Current Affairs

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How the Amazon Labor Union Defeated the Bezos Behemoth

Union member and Amazon worker Justine Medina on how workers achieved their historic victory when many doubted them.

Justine Medina is a member of the organizing committee for the Amazon Labor Union and a packer at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in Staten Island. The ALU recently won an historic victory, defeating Amazon’s multi-million dollar union-busting campaign to make JFK8 the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the country. It was a victory many thought impossible. But Amazon underestimated the ALU, and through persistent organizing work, the union pulled off an astonishing victory that is expected to be a game changer for Amazon workers around the country. You can read Justine’s column in Labor Notes called “How We Did It.” She came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk to editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson about what she and her comrades did to win their union. Find out how you can support the Amazon Labor Union here.

The interview transcript has been edited lightly for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

So first to our listeners and readers: You may recognize Justine. You may see pictures of Justine if you open any newspaper in the country because in every newspaper in the country there’s a story about the Amazon Labor Union’s historic victory.

Medina

I’ve been grabbing copies for my mom.

Robinson

There are a lot of copies to grab because there are so many different pictures of you. You and union president Chris Smalls are all over the news.

So, the first thing is that I owe you an apology. Because I doubted you. When you told me a couple of months back that you were organizing with the Amazon Labor Union, you said, “All the other unions doubt us, but we’re going to do it.” And—it’s not that I don’t believe in you, Justine, I do—it’s that you said you were an independent union. And what went through my head is, “God love her, but they’re fucked.” So that’s why I’m sorry I…

Medina

Never doubt the working class, Nathan!

Robinson

I feel so bad.

Medina

You should feel bad. No, it’s okay. You’re coming on board now. That’s all that matters.

Robinson

What I want to set up for people is the context of what you did. I’ll just read the first bit of The New York Times story. The first paragraph says,

“It was a union organizing campaign that few expected to have a chance. A handful of employees at Amazon’s massive warehouse on Staten Island, operating without support from national labor organizations, took on one of the most powerful companies in the world. And, somehow, they won. Workers at the facility voted by a wide margin to form a union, according to results released on Friday, in one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.”

So it was a surprise.

Medina

Yes, to a number of people. In your defense, to be fair, there were some people on our organizing committee who thought we would lose. So people were surprised all over. I mean, I had days where I was like, “Wow, if we pull this off … how can we do it?” But for the most part, I want to say I had faith, but that makes it sound idealistic. From analyzing the conditions, it seemed like we could do it, and like we were gonna do it. Not just from the conversations. Once we started getting tangible data—from the phone calls we were having, from the conversations that we were keeping track of—the Yes votes were in our favor pretty decisively. But then even knowing that, we just kept thinking we might lose, because we knew we were facing Amazon.

So most of us were feeling cautiously optimistic by the end because the objective data was in our favor. Conversations we were having were in our favor. But it’s very surreal. It feels very good to have been right.

Here’s something you might find interesting. Do you recall four years ago whether you thought AOC was going to win her primary? Were you following that?

Robinson

I was barely paying attention to the race. That’s how little I thought AOC would win her primary.

Medina

I’ve made this comparison to a couple people. So far, I’ve heard a few other leftists making similar comparisons. I’ve been thinking a lot about how, after she won her primary, how surreal that felt and the shifts in the universe I knew that was going to have. I felt confident that she would win from the beginning, which is why I did so much to try to get her that DSA endorsement, and then do what I could to support her campaign. No one believed the entire time, right? Then, knowing what that would mean, a historic shift, but then still having surreal feelings after. This is like that, times 100. The scale of the history being made here is, of course, bigger. And it’s just the beginning. I mean, we’re rebuilding the CIO.

Robinson

Perhaps you can lay out some of this context for us. If people are not familiar with the state of the American labor movement, the situation at Amazon and the reason why The New York Times is calling it one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation. This is just massive front page news everywhere. We know that Jeff Bezos somewhere on his yacht is berating subordinates as we speak. Lay out what makes this so surreal. Why were there so many doubters like me? Why did other unions not even believe you could pull this off?

