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The uprisings at Starbucks and Amazon point the way forward
A new generation breathes new life into labor — Democrats should be paying attention
Welcome to a big Sunday evening edition of Progress Report!
Tonight, we’ll take a look at the two landmark union drives that continue to make history for workers, and in doing so, highlights the ever-growing divide between a rising populist class and our elected representatives.
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Chris Smalls swaggered across the foyer and through the revolving door out into downtown Brooklyn’s early afternoon sunlight, his arms held triumphantly above his head as if he’d just delivered a knockout punch.
Amazon is far too powerful to crumple that easily, but Smalls and a scrappy crew of warehouse workers did just land the first real blow to the jaw of the Goliath mega-retailer, tech giant, and media conglomerate.
After two days spent watching NLRB employees count 10 boxes worth of hand-marked paper ballots in the bureau’s regional office, Smalls emerged from MetroTech Center as the president of the newly certified Amazon Labor Union. The sudden labor icon and the two or three fellow union officials flanking him were mobbed by a stampede of ecstatic ALU organizers and close friends, who engulfed the union’s leaders in a mass of chaotic joy.
Photographers hovered all around, capturing the raucous scene. Smalls toasted the victory by popping a bottle of champagne, which I’d spotted an organizer from another Amazon warehouse clutching all morning in hopeful anticipation of what had a mere 24 hours prior seemed to the rest of the world like such an unlikely moment.
Just that Monday, More Perfect Union released a video report I produced about the countless labor law violations that Amazon and its army of paid consultants flagrantly violated during the nearly yearlong union drive. It was almost surreal to find myself days later asking Smalls questions while surrounded by reporters from around the globe, including a Japanese network correspondent to my left.
After asking the question that led to the day’s most viral quote (see above), I lingered with my videographer, talking with other ALU members and scoping out which politicians had the wherewithal to stop by with congratulations. Several city council members and NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, running as a labor champion, showed up as the celebration wound down to embrace and talk semi-privately with the union’s leaders.
This wasn’t just any union election win — the JFK8 distribution center is the centerpiece of Amazon’s NYC operation, a warehouse that cycles through more than 8000 workers that organize and ship packages on a 24/7 loop. The distribution center is the nerve center of the nation’s biggest market, the sort of facility that Amazon sought to “protect” at all costs.
The conditions inside were not ideal for organizing. Like all Amazon warehouses, JFK8 has an astronical burnout and turnover rate, which made it that much harder for the union maintain a coalition. As a result, workers won over by the ALU were at high risk of either quitting out of exhaustion or getting terminated with no recourse, while Amazon could inundate and intimidate new employees with anti-union propaganda and pressure at will.
And yet, ALU didn’t just win this election, it did so by ten percentage points. Amazon has more than 100 of these facilities across the country, but this victory, in this location, by this team, could ultimately prove to be akin to Luke Skywalker firing two proton torpedoes into the reactor core of the Death Star.
The victory would not have happened without the ALU’s on-the-ground, face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder grassroots organizing strategy, which educated workers about their rights and offered regular reassurance that they wouldn’t be abandoned. The union also harnessed lingering anger in the warehouse, which in turn reflects a national mood of populist discontent.
This win is hardly an isolated incident; Smalls himself shouted out the Starbucks unionization campaign during his victory speech, linking the two movements that are rewriting the rules of American organized labor and setting up the day’s second big story.
Roasting the old paradigm — with or without help
After wrapping the Amazon coverage on Friday afternoon, I scampered back to Manhattan. A few hours later, at around 7:30 pm, I got a text from a shift supervisor at a Starbucks roastery location on 9th Avenue — the NLRB had just counted the ballots and certified that a clear majority of his coworkers voted to affiliate with Starbucks Workers United.
The Chelsea store, the largest Starbucks on the East Coast, is now the 10th store to officially affiliate with SBWU. It’s also the first Starbucks location in New York City to win union representation since the company’s quasi-founder and three-time CEO, Howard Schultz, crushed a nascent effort to organize six stores back in 2006.
It took years for the NLRB to rule that Schultz’s company had illegally fired the employees organizing those stores, a prime example of how when it comes to US labor law, the slow wheels of justice often wind up grinding the workers themselves into dust.
The law also allows for essentially unlimited spending on anti-union propaganda campaigns. Based on public disclosures, Amazon spent at least $4.3 million on anti-worker consultants last year — it’s likely much more — while Starbucks is running up huge legal bills with the union-busting legal firm Littler Mendelson.
These investments, authorized by executives earning millions of dollars in salary and stock options each year, can now be unequivocally regarded as terrible business decisions — the upstart unions organizing each company have just about run the table since voting kicked off at three Buffalo Starbucks in November.
The win streak has drawn national headlines, shaken executive suites, challenged long-held beliefs by traditional labor officials, and galvanized members of a disaffected generation seizing on a rare opportunity to control their own destiny.
Change and power come from within
Smalls was fired by Amazon in March 2020 for leading a walkout to protest the company’s lack of Covid precautions. It didn’t matter that he’d worked at the distribution center for five years, or that his tenure included several promotions and a hand in opening the other warehouses at the massive Staten Island site. He had the audacity to publicly ask for masks and social distancing protocol inside the claustrophobic leviathan, which was becoming a standing super-spreader event as the mysterious virus consumed New York, so he was smeared as “inarticulate” and a “thug.”
Smalls and several close friends from his half-decade working at the warehouse launched the Amazon Labor Union in April 2021. They planted themselves at the JFK8 parking lot and over time turned it into an almost round-the-clock rally. There were regular barbecues, speeches, and mutual aid food banks for workers and their families, a constant source of light in the shadow of the humongous distribution center that churned all through the night.
Many of the organizers still worked inside the building, while Smalls still knew the facility inside and out. As an independent union unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO or any other group, they had to invent their own playbook on the fly instead of relying on the experience of outside organizers.
Informed by books they read about turn-of-the-century labor trailblazers, they called on the relationships they’d forged on the job and continued to build solidarity in the ad hoc community they were constructing in the parking lot. Karen Ponce, now the ALU secretary, said she was swayed to join the union in November after leaders answered her questions over and over again. The ALU’s constant presence in the JFK8 parking lot served as an important counterpoint to the daily rotation of ambulances that arrived to disappear workers injured in a job with few safety precautions.
Following a classic union-busting blueprint, Amazon’s consultants and managers preached that the union would be a “third party” that would spoil the relationship between employer and employee. That hardly qualified as a threat — the union consisted entirely of colleagues and friends, while the relationship between company and worker was managed through an app.
ALU leaders’ pre-established bonds with workers neutralized attempts to cast the union as shady or untrustworthy. That instant credibility wasn’t available to organizers from the RWDSU during their long and valiant effort to bring a union to the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, AL. For this and any number of other reasons, the re-vote there, pending disputed ballots, is likely to fall achingly short of success.
The Staten Island organizers weren’t professionals, but they were fearless. Like the revolutionaries they studied, the ALU’s homegrown union warriors put their bodies on the line during more than a few tangles with the NYPD, who Amazon managers had on speed dial. Smalls and other organizers were arrested multiple times on trumped-up charges that prosecutors have agreed to drop should there be no further incidents.
Videos of the arrests went viral, which didn’t do the company any favors with a largely Black workforce. They were seeing their friends shoved up against police cars by aggressive NYPD goons, which gave more urgency to the rallying cry, initially used as a response to Amazon talking points, that “the union is us.”
While Starbucks Workers United has been supported by Workers United, an established union that is itself an offshoot of the SEIU, the campaign at the world’s largest coffee chain has also been driven entirely by workers.
Aside from Jaz Brisnack, the young barista who has spearheaded the union drive, just about every role in the metastasizing movement, from outreach and education to bargaining and public relations, is being filled by workers with no prior experience in organized labor. They have created a sort of national network of co-ops within a titan of American capitalism, providing mutual aid and triggering national social media outrage whenever management resumes harassing one of their colleagues.
In my more than seven months of reporting on the Starbucks union movement, I’ve been regularly stunned by the devotion and professionalism of workers who are often balancing a fierce campaign against a multinational, trillion-dollar corporation with schoolwork. Workers as young as 16 have become fluent in labor law and NLRB process, insisting that Starbucks managers have broken “laboratory conditions” and violated their Weingarten rights.
Being a professional union organizer is a noble, often thankless, and regularly impossible job. Under the United State’s current labor law, organizing a union is like leading an expedition up Mount Olympus as Zeus heaves bolts of lightning at your party. That it happens at all is a testament to organizers’ dedication. But labor has also been stymied by a conservative approach taken by older leaders used to operating in an era of outsourcing and mass firings, putting them on survival footing at all times. As a result, they’ve long existed in a parochial bubble, tending to the contractural needs of a dwindling membership.
The young, energetic, and idealistic workers at Amazon and Starbucks are victims of a deeply unequal economy, but have not been burdened by the particular hurdles hampering those established unions. The arrogance of employers writ large and the impossible economic conditions facing young people have turned the specter of harnessing collective power through unionization into a potential panacea.
Meanwhile, in DC…
It’s no surprise, then, that a Gallup poll last fall found that 77% of respondents ages 18-34 said that they had a positive impression of unions, which was the highest number of any age group. It is no coincidence that the same demographic put Joe Biden in the White House and now registers the largest drop-off in support for the president and the policies he’s pursued.
Biden’s refusal to permanently cancel at least some student debt or finally give in on legalizing marijuana register as disappointments, but for the most part, the president is bearing the brunt of the anger generated by a dozen corporate Democrats that have dashed the party’s agenda at both the federal and even state legislative levels.
Just this past week, as this new wave of anti-corporate activists captured the attention of the world and further revealed a deep national desire for a regime of working-class populism, Democrats in Congress and state capitol buildings advanced the agenda of their max-out donors and future consulting clients.
On Thursday, usual villains Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema recruited freshman Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly to help them kill the nomination of Biden’s choice to head the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division. Though he held the same role in the Obama administration, David Weil was suddenly considered too outspoken for the role; Kelly, who sat on the board of several gig economy companies, was clearly unhappy with Weil’s outspoken criticism of the exploitative models that have helped massive gig and tech companies flourish over the past few years.
Sinema’s office offered the most mealy-mouthed and insulting explanation possible for the decision, citing the senator’s “concerns with [Weil’s] ability to faithfully execute and uphold the law.” Enraging, yes, but hardly a surprise from the shameless sell-out who will next be providing opening remarks for a Koch-backed soiree dedicated to killing any potential tax hikes on the wealthy.
Both Sinema and Kelly, by the way, have consistently refused to back the PRO Act, legislation that would make organizing a union and winning a first contract infinitely more achievable.
Manchin gave no statement to justify his vote to sink Weil’s nomination, one of the few times he’s been silent on any issue at all over the past 15 months. Not that we needed Manchin to offer any explanation — just a few days earlier, he snuffed out Biden’s plan to install a minimum tax rate for billionaires before most people even had a chance to hear about it.
As he’s proven time and again, Manchin is impervious to popular opinion or public pressure, which means that he’s killed Democrats’ opportunity to crow about making widely reviled figures like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Starbucks’s Howard Schultz pay their fair share.
Down ballot, business as usual
State leaders are hardly doing any better. In Washington State, where both Amazon and Starbucks are based, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law that cements gig company workers as permanent second-class citizens.
The legislation, written with the input and encouragement of Uber and Lyft, guarantees drivers a minimum wage only while they have a passenger in their cars, which keeps them unpaid for about half the time they’re actually working. The new law also lets ride app companies off the hook when it comes to health care and other benefits. It was endorsed by a local division of the Teamsters but ultimately opposed by the new activist president of the national union, who rightly pointed out that it will set a model for other states that want to undercut worker rights while playing at even-handed dealmaker.
Inslee’s record is at least better than that of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who won his recall election last year largely thanks to organized labor’s mobilization program and then promptly began vetoing its biggest priorities. One of the bills he vetoed would have allowed farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections, creating a safer environment for organizers and freeing workers from fears of retaliation.
Speaking at an event to honor César Chávez’s birthday, the current head of the United Farm Workers excoriated Newsom for both vetoing the Agricultural Relations Voting Choice Act last year and refusing to meet with them to discuss the legislation this year. Farmworkers held a protest that garnered a fair amount of media attention, but no response from Newsom; the governor was on vacation in Central and South America, enjoying luxury resorts and hotels built in the middle of the grinding poverty that many of those farmworkers tried to escape by emigrating to the United States.
Here in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul has skimped on child care, health care for immigrants, affordable housing construction, and rent assistance, but last Monday offered $850 million in public funding for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, who are owned by a man worth $5.2 billion.
New job numbers released this weekend offer a rosy picture of the economy, for which Biden, in spite of his inability to convince corporate Democrats to enact most of his agenda, deserves a fair amount of credit. It’s been baffling to the White House and some political analysts that a majority of Americans think that the economy is in the tank, but there’s actually a very simple explanation:
Corporate greed is driving inflation, which is treated as a natural phenomenon by willfully blind elite media outlets. Those outlets then put the onus on Democrats to fix inflation, which party leaders by and large accept instead of pinning the blame on price-gouging executives. Too many Democrats simply refuse to stand up to corporations, shrinking from bold policies or more vocally backing the workers taking on that burden, which only further drives the impression that no one is fighting on behalf of working people.
As I’ve written before, even if they can’t deliver on their biggest promises, Democrats desperately need to harness the energy created by the Amazon and Starbucks campaigns. They need to offer as much assistance as they can. Holding their fire won’t stop big corporations from spending ungodly sums of dark money to defeat them, while championing this new coalition could help Democrats turn around both the yawning inequality that is immiserating tens of millions of Americans and the election wipeout seemingly headed their way.
The movements march forward. Democrats have to choose whether they want to keep up or get left behind.
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