Good things — even some great things — are happening! It’s been a historic week for the labor movement. Workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse have overcome the odds and voted to form the first-ever U.S. labor union at one of the world’s most powerful companies. The Lever's reporter Matthew Cunningham-Cook, who spent six years working as a strategic researcher and educator for unions, breaks down what the victory means.
Meanwhile, federal regulators have moved to block TurboTax from misleading Americans this tax season. And protestors will descend upon Washington D.C. next week to demand that President Joe Biden make good on his promise to cancel student debt.
All this and much more in this week’s edition of You Love To See It.
AMAZON WORKERS PULL OFF HISTORIC VICTORY
The victory for the Amazon Labor Union at the 8,000-worker Staten Island warehouse is easily the biggest victory for the labor movement since the successful 1997 UPS strike. The tiny independent union that had no dues payers and was headed by Christian Smalls, the Amazon worker fired for protesting the company’s lack of COVID-19 protocols in March 2020, is one for the history books. You cannot find a bigger David versus Goliath labor victory — with no resources on the union side, versus the country’s second largest employer — since at least the 1940s. The final vote count was 2654-2131, an incredible 11 percent margin of victory.
“The Amazon Labor Union is feeling the power of the people and the vote demonstrates our labor power and the hard work we’ve put into this campaign,” worker Brett Daniels told Luis Feliz Leon at Labor Notes.
In addition to my work as a union staffer, I’ve been writing about labor for over a decade. I never saw this coming. Amazon was too powerful an employer, labor law so tilted to the bosses, and the ALU had no resources whatsoever. I kept my mouth shut because I never want to hurt others’ efforts to organize, but I was very skeptical. No more. The ALU victory mandates a total recalibration of labor’s approach to organizing the unorganized.
As Labor Notes staff writer Jonah Furman noted, “No corporate campaign, very little $$$, picked a workplace and targeted the shit out of it. Was very much not stage-managed. Why did this work? The big unions need to answer those questions.”
As I was texting with other folks in labor who have collectively organized thousands of workers yesterday, we were all in shock. Is the win actually possible? Turns out it was. All credit to Smalls and his ragtag group of organizers working long hours for next to no pay, who beat Jeff Bezos’ $1.6 trillion behemoth. Amazon retained a top Democratic polling firm, Global Strategy Group, for this fight, and last year, the retail giant put at least $4.3 million into union busting activities (a number which does not include a much broader array of undisclosed union busting services provided by major law firms, such as Morgan Lewis).
The workers have got a long road ahead of them to get a contract. While there isn’t much recent research on the topic, roughly one quarter of union victories do not result in a first contract. This is likely higher at large companies like Amazon that do not have any union density. (Bezos’ Washington Post is union, however, and Amazon Studios hires union labor in Hollywood.) This will assuredly be Amazon’s game plan: to delay, obstruct, and depress workers after they have won this incredible victory.
But ALU does have one very smart strategic trick up its sleeve: It’s moving to organize more workers. They’ve already filed for election at a smaller Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, this time with 1,500 workers. That election will begin on April 25. A victory for the separate Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, would also provide a shot in the arm to ALU’s efforts to get a contract — though it could take months, if not more, to suss out the voting results there, due to the right-wing judiciary.
It’s in this fight for a first contract where support from elected officials will be desperately needed. While Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) caught some flack yesterday from Smalls for not showing up during the organizing campaign, she could rebuild those bridges by working closely with ALU as they head into this knock-down, drag-out fight for a contract. In particular, tighter scrutiny of Amazon’s massive federal contracting business would be a very effective leverage point going forward for ALU.
During the 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden pledged he would “ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committing not to run anti-union campaigns.”
In February, the Biden administration promised that it would “use longstanding authority to leverage the federal government’s purchasing and spending power to support workers who are organizing and pro-worker employers.” Labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan has argued that “Biden could sign an executive order which restricts the awarding of federal contracts to employers who have collective bargaining agreements with their workforce ‘unless there is no such supplier that can perform that contract at a reasonable cost or comparable quality.’”
