Interview with Organizer Nannette Plascencia
On April 1, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) won a historic union representation election at JFK8, the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. It was the first time workers at one of the retail giant’s U.S. facilities voted to unionize (see Amazon Labor Union Scores Major Victory in NY). Since then, the ALU — a group led by rank-and-file workers with no affiliation to any established national trade union — has been collaborating with Amazon workers across the country trying to organize themselves into a union.
The following is based on a September 30 World-Outlook interview — conducted via Zoom — with Nannette Plascencia, a worker at the Amazon ONT8 fulfillment center in Moreno Valley, California, and a lead organizer of United4Change, an affiliate of the ALU.
By Mark Satinoff
October 23, 2022 — As I was preparing this article for publication, United4Change/ALU submitted union authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on October 12, seeking a representation election at the Amazon ONT8 fulfillment center in Moreno Valley, California.
The proposed bargaining unit has 800 employees, according to NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado. The labor board is waiting for additional paperwork to verify receipt of signed cards from at least 30 percent of those workers, Blado said. Amazon claims there are more than 2,300 employees at the facility.
“It is very difficult for the union to verify how many workers there are,” Plascencia told me when I contacted her in mid-October after the filing for a union election. “How do I get the number? The company is not required to, and will not, make this information public. I asked HR [Human Resources] but they wouldn’t tell me. So, for several days I went to the parking lot and counted cars. I came up with around 1,000. That’s the best I could do.”
California’s Inland Empire (IE) is a metropolitan area in southern California, east of Los Angeles. The region — encompassing San Bernadino County and part of Riverside County — is larger than 10 U.S. states and similar in size to the combined area of Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Its network of major highways and rail lines, along with its proximity to the two largest shipping ports in the United States — Los Angeles and Long Beach, make the area a critical logistics hub for Amazon and other corporate giants, such as Walmart, United Parcel Service, and Target.
Amazon is the region’s biggest employer, with close to 40 facilities. A new warehouse — its largest in the world — is under construction in the city of Ontario and will increase Amazon’s footprint in IE.
In the New York Times Magazine article “Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening,” reporter Erika Hayasaki wrote: “The company is so enmeshed in the [Inland Empire] that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, high school career track, internet cloud provider and personal assistant … [It] is reminiscent of the company towns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Hayasaki visited Cajon High School in San Bernadino, which has a student career track called “Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathway.” She saw a classroom “designed to emulate the inside of an Amazon facility,” including the company logo and slogans. Students in the program — partially funded by Amazon — were wearing golf shirts with that same logo.
ONT8 at heart of Inland Empire
Amazon’s ONT8 warehouse, located at the heart of the IE, is classified as a “cross dock” facility. Within the hierarchy of Amazon’s logistics supply chain — air hubs, fulfillment centers, sortation centers, and last-mile delivery stations — cross docks serve as central hubs that receive, sort, and distribute products to surrounding regional fulfillment centers. This minimizes the need for workers because the products are not racked or stored at a cross dock. After processing at ONT8, the company sends goods to a large fulfillment center directly across the street.
Nannette Plascencia works the day shift in the prep department on the inbound side of the warehouse. New hires start at $16 an hour, Plascencia said. After working at ONT8 for 7½ years — a lifetime given the 150% annual turnover rate at Amazon — Plascencia makes $19.25 per hour.
The workforce is majority women and 80-90% Hispanic.
Plascencia, the lead organizer in the union drive at ONT8, is called “Coach” by her coworkers because of her many years as a soccer coach.
Workers’ anger at the low pay and conditions of work have been percolating under the radar for a long time, Plascencia explained.
“Workers would raise their concerns with management but felt they weren’t being heard,” she said. “Amazon’s standard answers are, ‘We hear you, we see the problem, good suggestion, we’re working on it and we’ll get back to you,’…but nothing ever gets done. It’s like they’re pulling you on a string. Eventually people just give up trying, figuring nothing will ever change.… [We felt] belittled, degraded, like we didn’t matter.”
United4Change founded in March 2020
The outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020 proved to be a breaking point. Concerns about job safety took on a new urgency. Workers were “scared … people were getting sick at work, and nothing was being done. Two long-time coworkers died. We had hundreds of cases.”
That’s when Plascencia decided it was time to start organizing a union. She and some of her coworkers founded United4Change in March 2020.
Plascencia herself has never been in a union, but her husband has always worked union jobs. He was a shop steward for 15 years. “So, I know the benefits that my family receives and that’s what I explain to my friends and co-workers,” she said.
Plascencia first met Chris Smalls last August when he visited Hollywood, California, during a nationwide organizing tour. Smalls is the ALU president in Staten Island, New York; Plascencia’s friend Carolina Verduzco — a community organizer in the IE — contacted Smalls on Instagram and told him that Plascencia has been trying to unionize for two years and could use his help. Smalls then reached out to Plascencia.
“I told him about the journey I’ve been on,” she said, “and we had this connection. We both work there and know the pain our coworkers are going through. It just clicked. We shook hands and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’” At a press conference on September 9, United4Change announced it was affiliating with the ALU.
Time Off Task (TOT) was the first issue Plascencia started organizing around, launching a petition drive in 2019. TOT is Amazon’s dystopian system for tracking workers every minute of their shift. TOT is different from the job rate that workers must meet, which the company raised to 175 items per hour last January.
“You could be at 100% of your rate and still get disciplined for TOT,” Plascencia emphasized. “TOT never stops. If you go to the bathroom, or you stop to pick something up that fell on the floor, or the line jams — which is out of your control — it’s all going to show as TOT. With TOT you don’t get a warning, you don’t get written up, you can go straight to a firing. Amazon calls it ‘stealing time from the company.’”
