How Two Friends Beat Amazon and Built a Union: An Update
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Hey, it’s Michael. This week, the daily is revisiting some of our favorite episodes of the year and learning what’s happened in the time since they first ran. Today, we return to the story of how two friends and fellow warehouse workers, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, beat the odds to form Amazon’s first union and learn the current state of their organizing efforts. It’s Tuesday, December 27.
So Chris and Derrick, this Is my colleague, Michael, who’s the host of “The Daily.”
How are you doing?
I’m really grateful — because I know you guys are in the middle of what is perhaps the biggest moment of your lives — that you made time to talk to us.
Thank you. Thank you, really, very much. So Chris and Derrick, I want to start by asking you both about how you came to Amazon and to the JFK8 warehouse in the first place. What was it that brought you both there?
Well, I was employed for Amazon since 2015. I was an entry-level worker, got hired as a picker, a warehouse associate, got promoted into process assistant in my first year, opened up three facilities for Amazon.
You know, JFK was actually my last facility. So I had —
So you’re really kind of a veteran at this point of the company.
Right, right. At this time, I was already a PA for over four years, trained hundreds of the employees, trained management as well that was hired within the company. And so I applied to relocate to JFK, which it didn’t open yet. It was still under construction. So that was my plan to get into that building upon launch.
And I knew, as having seniority, I should be able to pick my shift and the days and times that I was supposed to work, especially opening up a new building. But I didn’t get that opportunity. They threw me right on to the worst shift, which is 12-hour RT shifts.
Which is Reduced Time.
12 hours Thursday, Friday, Saturday — they took my whole weekend away. And I live in New Jersey and didn’t have a vehicle at the time. So my commute was two and a half hours, three hours each way.
And then I had to work a 12-hour shift. So that’s how I ended up at JFK8.
Derrick what about you? How did you come to JFK8, this warehouse in Staten Island?
Well, similar to Chris, you know, I started working at a facility, EWR4 —
In New Jersey?
— in New Jersey, yes, in Robbinsville, New Jersey. So I started in July 2015. I started off as a counter, so I would count the inventory.
Can I just ask you — what did it — what did Amazon mean to you — to have landed a job back in 2015 on Amazon?
Oh, I mean, at the time, you know, I was unemployed. I was doing a lot of different temp jobs. And if it wasn’t for my mother, I honestly wouldn’t be at Amazon. So my mother —
— told me about Amazon.
Yeah. She told me about Amazon. So at the time, I didn’t really know too much about it. I just knew that a lot of people were getting hired at these Amazon facilities. And I said, you know what? Let me just try it out and see what happens.
So I thought that Amazon was having worker’s best interest. I thought they were just like, all right, you work hard, you move up. So immediately I adapted that philosophy. And I just worked as hard as I could.
You were going to move up.
Yeah. That’s — in my mind, I was like, you know what? I’m going to move up with this company. I’m going to excel because Amazon is such a big name. So, unfortunately, it didn’t go that way.
What do you mean, it didn’t go that way?
It didn’t go that way as far as me getting promoted.
Did you have a theory about why?
At the time I didn’t know. I thought that I just had to just keep working hard and that I’ll be able to get promoted. But what they did do was they offered me an ambassador position. So ambassador are basically workers who train other workers. So all the new employees that get hired — it was my responsibility to train them.
Hmm. And, Jodi, how does all of that fit with your reporting on the company and how Amazon operates?
So what Chris and Derrick are describing is their experience. Based on our reporting on Amazon, that’s actually part of the company’s design. Jeff Bezos intentionally created the system where the lower-level warehouse jobs were the lower-level warehouse jobs. Those were expected to have a tremendous amount of turnover.
And then the management jobs in the warehouse or the corporate jobs in Seattle — those were totally separate. And rather than promote people from the warehouse jobs, those jobs he wanted to hire college graduates for. So this experience that Chris and Derrick are describing — it’s actually not only common, but it’s part of Amazon’s whole business model.