Medina

Well, as Chris Smalls points out, Amazon has been around for 28 years, and no union has yet managed to organize workers there. But I think we both know, also, contextually, that there hasn’t been a new labor union of this size and scale in 80 years, right? Overnight, we now represent 6,000 workers already. In New York City, that makes us a mid-sized union immediately—which is wild and brings with it a lot of responsibility, which we all take very seriously.

It bucks everything about the current orthodoxy—or the soon-to-be-dead orthodoxy—of the labor movement. First of all, the idea that you can’t organize a shop with 6,000 people just in one go. You don’t do it like that. Second of all, in the U.S, you definitely can’t do that with a new union that don’t doesn’t have any official ties to an already recognized union. Third, you don’t go into an election after you’ve filed a petition that only had about 30% of the workers signing on to the petition. You definitely won’t win that way. That is indicative of not having many people on board. You don’t have the people running the union to be workers who became organizers for the first time through organizing that shop. And actually, none of us on the organizing committee have organized our workplaces before in any capacity. Some people have been involved in unions. Chris Bennett had been in the Teamsters, I was in the CWG (Campaign Workers’ Guild) on AOC’s campaign, and we unionized for the first time there—of course, there was no resistance, and it was very different.

And then you certainly don’t have a union doing all of that led by working-class Black leadership, people who look and dress and act and talk like who they are, which is working class. Which is not to say that everyone looks at dresses and acts the same way. That’s not the point. What I’m saying is that there is a certain coded way you are supposed to act when you’re “professional.” You’re supposed to look a certain way.

Robinson

Yeah, if you violate professional norms…

Medina

Right. And that’s very heavily racialized. A number of our No votes were from people that had bought that racist line. People would say, “Why does Chris Smalls dress like that? That’s not how a union president would dress.”

Robinson

It is fair to say that it is not, in fact, how any union president other than Chris Smalls, dresses. But now that he is one of the most prominent labor leaders in the country and has a ton of credibility, that is now how a union leader dresses.

Medina

It is. The point is that the working class should be leading the unions. And if the workers feel comfortable dressing—however they feel, casual, or in a suit, whatever—then that is how they will dress. Right? And that’s how it should be. But all of those reasons are why people didn’t believe in us. Then there were logistical things like a media blackout. Bezos owns the Washington Post, and the Amazon executives were doing a lot to minimize our campaign, even though I knew they were much more scared of us than they were letting on. They were spending more money on union busters. They were flying in the union busters that had been in Bessemer for the first time and focusing all of their money and attention on Staten Island. They were definitely doing union busting down in Bessemer. I was talking to workers down there. But their focus was on the ALU [in Staten Island], even if they weren’t letting that be known externally. Internally, we knew we were the bigger threat.

Workers, including Justine and Chris Smalls, embrace after the ALU victory / AP images

Robinson

So they did know that you were a threat in some ways. But we also know that they underestimated you. There were leaked internal conversations where they said, “Oh, you know, Chris Smalls is not very smart or very articulate.” Which is just incredible. It’s like, who’s smart and articulate now?

Medina

I think Jeff Bezos lost because he’s not very smart and articulate. Chris is a genius. I tell people this all the time. His instincts are so sharp. And he knows how to bring people together and fit people into their different roles and make things move in a really amazing way. And he’s still very much connected to the workers and to the people. And he’s humble. He stays humble. So this is who he is. As the century moves forward, I shudder to think what he’s gonna do.

Robinson

You’ve got a column in Labor Notes called “How We Did It.” You talked about violating some of the received wisdom about the things that you’re just not allowed to do in union organizing, the things that won’t work, and how you threw the playbook out the window. What are the core reasons why your effort was able to succeed where others have failed?

