We're Organizing Unions at Amazon and Starbucks. We Won't Back Down. – Jacobin magazine

We're Organizing Unions at Amazon and Starbucks. We Won't Back Down. – Jacobin magazine

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Amazon labor organizer Chris Smalls and Starbucks organizer Jaz Brisack talk to Jacobin about racist union busting, being invited to the White House, and how genuine human interaction is the key to workplace organizing when the boss treats workers like robots.
Union organizer Christian Smalls (left) celebrates with Amazon workers following the April 1, 2022, vote for the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse JFK8 in New York. (Andrew Renault /AFP via Getty Images)
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Supporters of organized labor have long regarded megacorporations like Amazon and Starbucks as key sites of struggle. Workers in Amazon warehouses and Starbucks coffeehouses help millions of customers every day and bring in billions of dollars in revenue for their companies every year. But while workers keep these businesses running, top brass like Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz collect the profits, stiffing workers on pay and benefits while subjecting them to difficult working conditions.
Workers are increasingly unwilling to put up with it. Since December 2021, over two thousand Starbucks workers have unionized. And in April of this year, the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) won a massive victory: the first unionized Amazon warehouse.
These triumphs have changed the terrain of the American labor movement. In a conversation with Dan Denvir of Jacobin and The Dig, Chris Smalls and Jaz Brisack, lead organizers from Amazon and Starbucks, explain how they organized with their coworkers to form unions, the challenges they face from hostile management, and how the growing labor movement can shape local and national politics.
There are tried-and-true methods that organizers have applied across different workplaces, but every company and every group of workers is also distinct. What did you need to learn about Starbucks, Amazon, and the people who worked there to start winning union elections?
Number one: you have to be invested in the company. I was invested in the company. I spent nearly five years of my life, opened up three facilities, and I started from entry level. I pretty much learned how to cheat the system to move up, because you don’t last long trying to make rate every day.
I did work hard. I worked hard to learn the ins and outs of the company. When I became a supervisor, I wanted to learn even more than that. I was invested in the company, to the point where I knew the company operations better than operations. The managers that it hired — the college hires, the new hires — had to come see me to be trained about what their job would entail every day.
So when it came to organizing, it was the same thing. I had to be a leader in the building. I had to be a leader with the company, and now I just played for a different team. I took my leadership skills, and I transitioned into what you guys see today.
I’m echoing what you just said about taking the best things about the company or about the people working every day. With Starbucks, we really leaned on the fact that we are Starbucks. Howard Schultz has tried to characterize us as people coming in to steal their people, or an outside agency, and we’re not. We are the people making the customer connections, making the moments, creating a third place for others.
We have completely embraced the fact that Starbucks calls us partners and say that if it calls us partners, then we should actually have a true partnership. We’ve come to this because we don’t want to leave our jobs. We want to make Starbucks the best place that it can be.
I was a pretty new hire when the campaign started. I had been there about eight months, and the campaign wouldn’t have been possible had it just been me. It was possible because eleven-year partners like Michelle Eisen got on board — people who had been serving these customers for years and years. The customers had very deep relationships with these people and had depended on them for their daily routines.
They all rallied behind us and gave us strength, even as corporate flew in over a hundred managers to descend on our city. The customers had our backs.
Organizing is all about forming relationships. How do you build those relationships, both on and off the job? How do you go about building the organizing committees, the structures that can sustain those relationships?
You spend more hours with your coworkers than with your actual family — forty, fifty, sixty hours a week. Especially working at Amazon: the mandatory overtime, the peak season, the holiday seasons.
We were spending so much time together that the people I work with became my family. They became my extended family. I would confide in them the way I confide in anybody because I saw them every day and vice versa. They would come to me and tell me things that were going on at home.
I became more than just a supervisor. I was a friend; I was a therapist. I was whatever they wanted me to be, to make sure that their day went more smoothly than being treated as a robot on station.
Building the relationships took several conversations, consistent conversing. Same thing with organizing a committee: you find your leaders naturally. For the ones that really take charge, put in the effort, it’s natural. You can’t teach that; you can’t train that. And when you see a natural leader, you want to have people galvanized behind that leader. Whatever committees you see fit, you want to make that committee as soon as possible.