So you’re both, Chris and Derrick, initially enthusiastic about Amazon. You see yourself as succeeding in your work. But you start to question that, it sounds, based on your inability to rise. How does that work start to change at this warehouse as the pandemic hits?
Well, it was just the fact that we were in the dark. We didn’t know what the hell we was doing, what was going on with the virus because we’re watching it on the news, and the company is doing something else.
So it was something off in there, something off in the building, with managers, with the communication. And I’m like, what the hell is going on here? We’re in the break room sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. Derrick can tell you. We were sitting there joking, we’re all going to die because we’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, and we’re watching CNN, and they’re telling us we need to be six feet apart with masks.
Do you remember this?
What were you feeling in this moment?
The same way — I was scared. I’m like, the energy in the building was just like, everyone was quiet, and no one knew what the next steps were. And we didn’t know what Amazon’s plans were. So that was the energy that was going on at that time.
And Jodi, what is going on for Amazon at this moment?
Well, here you have this massive warehouse. It’s serving this huge market. It’s serving New York City. And right as the pandemic is shutting everything down, Amazon is recognizing people want and need our services. And so what we’re seeing is that right in this period of greatest fear and greatest uncertainty, when every American who can get sent home is going home, Amazon is trying to figure out how to get its staff to work to meet this demand.
Right. This historic demand in the middle of a pandemic.
Exactly. They feel that this is their moment. And like Chris and Derrick are saying, there’s a lot of confusion in the warehouse. Our reporting showed that the information Amazon was providing to workers at this point was pretty spotty. And workers in the warehouse really did not have a clear sense of what was going on with COVID cases in their own building.
So what do you do as your anxiety and, it sounds like, frustration is growing here?
I just kept applying pressure on HR. Every day I would go in there, and, like, what are y’all going to do — until March 24 when I came into work. And one of the supervisors that worked the front half of the week, she was walking around sluggish. She had her own mask.
And I looked at her, and I’m like, yo, what’s going on? What’s up with you? And then she was like, I don’t feel good. I went to go get tested yesterday. I said, wait a second. You got a test? They let you — they tested you?
And you’re here.
Right. So I’m like, wait a second. And I was watching the news. And obviously, they said in order to get the test, you had to be showing severe symptoms — bloodshot eyes, rosy cheeks. She was showing all of them symptoms.
So I said, you probably need to go home, as a friend and a colleague. She did. She went right home. I said, I’ll take care of your assignments. I’ll do all your engagements. But she’s already been there for several days in a row for 10-hour shifts around hundreds of people, and she tested positive.
And I was like, am I — I’m looking around like, am I crazy? Like, you, it’s — I’m leaving. I’m clocking out and going home. And that’s exactly — I went right downstairs, got Derrick because I ride to work with him. It was noon. I said, yo, we need to get out of here.
You’re just walking out.
We walked out.
So the next day, I came back to work, and Derrick came with me. We went straight into the break room at 7:00, 7:15. And at the top of our lungs, we yelling around, yo, we need to do something. We all just wanted the building to be closed and cleaned.
So just to be clear, what you’re asking for is a shutdown of the building because you know people have tested positive who were working inside of the warehouse. That’s your request.
Yeah. We just wanted to be closed for 14 days incubation period, cleaned, and we would have came back to work. And we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.
That’s as far as you could see at that point?
At the time — you know, at the time, that’s all we wanted. And we saw an article about an uproar in — it was Kentucky.
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Yeah, Kentucky did a walkout and their governor closed their warehouse. And I saw that in the article. And I’m like, why the hell we can’t get that? So that’s when I said, all right, let’s plan a walkout here.
And now the media started to call. And I’m like, oh, all right. All right. I’m picking up, telling them, like, yeah, at noon, March 30, it’s going down. And I just kept telling the media that over and over. Yes, we’re planning a walkout. How many people? And I knew the media wasn’t going to come if I would have said five people.
So, of course I lied.
Of course I lied, and I said —
What did you say?
200. I said it ‘d be about 200 people outside.
And so what happens on the actual day of the walkout?
Oh, wow. On the day of the walkout, we got up real early because — I don’t even think I slept the night before. I think I was like Slim Shady mom’s spaghetti and my stomach was turning. Derrick came to get me. It was like we was going across the bridge, and I’m, like — in my head, I’m like, damn, we’re about to do something, and I don’t even know what it’s going to look like.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. Yeah. All these emotions are going through. And we get to the building. And I knew it was real when we saw a helicopter hovering. And we saw a row of media vans. I’m like, oh, shit. Yo, look what we did.
- archived recording
Today, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse walked out, demanding the facility be shut down and cleaned after a worker tested positive.
In five minutes, I see 60 workers, 50 workers, 100 workers coming out. But it’s really like the handful of us that’s in the parking lot holding the signs.
- archived recording
Dozens of workers walked out today over safety concerns about the spread of coronavirus, demanding the facility be closed for at least two weeks and sanitized. They’re also asking for —
And then I was fired. I got fired the same day of the walkout. They called me over the phone a few hours after the walkout, around like 4:35.
And what was their rationale for you being fired? What did the company say?
I didn’t give them a chance to finish. I didn’t even give them really a chance to explain it.
Jodi, what do we come to learn is behind Amazon’s decision to fire Chris? Because it will turn out to feel quite fateful.
So Amazon’s official explanation always has been and is to this day that Chris was violating quarantine. However, I’m going to read you text messages that were sent between two Amazon HR officials on the same day Chris was fired. They’re saying things like, “Come on. They were social distancing as requested. It was a peaceful protest. His right to organize is protected. This is going to be perceived as retaliation — not a good look.”
These are HR officials within Amazon expressing some real reservations about Chris being fired.
Yes. They’re saying, “this is crazy. I don’t even know what to say.” So this is proof that even on that day, there were HR people at Amazon who thought this was a very bad idea. So then Amazon’s chief counsel sends an email. In it, he describes Chris as not smart or articulate. He mistakenly sends the email to 1,000 people at Amazon.
And what he’s recommending in the email is that Chris become the face of all organizing in Amazon.
So because you’ve held this walkout, you’ve been fired. This email has gone out about you that’s pretty derogatory. What happens next? What do you decide to do?
At that moment, that’s when we decide to continue to advocate for workers. We founded an organization — the Congress of Essential Workers. And I just said, you know what? We need to form something that’s going to just bring us in collectively in sort of like a coalition. And we formed this organization.
And we traveled the country starting in New York at Jeff Bezos’ mansions and penthouses that we can Google. We couldn’t find all of them, obviously. We missed a couple. We missed the one in Miami, but we started in New York. And then we went to DC. And then we went to Beverly Hills. Then we went to Seattle. And then we — at that time, that’s when they started to unionize in Bessemer.
And, Jodi, remind us what’s happening in Bessemer, Alabama, at this moment.
Well, it’s an important period to note because it really seems like Chris and Derrick did not have a lot of momentum. They had had this initial burst of publicity around Chris’s firing and the walkout, but that had really faded at this point. It just feels like the company has the upper hand.
The pandemic is progressing. Americans are very reliant on Amazon. The company is reporting record gains, and it’s hiring like crazy. In three months, it scoops up 350,000 workers.
That’s equivalent to the population of St. Louis. There’s almost no equivalent for that kind of hiring in American history.
They’re offering health care on day one and really solid wages. So the idea that this small band of workers are really going to be able to significantly challenge the company in the midst of all this — it seems really unlikely. But then, like Chris says, comes Bessemer.
Right. Which is this much more publicized and much more organized nationally-led effort to unionize another Amazon warehouse in Bessemer.
Yes. This one has the support of national labor groups and eventually some big name politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
And Chris and Derrick, what are you thinking as you watch Bessemer start to heat up?
Yeah, I was like, OK, sure I support it 100 percent. And I supported it so much that we decided to drive 16 hours down there. And I thought that would be helpful to their efforts. Instead, they said no, we want to do this the Alabama way. And I said, whatever the hell that means. What’s the Alabama way? I don’t know. But I know now what it is because they didn’t allow us to rally. They barely wanted us to talk to workers. They told us, like, we don’t really want you to talk to the workers because it’s going to intimidate them even more because you got fired.
It was frustrating because if you’re an organizer, his story is a gold mine if you’re talking to workers and convincing them why they need a union. So I felt like it was like, oh, you guys from New York, y’all can leave. We don’t need y’all.
They were so confident that they were going to win. And I didn’t get that type of vibe. Workers were not on board the way the media was portraying it as if this union was doing this amazing campaign. That’s not what we saw. We saw something totally different.
Right. And the reason this matters — and correct me if I’m wrong, Jodi — is that when it comes to a union vote in a place like Bessemer, every single worker’s vote counts.
Absolutely. And they were using a more conventional model. This was a big union, the Retail Workers Union. But I think that part of the question in retrospect about Bessemer is, how much of this was coming from the Amazon workers inside the warehouse? Some of it was, absolutely, but not all of it.
- archived recording
So the vote is over. And it was fairly one-sided. I’ll give you the final numbers — 1,798 votes against the union, 738 votes for the union.
It sounds like, Chris and Derrick, Jodi, you’re all saying a version of the same thing. Chris and Derrick, what you saw was organizers not really connecting with the workers — organizers from a big national union — and that they were taking a top-down approach. And, Jodi, you’re saying that’s a pretty conventional, traditional, old-school approach, and put it all together, it just didn’t succeed.
Well, I should say, technically, the fight in Bessemer has stretched on a long time. But the initial vote there to form a union, that did fail. And when that happened, what a lot of people just said was, OK, the conventional wisdom is true. You can’t organize an Amazon warehouse.
Chris and Derrick, is that how you saw it? As you head back to New York, having seen this failure in Bessemer, you guys make this very meaningful decision to try to form your own union, the Amazon Labor Union, the ALU, rather than join a national union. Was that based on what you had just seen?
Yeah. The main reason for me was going down there and seeing how Bessemer handled their campaign — the fact that they weren’t engaging with these workers was a red flag, so —
About working with a big union?
Yeah, about working with a big union. Because I feel like unions have been around for a long time. They have their own approach. We knew it was going to be hard. It was harder, obviously — no resources, no money. That’s what big unions provide. But the fact that we’re the workers and we can connect with them, that’s all we needed to really know.
So we didn’t hesitate. As soon as it was over, there was some people on my team at the time that was like, we should wait. They wanted to study Jane McAlevey. They wanted to study all of these expertise. And they did. We signed up for the courses. I never got a chance to take them. You know, Derrick was working.
Yeah, me neither.
So I said, let’s go while the Iron is hot. And also, I thought in my head, I said, how the hell are we going to listen to expertise when this has never been done before? In reality, we the experts. We the ones who invested into this company. We know the ins and outs of the company.
And that’s exactly how this campaign, our campaign, played out.
We’ll be right back.
OK. Chris and Derrick, you get back to New York after your experience in Alabama. Tell us about how you go about trying to build your own union from scratch.
We didn’t know what we — we had no playbook. We was like, we’re going — we went to Walmart, picked up two tables, four chairs, and a tent, spent $150 out of GoFundMe, by the way. And we went out to JFK8, and we said, all right, let’s stay here by the bus stop. We just picked that spot.
So you set up a tent and chairs by the bus stop.
By the bus stop.
Why the bus stop?
Because it’s public. And we can’t be removed because it’s public.
And the workers are going to get off the bus stop.
Exactly. They’re going to get off the bus, and they’re going to see us.
And what are you doing at the bus stop? What are you saying to people at the bus stop?
[CHUCKLES]: In the beginning, it was nothing. I was out there by myself, literally. I would go there, set up the whole setup by myself on hot summer days and sit out there for hours just like that, sit —
Hands crossed? [CHUCKLES]
And feet up, just waiting for workers to trickle off the bus. And I would just catch them. And I tried to get as many people as possible. And we didn’t even know what we were pitching. We were just like, yo, I need you to sign up. We’re going to form a union. We didn’t have too much to offer. We only had a pamphlet and authorization cards. That’s it.
Wait — and wait, Jodi, can you just explain to us the significance of authorization cards in forming a union?
Sure. They’re the first step towards forming a union. You need enough cards signed from workers to show that you have enough support to even trigger an election. Once you get enough signatures — typically it’s 30 percent —
— of basically everybody in the potential union?
— exactly — you file them to the National Labor Relations Board. Then you can have an official election on whether or not a union will be formed.
OK. Got it. And Chris, what happened once you started hanging out at the bus stop trying to get these authorization cards signed?
Amazon didn’t waste no time. The first day, as soon as we set up, they came right over. You guys can’t be here. Dude coming over there yelling at us. He threatened to call the cops. We said, call them. He ain’t call them.
And Derrick, you are still working at Amazon, right? That’s complicated.
Yes. First of all, we have the TCOEW — Congress Of Essential Workers — shirts. So I’m wearing it throughout the building. So I’m letting Amazon know right then and there, like, look, this is my stance. I’m going to continue to work. And I’m going to be like the voice of the associates in the inside of the facility.
Because after Chris got fired, a lot of workers were scared — scared to speak out about anything in general. So if I’m in the building, I’m showing Amazon that I’m fearless, and I’m not going to give up. And I knew that they can’t — if they do something about it, then it is what it is. But I’m going to go out with a fight.
And what are you kind of seeing on the inside in terms of Amazon’s efforts to communicate and its efforts to stop this?
They’re saying do not talk to the ALU members. They’re a group of workers with no experience as far as having a union. They were saying, oh, you will have to pay dues [CHUCKLES]: if you sign this card. So they were just throwing all types of jabs at us.
But me being organized and me being an insider, that’s my job to ease the tension and let them know that, look, you sign this authorization card. There’s not going to be any penalty for signing the card. We just need to gather support so that we can have an election so that we can have a union. Every day — I’ll be talking to workers every single day. They would either sign the card inside the building, or if they didn’t sign the card inside, I’d go out there and talk to Chris. And it worked.
Well, Chris, tell me more about what’s going on on the outside in this tent as this progresses.
What’s happening at the bus stop? What’s being offered at the tent?
You know, I had the outside game. They had the inside game. And every day, shift change — we know that we were about to see 600 to 800 workers getting on and off this bus. But then it came to a point where we done signed them all up already. Now we like, did you sign it — we’re asking the same people that are there, so we had to change up our strategy.
We were just focusing more on days. So now it’s like, all right, we got to do the overnight. So now I’m telling the team, y’all got to come at a later time, so you got to stay into the morning because we got to get the night shift. And night shift was lovely. We had nights on lock from the moment we started. People love the fact that we was out there setting up bonfires and —
We were cooking s’mores. We were singing guitar, acoustic music, and playing music. And it just felt like we built a little community right there, right at the bus stop. It basically — sometimes we’d be out there praying, holding hands, crying, singing. It was just like a real — you can’t explain the emotions that were going on. It was spiritual.
And that’s when I knew this is going to work. We were like a glimmer of hope for these workers because when they got out of the bus, if we wasn’t there, they were like, yo, where was y’all?
So I knew once we got to that point — I’m like, we got something.
And then think about it — how we were saying we went to Bessemer, and they weren’t engaging with the workers. We had to make sure we did that consistently.
So this to you was the opposite of the top-down approach you saw in Bessemer.