Medina

I think that the first and most important reason is that this union was led— and is made up entirely—by former and current Amazon workers. Before he was fired, Chris Smalls had worked with Amazon for five years. Derrick Palmer has been at Amazon for more than six years. A lot of the worker organizers are workers that have been at Amazon for 2-4 years. And in Amazon terms, with the high turnover rate, that’s a lot. These are people that are veterans of Amazon. Many of them have been in training roles. Chris and Derrick both had previously been sent around the country to open up new warehouses, and they were training thousands of people across the country on how to do their jobs well. They were some of the best and, quote unquote, most “productive” workers for Amazon. So they know the ins and outs of the company. They know many people there, but also just know what the workers go through and how to talk to the workers. And that’s really important.

There are a number of salts in the Amazon Labor Union. We welcome people that are willing to make the commitment and sacrifice to uproot their lives and completely change the focus of their lives to become salts, people who are able to make that kind of commitment physically, psychologically—it’s a lot. But even the salts follow the lead of the workers that have been there. And we also work at Amazon, but we’re newer. This was successful because of that.

So it was led by people who make up Amazon. The bulk of the workers at Amazon are Black and Brown workers and immigrant workers. Union leadership should be reflective of that, not in a fake representational way, but in a very organic way, which is what happened. In my little column, I stressed the involvement of the communists and anti-capitalists and socialists and anarchists and syndicalists and things like that. But that’s not all our union. The union is also made up of Republicans and Trump voters and conservatives. That’s who makes up the Amazon workforce. You just find people that are dedicated to the workers, and find people from every work group. If a union is actually run by the dedicated rank and file willing to put in the work, it will succeed.

Robinson

It does seem like Amazon made some missteps as well that you were able to take advantage of. What they did to Chris Smalls seems to have been unwise. There were even internal discussions where some Amazon higher-ups said, basically, “Oh, this is gonna look an awful lot like retaliation if we fire him,” and then they fired him anyway, and then arrested him and things like that? I presume in your conversations with workers that these things probably turned some people against Amazon, people realizing the sort of heavy-handed and callous way that they were dealing with it.

Medina

Yeah. They called the NYPD a number of times over this effort. They just came out to harass us a number of times. In November, they arrested Brett Daniels for the first time. But then a few weeks ago they arrested Chris and Brett Daniels and Jason Anthony for delivering food to workers. That was a really dumb choice. But every time they made a bad decision, we would find a way to use it. We were just always looking out for that and for how to strategically use that against them.

I have a comrade who’s a union organizer. He says that you have to match the boss’s energy. So we really had to beat the boss’s energy. They’re looking to exploit you. So we were going to be ruthless in our analysis. We care about getting power for the workers, which means actually fighting. So we would have found things to beat them with anyway. But yeah, when they arrested the three of them, we were pissed. And we were concerned for their safety. Another member of the organizing committee and I immediately put up flyers talking about what was going on. I printed thousands of them the next morning. And then I went out to Staten Island, and I just started handing them out to every person. I was like, “Did you hear about what happened yesterday?” And they were like, “No, what happened?” And I said, “Well, they arrested the union—or, you know, they arrested people talking about the union.”

And that got people taking flyers from me, who had never wanted to take flyers from me—because a lot of people were kind of ignoring us. By that point, some people were like, “We just want this to be over.” They clearly wanted nothing to do with it. But after that those people took the flyers. And then a lot of those people were like, “Why did they do that?” Many people were clearly very concerned by that action—by the fact that the general manager, the assistant general manager of the building, called the cops on workers. That’s because these people, these workers, are working-class people. In a lot of ways, they’re just real straightforward, honest people. Even if they don’t understand the game of how companies are always attacking unions … even when you see it in a fair play sort of way, it’s very clear. It’s like, “Okay, well, that’s not right.” It’s not right that a boss would just call the police on people trying to talk about the union. It’s totally fucked up. Unnecessary. So that was a big misstep.

It’ll be interesting to see if they get smarter, but their first move after losing was to decide they’re gonna sue the NLRB. What a decision, you know?

Robinson

They’re like, “We’re gonna take this to the NLRB and accuse the NLRB of undue influence.” I’m thinking, “Okay, good luck.”