Even the company’s longtime employees are often one wrong move away from losing their jobs. “Workers get fired very easily over the smallest things,” she said.
ONT8, which opened in 2014, is one of Amazon’s older warehouses. Plascencia said the equipment is constantly breaking down.
“The computers are always messing up,” she noted. “The scanners don’t work right, the wiring is exposed, and they are held together with tape. Our conveyor belts break down every day. And that’s where we have to throw our items on, to take them away. So, even though our belt is broken, and we can’t move the item out so we can get to the next one, they tell us to keep receiving. We can’t stop. So, we stack everything up around us — on our tables, behind us, on the floor, everywhere we can. Our work areas are tiny, we work back-to-back, and we quickly run out of room. Everybody is like, ‘What the hell do they expect from us?’”
‘Like we got wardens’
Plascencia said management is constantly monitoring workers “like we got wardens.”
“Managers walk up and down the aisles looking at us and following us when we go on break,” she remarked. “If we’re one minute late they scan our badge and give us a warning, so we have to use time from our UPT (Unpaid Time Off) bank. We earn UPT in minutes, but it can only be taken in increments of hours. So, if I have to use a minute of UPT because I’m a minute late, they will actually take one hour away from my UPT bank.”
Pay is another big issue.
“We work so hard,” Plascencia said. “We feel we’re not compensated at the level we deserve. At the end of every year, they complement us with, ‘You hit a record, you pushed hard, your volume is up…’ And every year it’s another record. They keep pushing us to do more with fewer people. This year I had to do two people’s jobs, last year I did one. This year we got a 5% raise. But with the increase in the medical plan, we aren’t really getting any raise at all. We got a CEO that makes $214 million. Why does he get to decide that I’m only worth $19.25 an hour?”
United4Change does not have a formal structure. There is a group of about 10 core activists who regularly hand out literature, staff tables, and get authorization cards signed. But the reach of the union is amplified because each one of these organizers has their own circle of friends at work who, in turn, help out when needed.
United4Change campaigns openly inside the warehouse. It tries to increase its visibility with the sporting of union T-shirts and buttons.
“The day when we had the meeting about the raise, everybody was so mad at how little it was that in the break room people were coming up to me asking for a union card,” Plascencia said. “I think just at break and lunch that day 15 people signed. Now more and more of my co-workers, my friends, come up to me and volunteer to do stuff.”
Lacking an office, the organizing committee meets at a local pizza place where they report on how their efforts are going in the different areas of the warehouse. Plascencia also brings stacks of flyers with her and divvies them up to coworkers who hand them out.
United4Change uses a private Facebook and WhatsApp group for ONT8 workers. “People were scared so this makes them feel safe to post what’s going on in their work area,” said Plascencia. There is also a public Instagram account called Union4Amazon with a GoFundMe account where supporters of the union can donate to help the organizing campaign.
JFK8 union victory ‘a game changer’
Plascencia credits the ALU victory at JFK8 in helping with their organizing efforts.
“When I started organizing back in 2020, people would say it couldn’t be done,” she pointed out. “‘Amazon will never allow it. They’ll break the laws, fire us, and nothing’s gonna happen to them because they’re the richest company in the world.’ So, I said, ‘We’re not asking their permission, we’re telling them, we’re going to have a union. It’s up to us. I put myself out there — made myself a target — and said, ‘See, I’m still here. I’m still fighting.’ When the ALU won people saw that it could be done. It was a game changer.”
Plascencia emphasized how the laws are stacked against workers. “They make it very hard for us to unionize,” she said. “We have to go through the process twice — first getting the cards signed, and then the vote. And, in the six weeks between those two, Amazon will use their fortune to spread lies and try to scare everybody. There are grids of TV screens everywhere in the warehouse and they’re going to use them to tell you why you don’t need a union. Every stall in the bathrooms and every table in the breakrooms display their anti-union placards. And then there’s the daily text messages and mandatory anti-union meetings.”
‘Majority of our work is education’
“Some workers are scared because Amazon has so much power over us — our paycheck, promotions, what job we do, and whether or not they get rid of you — and they’ve heard rumors that if the union wins, they’ll take away our medical and other benefits,” Plascencia said. “Managers can use this power to punish workers who are outspoken and reward those who are compliant. This is especially true of the young kids who’ve never even heard what a union is. So, the majority of our work is education, starting from the beginning and explaining the basics.”
United4Change sets up literature tables in the parking lot twice a week, timed to catch workers during shift change. Day shift used to end at 4:30 pm and night shift at 3:30 am. Amazon, however, recently mandated 11-hour shifts, so everyone now has to stay an extra hour.
To catch the night shift coming off work Plascencia arrives at 3 am to unload her car and set up the table. She stays until her shift starts at 6 am. Volunteers who are not Amazon workers join her to help. They include a group of Teamster members who work at UPS.
“The more people out there, the better, because it makes you less afraid and more willing to stop and talk,” the union organizer said.
When asked what keeps her going, Plascencia responded, “I want better for my co-workers. I know how much better it would be if we unionize. They work hard and they deserve it.” And when asked if she was concerned about being fired, she answered, “I’m out in the open. They know it’s me and I’m still here. I will never stop fighting.”
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions
Excellent article. Political activists in LA, look forward to assisting ONT8 in their organizing efforts…and bringing solidarity from LA.
Thank you for this concise and informative report on a remarkable struggle that gets way too little attention in the standard news media. It depicts a woefully unequal, uphill struggle, but the fight for workers rights has never been otherwise.