There’s people that I know and heard them say, I signed up because I saw y’all out here for the last year. We sacrificed. We all sacrificed our personal lives. Amazon’s 24/7 — so I would tell my team that every time we’re not there, we’re losing. So we got to be there — one of us, two of us got to be out there. No matter what y’all doing, you got to be there.
To the point that we would even sleep outside in that tent overnight.
And wait for the night shift workers to get off.
We would have our alarm set on our phone so that the alarm go off, and, oh, these workers are about to get off. So that type of commitment — workers seeing us there consistently — helped ease the tension.
We was giving out marijuana. We was giving out books. We was giving out clothing items. We were helping workers just — we were paying for people’s Ubers. One time a worker came out with high blood pressure. He needed to get to the hospital — $100 Uber, go to the hospital. Amazon refused to pay for it — refused. They told him to go home on the bus. Whatever it took to get even one person, we were doing it. And we got the national agreement signed. That was in December. Now we switched up our strategy again.
OK. Hang on just a moment — National Agreement — Jodi, can you explain what that is?
Sure. So this is a really important thing that happens. They get a landmark settlement from the National Labor Relations Board that allows them to organize inside the building. So now the team is spending hours and hours a day in the break room. And there’s one particular day when Chris himself comes up to the building to deliver food to the workers inside.
You are currently trespassing on Amazon property if you are an Amazon associate.
- chris smalls
So anyone here who is not an Amazon associate
- chris smalls
You didn’t answer the question, though. That sign over there says visitor, right? I’m a visitor.
And I’ve asked you so many times —
- chris smalls
I know, but I’m a visitor.
Sir, please leave the property.
- chris smalls
I just told you I’m a visitor, right?
That day, they call the police, who arrest Chris for trespassing.
They didn’t just arrest me. They arrested two other workers that made it worse.
Oh, yeah! Now you got more hands on me. You’re hurting my wrist.
What was the response to your arrest?
Oh, that was a gem. They lost that —
That was a gem?
They lost the election right there.
What do you mean?
Trust me. For them to see me get arrested for giving them food — the people that were undecided or on the fence about the union, they was, like, full-on we with y’all. That was the turning point. They lost the election right there.
That’s interesting because it strikes me that’s the second time that Amazon’s handling of you seems to really play a key role in your understanding of how this all plays out.
The first, of course, being their decision to fire you.
Right. And that’s why I stood my ground.
Hmm. OK. So, Jodi, I want to ask you what the prospects looked like, as you understand them, heading into this vote.
The conventional wisdom — I have to tell you, just based on the David and Goliath nature of this story — is that this is not going to be a successful effort. Amazon, we know, spent $4.3 million in a single year on anti-union consultants. Chris and Derrick, the ALU, had a total budget of $120,000.
And then there’s the fact that, essentially, this hasn’t happened in modern times for a really large facility with thousands of workers to form a Union. To take one very rare example of that, which is over a decade old, there’s a slaughterhouse in North Carolina that took 15 years to organize.
But if you want to find an example of it happening with a company this big, you’d probably have to go back to the auto workers who unionized General Motors in the 1930s.
Hmm. Chris and Derrick, are you, at that point, internalizing all of this doubt?
I said my prayer by myself at home. I went to the board in my favorite color.
Red. And I sat here just like this. And I watched them drink water and sweat the whole time.
Well, just —
Explain this — explain the scene. You go to the board to watch what?
To watch the vote count.
You’re inside a government building —
— the National Labor Relations Board.
The vote is being counted — just set that scene. What’s happening in the room?
Amazon has six multi-billion dollar lawyers — compared to our one pro-bono lawyer — on their side, six of them. And then we sit in the front. Two people are allowed. One on each side get to sit at the table in front of the ballot count.
There’s four or five board agents. Two or three of them are opening up the ballots and preparing them to be read in a smooth fashion. And then there’s one person that’s reading them. Then the other two are tallying them. And it’s from right to left, pretty much. They’re sliding — and we’re sitting in front of this small table, and we’re watching them say yes or no.