If you’ve seen the production line at a Starbucks, you know that we’re all on top of each other from the beginning. It’s a very small space. Especially during COVID, we were each other’s bubble. When we couldn’t interact with many people because of the public nature of our job and the fact that we were so exposed all the time, we were giving each other rides. We were taking each other to the grocery store. We were having each other over for coffee or tea. The union committee evolved out of that.
In addition, there were people who’d been talking about organizing a union at Starbucks for years and who were just waiting for the opportunity to believe it was possible. Any time Starbucks has ever gotten a whisper of unionization before, it’s used very similar tactics to what they did here. But we managed to build and start something that it couldn’t stomp out, even though it tried its hardest.
What about building that first organizing committee in Buffalo?
We did it so quickly that we didn’t even know, going into the first organizing committee meeting, if we were going to be able to keep the campaign afloat. It was probably one of the greatest days of my life to see everybody coming into that first meeting and truly believing that this was going to be possible, because that was exactly how it was going to be.
One thing that really jumped out to me, reading all the coverage of ALU on Staten Island, was that you made sure to have food all the time but particularly food for particular ethnic or national groups of workers. But that’s not the only kind of diversity. There are black workers, white workers, Asian workers, Latino workers. I assume you have workers who vote Democrat. I’m sure you have Donald Trump voters and people who don’t vote at all.
How have both of you navigated the different sorts of workers that make up a particular workplace? With all that difference, how have you built a collective identity amongst those workers that binds people together across those differences?
At Staten Island, we created our own culture. Amazon has its own culture that is run completely on metrics, numbers, and no human interaction. We interacted. We brought a human aspect to it. We cared for one another. We showed the workers every day that we cared for them. Even if they disliked us, we didn’t argue; we didn’t sit there and get into fights. We continued to kill ’em with kindness.
As far as how we continued to grow in the building, workers respected that. We stuck to the issues. We didn’t get into politics — who’s left and who’s right — because we knew that people were on both sides and there are people who don’t like to talk about politics at the workplace.
We stuck to the issues and built off of that commonality. Everybody knows that if you’re working at Amazon, there’s something you don’t like about it. Whatever that issue was, that was how we started our conversations. And it led to them getting more involved and to them ultimately getting on board and voting yes.
Were diversity and differences ever a challenge?
We had some isolated incidents where a worker expressed their political view, and somebody else overheard the conversation and got a little worried about what direction we were going. But we always went back to the commonality of the issues in the building — what Amazon was doing to the workers.
When we predicted that there would be captive audiences and that there would be people walking around making thousands of dollars a day, and they actually saw it, they would be like, “Oh shit, this is real.” When they saw a tent go up in the parking lot after I had been in a tent across the street, by the bus stop, they started to see the reality. Like, “This is real.” And that helped change the culture into what we wanted it to be.
Amazon did try to use differences against you; it launched that racist attack against you early on.
Right. Yeah. I’m a thug — thug life. It’s always gonna be that way. You know, I’m going to be a thug for workers every day. And that’s just what it is.
We overcame attempts to divide us or to appeal to people’s preconceived notions of unions — perceptions that you had to have a certain ideology to be a union member — by showing that we were going to stick up for each other.
We had people from across the political spectrum who realized that we were just fighting for accountability and to address the very specific issues that they were having within the workplace. If somebody’s availability was cut or if they got injured, it didn’t matter who they voted for or what their leanings were. We were all going to have their back.
Starbucks is a very majority-white workplace in many places. It’s notable that most of the people they’ve fired for union activity have been workers of color: the Memphis Seven, Laila Dalton. In Buffalo, they originally tried to break our union by hiring majority-black workers right before our vote and telling them that the union was going to be white-led and exclusionary.
We just tried to prove that we were going to have everybody’s back no matter what, and the people that they brought in to vote no voted yes. They didn’t have solidarity with Rossann Williams and Howard Schultz telling us to share our blankets. They had solidarity with all of us.
