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labor The Rank-and-File Organizers Who Took On Amazon

“If we can unionize Amazon…, then workers anywhere can unionize their workplaces. That means you.” - Angelika Maldonado

Organizer, Chris Smalls facing people whose backs are in the foreground.
Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, greets supporters at the Amazon distribution center in Staten Island, New York, October 25, 2021., Craig Ruttle/AP

In a famous satirical poem, composed in 1953 after construction workers in East Germany went on an insurgent mass strike, the playwright Bertolt Brecht asked whether a government, having lost the confidence of its people, might prefer “to dissolve the people and elect another.”

 

When Amazon was faced with worker walkouts at its massive fulfillment center on Staten Island during the pandemic, it engaged in precisely that tactic, firing warehouse workers Chris Smalls and Gerald Bryson in March and April 2020 for speaking out about safety concerns. In fact, labor turnover, which includes weeding out people the company perceives as agitators, has been one of the key tools for Amazon to avoid an organized workforce.

But nearly two years to the day after the firings, Staten Island workers in warehouse JFK8 notched a historic victory against Amazon, turning their workplace into the first union shop at the nation’s second-largest employer. The company smeared Smalls, calling him “not smart, or articulate” and seeking to make him “the face” of organizing efforts.

 

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As many news profiles have pointed out, Smalls proved himself to be a worthy adversary. But Amazon’s heavy-handed actions didn’t just create one leader. It caused many to spring from out of the rank and file of the warehouse. This was exactly the opposite of Amazon’s longtime strategy; instead of suppressing union organizing, it multiplied it.

I spoke to some of these organic leaders who make up the organizing committee of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the independent union founded by current and former warehouse workers on Staten Island.

ANGELIKA MALDONADO, 27, says her earliest memory of the power of a union was when she saw residents on Staten Island opposing Walmart’s expansion into New York City.

“As a child, when Walmart first opened, I remember everyone in my family wanting to go there. Why wouldn’t people want to go to Walmart?” she wondered while in middle school. Later, she understood the opposition to Walmart, including from local unions, was over wages and working conditions.

As the chair of the ALU’s worker committee, Maldonado says that she returns often to that memory from her childhood, connecting the present-day struggles of her co-workers to those of the workers who came before them.

In 2018, after working a string of low-paying jobs in food service and at a commercial laundry in Brooklyn—where her wages were often stolen—she was looking for new work. A friend pointed out that Amazon was hiring for its recently opened fulfillment center.

“Girl, they’re paying $20,” her friend told her.

Maldonado leaped at the prospect of seeing a pay boost from $13 to $20 hourly. She would now work three 12-hour shifts weekly. During these grueling night shifts, she encountered Chris Smalls. At the time, he was what Amazon calls a “Process Assistant,” or a worker trainer. It was a position that put him adjacent to management, but without the perks or supervisory powers to discipline workers.

She quickly grew to respect Smalls because of his calm demeanor, and how he related to other workers and supported them. “I used to be like, well, my Process Assistant, she sucks. I wish he was my Process Assistant. You could tell he cared about the people he worked with.”

For a while, the warehouse job was meeting her basic needs. The bills got paid, so she didn’t complain about the struggle to meet her productivity targets, and the pain on her overstressed body. In retrospect, she called herself “brainwashed.”

“I quickly found my body giving out,” she said. At first, she brushed it off, saying, “I’m out of shape.” But then one day, while carrying her one-year-old son, Josiah, she says, “my arm gave out, and I caught him in between my knees. The pain would radiate from my shoulder to my elbow to my fingers.”

In January 2020, she resigned from Amazon. “I was dedicating so many hours to Amazon, missing time with my son, having to work those days in a row, and then coming home and being extremely tired to the point where I didn’t want to get out of bed for two days.”

“At that point, even with the pay increase compared to the other job, Amazon wasn’t keeping me.” This is common at Amazon, where even before the pandemic, the annual turnover rate was an astronomical 150 percent, with the entire workforce effectively changing every eight months.

After the pandemic hit, Maldonado returned to the warehouse in September of 2021 with a plan: She would work to save up $4,000 to go to nail tech school. She would endure once more the grueling toil for the sake of what she thought was a more stable and secure career path.

But then, one day, while waiting for the bus, she ran into ALU vice president Connor Spence, who was gathering signatures to petition for a union election. Before signing, she asked if she could be fired, which is when she learned that Chris Smalls had been fired after leading a walkout over safety conditions at the height of the pandemic.

“No way, they didn’t fire this kid,” she recalled telling Spence. “He has to be one of the best Process Assistants in the building. Everyone loved him. That’s what made me sign the card, because I related so much to Chris.”

Angelika Maldonado, right, chair of the Amazon Labor Union workers committee, and Brett Daniels, director of organizing, watch a Zoom cast of the unionization vote count, March 31, 2022.

IN OCTOBER, MALDONADO started organizing her co-workers to build a union. “I could barely organize a birthday party,” she said. But she had dedication.

She spent countless hours at the bus stop outside the warehouse where workers congregated to ride buses home before dawn. To keep warm, she would stand by a bonfire. “I would come home and the whole bathtub would be black from the Duraflame smoke from washing my hair,” she said. Worker organizers gave out pizza and made s’mores.

By last Christmas, Amazon reached a nationwide settlement with the National Labor Relations Board over some labor law violations. The settlement allowed workers to organize freely on company property and buildings when they were off the clock.