Yes, no, yes, no.
Yes. Yes, no. So it was boring, but —
At what moment in this counting do you feel certain that you did this — that you won?
When we got down to the last two boxes, and we were up 300, 400, they’re not coming back from that. I was like, oh, there was too box — I was looking back at my team, looking back over their shoulder, and I was — we good.
What kind of communication is going on between you guys?
There’s head nods.
Head nods, smiles.
Fist pumps and stuff.
Yeah. I saluted the cameras. I was trying to tell people, stop being nervous. We got this. And I’m not going to lie. Several members of my team thought we lost too. I ain’t gonna call them out —
— right now, but they know who they are. They thought that we were going to lose. And here we are.
To the ALU!
ALU! ALU! ALU!
- chris smalls
To the first union in American history.
Do you have a message for Jeff Bezos?
- chris smalls
Oh, we want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because when he was up there, we were signing people up.
Yeah, we signed up. [CHATTER]
How are you processing that?
I still can’t believe it because even though I was out at that bus stop, I was looking at certain articles, quotes from people, expertise saying, y’all don’t know what the hell y’all talking about. We out here. Y’all can say what y’all want. I knew what we were doing. And I was like, they have no idea.
We got a worker’s budget and sometimes no budget. So our campaign was built off of pure love and caring for one another. That’s it. We got contacted by over 50 buildings — different buildings in different states.
Amazon workers around the country?
Around the country. There’s interest in California, Texas, Arizona, Michigan. It’s growing.
So, I do have to say, in many ways, the hard part is still ahead for you guys. I’m sure you know that.
Yeah, we know that.
You won the right to unionize. But the next step is negotiating a labor contract. And in talking to all of our colleagues — talking to you, Jodi, about this — one of the most difficult tasks for any Union at birth is negotiating a contract with a company, any company, let alone a company like Amazon, which is going to be pouring millions and millions of dollars into making it really hard for you to achieve that contract. And without a contract, the union is not really much of anything. So how aware are you of that?
People should know me by now. We’re fighters. And that’s one thing for sure. We’re fighters. We’re going to get a contract whether they like it or not. And whatever way, by any means, whatever it takes, we’ll get it done.
Well, Chris and Derrick, thank you very much.
Thank you for having us.
And, Jodi, thank you very much.
I’m grateful for all your time.
After the break, I called up Derrick once again to find out where things stand with the Amazon Labor Union since it first formed in April. We’ll be right back.
Hello, there. Welcome back and thank you for making time for us again.
Yeah, no problem. Thank you for having me.
So it’s been about eight months since we last spoke. And when we left off last time, you and Chris were telling us about how you got this union vote to go your way. I mean, it was historic, and it was enormous. But as you acknowledged at the time, it was just the beginning of a very long process. So catch us up on the major developments that have happened since then.
Well, we’ve been basically trying to get other campaigns going at different facilities. One campaign was at LDJ5 in Staten Island, which is directly across the street from JFK8. Also, ALB1 — that’s in Albany, New York.
You’re trying to get other Amazon warehouses and their workers to vote to create a union?
What happened with those votes?
It didn’t go in our favor. We did lose those campaigns, which is fine, though. Something that we expected.
Why did you expect it?
We knew that once we won at JFK8, Amazon would amplify their union-busting efforts even more than they did at JFK8. But at the same time, that win is motivating other workers to start campaigns of their own and go under the ALU umbrella.
So, Derrick, have any Amazon warehouses or facilities unionized since you did?
No. But we have had other buildings start their campaigns. ONT8 in the Valley of California, San Bernardino — they have their campaign going there. And the way it’s looking, it’s looking like they’ll be able to file the petition for an election soon. But we want to get as many signatures as possible before we just file. So we want to build up as much support there to guarantee that the workers will vote yes when it’s time to vote.