Ultimately, though, the key for ALU is to build momentum for a strike. This would require organizing at least 60 percent of the more than 5,000 workers who either did not vote for the union or voted against it — as well as everyone who voted for it — to take a massive escalation. Without a credible strike threat from ALU, Amazon will not agree to a contract. Full stop. Amazon has already pledged an aggressive legal campaign against the union, suggesting on Friday that they would sue the National Labor Relations Board for legally performing their duties during the election campaign.
Some unions have apparently already reached out to ALU seeking to convince the upstart union to affiliate with them. Besides an affiliation with the broader labor federation (the AFL-CIO and its state and local bodies), or another ragtag, militant union like the United Electrical Workers, I’d caution against such a move — and I’d bet ALU’s leaders aren’t taking these offers too seriously at this moment.
I also must note that ALU is a Black and young-person led union, in a labor movement where not a single major union is led by a person under the age of 50, much less an Black person under the age of 50. Black workers like Smalls and his lieutenants Derrick Palmer and Connor Spence, as well as Latina ALU leader Karen Ponce, represent a new vanguard against the staid, conservative leadership of unions that have led us to a private sector union density rate of just 6.1 percent, down from 16.8 percent in 1983. Besides ALU, there is no other union whose officers are as young as that of ALU. The critical role that Black workers play in the future of the labor movement, and in organizing Amazon in particular, is an issue that Marc Bayard and I covered in The American Prospect in February.
But in all of the analysis and takes that will emerge from this, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is an incredible victory for workers over capital. Like his fellow 0.001 percent member Howard Schultz, Jeff Bezos is now sweating bullets that the organizing tide at Starbucks could be replicated at Amazon. Perhaps there is some reason for hope after all.
- Matthew Cunningham-Cook
REGULATORS TAKE ON TAX CHEATS
As people scramble to file their taxes ahead of the April 18 deadline, regulators are taking on Intuit, the company that owns TurboTax, a program that tens of millions of Americans use to file their taxes.
A new lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleges that the company advertises its products as “free” even though people are often required to pay a fee to complete the final steps needed to file. The lawsuit seeks to immediately stop Intuit from claiming that its TurboTax products are free ahead of the tax filing deadline, while the FTC conducts a separate investigation into the company.
BANNING SECRET DEALS
A coalition of advocacy groups has launched a massive campaign, called Ban Secret Deals, aimed at ending the use of non-disclosure agreements in economic development deals, which regularly provide highly-profitable companies with unnecessary public subsidies. When these deals are made secretly, local and state governments will often hand out massive amounts of taxpayer dollars — tens of millions or even billions — without the public being able to access any information about the deal.
For example, the Kansas state legislature just passed legislation to hand out $1.2 billion to attract a company to the state — except lawmakers didn’t even know what company would be receiving the money, according to reporting by Fast Company. Even after the governor signed the law, the public still doesn't know who will be receiving $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars.
If you know of a subsidy deal being negotiated in your community where the terms of the deal are not being discussed publicly, or the company receiving the money is a secret, you can alert the new coalition to it. You can also sign this petition demanding your state legislators support a ban on secret deals.
This upcoming Monday, April 4, the Debt Collective will descend upon Washington D.C. to demand that the Biden administration make the hugely popular move of canceling student debt. (You can RSVP to join them here.)
Meanwhile, nearly 100 Democratic lawmakers just sent a letter to the Biden administration demanding he move to extend the student loan payment pause, set to expire on May 1, and cancel a "meaningful amount" of student debt.
If payments do resume in May, the Debt Collective is working to orchestrate a “debt strike” — organizing debtors to collectively decide not to make loan payments. “If President Biden resumes illegitimate student debt payments in May, we will facilitate as many student debtors as possible to safely pay $0 a month to the Department of Education,” said Co-Founder of the Debt Collective Astra Taylor. “Whether it’s filing a borrower defense or enrolling in an income driven repayment plan, we are politicizing our refusal to pay as part of our escalation on President Biden. He has the authority to cancel all federal student debt with the flick of a pen. He can end this manufactured crisis today.”
You can sign up here to join the debt strike or learn more about it.
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