People always say that organizers need to meet people where they’re at. Where are [workers at] Amazon and Starbucks at when you first meet them? Are they familiar with unions?
We spent a good amount of our campaign educating the workers. We’re talking about a small city. We tried to go for all four efforts [to unionize the Staten Island warehouses]. We were doing something crazy, and we had to educate a lot of people.
That wasn’t another issue. That was actually the fun part, because people don’t talk about unions nowadays at their workplace the way they should. It was also a good conversation to talk about their rights — the rights that they do have.
The beauty of it is that we were forming our own union, an independent union that can create the type of culture that we want to have. It worked in our favor.
There has been a huge variance. Some people have come in trying to organize for years, and other people have much less experience with it or a sense of “Is unionizing even possible in this industry?”
It was easier in some ways that we started in Buffalo, because a lot of people had at least some background knowledge. But the campaign hasn’t been weaker in places that don’t have that union background, because we won multiple stores in Florida today, where people presumably would have less of a culture of unionization. (Although as a southerner, I would push back against the idea that any region would be less pro-union.)
But I think most people want to fight to make their workplace the best place that it can be. And that’s what we’ve kept coming back to as what a union really is.
At both Starbucks and Amazon, there are conventional workers, people who took a job because it’s the best job they could get. There are also salts, who take a job because of a political, ethical commitment to organizing a workplace.
How do you each see the role played by salts versus more conventional workers in organizing at Starbucks and Amazon?
I don’t think that there should be a distinction. I think Starbucks has tried to red-bait me in particular and a lot of people across the country that they’ve accused of being planted by the union with no justification or background. But if you’re a union person, you would try to organize any workplace that you found yourself working in.
I don’t think that we as organizers should make those distinctions, because it really boils down to this: ultimately I’m in the Starbucks making lattes and doing the same job. It doesn’t matter if I also have a second job with a union instead of a second job in the same industry or in a different industry. It ends up being a false distinction.
Our campaign didn’t have salts from other unions, but we have salts. Their task was and still is to support the workers. And there’s no difference, but as far as salting goes, the difference is just the investment over time. They would have to put in several years. It’s not just months or a peak season; you’ve got to really get invested, for at least two years — if you could survive two years at Amazon, you could survive anywhere.
Changing your lifestyle to become a full-blown Amazon worker, where Amazon takes over your entire life — that’s really salting. We have some dedicated salts. We need them, especially with the bargaining unit that we have: we’re talking 8,300 people. It wasn’t just going to come from just workers, but it was led by workers.
Both the Starbucks and Amazon campaigns have been very rank-and-file-oriented, but ALU is an entirely independent union whereas Starbucks Workers United is affiliated with SEIU [Service Employee International Union]’s Workers United.
How do you approach the question of figuring out how a rank-and-file-led campaign, which has so much militancy and organic relationships with fellow workers, does and should relate to more established unions, which have resources, size, and experience?
Starbucks Workers United would never have been possible if Gary Bonadonna, the leader of Workers United in upstate New York, hadn’t decided to back us up. Every prior Starbucks attempt for decades had not succeeded in winning elections and bargaining contracts. And I think we couldn’t have done it without the backing of that union and the courage that it took to really commit the resources to the fight. Our organizer in Buffalo, Richard Bensinger, is incredible. He doesn’t like it when I say this, but he’s a better organizer than Joe Hill.
Ultimately, all campaigns come down to having strong organizing committees and strong internal dynamics. I don’t think Starbucks is particularly different from other campaigns that we’ve run in the past. We’ve had other barista campaigns, including the SPoT Coffee folks who paved the way for us to be able to organize Starbucks in Buffalo, especially because it was the same city in the same context. Worker leadership is key everywhere, but we couldn’t have done it without that support.
We didn’t have any support. You’re going to have to wait for the documentary to see this, but it’s crazy. We obviously had to start real grassroots. We didn’t have any support, any money, any resources. I think I sent out a tweet asking for a lawyer about twelve months ago, and I got one reply. He’s still with us till this day — shout out to Seth Goldstein. That was it.