Got it. It’s interesting because this has been such a big moment for unions. I mean, in a lot of ways because of your contribution to that, there have been several other companies driving towards unions. Starbucks comes to mind but also Apple, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, the retailer REI.
And some of them have gotten further along in getting their individual stores to unionize then it seems like workers at Amazon have. And I wonder if that is a little bit bittersweet for you to kind of see other union drives happen at a faster rate?
No, I mean, it’s not bittersweet. Because we got to really understand what’s happening. You got to understand the dynamics. These Starbucks stores — they have about 20 people. And you have to get 30 percent of them to sign authorization cards under the National Labor Relations Board process versus us, where we have over 8,000 workers, and we have to get 30 percent of them to sign authorization cards to even get to an election.
You’re saying the math is in the favor of the Starbucks workers.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You want to get the large fulfillment centers. And that’s what we’ve been aiming at because there’s so many people there. Because the more workers you have that are pro-union across the United States, that’s more pressure for Amazon to come to the table and negotiate a contract.
Hmm. Well, that’s what I wanted to turn to now. Let’s get back to what you all are doing in your warehouse now that you have successfully voted to unionize. Where are the discussions with the company about a contract?
Well, right now, we have to get our certification to even bargain. So that’s number one, and that should be coming before the new year. So once we get that, we’re going to put in an immediate bargaining order with Amazon to negotiate. But that is a process too. Amazon could appeal that.
Yeah. I mean, what I hear you saying is this process is just slow. It is almost designed to be hard.
Oh, yeah. It’s not — there’s nothing — nothing about organizing is easy.
We know from our conversation that Chris left the company. He told us he was forced out. You still work there at the same warehouse where you guys unionized. So what has it been like there for you as a worker?
Oh, man. It’s been, [CHUCKLES]: basically, all eyes on me or all eyes on us, so to speak, as far as organizers.
Mm-hmm. Have there been any moments where you could literally detect that or feel it?
Oh, yes. Yeah. So, just about two weeks ago, myself and Chris and other organizers were at the bus stop — not even on the property, not in the building — at the bus stop on public ground, passing out union literature to workers. And there was a little mini dispute between one of the workers and one of the organizers. But that same week, I went to work, and I was suspended because of the incident that took place —
Out on the street at the bus stop?
— out on the street, in the bus stop.
And what was the rationale for suspending you?
Oh, they said they wanted to investigate the incident that took place on Monday. And honestly, that’s why we’re able to have this call right now.
Because you’re still suspended?
Because I’m still suspended.
So I was told that I was going to be suspended for seven days with pay. And the seven days was up as of yesterday, which was my birthday, actually. So they decided to extend the suspension two more weeks. And I will have to report back to work on the 28th of December, pending this, quote, unquote, investigation.
Interesting. So sketch the future out for me for just a moment. Let’s say we’re talking to you in a year’s time. What do you think/hope that this is going to all look like?
We will have a contract by 2024 for sure. That’s the goal. And also, other facilities will be unionized as well. And that’s just what’s going to happen.
There’s only so long that Amazon can put up these fights. You know, workers are empowered and they’ve been empowered since April. It’s a slow process, but, eventually, in time we’ll prevail. And workers will start unionizing.
It’s already happening. It’s already starting. And I’m very optimistic about the future because I know that unionizing is the future, not just for Amazon but other tech companies as well across the world. So this is just a turning point in the labor movement.
Well, Derrick, thank you very much. Once again, we appreciate your time.
Thank you so much.
And happy holidays.
All right. Thank you.
Today’s episode was produced by Diana Nguyen and Mooj Zadie, with help from Clare Toeniskoetter and Kaitlin Roberts. It was edited by Lisa Tobin, Michael Benoist, John Ketchum, and Anita Badejo, and contains original music from Marion Lozano and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Chris Wood and Sofia Lanman.
Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special Thanks to Karen Weise, Martin Dicicco, and Steve Maing. That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.