Amazon Gets Its First Union

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S1: Steve Greenhouse wrote the book on the American labor movement, literally. It’s called Beaten Down, Worked Up the Past, Present and Future of American Labor. And you can tell organizing is more than just a beat for him. Like as soon as he got on the line. He had this question for me.

S2: Isn’t Mary Harris the original name of Mother Jones? Who am I misremembering?

S1: It is. Mother Jones became famous for organizing mineworkers in the 1900s.

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S2: Yes. Okay, good. Yeah.

S1: My high school social studies teacher made sure that I looked that up in the library when I was 15.

S2: And he or she didn’t get fired for telling you that?

S1: No, he was great. Steve is used to seeing labour movements get quashed. So when an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted in favor of unionization last week, a historic first, I knew Steve would be able to offer a little perspective, he said. It was kind of a miracle that this vote went down at all.

S2: To my mind, Amazon was easily, you know, the most difficult place in the country to unionize, you know? Amazon is fiercely anti-union. It’s so darn hard to try to unionize. A place with more than 8000 workers at the warehouse in Staten Island is. And Amazon is famous infamous that it has humongous turnover among workers. Workers leave after eight months on average. So it’s like hard for a union or for anyone to, like, try to reach out to all these people before they leave.

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S1: Yeah, it’s hard to get a purchase.

S2: And also, Amazon workers worked so darn hard. So to win at Amazon is just a tremendous victory for labor.

S1: But Steve puts a little asterisk by this victory. When I asked how he would sum up the state of the American labor movement after this vote, in one word. Here’s what he said.

S2: Turbulent.

S1: Huh? Some people would look at all this energy and say the union movement is resurgent.

S2: I mean, I would say it has a way to go before I’m ready to say it’s really resurgent. I mean, yes, it’s picking up steam and has much more energy in three and five and ten years ago. I will only say it’s certain if the amount of people who are joining unions, you know, grows rather than shrinks each year.

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S1: Today on the show, what a historic vote to reign in Amazon means and what it doesn’t. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around. Let’s go back to the roots of this union drive in Staten Island. My understanding is that this story starts about two years ago, basically with the pandemic. Can you just start me off here?

S2: Sure. So at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, as it many other Amazon warehouses, the workers complained that Amazon wasn’t doing enough to protect workers against COVID, that it wasn’t giving them enough PPE, it wasn’t doing enough to separate workers in the lunchrooms. And most importantly, they often said that, you know, Amazon wasn’t telling workers that the worker working right next to them had contracted COVID and they felt that we should know to quarantine ourselves to protect our families. So the workers are really upset at Amazon. So at the Staten Island warehouse, a worker named Christian Smalls, who’s a supervisor—

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Audio clip of Smalls: I’m being the voice of people that are afraid to speak up.

S2: —organize this protest outside where a few dozen workers came to say, Amazon, you know, you should do more to protect us against COVID.

Audio news clip: Amazon workers at a fulfillment center are walking off the job. They claim the facility isn’t taking safety protocols.

Audio clip of Smalls: People were just being sick and it was like a domino effect. I tried to escalate this to my H.R. reps and they pretty much shut me down.

S2: And lo and behold, Amazon fired Christian Smalls, saying, you violated social distancing rules. And Christian Smalls was really upset that he got fired and he kind of stood up on that. So he and his best friend at Amazon, Derrick Palmer—

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Audio clip of Palmer: You know, at first, you know, it was like it was very discouraging not hearing that Chris got fired, you know, just for doing the right thing, for standing up for all of us.

S2: — They decided to set out to try to unionize Amazon. And I was the first journalist to write a big story about that effort.

S1: What did you think when you encountered these two guys who were like, All right, one of us just got fired? Next move is, let’s form a union.

S2: You know, David versus Goliath. Yeah. I mean, these are two very smart, very energetic, you know, likable guys. But it’s like, how are these two guys going to beat this company that has a million workers in the U.S. and $470 billion in revenues? And, you know, the richest the second richest person in the world. It just seemed crazy, you know, Don Quixote. And lo and behold, here we are, you know, a year and a half later, they won.

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S1: There is so much that’s surprising about this union recognition vote that the more you look, the more your mouth kind of hangs open. I already mentioned that this is the first Amazon shop to approve a union here in the U.S., but it is also an unaffiliated union. It’s not like the Teamsters, the SEIU, came in and said, We’re going to help you guys start a union. The Amazon workers of the Staten Island Fulfillment Center did it all on their own.