So I had one pro bono lawyer, about five or six workers, and that’s it. And we had no money. We had just started the GoFundMe and had a couple hundred dollars. We went right to Walmart and blew that whole hundred. And then we went outside of JFK and started collecting cards.
Yeah, we do need support. It would have been a lot easier. But to say that it can’t be done — I disagree on that. I think that the power’s always with the workers, and if the workers want to organize, they can organize. They just have to be aware of that.
That’s what we would have to prove to these workers. We had to get to a point where they started to organize themselves. They didn’t do that in the beginning. They had to have several conversations. I had to be cursed out a lot, and I had to endure that. And I had to watch people walk past me for two or three months, without saying a word to me, but then one day they came over, and I knew that was my chance.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be there for the long haul as an organizer. The hardest thing you can do is organize people. I learned that in my short two years. You go off of what’s working for y’all, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I didn’t mean to say that it couldn’t be done in any situation. In the very specific situation of our campaign, I don’t think that we could have gotten off the ground the way we did without people having that reassurance.
We went into the campaign with everybody terrified of what had just happened a year earlier in Philadelphia, where two workers had been fired without being reinstated, and there had never been an election. But y’all [at Amazon] are the model for how to do it without that backing.
I understand completely. Starbucks, they’re real villains. I see how they’re firing y’all, so trust me, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I’m all for it. I’m with you.
Let’s talk about the union-busting campaigns that each of you is confronting at Starbucks and at Amazon.
At Starbucks, Howard Schultz recently held a meeting with managers nationwide. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote, “The first thing that became clear in the leaked video is that Starbucks store managers are unreliable union busters.” Indeed, both Schultz and Rossann Williams, the executive vice president who spent months in Buffalo trying to stop the successful union drive, were practically pleading with store managers to get behind the corporate effort.
Have you found store managers — people who work pretty closely with workers — to be a weak link in the company’s anti-union campaign? More generally, what sort of anti-union campaign have you confronted, especially as you grow from sixty-something unionizing stores?
With the store managers, it’s wildly different. Store managers were a large number of the SWAT team that Starbucks sent into Buffalo at the very beginning of the campaign. But it’s also telling that they had to bring in so many union busters instead of relying on the folks who were there locally, because a lot of folks who work at Starbucks, including many of the store managers, believe that this is a different kind of company and one that respects workers and wants a partnership.
Certainly, we were helped by a lot of store managers. Brittany Harrison was one of our first whistleblowers in management. She was a store manager battling a resurgence of childhood leukemia. And she leaked a video to us in the press of a Starbucks district manager talking about what she’d been sent to Buffalo to do, which was to save the company from the union.
And Starbucks fired her. First, it made conditions so miserable that she put in her resignation, and then it fired her before she could even finish out her time, cutting her off of health care while she was going through chemo. There’s a lot of people like that in the company.
Obviously Starbucks is trying to weed out anyone who would be sympathetic or help us. But it really speaks to the kind of company that we’re fighting, because it would have been such a great marketing strategy for it to just embrace the union and say, “Yes, we actually do believe all of the things that we say we believe.” But instead, it’s gone through all the possible mental gymnastics on all of its calls. Even now, it’s saying it’s retaliating against any store that even thinks about unionizing or unionizes in the future, by denying us the benefits that we’re literally asking for at the bargaining table.
I think they’ve evolved a little bit as we’ve gotten bigger, because they haven’t sent a SWAT team into every subsequent city, but they’ve also escalated a lot of tactics, including the firings. It’s not over yet, but hopefully as the labor board keeps condemning what they’ve done, we will start to see the tide turn, and they will sign the fair election principles and come to their senses.
Last year, Amazon spent $4.3 million on union busters. What sort of union-busting operation did that buy Jeff Bezos?
A loss! Seriously, he lost on April 1. They’re disputing that, making allegations. They have twenty-five objections. Once again, we are going to continue to organize, no matter what.
We won our first election; we lost the second one. With the second one, we had some new organizers — new to not just the company but also to organizing. We had just a few weeks to flip coworkers and convince them. Meanwhile, this was a smaller bargaining unit. Amazon had management coming from all over, doing the same thing management did at Starbucks: intimidating the workers.
