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labor Seize the Time: Biden’s Labor Board and a New Workers’ Up-Rising

It’s not often there is a strategic opening created by the confluence of a favorable NLRB, a supportive presidency, a tight job market, and a roiling economy. This is not a time to cling to paradigms wedded to past conditions. Now we can "Think Big."

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The labor world is abuzz with the April 1st certification victory by the independent Amazon Labor Union at Staten Island’s JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center. Despite the election setback for the second ALU vote at Staten Island’s LDJ5 sortation facility on May 2, the momentum for Amazon workers is still very strong.[1] Similarly, the unprecedented string of organizing victories at Starbuck’s cafes across the country is energizing the labor movement. To date there have been 240 plus NLRB election filings at Starbucks around the county. Twenty-eight of those filings have already resulted in victory for Workers United, an SEIU affiliate. The new level of organizing has overwhelmed the NLRB![2]

We are clearly having a wonderful “labor moment.” Observers and organizers have credited the victories and the momentum to the disrespect shown workers during the COVID pandemic, the radicalization of youth by Bernie Sanders and Black Lives matter, and workers turning to unions out of frustration with Washington gridlock. 

However, there is a larger political context for this organizing upsurge. As a result of President Biden’s appointments to the NLRB, the Starbucks and Amazon victories along with many other organizing campaigns, have been aided and abetted by very positive rulings from a reinvigorated national board. NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, a former union-side attorney also appointed by Biden, has adopted an aggressive enforcement stance towards employer unfair labor practices.[3] And as we have noted before[4], the Board’s legal rulings have been accompanied by the bully pulpit of pro-union pronouncements from “Union Joe.” 

Starbucks sought to force its employees into regional elections arguing that the appropriate “community of interest” for the bargaining unit in Buffalo should not be the individual stores that workers petitioned for. The NLRB ruled that each individual store constituted a separate bargaining unit, enabling the union to roll up individual victories at the sites where the union was ready to go. 

In another significant ruling, after finding significant Unfair Labor Practices at Amazon’s Staten Island Fulfillment Center, the Board ordered management to allow workers to campaign in non-work areas – break and lunch rooms – while they were off shift.  This was a huge boost to Amazon Labor Union supporters that enabled round-the-clock meetings with workers.  

In a recent shocker for corporate management, the General Counsel issued a memo deeming mandatory “captive audience” meetings to be an unfair labor practice because they constituted coercive behavior in violation of the NLRA. What a wonderful paradox that organizers are now debating whether this is a good thing in light of the fact that where workers have a strong organizing committee such meetings afford in plant organizers a forum to challenge management in front of their coworkers showing the power of on-the-job union leadership.[5]

In a rousing speech to the North American Building Trades Unions’ Legislative Conference, President Sean McGarvey gave effusive praise to the Biden administration for regulatory action and appointments on enforcement of Davis Bacon laws and support for apprenticeship training.[6]  Both of which were under attack from the Trump administration. McGarvey’s speech was also extraordinary because he began it with strong support for the protests against the police murder of George Floyd and a condemnation of the January 6th insurrectionists. McGarvey hailed the appointment of former Boston mayor and Laborer’s union leader Marty Walsh as Labor Secretary. Leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have similarly heaped praise on the Biden administration and Secretary Walsh for their defense of worker interests in the supply chain.[7]

Just as history tells us that working class uprisings happen in spurts and often come from unexpected quarters, history also teaches us that such surges are prodded and sustained by good politics.[8] The National Industrial Recovery Act which passed in 1932, while later invalidated by the Supreme Court, set the tenor of the times and helped spur the 1934 west coast maritime strike that led to the formation of the ILWU. Similarly, the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 helped spur workers’ struggles for union recognition and collective bargaining in the auto, steel and electrical industries.[9]

The political opportunity of this moment gives workers who are organizing an opportunity for some creative thinking.  But it will require concrete analysis of current conditions and assessment of the balance of power. Based on what we have seen at Staten Island: the workers are ultimately in the best position to make the callThe JFK8 victory on Staten Island was not anticipated by most labor “experts” because the ALU filed for an election with only a 30% showing of support — the minimum qualifying threshold on authorization cards. The rank-and-file organizers defended their decision on two counts:

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1: Churn and turnover at Amazon means that getting to 70% is nearly impossible
2: Getting to 30% is an amazing achievement and we built our strength from there to win the vote.