S2: That’s one of the reasons many quote labor experts on said this unionization effort doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. I mean, these two guys, this is such a low budget operation that he relied on, go fund me to get funding. But Christian Smalls argued that it will really help us to say we are Amazon workers. You know, we know Amazon. We know the problems of Amazon. We know the problems that other workers at Amazon face. We know about distress. We know that the $18 an hour in New York that Amazon boast about really doesn’t go very far to help families make ends meet. And they said, you know, there are other unions that are trying to organize Amazon, but they’re not unions of Amazon workers. We’re different and I think in ways that resonated with workers. So it helped defeat set back the argument that, oh, unions are just third parties. It shows that, no, this Amazon Union is of, by and for Amazon workers.

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S1: Workers who supported the union created a bunch of WhatsApp channels like special channels for black workers or immigrants at the Amazon warehouse. This was where they could inconspicuously answer questions about what a union might do for workers. Meanwhile, Amazon was hiring its own consultants to mingle at the warehouse and give the company perspective. But federal law requires businesses to disclose what they spend on these anti-union consultants. So eventually, the pro-union organizers got a hold of it.

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S2: One of the main worker organizers, a guy named Connor Spence, took it upon himself to, you know, use data to identify who these anti-union consultants are. And a lot of these anti-union consultants were fairly effective because people didn’t quite know at first there aren’t you going to consultants? They go around the shop floor and talk to workers. But, you know, Connor Spence and Christian Smalls and others were like, try to out them and say, this guy is the answer. You’re consultant. He makes 30 $200 a day.

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S1: Which is pretty different than, you know, $18 an hour.

S2: Yeah. I mean, sweat is what many Amazon workers make in a month. So they used data and research to help Perry to help. County Vale what Amazon was doing in its anti-union fight.

S1: Amazon had this leaked memo where they called Chris Smalls not smart or articulate, and they said, We want to make him the face of the movement. It seems to be this interesting turning point for him where he said, okay, I’ll be the face of the movement. Sure.

S2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He said, I am going to make Amazon eat those words. Last week I was a regular guy. You know, I’m a father of three kids. I didn’t ask for none of this. On Monday, the world fell into my lap. I’m going to embrace it. And they are not battling me. Battle And everybody is going to be Amazon versus everybody. It’s not going to ever be Amazon versus Chris Smalls. So if that’s what they think is going to happen. A sadly mistaken. A lot of you know, people who aren’t very familiar with unions don’t begin to realize how hard it is to organize officially with 8000 people. It’s just very, very hard. Workers are very scared to stick their necks out. They’re scared to wear a pro-union t shirt, is scared to wear pro-union button. They’re worried they’ll get fired or demoted. But what happened in Staten Island is the critical mass developed where a few workers started wearing pro-union t shirts and pro-union lanyards. And more did and more did and more did so that people saw this is catching like wildfire and they weren’t so scared and they were willing to step up and. And another difference, Mary, is the unemployment rate is very low now in the US. So often when workers think of organizing, they worry, hey, if I stick my head above the parapet, it’s going to get shot or I’m going to get shot, I’m going to get fired and then I’m really screwed. But now, with the unemployment rate so low, workers think, hey, if I get fired, I can easily get a job elsewhere, so I don’t have to worry so much.

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S1: A lot of the coverage of this unionization effort has focused on a bus stop. This is the bus stop where a lot of the warehouse workers go to get to and from work. Why was the bus stop so important.

S2: In Staten Island? Most of the employees take buses to work so you can talk to them at the bus. And it’s this bus stop where each day hundreds, probably thousands of Amazon workers get off buses and get on buses. So these workers are very accessible to the union organizers, Cristian and Derrick Palmer. They could stand out there and talk to the workers. So the bus stop was really like the epicenter of the organizing building. It was it was just a combination of me and Derek on the inside, outside game, me at the bus stop, connecting with workers, earning the trust, building relationships. Derrick Actually inside the building, talking to workers everyday. I mean, we’ve gotten through this horrible pandemic and a lot of workers were just angry, angry, angry, pissed off about how poorly Amazon treated them and they’re willing to stand up. And of course, you know, during the pandemic, Amazon had record profits. Their revenues skyrocketed. You know, the CEOs took more and more money. Jeff Bezos value rose tens of billions of dollars. And they’re saying, I endangered my life every day, getting onto buses, getting on subways, eating next to people in the lunchroom. Why do I have to show for it? Maybe a dollar raised where I’m still struggling to make ends meet?