Medina

Like, what is that? But they had no other choice because we won by so much. We won by well over 500 votes—only 67 of those were contested. So even if all of those went in their favor, there wouldn’t have been a chance. So their only option was that.

Robinson

There’s that old phrase, “the boss is the best organizer.” The company makes errors, but then you have to take advantage of those things. You have to seize upon those things and be able to use them. This is not just an inspiring story in the abstract. It’s not just a great revenge story of Chris Smalls getting fucked over and then going and organizing. But also, I want to focus on the fact that this sets a precedent. More people are now going to do it. And you are showing them exactly how they can and will do it. One of the things that you write in your Labor Notes column is:

“Do not be afraid to fight, to get as dirty as the bosses will, to match or beat the energy they’re bringing. Do not be afraid to agitate and to antagonize the bosses, as a union should.”

In practice, what does that mean? Were there points at which you could have adopted a less antagonistic approach but you decided not to? What is the difference between what you’re saying people should do there and what they might be otherwise tempted to do?

Medina

It varies. You have to build up your strength. Toward the end, we had captive audience meetings every day, right? The anti-union meetings were once an hour. There are all these captive audience meetings, and we not only would speak up in the ones we were scheduled to be in, we would demand to be in them. That’s confrontational, right? Because by our reading of labor law that’s 100% protected. Of course, Amazon’s lawyers are going to say that’s not and a lot of unions might not go there. And now that they see that it’s been done, they will. And actually we’ve been seeing they’ve been starting to.

But even things that aren’t as confrontational, even things where you know you might be risking getting security guards called on you or getting arrested, even stuff where clearly the law is on your side … it’s just like: file an unfair labor practice charge when your rights are violated. And that doesn’t happen a lot of the time, even though anyone can file these charges, at any time. One of the reasons that we were able to be so successful is that we put a lot of pressure on Amazon in every possible way. We would do tabling outside. We would have our presence known. We would have protests and rallies outside the warehouse, to agitate in that kind of way. But then we would use the law. We pressured them in every way possible. And that’s agitational. A lot of unions take a more conciliatory approach, in which the tactic of the leadership is to try to negotiate like we’re friends. The companies are used to being able to bully people. That’s what they’re used to. I mean, fuck, do you remember, Nathan?—sorry, can I curse?

Robinson

Please. Liberally and enthusiastically.

Medina

Great, okay. But, goddamnit, you remember last year, there was some op-ed that was like, We need to put Amazon and Facebook at the United Nations. That’s how much power they have, right?

Robinson

Let’s talk then about why it’s particularly important that this company be unionized. Amazon is a company that says, “Oh, well, we pay everyone $15 an hour“—which they only do because Bernie forced their hand. But it’s not just that every worker has a right to collectively bargain, which of course they do. It is also that Amazon in particular is a company that is—in the basic classical Marxist analysis—engaging in, well, even the word exploitation doesn’t quite capture it. It is the sucking away of people’s humanity.

Medina

Working at an Amazon factory is like nothing else right now. It’s so dystopian. It’s really crazy because it is a tech giant. So there’s all this surveillance going on around you. There’s all this tech moving around you. There are robots that carry stuff while zooming around. They have no sensors to detect people on them. If you step in front of them, they will kill you.

Robinson

I think I would last a day.

Medina

The robot floor—you’re not allowed to go on that floor unless you work in robotics and you’re wearing this special vest that has to be turned on and has these sensors and the robot will then stop. If you’re near it, all of the robots sort of shut down. You can get fired instantly—one of the policies is instant fire if you’re seen on the robot floor without a vest. And of course, Amazon does stuff like that. They have various policies where if you violate them, you could get fired right away. But they do that with things where they know people will get hurt easily, and often. And they remove liability by making it an individual’s fault. So for safety, they build in these mechanisms to make getting workers’ comp really difficult. And they do that on purpose with knowledge of the number of injuries that happen at the warehouse.