The victory at Staten Island’s JFK8 has rocked the labor relations world. The disappointing vote at LDJ5 doesn’t change that. For the foreseeable future, any walkout, work stoppage, or NLRB victory at Amazon is going to be big news. Imagine the reverberations if Amazon workers and their organizations were to file and win elections at multiple facilities around the country — especially in giant metro and logistics markets like NY/NJ, Chicago, or Southern California’s Inland Empire. 

It’s not often there is a strategic opening created by the confluence of a favorable NLRB, a supportive presidency, a tight job market, and a roiling economy. This is not a time to cling to paradigms wedded to past conditions and stale practice. Now, at long last, we have an opportunity to “Think Big.”[10]


[1] ALU is likely to file unfair labor practice charges challenging the outcome of the election. “Amazon Labor Union stumbles as workers vote down union at second NYC facility,” by Mitchell Clark, The Verge, May 2, 2022, https://www.theverge.com/2022/5/2/23053665/amazon-ldj5-union-vote-results. Also see our, “Viewpoint: Amazon Win Shows We Need an Eclectic and Class-Wide Approach,” by Rand Wilson and Peter Olney, April 08, 2022, https://labornotes.org/blogs/2022/04/viewpoint-amazon-win-shows-we-need…

[2] “Starbucks Store Unionizing Surge Tests Cash-Strapped Labor Board,” by Ian Kullgren and Robert Lafolla, Bloomberg Daily Labor Report, April 27, 2022, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/starbucks-store-unioni…

[3] “The Memo Writer, Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, has outlined an agenda that would transform the American workplace,” by Harold Meyerson, American Prospect, March 30, 2022

https://prospect.org/labor/memo-writer-jennifer-abruzzo/

[4] “Wake Up, Everybody! Midterms are Almost Here,” by Rand Wilson and Peter Olney, Convergence & The Stansbury Forum, February 25, 2022, and “The Message from the Amazon Union Defeat in Alabama Is Clear: Keep Organizing,” by Rand Wilson and Peter Olney, In These Times, April 9, 2021, https://inthesetimes.com/article/amazon-union-defeat-alabama-bessemer-r…

[5] The General Counsel’s decision on employer mandatory meetings still must gain the national board’s approval. Employers would still be allowed to hold “non mandatory” meetings and just “encourage” workers to attend which by itself would be coercive.  which would have to be challenged w ULPs (happening in LDJ 5)

[6] 2022 U.S. Legislative Conference: Remarks by NABTU President Sean McGarvey, https://youtu.be/ENJ3fsRNsWk

[7] https://www.ilwu.org/labor-secretary-marty-walsh-meets-with-ilwu-member…

[8] “Amazon Workers Are Organizing, and Elected Officials Are Supporting Them,” by Eric Blanc, Jacobin, 4/25/2022

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2022/04/amazon-workers-union-organizing-alu-elected-officials-bernie-sanders-aoc-support

[9] “Organizing, Politics, Mood: Reflections on the 1930s,” by Glenn Perušek, Convergence magazine, May 2, 2022

Organizing, Politics, Mood: Reflections on the 1930s

[10] “Think Big: Organizing a Successful Amazon Workers’ Movement in the United States by Combining the Strengths of the Left and Organized Labor,” by Peter Olney and Rand Wilson, in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, Edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, Ellen Reese, 2019, https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745341484/the-cost-of-free-shipping/ and “Think Bigger: New possibilities for building workers’ power at Amazon,” by Peter Olney & Rand Wilson, Stansbury Forum, October 1, 2021, https://stansburyforum.com/2021/10/01/think-bigger-new-possibilities-fo…

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 50 years. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California.

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than forty years, most recently as Chief of Staff for SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. In 2016 he helped to co-found Labor for Bernie and was elected as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He is an elected member of Somerville's Ward 6 Democrtic Committee. Wilson is board chair for the ICA Group and the Fund for Jobs Worth Owning. He also serves as a trustee for the Somerville Job Creation and Retention Trust.