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S1: I was struck, too, by the fact that this Amazon labor union, it recruited people not just to the union, but to Amazon itself, like it helped get workers in the door who liked their vibe and what they were doing. And that helps in terms of getting more support in the unit.

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S2: Absolutely. So, you know, if you read labor history, you see that like during the 1930s, you know, all these college graduates, you know, a kind of lefty who grew up in families that were struggling to get through the Depression. They went to work at General Motors or Ford, United States Steel. They say we want to help unionize these places to build union power and make sure workers, you know, share more in the company’s profits and prosperity. Just taking a lift, living standards. And I think some workers I think we’re talking dozens, if not hundreds here, smart people, some college graduates, some teachers who were, you know, furloughed for a year. They went to work at Amazon, some of them, because, you know, we want to help displace unionized.

S1: We’ll be right back. What can we say about the win that just took place? Like how many workers voted? How many of them wanted the union in the end?

S2: So roughly it’s like 2600 to 2100, and the union got more than 55%. So it was a fairly significant win. It wasn’t just it wasn’t a cliffhanger. So there’s going to be a Union Station election later this month at a second Amazon facility in Staten Island. And and there are about 2300 workers there.

S1: Is Chris Smalls leading that effort as well?

S2: His union, the Amazon labor union is leading that effort. Yes. And I would be optimistic that there’ll will be a union win there. And I think Amazon has this strategy of how it goes about being a union and it really didn’t work.

S1: You’ve pointed out that like the the workers make what they’re doing look fun, like they have a tick tock. And, you know, if you go there, you can see the dance party they had after the vote. And Amazon, meanwhile. The vibe is like Dad, basically.

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S2: Yeah. Now I so one thing I am really thinking about what was happening here. You know, so we had Kristen Sauce and Derrick Palmer do these, you know, nice fun guys that they helped make the barbecues at the bus stop the giving our free food at the bus stop. There was a sign at the pro-union table saying free wheat or food not going to go there. You know, they had parties, they played music. They did these, you know, smart things on Tok. You know, they engaged workers and they promising, you know, we’re going to if we unionize, we’re going to seek $30 an hour, a minimum of $30 an hour here, not $18 an hour. We’re going to seek more rest breaks.

S1: Now to pay 30 minute rest breaks.

S2: Yeah. You know, they were seen as like good fun guys. And in contrast, Amazon was like very dour and dark and, you know, kept saying, oh, the union is bad, the unions are third party. And I think people when they were casting their ballots and whether unions like for whom do I vote? Do I vote for dark tower, D&D, Amazon, or do I vote for my buddies Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer? Not just because they’re fun, nice guys, but because they really believe that these guys have been fighting for a union and will fight for better conditions of pay for us if and when we unionize. So, you know, I think a traditional union elections workers often think, well, do I choose the employer whom I really don’t like very much, but I choose the union who I don’t know very well? But when they say this worker to worker bottom up organizing, as we saw in Staten Island, people are thinking, I’m not voting for this distant union. I don’t know. I’m voting for me and my friends. And I think that really makes it much easier, makes many workers much happier to vote for a union.

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S1: And Chris Smalls seemed really happy to point out the hypocrisy at Amazon, like when the vote was over, he said, you know, we want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there, we were signing people up. And of course, he just points out like, this guy has so much money, he can send himself on a pleasure trip to space, whereas we’re fighting for a couple extra bucks an hour. But it made me I started wondering, looking at all of these videos of Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, how much of this union victory was about them, like the lightning in the bottle that these two seemed to capture by being so charismatic and so dedicated? Because the downside of that is, I’m not sure how replicable it is.

S2: I mean, that’s a good question. In a way, it is catching lightning in a bottle, but I wouldn’t be surprised now if there are efforts to unionize. Amazon warehouses and pro unit Chicago are pro-union. Los Angeles, a pro-union San Francisco or pro-union Boston? A pro-Union Seattle. I think it could happen all these kind of blue political pro-union areas, some of them will be very effective and they’ll follow what Christian and Derrick did. And I think some of them will be successful.

S1: So let’s talk about Amazon, because it doesn’t seem to me that in the wake of this union vote, Amazon is backing off of its anti-union stance. There was a story just the other day about how Amazon is thinking about banning certain words from its internal chat software words like union and pay, raise and plantation. So what do you expect Amazon to be doing as a company right now?

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S2: It’s extremely hard in the United States to get anti-union companies to ever agree to a contract, and many companies deliberately slow walk contract negotiations, not just with two months or four months, but sometimes for a year or two years, even three years.

S1: So the fight in Staten Island is far from over. Right?

S2: Right. And so you could expect Amazon to like slow walk the contract negotiations because that helps show workers. Well, you had great hopes that the union’s going to deliver for you. But hey, here we are two years later and you still don’t have a contract. And that shows that union really can’t deliver for you and people. Some workers will start wrongly blaming the union for that, but it’s really the company that takes its sweet time. And remember also, if workers at Amazon, if they win great contracts, that’s going to become a huge inspiration for every other Amazon worker across the U.S..

S1: It’s like an advertisement for a union.

S2: Yes. And Amazon has played hardball in many ways, warehouses to quash unionization efforts. In December, the National Labor Relations Board reached a nationwide agreement with Amazon, saying, you know, where Amazon promised to comply with the nation’s labor laws. One thing that Amazon security guards were doing at many warehouses was whenever there was pro-union literature. The break room. The security guards would confiscate that, and that’s illegal. I mean, workers have to have a right to distribute pro-union literature in the break room as long as they’re not doing it during their work time. And the National Labor Relations Board said you have to give people a chance to talk, to distribute literature. And Amazon promised no sign this nation wide agreement that we’re going to comply with laws. And I see that. And other Amazon warehouses, still some some security guards are confiscating literature. So Amazon really, really plays hardball.

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S1: It’s interesting to me how much the NLRB has had to muscle in when it comes to Amazon.

S2: I would probably not use the word muscle. I mean, it’s basically enforcing the law. And, you know, I think many labor experts will say the NLRB, if anything, has been understaffed, under-resourced and hasn’t been as active as it should be. And now, you know, under Biden, he has appointed a more pro-union National Labor Relations Board, and it is moving with more alacrity to enforce the law. And many companies aren’t used to that.

S1: In writing about what happened in Staten Island. You’ve expressed some wariness about what goes on now. You’ve said that even though the vote in New York is important, if it’s going to mean anything about the labor movement, at least union leaders would need to rise to the occasion, which you say is not happening right now. What do you mean when you say that?

S2: So what happened? Staten Island is this wonderful model of true bottom up organizing. And as we discussed, Mary, this is going to expire. A lot of workers who are going to want to try to do the same thing, but they need people to like advise them, instruct them on how you go about doing this. They’ll need lawyers. One of my big questions is the Amazon labor union is this very small union. You know, it’s Christian and Derrick and a few other people. They had a budget of only 120,000. So when workers in Saint Louis or Minneapolis or Seattle call them and say, we want to do this to, you know, do Christian Derek have the financial wherewithal to they have the time to, like, roll, you know, show other people how to do their model. And that’s why I think it might be smart for them to affiliate with a larger, richer union to help them fly to Seattle, to fight in San Francisco or fight to the Inland Empire outside L.A. to explain to other workers how to do it.

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S1: But if I was sitting in like a labor office right now, wouldn’t I see this as a massive opportunity?

S2: Yes, yes, yes. But it is this massive opportunity. But a lot of union leaders say those aren’t my people. Those are another industry. They’re in this little independent union. You know, if I give the Amazon labor union $500,000 to organize warehouses in Boston, Minnesota, Seattle, L.A., you know, how am I going to benefit? Union leaders have, you know, have talked for years and years and years. Oh, we’re going to try to turn around the decades long decline in union membership and in union power. We’re trying hard, but they really haven’t tried very hard. They haven’t done nearly enough organizing. But this is an extraordinary moment for labor because there is so much energy. It would really be very helpful for the labor movement if it wants to get out of its years of slumber and decline to really step forward in a very big way with money, with lawyers, with expertise to help. And I think a lot of union leaders have gotten self-satisfied. You know, they have these prestigious jobs. They’re put in good salaries and like, you know, they don’t want to bust their humps trying to unionize a shop with 500,000 workers because it can be an uphill battle and take lots of energy and aggravation. But they should seize the opportunity by coughing up some money to help it happen.

S1: Steven Greenhouse, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Great to talk with you.

S1: Mary Steven Greenhouse is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. He’s also the author of Beaten Down Worked Up the Past, Present and Future of American Labor. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We get a little help these days from Anna Rubanova and Laura Spencer. We’re led by Joanne Levine, and Alicia montgomery is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts. I’m Mary Harris. Go check me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. In the meantime, I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.