defeat at the Amazon LDJ5 sort center in Staten Island this past April. (See ‘We Lost this Battle But We’ll Win the War.’)
“We’ve seen the difficulty of trying to organize multiple buildings at once,” Blackwell added. “We are going to focus on doing one building at a time because we don’t want to recreate mistakes from other places. Ultimately, we want to support the union drive efforts across the state. But strategically, for now, we decided that it’s better to focus all our efforts in one place even though we have the organizers, the manpower, to help us at other places too,” said Blackwell.
BAmazon is seeking to organize Amazon’s BHM1 Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, Alabama. It is affiliated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The RWDSU lost a representation election in Bessemer in April 2021. The 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 2022, 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 founding members of C.A.U.S.E., Rev. Ryan Brown and Mary Hill, credit BAmazon’s organizing drive as a motivating force in the formation of their own organization. Blackwell pointed out that since both warehouses are located in southern “right-to-work” states C.A.U.S.E. and BAmazon face similar obstacles to organizing.
However, in contrast to C.A.U.S.E.’s worker-led organizing model, “a lot of the organizing at Bessemer wasn’t internal, wasn’t from the workers in the plant,” Blackwell said. The two organizations closely collaborate. “We talk a lot with the folks in Alabama,” she said. “We were on a call with the RWDSU last week. Unions are very willing to help us and we have been in discussions with them about what we need. We are looking for unions who can aid us financially, with organizers and training, without full affiliation. However, to date all of the organizing has been carried out by our worker-organizers and volunteers.”
Amazonians United (AU) describes itself is a “self-organized union.” It is not affiliated with any established trade union. 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 through its network of “worker committees.” It is based out of several delivery stations in Chicago. The group has chapters at Amazon delivery stations around the country, including New York City; North Carolina; Sacramento, California; and Jacksonville, Florida.
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).”
‘Develop the power to strike’
“We have a very different approach to organizing,” said Blackwell. “I agree with the basic tenet that says we’re already a union. Even without NLRB recognition or without a contract, whenever workers organize together, that’s a union. I do believe that. Organizing to do slowdowns or the power to strike is the central point of power. But that shouldn’t stop you from seeking NLRB certification and a contract,” she insisted. “And the organizing challenges we face are different in a building of our size as compared to the much smaller delivery stations,” she explained. “These strategies complement each other. NLRB recognition and the fight to negotiate a contract complement the deep organizing necessary to develop the power to strike. We want both. We want the best of both worlds, if that makes sense,” Blackwell said,
Blackwell is cautiously optimistic that they’ll be in a position to start collecting union authorization cards for an NLRB election this fall. “We have a really strong team,” she said. “We may not have much experience but the game changer for us is that we have learned so much from others. By the time we get to an election we’ll have Amazon’s handbook of union busting tactics down and we’ll be able to buttress against that. We view organizing as a social movement. I believe we have what it takes to be successful.”
C.A.U.S.E. is a well-disciplined organization. “Because we already know what to expect from the experience of others, like the ALU, we need to keep our team sharp,” said Blackwell. “Follow the rules and don’t do anything that can get you fired. Be an A+ employee. For example, don’t flyer on the floor while you’re on the clock. We don’t want to get taken to court unnecessarily because they say we violated something.”
Blackwell emphasized the importance of this because “Amazon is currently in a firing frenzy and a lot of people approaching their two-year date of employment are being terminated. This is exceptional because the turnover rate at Amazon is so high that it’s difficult to stay employed for 2 months, let alone 2 years. One way Amazon gets rid of people are with “random” drug screenings. Even when the results are inconclusive (which means that the test does not show a positive result) management can still send you home. This is happening even if there’s a documented disability or a medication prescribed by a doctor.”
C.A.U.S.E. has a visible and active presence on the job. Rev. Ryan started pastoring at a young age. He learned his organizing skills in the Black church, which is a common experience in the south. He is not easily intimidated by management and stands up to defend workers who are threatened with write-ups or termination. “Our co-workers see that it is possible to organize and fight back,” Blackwell said about Ryan’s example. “It inspires them. It emboldens them. It gives them confidence to speak out without fear of retaliation.”
Blackwell related the story of a hated manager on the outbound loading dock who was insulting and a bully. C.A.U.S.E. took up the fight against that. “By standing up to the manager in defense of the workers the whole department decided to join C.A.U.S.E.,” Blackwell reported. “This is something an outside organizer wouldn’t be able to do.” C.A.U.S.E. posted the manager’s name and picture on their Twitter account and wrote, “Terry Fan, you literally make our organizing efforts easy by the way you treat your associates. You are the real MVP today. Please keep up the good work.”
C.A.U.S.E. makes extensive use of social media to share videos of RDU1 workers explaining why they support the union. “People stop by to talk to Rev. Ryan throughout the day. They call his work station ‘the confessional’,” said Blackwell. Some of these conversations are turned into short testimonials by workers, which are recorded by Rev. Ryan while they are on break.
“When I’m doing these interviews a lot of people get caught up on the working conditions of Amazon because it’s hard to imagine working such a physically demanding job for ten-to-twelve hours,” said Blackwell. “But the thing is it’s our right to have a union. Everything Amazon does tries to convince us we don’t want our own power. We deserve what it takes for us to live and we’re not going to let Amazon stop us. This is the crux of what our organizing is — for people to believe in their own power.”
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions