The resurgence of unions and the fight against Amazon

The number of Americans who belong to unions has been declining for decades. But suddenly, over the past year or so, the winds have changed. Organizing efforts are underway at tech companies like Apple and Google; media like The New York Times and Condé Nast; and among graduate studentsdelivery drivers and baristas.

Since December, when a Starbucks in Buffalo was the first to vote to unionize, workers at 16 Starbucks stores followed suit. (Yes, they vote one store at a time.) A Starbucks picketer in Denver said, “We had a lot of bullying and a lot of trying to stop us. But we are here!

And more than 200 others asked to vote.

And then, three weeks ago, there was news that stunned the business world about America’s second largest employer: JFK8, a huge Amazon warehouse in Staten Island that employs 8,300 people, voted to unionize.

“It’s Amazon against the people, and the people have spoken,” said organizer Chris Smalls. “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because when he was up there, we were signing people up!”

Correspondent David Pogue asked Smalls, “Weren’t there people saying, ‘Man, these efforts never succeed’?”

“Of course! I think everyone wrote us off. Not everyone believed we would even make it to an election, let alone win.”

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Labor organizer Chris Smalls.

CBS News


Smalls, a former Amazon worker, led the union campaign, but it wasn’t his original plan: “I had no intention of unionizing. I’m just trying to do the right things and prevent the people to die of COVID-19.”

In March 2020, he organized a walkout to protest the lack of face masks and other COVID gear at JFK8. Amazon fired him, and in a leaked memo, an executive called him “neither smart nor articulate.”

Smalls quickly realized he wasn’t the only disgruntled Amazonian. Another Amazon warehouse in Staten Island begins a unionization vote tomorrow.

Workers Brett, Mat and Martha spoke to co-workers up front. “They take care of robots better than humans,” Brett told Pogue. “They don’t give you enough time to go to the bathroom.”

Martha said, “You have people who barely earn enough.”

Mat said: “We want to be able to say, ‘These things have to change’ and negotiate that into a contract.”

Smalls’ strategy to organize JFK8 involved a social media campaign and small local gestures, all paid for by donations: “We would feed them, you know, pizza, deli food, soul food, different cultural food. That’s what the union stands for, you know? Caring for each other.”

Amazon fought back, harshly, using the standard anti-union playbook. He spent more than $4 million on consultants and demanded that every employee attend union-busting meetings.

Ruth Milkman, a labor scientist and professor at the City University of New York, explained: “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, this organization, they won’t do anything for you. They’ll just take your money. And besides, they might put you on strike and you might not get any income during that time. It can be very intimidating and very effective.”

But not this time. JFK8 voted to unionize.

Pogue told Smalls, “So I think what you’re saying is you succeeded because you were smart and articulate?”

“Instead!” he’s laughing.

Amazon declined an interview, but told “CBS Sunday Morning” in a statement, “We don’t believe unions are the best answer for our employees. Our goal remains to work directly with our team to continue to make Amazon a great place to work. “

Amazon also disputes the validity of the JFK8 vote and points out that it already offers above-average pay and benefits — a starting salary of $15 an hour and health insurance.

But Ruth Milkman says it’s not just about dollars: “Workers want respect. They want to be treated with dignity. And I think you can see that very clearly in the history of Staten Island. They are treated like machines.”

Pogue asked, “How are these numbers and unions different from the efforts of the old union factory?”

“What is different, I think, is the spirit of the times, especially [among] young workers who have been through a lot of upheaval,” Milkman replied. “They have these high expectations of what their professional life is supposed to be. And then they can’t afford to pay the rent. They might have a lot of student debt. They end up living with their parents. I mean, that’s not what they were promised.

“The pandemic has also created a labor shortage, which has given people more leverage and made them less fearful of organizing,” she said. “Unions are cool again for this generation.”

For many JFK8 employees, Chris Smalls is definitely cool.

One drove by during our interview and expressed his own thoughts on the organizing effort: “**** Amazon!

“What did he say ?” Pogue asked.

“I won’t say that word, but I guess he’s pro-union!” The little ones burst out laughing.


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Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. Publisher: Joseph Frandino.


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