AP Images

Ambulances are called to my warehouse every single day. And most injuries are not reported and do not go to the ambulance. A little more than a month ago, there were workers who got chemical burns. They did not get any medical care. Amazon has their own company doctor. So they have Amcare, which is an EMT. They will give you some very baseline medical attention. No disrespect to EMTs—they do important things every day. But these particular people have a job that makes you fill out a bunch of paperwork that they can then use to deny you workers’ comp—and also to say that they did something and send you back to work. The workers that got chemical burns weren’t even sent to Amcare. They were given some powder and Tylenol. Their managers were like, go back to work.

The stories I’ve heard and the things I’ve seen … A few weeks ago, in my department, a worker passed out at a station. It’s fairly common because there are no windows. There’s no ventilation. You can’t really drink water to stay hydrated because if you leave your station for too long, you will get written up and you will lose your job. So you can’t go to the bathroom, which means you can’t drink water. Also, there are many elderly people there who should not have to stand on their feet for 12 hours at a time. So this worker fainted. The EMTs came maybe 10 minutes later, which is pretty fast for them. While we were waiting around, the managers made everyone get back to work. The workers just had to keep working. A woman just fainted, and they couldn’t stop working. And then you know, I heard another worker say, It’s that plantation mentality of Amazon, right? Black workers say it’s a plantation; they describe the conditions as prison-like. It’s really bad.

Robinson

There was a story a couple of years ago about workers being forced to get back to work after someone died on the floor.

Medina

That happened again in December. There are accidents all the time. Heavy things fall from places or things that aren’t that heavy fall from like four stories high because it’s an open warehouse. So there are injuries all the time. There are also fights all the time—not all the time, but people do get into physical fights. And then all parties involved end up getting fired. No one feels like they can stop these things. Everyone who’s told me a story like this is like, “Yeah, well, everyone just kept working around them.”

It’s a really intense, toxic place to work for so many reasons. They brought back or implemented these awful safety shoes that we have to wear now. They made us buy steel-toed shoes; they hurt your feet. And when you’re standing for 12 hours, it’s just a lot. They’re heavy. No one likes them. They implemented them like three weeks before the union election; it was just bizarre. They brought back the TOT requirements also similarly close.

Robinson

TOT is “time off task”, yes? How does that work?

Medina

So with TOT, if you’re away from your station for more than five minutes, the clock starts tracking you. And if you’re away from your station for more than 30 minutes, then you can get written up. So that’s cumulatively through your whole work day, which can be 10-12 hours. If you’re away from your station for more than five minutes, you start clocking towards that. But it can take you five minutes just to walk to the bathroom—especially, like I said, if you’re elderly or have some sort of disability or are just tired from being on your feet all day and moving really heavy things. You could get written up just for going to the bathroom.

And like I mentioned earlier, people don’t drink water, so they’re more liable to pass out or have seizures or all kinds of things or just injure themselves. If you go to the bathroom the normal amount, you could lose your job.

You know, I told you I listened to Marx’s Capital for the first time recently, right? Did I mention that? While working at Amazon on my shifts, I would listen to Capital. I’d say it was the best way one could consume Capital in 2022. Like, living it. This is the real reason that Amazon wants to ban the AirPods: so that you can’t listen to Capital.

Robinson

The last thing that I wanted to ask you was about the precedent that this sets and what comes next. You mentioned that you see yourself and this effort as lighting a spark that we expect to spread. I think it’s certainly true that even in the mainstream press accounts, it is expected that this victory is going to make other victories more likely. Down in Alabama, the vote was at least closer this time. So perhaps we can end on a forward-looking note and talk about what comes next.

Medina

There’s a few levels to this. There’s what comes next at JFK8; there’s what comes next on Staten Island as a unit, because Staten Island would be one local, right? Then there’s what comes up next on a bigger national and international level as we create a union.

