Why union efforts at Starbucks have spread further than at Amazon

About six weeks after successful union votes at two Buffalo-area Starbucks stores in December, workers had filed paperwork to hold union elections at at least 20 other Starbucks locations nationwide.

By contrast, since the Amazon Labor Union’s victory last month in a vote at a huge Staten Island warehouse, workers at only one other Amazon facility have filed for a union election — with a obscure union with a checkered past – before quickly withdrawing their petition. .

The difference may surprise those who thought unionization at Amazon might follow the explosive pattern seen at Starbucks, where workers at more than 250 stores filed election nominations and the union prevailed at a large majority of sites that voted. .

Christian Smalls, president of Amazon’s independent union, told NPR shortly after the victory that his group had heard from workers at 50 other Amazon facilities, adding, “Like the Starbucks movement, we want to spread like wildfire across the country. ”

The two campaigns share certain characteristics – notably, both are largely overseen by workers rather than professional organizers. And the Amazon Labor Union has made more headway at Amazon than most experts expected, and more than any other established union.

But organizing workers at Amazon was always likely to be a longer and more complicated task given the scale of its facilities and the nature of the workplace. “Amazon is so much harder to crack,” John Logan, a social studies professor at San Francisco State University, said over email. The union recently lost a vote at a small Staten Island warehouse.

To win, a union must have the support of more than 50% of the workers who voted. That means 15 or 20 pro-union workers can secure victory at a typical Starbucks store — a level of support that can be summoned in hours or days. In Amazon warehouses, a union often had to win hundreds or thousands of votes.

Amazon Labor Union organizers have spent hundreds of hours chatting with colleagues inside the warehouse during breaks, after work and on days off. They held barbecues at a bus stop outside the warehouse and communicated with hundreds of colleagues via WhatsApp groups.

Brian Denning, who leads an Amazon organizing campaign sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America chapter in Portland, Oregon, said his group has received six or seven inquiries a week from Amazon workers and contractors. after the Staten Island win, up from one or two a week beforehand.

But Mr Denning, a former Amazon warehouse worker who tells workers they are the ones to campaign for a union, said many did not realize how hard it took to organize and some became discouraged once he has spoken with them.

“We have people saying how do you get an ALU situation here? How can we be like them? Mr Denning said, adding: “I don’t want to scare them away. But I can’t lie to the workers. It is what it is. It’s not for everyone.

At Starbucks, employees work together in a relatively small space, sometimes without a manager present to directly supervise them for hours. This allows them to openly discuss concerns about pay and working conditions and the merits of a union.

At Amazon, the warehouses are cavernous, and the workers are often more isolated and better supervised, especially during a unionization campaign.

“What they would do is strategically separate me from everyone in my department,” said Derrick Palmer, an Amazon employee in Staten Island who is one of the union’s vice presidents. “If they see me interacting with that person, they’ll move them to another station.”

When asked about the allegation, Amazon said it assigned employees to workstations and tasks based on operational needs.

Both companies accused the unions of their own unfair tactics, including intimidating workers and inciting hostile clashes.

Organizing the drivers is an even bigger challenge, in part because they are officially employed by contractors that Amazon hires, although union organizers say they would like to pressure the company to do so. it responds to the concerns of drivers.

Christy Cameron, a former driver at an Amazon factory near St. Louis, said the work setup largely prevented drivers from interacting. At the start of each shift, a contractor manager briefs the drivers, who then disperse to their trucks, help them load them and hit the road.

“That leaves very little time to speak with co-workers other than a hello,” Ms Cameron said in a text message, adding that Amazon’s training discouraged discussing working conditions with other drivers. “It was generally how strongly against unionization they are and don’t talk about pay and benefits with each other.”

Amazon, with around one million American workers, and Starbucks, with just under 250,000, offer a similar salary. Amazon said its minimum hourly wage was $15 and the average starting wage in warehouses was over $18. Starbucks said that starting in August, its minimum hourly wage will be $15 and the average will be nearly $17.

Despite the similarity in wages, organizers say the workforce dynamics of companies can be very different.

At the Staten Island warehouse where Amazon workers voted against unionizing, many employees are working four-hour shifts and commuting between 30 and 60 minutes each way, suggesting they have alternatives limited.

“People who go that far for a four-hour job – that’s a particular group of people who really struggle to get there,” Gene Bruskin said., a longtime labor organizer who advised the Amazon Labor Union in both Staten Island elections, in an interview last month.

As a result of all of this, organizing at Amazon may mean incremental gains rather than high-profile election victories. In the Minneapolis area, a group of mostly Somali-speaking Amazon workers staged protests and won concessions from the company, such as a review process for layoffs tied to productivity goals. Chicago-area workers involved with the Amazonians United group received salary increases shortly after a walkout in December.

Ted Miin, an Amazon worker who is one of the group’s members, said the concessions followed eight or nine months of unionization, down from the minimum two years he estimates it would have taken to win a union election and negotiate a first contract.

For workers seeking a contract, the negotiation processes at Starbucks and Amazon may differ. In most cases, negotiating improvements in pay and working conditions requires additional pressure on the employer.

At Starbucks, that pressure is kind of the union’s momentum after election victories. “Broadcasting the campaign gives the union the ability to win in negotiations,” Logan said. (Starbucks has nevertheless said it will withhold new wage and benefit increases from workers who have unionized, saying such provisions must be negotiated.)

At Amazon, on the other hand, the pressure needed to win a contract will likely come through other means. Some are conventional, like continuing to organize warehouse workers, who might decide to strike if Amazon refuses to recognize them or negotiate. The company is contesting the union victory in Staten Island.

But the union is also recruiting political allies in an effort to pressure Amazon. Mr. Smalls, the union’s president, testified this month at a Senate hearing that explored whether the federal government should deny contracts to companies that violate labor laws.

On Thursday, Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced legislation to prevent employers from deducting union-busting activities, such as hiring consultants to deter workers from unionizing, as business expenses.

While many of these efforts are more token than substantive, some seem to have gained traction. After the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced last summer that it was giving Amazon a 20-year lease at Newark Liberty International Airport to develop an air cargo hub, a coalition of community groups , trade unions and environmentalists mobilized against the project.

The status of the lease, which was due to become final at the end of last year, remains unclear. The Port Authority said lease negotiations with Amazon are ongoing and it continues to seek community input. An Amazon spokeswoman said the company was confident the deal would go through.

A spokeswoman for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said the company may have to negotiate with labor groups before the deal can move forward. “The governor encourages everyone doing business in our state to work cooperatively with good faith labor partners,” the spokeswoman said.

Karen Weise contributed report.

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