It’s easier for them to isolate workers. Every time I pulled up to even greet one of the organizers, they had the assistant general manager come out and threaten to call the police. Because I’m on papers from being arrested, I would have to leave right away because I can’t get in trouble again, at least for the next several months.
They used these types of tactics, on top of millions of dollars and demonizing the workers. They rolled up every single one of our organizers. Everybody’s on the write-up. They just fired two of our organizers over this past weekend. They fired eight of their managers. One of them gave me a call today. This was a storefront manager. We have managers that definitely support us because they know the system is definitely not working for the workers.
How has Amazon adapted its anti-union strategy since you all won at JFK8? What are you learning about their evolving union-busting methods?
It’s the same old tactics; it was just not enough time for us. We took on a lot, a huge task. We campaigned for over a year and got to a point where we were really stressed out. To win the election, come off that high horse, and get right back into campaign mode the following week, with only three weeks to win another election, was just a lot.
We learned a lesson, and the good thing about it is we know that there’s four-hundred-plus workers in that building who support the union. We still have a union in there, and now we just have to combine forces, reassess, and get back to the basics. That’s what we like to do anyway.
The biggest thing they did was try to scare workers with our constitution. They printed out copies of the constitution and started going through it, line by line. Workers looking at a thirty-page document are going to be like, “All right, what is this?” That was one thing they didn’t do at JFK that they did differently.
Other than that, it was just the normal stuff: lies, union busting. I don’t know if you saw TikTok Tammy — Tammy came from that building. Throwing away literature, breaking the law because they know the ULPs (unfair labor practices) take forever. They just do it consistently. We filed over forty-five of them.
This is why we have to continue organizing, because the pressure that we’re applying is going to force the NLRB to be more progressive about what’s going on with these companies. That also extended to my visit at the White House. I wasn’t there just to shake hands. They didn’t play my audio for a reason.
Starbucks has announced plans for raises and improved benefits for stores that have not voted to unionize. Workers at stores that have voted, according to this announcement, will not get those improved wages and benefits. How is this crude but potentially powerful tactic playing out on the ground amongst workers? How are you all planning to respond?
It’s been pretty devastating in a couple of elections, where they’ve come in, announced this right before the vote count, and had district managers and other managers doing one-on-ones with everyone. They’ve stopped doing the big captive-audience meetings, because they figured out that we knew how to respond to the meetings. They were not happy when they brought all of Elmwood to a meeting and we all confronted the union busters together.
Now it’s all very isolated: target the vulnerable people, don’t even talk to your committee. And it’s been terrifying for a lot of people, because they’re not just threatening those who have voted to unionize. They’re saying, “If you vote to unionize in this upcoming election, you’re going to make yourself ineligible for these benefits.” Obviously, we are saying that this is not in accordance with labor law, but that’s their current tactic.
More and more, people are realizing: Oh, wait a second, these are proposals that the union had already asked for at the bargaining table in Buffalo. Starbucks wouldn’t have given these to us if we weren’t organizing and if we weren’t demanding these things. We’ve been asking for credit-card tipping since we were first having those conversations to put together our organizing committee. We were like, “Why doesn’t Starbucks offer this?”
This tactic will continue to have less of an effect as they see what we are able to win as a union. But it’s been announced strategically to affect certain elections.
And also, perhaps, first contract negotiations. I presume Starbucks is going to do what any company facing a new organizing campaign and a successful union election tries to do, which is to ensure that you never win first contracts. What do you think their strategy is, and how do you plan on countering it?
Right now, they think that they can talk to us in bargaining like we’re in a captive audience meeting, and that they can keep making the same threats. When we were talking about why we should not be treated differently just because we unionized, they said, “You should have to take the negatives with the positives. It sounds like you just want positives.” We were like, “That’s kind of the point of having a union. We want positives.”
We keep organizing more stores. We keep building more power. We need everybody’s help in putting pressure on Howard Schultz and his friends. These are not people who exist outside of public scrutiny. His friends are people like Mellody Hobson, who’s making her fortune on union pension funds and is best friends with the Obamas. Howard Schultz was going to be Hillary Clinton’s secretary of labor. Somebody has to know how to pick up the phone and tell Howard Schultz to stop what he’s doing.
That’s bad even for a neoliberal Democrat. Democrats usually give labor secretary to someone with union associations, at least.
It’s almost unthinkable to imagine what that would have looked like. Maybe we’d have had a lot more blankets!
We need to put a lot more pressure on Starbucks to wake up, stop running the company into the ground to try to stop the union, and actually sign a contract that everybody would benefit from.
The ALU winning a first contract is, in Jeff Bezos’s perspective and Amazon’s perspective, an existential threat. Do you think it will be even harder than winning the election, and how do you plan to win it?
If you’ve been following me from the beginning, you know I love being underestimated. We are going to get a damn contract. We are going to get one. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but it’s going to happen, because the time is now for us. We know that. The clock is ticking, and we know that. I didn’t do all of this for nothing.
I promise you, I don’t know how, but I do know this. We’ve got the support of two important unions, and a lot more. One is the US Postal Service [union], and the other one is the Teamsters. Combined, I’ve got about two or three million in my back pocket that can shut shit down if I need to.
Once again, we’re gonna organize. We’ve already been contacted by over a hundred buildings — every building in the country, probably. The list is growing every day. And if we launch what I want to launch, there will be a national conference to set everybody up. They can’t avoid us, and it’ll be under the ALU umbrella. They’ll have to come to the table.
I love being underestimated. We are going to get a damn contract.
How do we scale this up? What sort of scale is necessary to not just win but win durable wins at Starbucks and Amazon? How do you see organizing Amazon warehouses nationwide taking shape, and do you foresee working together closely with the Teamsters to get warehouses beyond New York organized?
I want to work with the workers. The union’s job is to support us. We learned another lesson in our second election; you guys saw it. We brought Bernie Sanders, we brought AOC, and every union in New York state and beyond came out to our rally for the first time. And guess what? We lost, two to one.
So I want to work with the workers. The workers that email us and DM us and the ones that I’m talking to are going to help us win. They’re the ones that have the fire to organize. I’ve got to connect with them. The unions in their particular region are wherever they’re going to be. Their job is to support those workers. I’m gonna make that bridge. They have to help them.
My job will be to support as needed. I’m not gonna be able to fly to every state, but I’ll go to as many buildings as need be, because I want to make sure that these campaigns are run the way that they’re supposed to be and that it’s worker-led.
Will the relationship with the Teamsters be a potentially important one for ALU?
Absolutely. I’ve talked to Sean O’Brien; I have relatives that work directly underneath him. We have a great relationship. And that’s not just with him, it’s with every union I’ve met so far — the AFL-CIO, the AFT [American Federation of Teachers], everybody that came to our rally a couple weeks ago. I met all of them. Everybody’s reached out.
Their job is to support the workers. We are the ones that unionized; they had twenty-eight years to do it. We did it. We are the pioneers, and if they want to see us get a contract, it’s beneficial for them as well.
At Starbucks, you’re organizing shops that are quite a bit smaller than an Amazon warehouse. You’ve won eighty-eight elections so far. How many shops do you think you need to win to tip the balance of power against the company, and how do you plan to do that? Have you had to revise your strategy as the campaign moved from Buffalo to an enormous movement nationwide?
I don’t think there’s a specific number, but I want 8,900, which is how many Starbucks stores there are in the United States. Right now we’ve been organizing stores partner-to-partner. In the beginning, the slogan that we printed on the big banner in our office was “Partners becoming partners,” because that was our whole point: Starbucks called us partners and we wanted to be true partners.
Now, it’s that Starbucks called us partners, and now we’re actually partnering with all of our other coworkers across the country to help them organize. As more baristas learn to build an organizing committee and go through an election when your union starts bargaining, they’ve been turning around and helping everybody else do the same process.
That’s made it what it is. When you have people with the kind of experience, care, and skill that these people are bringing to the campaign, not every store is going to immediately be able to overcome the union busting that’s thrown at us, but we’ve been overcoming it most of the time.
