- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
While many people are familiar with the unionization campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, where Amazon workers are organizing with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), other campaigns are less well-known. One such effort is that of Amazonians United, a network of Amazon workers at warehouses and delivery stations across the country. Their approach is guided by a focus on long-term, deep organizing on the shop floor. If unions are what we call workers acting collectively, Amazonians United is certainly a union, but it’s not filing for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections. Its focus is waging fights on the shop floor and building up strength there while coordinating across warehouses.
On a recent episode of Primer, Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke with two Amazonians United members: Jonathan Bailey and Ted Miin. Bailey is an Amazon worker in Queens, New York, and recently ran for city council. Miin is a member of Amazonians United Chicagoland and works at Chicago-area delivery stations. He is also one of the workers who filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB against Amazon last year after facing intimidation and disciplinary write-ups for taking part in walkouts over what he and his coworkers found to be inadequate COVID precautions. The NLRB found those charges to have merit.
In the following conversation, Bailey and Miin discuss Amazonians United’s origins, waging and winning fights against management on the shop floor, and the organization’s relationship to other unions. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
To start, when did Amazonians United form, where, and by who?
Different groups of us were coming together with our coworkers, but if we wanted to pinpoint who came up with the name and when, there were a handful of us in Chicago that were addressing management limiting or taking away our water. Six workers met at a Krispy Kreme on the south side of Chicago, and we said, well, if we’re going to do a petition, we need a name to put on it.
One of our coworkers suggested Amazonians United because Amazon talks about “Amazonians” a lot, so, as workers, let’s reclaim that term. This was in the spring of 2019. We adopted that name and started making our Facebook group and social media groups. As we connected with folks in Sacramento and in New York, they decided to go with that name too.
One fight you’re having is over “megacycles,” which are being rolled out at delivery stations nationwide. These shifts are from 1:20 AM to 11:50 AM. That has been a focus in Chicago because one of the delivery stations where Amazonians United Chicagoland was very active was shut down earlier this year, and people were told that they had to sign up for megacycles. What happened, and where is that fight now?
Amazon is growing explosively and building a lot of new delivery stations — fulfillment centers as well, but especially delivery stations, the last-mile warehouses. Someone high up in the company decided Amazon needed to continue being the national leader in fastest delivery, and an Excel spreadsheet told them that the way to do that was with the worst possible shift. Someone can place an order until midnight and still get their package the next day because we workers are in there immediately packaging the orders, and then they’re coming to the delivery stations, and we’re sorting and delivering them.
A lot of us were already on an overnight shift. At our warehouse, we worked from 8:15 PM to 4:45 AM. That was its own challenge, but by ending at 4:45 AM, if you have to get your kids ready for school at 8:25 AM, you can still go home, take a shower, nap for two hours, and then wake up and continue your day. Or if you had a second job that was a nine to five, you can get in a two-hour nap.
But in March they announced that we can either accept the 1:20 AM to 11:50 AM shift, or come April, be terminated. We had about two weeks to decide. That was around when they had closed DCH1 in Chicago, the oldest delivery station in Chicago, where we were the most organized. They forced us to pick up megacycle shifts at other warehouses or be fired.
A lot of workers were pissed, especially women coworkers, because this change was effectively a sexist mass firing of workers — in a patriarchal society, a lot of the childcare and eldercare falls on women, especially in this country, and that schedule means you can’t be with your kids in the morning. That means you can’t be caretaking. Anyone with a second job or other demands simply can’t make the new shift. The immediate thought was, “Well, I’m going to have to leave and find other work.” But because we had been organized and had fought prior to this change and won COVID-19 protections and paid time off, we said, “Let’s at least try; we’ve got to fight.” We can’t always take whatever abuses are being compelled onto us.
So we started a stop megacycle campaign. We had four main demands, which included scheduling accommodations, so that people could work a segment of the megacycle shift if they had kids that they had to get ready for school in the morning. It included a demand for paid Lyft rides, which they provide some Amazon workers in New York City, and are especially important because traveling to and from the warehouse at 1:20 AM, in a new neighborhood in the south or west side of Chicago, made many people, especially our women coworkers, feel unsafe, as they have to walk half a mile from a bus stop. We demanded paid breaks, and we said we need a real megacycle shift differential: we were demanding $2 an hour; previously, Amazon was paying 50 cents extra an hour if you worked overnight. We said that if we’re going to be on a nocturnal shift — with damage to our health and bodies and complete disruption to our lives — we need real hazard pay.
That is the one demand that Amazon has relented on. They announced that they’re increasing the overnight shift differential to either $1.50 for weekdays or $2 for the weekend. We’re not going to claim all the credit for that, but we played a part in forcing Amazon to provide a real shift differential for megacycles. That’s how we’ve been fighting: talking with coworkers about demands, asking if they agree, bringing more coworkers together, and finding out ways we can apply pressure to win.
Jonathan, there was the HQ2 debacle in New York City, but what does the Amazon landscape there look like now?
The largest expansion of the warehouse network within the United States during the pandemic has been in New York City. There’s been an explosion of warehouses here. Amazon moved in — just boom, all over. But with that, there are more workers who have been at Amazon and experienced the way that Amazon runs things for workers; there’s been a lot of interest in fighting for change. A lot of that is because people have seen that folks are fighting; people are coming into a situation where folks have engaged in the fight in one way or another.
When we started, Amazon was stealing our sick leave from us. When somebody sees that now they’re getting an extra $1,000 per year because folks fought for change, that’s real. When we all won paid time off in part thanks to Amazonians United, that’s real. In New York, issues around payment are especially significant because $15 is the minimum wage here.
