A Dispatch from the U.S. Labour Movement
From food workers to Amazon, a new labour movement is taking off
This week, we’re bringing you something a little bit different. Daljit Kaur Soni, a member of the AGC team, has been doing incredible work over the last several months to understand the growing movement towards labour rights both in the food system at companies like Amy’s Kitchen and No Evil Foods, as well as larger companies like Amazon. She has been conducting interviews and speaking to organisers from across these labour movements, and we wanted to use this space to hand the microphone over to Daljit to be able to share her important insights into where these movements are at (and where they’re heading).
Daljit is an attorney-activist who has worn many hats, from representing migrant farmworkers to pregnant and lactating restaurant workers. She is currently working with A Growing Culture on the Peasant and Indigenous Press Forums.
It’s been so illuminating for me to have conversations with Daljit over the last few months about this research and some of her findings, so I’m excited to share her words with you now.
Feeding the New Labour Movement: Solidarity Culture at the ALU & Beyond
Over the last few months, I explored the contours of the growing new labour movement in the U.S. and how it dovetails with agrarian resistance and movement building. Here are some snippets of what I have learned:
While wages have stagnated, the federal minimum wage in the United States has remained frozen at $7.25 since 2009. Capitalism, Conflict and Covid-19 have combined to expand the coffers of the world’s billionaires by more than $5 trillion.
Our political, social, legal and economic systems are built on layers of inequity, but are slowly being forced to transform. A global pandemic further split open the cracks and crevices of institutional inequality and structural racism. And those at the bottom holding up the weight of this oppressive system are fed up. Low-wage workers in the food system and service economy are at the leading edge of a palpable but nascent wave of unionising. This New Labour Movement is slowly developing a sense of solidarity culture.
This momentum is up against the power of apex Predators at the top of our food system and global supply chain. They maintain an upper hand in squashing union organising drives. Even left-leaning vegan food companies follow the old union-busting playbook. The success of these strategies is represented by the lowest union membership in U.S. history. And yet, public support for unions is at its highest in sixty years. The tide is turning. The New Labour Movement is already underway.
Solidarity at Work: We Save Us!
With a supply of 1.1 million workers, Amazon is the country’s second-largest private employer. As the “white whale of the labour movement”, it has mastered profiteering through dehumanised working conditions maintained under a cold robotic warehouse logic. The captain at the helm, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man on Earth, earning thousands of dollars each second. He has waged a war against unionisation for years but is now up against a formidable force: people power.
The Amazon ethos maximises worker productivity through insane surveillance methods, impossible production quotas and an intentional 150% turnover rate. Vox revealed the contents of a leaked internal Amazon corporate memo warning that the oversized tech giant would exhaust its U.S. working force if business as usual continued.
The Amazon Labor Union is a multi-racial worker-led force that is hungry for change. Their bold demands include a $30 per hour minimum wage, longer breaks, and an end to Amazon’s authoritarian worker tracking system.
Defying all odds, on April 1, 2022, the worker-led Amazon Labor Union (ALU) proved that rank-and-file members are capable of leading class struggle - without the typical old guard, financial backing or formal organising tactics. Some call this “momentum organising” because disparate and slowly won victories are snowballing into more organising. The union election victory at JFK8 in Staten Island, New York represents a revived class struggle that is rooted in solidarity.
In May, ALU lost its second union election at the newer LDJ5, a majority part-time workforce at a smaller sort centre across the street from JFK8. Nonetheless, recent calls in Kentucky and Albany, New York to join ALU reflects the ongoing momentum of the New Labour Movement. Currently, ALU leaders are defending the election win in Arizona, where Amazon has waged a fight alleging bias and 25 objections to challenge the results. These objections could and should have been raised earlier, but the global retail giant is engaging in strategic delay tactics to avoid negotiating a union contract with ALU.
The newest Vice-President of Amazon Labor Union, Angelika Maldonado, believes that her team’s genuine efforts to build unity and workplace solidarity led to this victory. Angelika is an authentic, grounded and upbeat young Black woman. She is the daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and Barbados. In 2018, she joined JFK8 as a Stower responsible for scanning, inspecting and placing products on shelves. But the repetitive work was so strenuous that at one point she almost dropped the stroller, with her son in it, down the escalator. At that moment, Angelika realised it was not safe for her to work at Amazon. When her son was older, she returned to work but as a Packer.
In October 2021, another organiser asked her to join the David and Goliath battle, and she was all in. A single mom in her late 20s, she recognised how to build unity amongst disparate groups of workers divided based on language and culture. Like any stellar organiser, she knows her community. “When you work at a place like Amazon, and a city like New York, I mean, although the pay is higher than minimum wage, a lot of people who work here they do have families. It’s not like this is like the single person’s job. They have families. The rent is super high in New York, the food is expensive. And even the vendors that come here and sell food, they sell it overpriced.” Cognisant of issues with food justice and food security, ALU used food as a dual agent in nourishing their community and organising the workforce.
These efforts began with the standard Americanised pizza and Dunkin Donuts for the AM shift, and then expanded to catered soul food. “I also wanted to hit the other portion of our black community who, you know, whose culture was usually not appreciated. And it’s so beautiful.” With donated funds, Angelika enlisted the help of her Nigerian neighbour, to cater traditional Nigerian food, including African fried rice for the workers. This was a first. In a gesture of inclusivity, ALU was, in Angelika’s words “letting them know that, you know, we’re here to understand and we’re here to, to feel like family is, you know, we’re not here to make one feel like outsiders.” ALU did not forget the music either. They often played African music, including Afrobeats by Davido, a popular Nigerian-American singer. This is in stark contrast to the Amazon culture of dehumanised numerics and robot logic.