Chris, you have been courted by a lot of politicians, from the more obviously pro-labor Bernie to the somewhat less dependable Joe Biden. What do politicians want from you, and what do you want from them?
What do they want from me? I don’t know. That’s a question you have to ask them. I wasn’t supposed to be in the White House. I was outside with the guillotine just two years ago.
What do I want from them? When Vice President Kamala Harris said to me that the world was watching me sit next to the president, I said, “Well, shit, they’re watching you too.”
I’m going to hold them accountable if nothing gets done. That’s why I went there: to figure out a way they can support us. I demanded some things, and I hope that they follow through. They have to do something with these laws. These laws are dinosaurs, and they’re not working for us. We need to put some more funding into the NLRB immediately, not give Amazon $10 billion.
They know what’s going on. They brought us there, hopefully not just for the photo op. Starbucks was there, REI was there, librarians were there, machine unions were there. They need to listen to us. We were brought there to talk and tell our stories. They need to follow through, because now the world knows who we’re going to hold accountable.
What can the state and local politicians of New York and New York City do to put the squeeze on Amazon and help you get that first contract?
Today I went up to Albany with Senator [Jessica] Ramos to introduce the Warehouse Worker Protection Act. That’s a start. If that bill gets passed, it will be like the California bill, where Amazon won’t be able to write workers up for our productivity the way they do to us. There will be more transparency with the algorithm. It will provide workers a chance to create a safety committee. The union can assist with that and have workers represent themselves whenever they get hurt or something needs to be reported.
We are starting with those type of things. Our members of Congress have to pass the PRO Act. If they don’t pass the PRO Act, then I need to talk to one of Biden’s policy advisors and ask, “Where’s that executive order pen? I didn’t see that break at any time during the Trump presidency. We need you to use that EO and sign something that can help us out.”
We’ve had a few very helpful folks. India Walton in Buffalo came to our first press conference and was great, especially as Mayor Byron Brown was telling us that we should effectively take a pay cut by saying that we deserve $15 an hour, which is less than all of us actually make.
I never thought that it would be cool to be a labor nerd, but I think unions are now cool. In addition to all of the things Chris already said, there are things that the labor board can do whether it’s underfunded or not, like changing the rolls back on how long it takes to have elections. Starbucks is able to drag every store that petitions into a hearing to determine whether or not they can vote as a single-store unit, despite sixty years of labor loard precedent. Under even the [Barack] Obama administration labor board rolls, that was not the case; you had a twenty-eight-day election period. If we had that, we would have won many, many more stores by now.
It needs to stop appointing people like the current regional director who oversees a lot of our stores — and is married to a corporate management lawyer who was appointed by Biden’s labor board folks. We need to pull Howard Schultz into a congressional hearing and hold him accountable for all of the union busting that he’s ordered. We need to start focusing on making sure these people aren’t living above the law. Starbucks hasn’t even turned in their [labor-management] forms about where their expenditures have been going on their union busting, because they think they’re so untouchable.
Christian Smalls is a former supervisor at JFK8, Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and lead organizer of the Amazon Labor Union.
Jaz Brisack is a Starbucks worker and labor organizer.
Daniel Denvir is the author of All-American Nativism and the host of The Dig on Jacobin Radio.
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Supporters of organized labor have long regarded megacorporations like Amazon and Starbucks as key sites of struggle. Workers in Amazon warehouses and Starbucks coffeehouses help millions of customers every day and bring in billions of dollars in revenue for their companies every year. But while workers keep these businesses running, top brass like Jeff Bezos […]
Supporters of organized labor have long regarded megacorporations like Amazon and Starbucks as key sites of struggle. Workers in Amazon warehouses and Starbucks coffeehouses help millions of customers every day and bring in billions of dollars in revenue for their companies every year. But while workers keep these businesses running, top brass like Jeff Bezos […]
Supporters of organized labor have long regarded megacorporations like Amazon and Starbucks as key sites of struggle. Workers in Amazon warehouses and Starbucks coffeehouses help millions of customers every day and bring in billions of dollars in revenue for their companies every year. But while workers keep these businesses running, top brass like Jeff Bezos […]
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