The fights are tangible; people can see how a shop-floor action results in changes to our conditions. Even if the demand is something as small as “Let’s get cold water in here,” it’s still something that people experience engaging in, and having a sense of how coworkers care about improving things. Together, we look out for each other.
Amazonians United members speak about a commitment to deep organizing: building long-lasting relationships. How do you do that rather than treading water when there is 150 percent turnover in the warehouses?
It rests on the principles of building community, culture, and solidarity.
By community, for example, we do weekly potlucks: at lunch, people bring in food, we share it. If we’re talking to someone who started work this week, they can be invited into community with us right away. People sometimes leave within a few weeks — the job or the schedule didn’t work for them — but as long as we have an ongoing community in the warehouse, people can come and go, and we still have organization and relationships with each other.
Culture is important because it transcends any individual worker and their time spent at any workplace. I mean building a culture of not putting up with disrespect and bullshit from management. Management lies all the time; that’s the main thing that they do. They tell us that the policy is you only have ten-minute breaks when we have twenty-minute breaks. We tell them, “here’s your own policy — stop trying to steal our time.” We can build a culture where coworkers support each other and inform each other about our rights. If someone has to leave for whatever reason, the culture remains because whoever comes in the next week learns from another coworker, so the culture persists through turnover.
Finally, there’s solidarity. In Chicago, many of our coworkers that are no longer working at Amazon are still in community with us — they’re still coming to barbecues — because we have real friendships and relationships.
That’s why I describe it as a movement of workers. We’re not only trying to organize our coworkers when they’re in the same warehouse as us. We’re trying to build with each other as community members and as an entire class. That’s what we recognize we need in order to win. Turnover sucks, but it doesn’t mean we can’t build something. Turnover is a challenge for traditional forms of unionism that are only thinking, one workplace, one organized shop. But as working people, we can be much more creative than that.
It’s significant that turnover is so high. A 150 percent turnover rate translates to a six-month average time on the job. Every time that there’s a new crop of workers, management tries to shift the way that they treat breaks. Twenty-minute breaks turn into fifteen- or ten-minute breaks. They push on little things to see what gives; it’s up to us to build structures beforehand to maintain the conditions that we’ve won.
It brings up something that any of us who care about the way that workplaces look within the United States think about, which is how we change the broader culture around labor rights. In fighting for humane conditions, we have to do a lot more than just organize within our workplaces — we need to win a cultural change, to develop a culture of struggle and fighting to change the conditions of not only our workplaces, but our apartment buildings. Wherever we go, that culture becomes a part of who we are.
That’s a scary part of there being such high turnover. If we don’t practice good stewardship over what we have won, we can lose it. But at the same time, there’s another opportunity that it creates. I’m a socialist and an activist here in New York City who has been fighting gentrification. And the interesting thing about our biggest fight in housing in New York — Amazon HQ2 — is that real estate developers employed a fascinating strategy.
There are empty buildings that they’re trying to pack full of highly paid young people, without kids, who are making six-figure salaries and willing to pay $3,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. But they don’t expect those people to stay. Their strategy is that these workers will come to work at Amazon, rent our apartments for crazy amounts, generate huge profits, and then leave Amazon, and Amazon will bring in more tech workers. It’s just an engine for generating profits.
Those of us who care about creating a movement for workers that changes the layout for the United States can do the same thing as those real estate developers. Amazon warehouses are a place where people come in, they feel for the first time like fighting for changes, and they can see those wins in their bank account and in the conditions of their workplaces. Even if an Amazon warehouse spits them out after six months, if they’ve experienced that, it creates a rapid process of developing more people who’ve experienced fighting for change.
It’s different when you feel it: the first time that you stand up to your boss with your coworkers. Even if it’s a small thing, like we are not going to accept you stealing sixty seconds from our break time, that feeling changes you. I can’t help but see an opportunity in that turnover if we want to create the culture of fighting. There’s never been a better time or a better place.
I want to ask about your relationship with other unions. For example, the Teamsters have announced that they’re going to put resources into organizing Amazon. What is your orientation to that effort, and the relationship between yourselves and other Amazon workers who might be a part of those efforts?
My view and the understanding I have from coworkers we’ve talked with is that our commitment is to build the democratic bottom-up worker organization that can improve our conditions and ultimately liberate ourselves from oppression and exploitation. I will work with anyone who is committed to that principle. The reason this question comes up so much, and the reason why it is difficult to answer, is because some people claim to have that goal but may be paid by an organization that is led by people who are interested in building their own power. There are business unions that do operate in a top-down way, where a handful of people have the majority of decision-making power. The growth in membership of top-down organizations doesn’t necessarily mean the growth of power for the working class.
This is a discussion in Amazonians United — different locals have different relationships based on the communities and the people that we know. It comes down to building at the speed of trust. If a representative from the Teamsters or another union approaches us and offers support, it’s a process of sussing out: What form of support are you seeking to provide? What are you seeking in return?
If they’re committed to a working-class organization and power and supporting us with no strings attached because they are committed to this struggle and transforming society and preventing extinction by climate destruction and the rise of fascism and everything else that comes with the degeneration of capitalism — great. Let’s see if we trust each other and figure out how to do it.
If they say they want to support us and then we see that it looks like they’re trying to co-opt us, they’re starting to claim some of Amazonians United’s accomplishments as their own, and they’re trying to recruit certain members into their organization that ultimately funnels into a hierarchy in which we do not have democratic or bottom-up power? Well, now we’ve got to reassess that relationship. It’s a case-by-case decision.