Angelika’s organic approach worked - being genuinely inclusive, open and welcoming. “And I can tell once we started to bring the African food, I think that the African community in the warehouse, they started to be more open with us.” Food and community. Feeding hearts and educating minds hand in hand helped ALU to win its historic victory at JFK 8 earlier this year.
Relatability has a premium. Disclosing her role as a single mom, a personal detail, helped others to see the tremendous investment Angelika was making. There was no secret recipe to the success at JFK8. There was genuine kinship. That sense of a collective, a shared community with a shared goal, in its simplest of forms, was the most solid, impenetrable and potent antidote to the polarising tactics employed by management.
In These Times, a longtime publication on labour union issues, reported recently that one in five of the millennials surveyed reported having no friends. This isn’t surprising given the last few years of shutdowns, social distancing and residual isolation. The rise of union organising and celebrations of union elections is giving large swaths of people, especially the youth, a sense of renewed purpose and direction. In the process of shifting from the Great Resignation to the Great Awakening, some of us have realised that “[w]ork will never love us back. But other people will.”
Union Busting Advice: Face-to-Face Conversations
Like No Evil Foods, Amazon copied the classic playbook strategy of painting the union as a predatory third party. Maldonado’s advice to union organisers is to have face-to-face conversations. “At first, workers would come up to us and be like, ‘How are you guys able to be in the building? You guys don’t even work here.’ Then we’d literally show them our work badge and say, ‘We do work here — everyone that’s in the union here right now works here.’ So they’d be curious at that point.” Organisers like Maldonado would share their personal stake in the cause. The “third party label” falls flat when they clarify that the union is worker-led. “And by the end of our conversations, they often felt bamboozled by Amazon because they realised that they had been lied to.”
Just a week after the JFK8 victory, on April 7, 2022, Jennifer Abruzzo, General Counsel of the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), issued a Memorandum entitled: “The Right to Refrain from Captive Audience and other Mandatory Meetings.” The Memo warns employers to stop forcing employees to absorb its anti-union propaganda, or risk being slapped with unfair labour practice charges. Abruzzo clarified that there is no legal authority for an employer to coerce its workforce to attend these meetings. There is new energy being funnelled to reduce the ability of employers to threaten and intimidate workers. Abruzzo’s policy stance is in protection of the employees’ right to free choice, a right preserved under the NLRA.
Chris Smalls has explained that “unionised workers make $11-12 more per hour than their non-unionised counterparts,” and that the allegation that unions extract dues is a strategic spinning of the narrative. “You have retirement security, job security, you have paid medical leave and Medicare. The Sky is the limit when you are in the union. But, non-unionised workers can be fired at will, without reason.”
Similar to progressive companies like Amy’s Kitchen and No Evil Foods, Amazon also painted the union as a nefarious money-hungry entity bent on extracting dues while providing nothing to the workers. Maldonado described how during the “Captive Audience” meetings, “management would calculate 1,000 workers by $5.00 to show that “this is how much the union would make every week, if you guys want to pay dues….Like instead of paying dues, you guys could just put it into your 401 K. And so it was kind of like a smack in the face.” Bloomberg has reported that Amazon’s 401K program is one of the worst compared to other online retailers.
Upon hearing about the ongoing struggle at Amy’s Kitchen, Angelika says that she can relate to the Latina women at the forefront. Her advice to the workers at Amy’s Kitchen and beyond is: “Never be ashamed of your culture and where you come from.” Angelika described overt racist caricatures of her and ALU President Chris Smalls in literature posted at the JFK8 warehouse by management at Amazon. This painful and offensive incident was transmuted into a moment of worker solidarity. “In the end, as Amazon depicted us as being those kids with the hats to the back, and the chunky girl with the puppy ponytail on her head, right? Corporate sees us as that, but our coworkers didn’t, because these are the same workers who dress the same. These are the same women who had the same hair as me. These were the same, the same people who had the same cultures as us. And not only were they offended, but they felt unappreciated and mocked. And so that was another way for us to connect with each other.”
Reflecting on her organising journey thus far, she has revamped her mindset on abundance. “I have always been the type of person to give back. But being in the ALU, I’ve learned that it’s better to be broke and give back and change lives than to become rich by cheating.” This Great Awakening period has revealed the power of worker-led resistance. And the workers at the helm of these disparate struggles are recognising the power of solidarity culture.
Worker solidarity rests not on academic expertise, the quantity of pro-union workers, or old-boy networks within labour organisations. Worker solidarity stems from the initial spark that flies from person to person. The most effective weapon against union busting is unity in the workplace.
As the Teen Vogue columnist, organiser and journalist Kim Kelly writes, “[t]hey know that the media can be helpful, and public support is even better, but solidarity is the sturdiest weapon of all.” This sentiment echoes ALU President Chris Smalls’ universal call to workers to not quit their jobs, but organise them. The lessons shared here echo that call.
That wraps up this week’s instalment. I hope it restored hope in the possibility of collective solidarity turning the tide towards a more just world for all. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and discussion in the comments and, if you’re finding value in the words we’re sharing with you here, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
This article from In the Times titled “How Amazon and Starbucks Workers Are Upending the Organising Rules.” It details the current labour movement organising in the United States and highlights the value of rank-and-file unionism.
This article from the Alliance for Global Justice that explores the anti-worker, anti-union corporate agenda that the New Labor Movement is up against.
This video by Jacobin with Senator Bernie Sanders and Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organisers Angelika Maldonado, Michelle Valentin Nieves, and Chris Smalls on what led to the most important union victory in decades — and what workers can learn from their experience battling Amazon.
And an essential read ahead of COP27:
This Greenwashing toolkit from GRAIN breaks down and demystifies some of the key greenwashing concepts and false solutions that food and agribusiness corporations use to derail effective action on the climate crisis.
This instalment of Offshoot was written by Daljit Kaur Soni.