What was once barren swampland on the Northwestern edge of Staten Island is today host to one of the most consequential happenings in the modern labor movement: the quest to organize Amazon.
Amazon is one of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world. Its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, whose personal fortune is estimated—and I say estimated because his bank account grows by $8 or $9 million dollars every hour—at more than $177 billion.
His employees on the other hand, who work hard sorting packages and helped make Amazon the second trillion-dollar company in history, would have to work full-time for over 4 years to make what Jeff Bezos earns every second of every hour of every day.
So, it’s no surprise that frontline Amazon workers, forced to work in dangerous, grueling conditions throughout a pandemic while their boss played astronaut and flew to space wearing cowboy boots, felt a little exploited.
The obviousness that Amazon workers should band together to demand a greater share of the wealth they produce by no means diminishes what they recently accomplished at the company’s JFK8 fulfillment center, one of the major hubs of Amazon’s operations on the East Coast.
Some 8,000 workers saw past managerial pressure, flagrant unfair labor practices, and anti-union lies to win a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election at the giant warehouse, the first successful attempt to form a union at Amazon anywhere in the United States. And truth be told, members of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the new union’s name, did so without a lot of help from established labor organizations, which had tried and failed to organize workers at the company.
It parallels the early days of my own union, 1199SEIU, which was created nearly a century ago by a rag-tag group of pharmacy workers, mostly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They grew our union from meager beginnings to a pioneering force in the labor and civil rights movements, and today is the largest union of healthcare workers in the U.S.
We are witnessing something remarkable. Young people like Christian Smalls, the ex-Amazon worker and founder/president of the ALU, and Angelika Maldonado, the chair of the ALU’s Workers Committee (both of whose mothers we are proud to say are part of our 1199SEIU family), are helping to lead a rebirth of the U.S. labor movement.
This couldn’t have come soon enough. To have any chance of curtailing vast income inequality and the corporate greed that is slowly but surely eroding our democracy, we need the energy, ideas, and leadership of the next generation.
For the first time, young people are poised to be worse off than their parents’ generation. This is why growing the labor movement is so essential.
It is well-documented that union members make more money and enjoy more job-related benefits and protections than non-union workers. Strong unions even improve wages for non-union members who do the same work or live in the same community because, like the old folks used to say, a rising tide floats all boats. Pay is always competitive—if one shop is paying $20 an hour, its competitors have to pay the same or more if they hope to recruit workers.
According to a January 2022 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit organization that advocates for national policies benefiting low and middle-income Americans, workers represented by a union contract are paid on average 10.2% more than non-unionized employees with the same education and experience.
The difference in union vs. non-union compensation is even greater for people of color. Unionized Black workers make 13% more than their non-union counterparts, and Hispanics 18.8% more.
That’s a lot of extra money going into families’ pocketbooks and reinvested in our communities. The union difference doesn’t stop there. When it comes to benefits, 95% of workers under a union contract have employee-sponsored health benefits compared to just 69% of non unionized workers. Pensions, once a mainstay of Americans’ retirement, are almost unheard of in non-union settings these days. And this is to say nothing of the non-economic advantages of union membership, like job security and a fair process for handling workplace issues.
Given the clear and indisputable benefits that workers achieve by organizing, you would think that rates of union membership would be skyrocketing. Far from it. Union membership among private employers has fallen by 507,000 members since 2019, and by 74,000 in unions representing public sector employees, according to the EPI report.
That’s bad for all of us, particularly as the richest one percent continue to see their fortunes grow as our nation wrestles with the economic fallout of a pandemic that has hit low-income people especially hard. It is difficult to organize a union—the chips are stacked against workers who are subjected to constant pressure from bosses who routinely break the rules and face little consequence from years of weakened U.S. labor law.
But it is in these very moments of darkness that we can begin to see a light. COVID has given workers an opening to grow their power. So many people quit their jobs rather than risk getting sick or, sadly, passed away during the pandemic that employers are clamoring to find help. This gives workers leverage to demand better.
The movement is growing. Starbucks workers around the country are unionizing almost as fast as they can brew a cup of coffee. Thousands of union and not-yet-union homecare workers across New York just stood up to make a bold demand of raising their wages in the state budget—and won a 20% increase to their minimum pay.
These and other battles that will decide the future of the labor movement are taking place all around us. We know that unions are vital if we aim to keep and strengthen our democracy, reduce inequality, build racial and class solidarity, and improve wages and benefits for all working people.
There are a lot of Amazon warehouses out there, and many Christian Smalls who need our help as desperately as we need their energy.
Let’s find them, and join forces to create a labor movement for the decades to come.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU, the nation’s largest healthcare union representing 450,000 members in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and the District of Columbia.