So locally at JFK8, we’re already in the process of electing people to the bargaining committee, and electing stewards for departments—names are being submitted, and we’re already forming those committees because we need to get those decisions into place. Even though Amazon is acting like they certainly don’t want to come to the table, it’s like, well, we’re getting ready for that. We’re a union; we’re acting like a union; we’re building up the union. And by doing that, we’re going to force you to come to the table, and we’re going to give the workers control over what they want, which is how we’ve gotten our demands to begin with. And we had a good sense of the demands because we work there. So we know what sucks. And we talk to each other. But that still has to be refined. Those meetings have to start happening.

And then more broadly, locally, we’re looking for a union hall on Staten Island that is close to the warehouse and also off of the bus line—accessible by public transit. And we’re looking for a union that has that and will let us use it. Also in-kind donations. We need big ones because we don’t have dues yet. And also real donations will be helpful. Real estate is not cheap in the city.

And we’re also focusing heavily right now on LDJ5 because that election is coming up on April 25th. They are starting to recruit more organizers. There’s a big organizing meeting happening tomorrow night about LDJ5; a lot of workers are coming and are getting their first organizers training and are going to dive in and start splitting up shifts like we’ve been doing to be there 24/7, on the inside, taking over the break rooms, dividing up to reach everyone in the workplace to reach more people, demographically.

JFK8 worker organizers are helping out with that in various ways. A number of them that have been around for a long time know people in each warehouse. There’s this great organizer whose name is Pat. And he’s very funny. Uncle Pat. He’s this old-school Italian man. He’s Republican. He’s great. He flipped literally hundreds of No votes. He’s a great guy. He wants to go on Hannity. And I think that that interview would be amazing. What I really want is a Chris and Pat duo thing going on shows together. No one would know what to make of that. They’re just two down-to-earth, working-class guys. …That is the power of working-class unity in action.

So next we’re winning LDJ5 in a few weeks. We’re gonna keep doing phone banks. So especially people in New York, we want them to come to the phone bank in person if they can. You know, organizers are going to be setting up JFK8 and winning LDJ5. And then we’re starting to already field a lot of calls to come to events this summer and represent. We’re going to figure out and split up how we’re doing that, because there’s all kinds of events that want us to come and speak and are willing to pay for it. We need to figure out our own schedules. Where do we want to be? Who can go to what? And then also, how do we make it work while still staying at the warehouse, because we also want to work there, because that’s important to our organizing. And even when we get staff organizers, they should try to maintain a flex shift or a part-time schedule at the warehouse.

It’s figuring all that out and then trying to handle this external publicity. We’re all public figures and media people and trying to educate the public about what we’re doing. Because we want to spread it. Also, we’re genuinely trying to do the organizing. We’re still trying to talk to workers at other warehouses. We’re fielding conversations with Amazon workers all over the country and all over the world. Unions and Amazon workers from all over the world are reaching out to us. I asked someone in India the other day, “Do you have an Amazon warehouse near you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, they’re the worst working conditions in the country.” And I was like, “Yes, same here.” That’s not even a lie. It’s a fact that Amazon has more accidents per capita than coal mining. It’s the most dangerous job in the country right now. And that’s probably true everywhere. And that makes a lot of sense. It’s the fifth wealthiest company in the world; [Bezos] is the second richest man in the world. It’s become that very quickly. So that means it’s hyper-exploitative. It makes sense, therefore, that it would be the worst.

Robinson

Well, American labor union density has been at its lowest point ever, so this is particularly inspiring.

Medina

Although it did go up in New York. I don’t know if you know that. A little bit.

Robinson

Well, this will be the time things turn around. This will be the moment we’ll look back upon. It’s already being called historic all over the press. So, congratulations.

Medina

Thank you.

Robinson

To you and to the members of the ALU for all of your incredibly hard work and pulling off what some thought—including myself to my great shame—couldn’t be done but which could be done and which will be done in other places. People should obviously support the ALU. They should also read what you’ve written in Labor Notes. Justine, thank you very much.

Medina

Thank you, Nathan.


Listen to the full interview with Justine Medina here.

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