“That’s when our creativity went into full gear,” Maldonado said. Instead of chatting workers up while they impatiently waited for a bus, they could now break bread in communion and forge genuine bonds over the diverse countries and cultures of the workforce. Instead of Amazon’s “snack attack,” when the company provides catered food to workers, the worker organizers provided their co-workers African fried rice, baked chicken, and macaroni.

Once the organizing moved indoors into the cafeteria and break rooms, workers could spend more time talking with their co-workers and dispelling the lies Amazon was telling them in “captive audience” meetings. “What we did was allow anyone in the building who wanted to organize to organize,” Maldonado told Jacobin.

One of those people was 55-year-old Brima Sylla, an African immigrant from Liberia who works the night shift at the warehouse. Sylla taught high school economics and world history at a private school on Staten Island, but during the pandemic enrollments at the school plummeted, and he found himself out of a job. Even though he had advanced degrees from various universities, Sylla struggled to secure employment in schools, so he opted to work for New York City’s test-and-trace corps to combat the scourge of the coronavirus. Later, he came to Amazon.

Sylla had only been at Amazon for a few months when during a captive audience meeting, he saw ALU worker organizer Cassio Mendoza counter the lies of a highly paid union-busting consultant. Right then, Sylla joined the union effort. A highly respected member within the Staten Island African community and a multilingual speaker of French, Arabic, and three other African languages, Sylla turned out the yes vote among African and Caribbean workers, managing WhatsApp groups to keep them informed and engaged.

The self-effacing Mendoza, 23, grew up attending protest rallies and picket lines with his father, a videographer with UNITE HERE Local 11. “Because he works at UNITE HERE in LA, I grew up going to protest rallies and picket lines. I would meet a lot of his organizer friends who I thought were the coolest people,” Mendoza said.

“I never thought of myself as an organizer. No, those people were legit. You got to be a dope person to be an organizer,” he added.

As Mendoza spoke outside ALU’s headquarters in an apartment in Brooklyn last Friday, Connor Spence interjected, “You might be our best organizer.”

MALDONADO ALSO GREW UP in a union household; her mother was a 1199SEIU member. Part of her work grievances at Amazon included regaining the union health care she lost when she turned 27 and aged off her parents’ health insurance. Maldonado focused on organizing younger workers, especially moms. Among the common questions she got was the reason why Smalls was fired. Amazon alleged it was because he broke safety protocols, but the firing actually came after Smalls led a walkout over COVID safety concerns.

During these times, worker organizers reassured their co-workers that they were protected under labor law to sign a petition for union representation and to have a voice in the union election. The idea was to allow the organizing momentum to build up. First, convince workers that they had a right to have a say on whether to unionize. Second, give workers a concrete choice to improve their material conditions by voting for a union once the election was officially announced.

In November of 2021, the ALU withdrew its petition because it failed to meet the 30 percent showing of interest. But in a stunning reversal of what normally happens in a union election, where unions seek to attain at least 70 percent of signatures on cards to preempt an employer offensive, they submitted with a little over 30 percent.

“I was always on board with filing with the minimum because it would be impossible to do it any other way,” said Mendoza. “We were losing 80 to 100 workers per week, so every time we didn’t get a minimum of 20 signatures in a day, we were actually moving backwards. It was an uphill battle the entire time to just get 100-plus new signatures per week.”

They had no choice but to file with the bare minimum showing of interest. Because “by the time we would’ve gotten 4,000, 5,000, we would have had only 2,000 workers who were still current employees,” Mendoza added.

Worker organizers say they had to convince their co-workers that the union was bigger than the handful of people they saw sitting in the break room and milling about by the bus stop. “By forcing Amazon to hold a democratic process on its own property and build a massive voting tent, we legitimated the union in the eyes of most workers who saw how much power a small group of dedicated workers really had,” said Mendoza.

Maldonado and Mendoza would identify and recruit the most influential worker-organizers on the night shifts. They would support one another on their alternating days off by coming in to the warehouse for lunch breaks, staying at the facility for over ten hours a day until they talked to as many workers as possible.

“We’re going to take over night shift!” Maldonado beamed over Zoom when she recalled the plan.

They’d bring with them the 1936 pamphlet “Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry,” by Communist organizer William Z. Foster, who helped build up independent unions and ran the nationwide steel strike of 1919. They turned to history to find examples of independent unions and study their lessons. They read articles at The Forge like “Organizing: A Secret History” to retrieve the lessons from previous militant struggles.

The lessons stuck, particularly about the basic building blocks of organizing, especially how to have conversations worker-to-worker. These relationships were foundational to building trust and familiarity when the time came to publicly show union support by voting yes, wearing a lanyard, or sporting a shirt emblazoned with ALU initials.

“Being relatable to your co-workers is one of the most important things to being an organizer,” Maldonado said. “Now we have to make sure we build a strong bargaining committee.”

On April 2, the Amazon Labor Union demanded the company begin negotiations over a collective-bargaining agreement.

Later that night, the ALU newsletter #16 fired off another salvo:

“This is just the beginning, and there is so much more work to be done, but never again can anyone plausibly suggest that there is a workplace that cannot be unionized, or that workers cannot win it for ourselves without the resources and experience of formal affiliation with an established union.

“If we can unionize Amazon…, then workers anywhere can unionize their workplaces. That means you.”