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As the drive to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama draws international attention to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that is leading the effort, other unions are planning their own strategies to organize parts of Amazon’s sprawling operations as well. The Teamsters, who see Amazon as a direct threat to their historic work organizing the trucking industry, are engaged in a concerted project targeting Amazon — and though they’re tight-lipped about the details, they appear committed to a long-term, nationwide effort that could make them one of the company’s most formidable union foes.
The 1.4 million-member Teamsters are more than ten times bigger than the RWDSU. They see Amazon’s vast pool of non-union delivery employees as an existential threat to not only their own members, but to the ability of the trucking industry to provide living wage jobs. Randy Korgan, a goateed organizing veteran whose current title is Teamsters National Director for Amazon, frames the standoff with Jeff Bezos’ company as just the latest incarnation of a struggle that the union has been waging for more than a century.
“We fought to regulate the industry because of the working conditions that were happening in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. We obviously find some similarities today,” Korgan says. Despite the popular view of the “roaring 20s” as a grand era, “history clearly shows that working people suffered greatly. And here we come back into the roaring 20s again. Is this a repeat of history? We’ve got to ask ourselves that.”
Korgan is particularly angered by Amazon’s ongoing effort to portray itself as a good corporate citizen because it pays a $15 per hour minimum wage to its employees — a wage lower than what Korgan himself made as a union warehouse worker more than 30 years ago. Amazon itself is the primary driver of a process that is changing warehouse jobs that once paid a living wage into low-income, tenuous, temporary work.
“At every level of the organization you see this high turnover rate, and then you see them introducing this rate of $15, $16 an hour and trying to claim that they need to be patted on the back,” says Korgan. “Aren’t they talking out of both sides of their mouth? Because what is the average wage of someone that works in a warehouse in this country, and is Amazon exploiting and capitalizing on that wage being reduced?”
Currently, the only Teamsters members with a direct connection to the company are workers at Atlas and ABX Air, two firms that do business with Amazon. But the union is eyeing a much larger pool of Amazon employees, particularly delivery drivers, many of whom work for subcontractors rather than for Amazon itself. Though this process serves to insulate Amazon, the Teamsters have in the past organized tens of thousands of workers at subcontractors throughout the trucking industry. Warehouses are also in the Teamsters traditional wheelhouse, and it was reported last month that the union has spent several months organizing hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers in Iowa, though the outcome of that campaign remains uncertain.
The Teamsters have been chewing over the threat posed by Amazon for years. Various Teamster websites are rife with posts like “TEAMSTERS MUST TAKE NOTE OF THE DANGER ON THE HORIZON” and “TAKING ON AMAZON,” all of which note the direct threat the company poses to the stability of the entire transportation industry. But as the Alabama warehouse union campaign has drawn a tidal wave of press, the Teamsters are now loath to divulge too much of their strategy. Korgan is leading the union’s “Amazon Project,” and says he is engaged with workers across the country, and is “absolutely” working with other unions, as well. But he declines to discuss the project’s funding, timeline, or specific targets. He does, however, hint that the Teamsters may pursue a more radical and confrontational strategy when it comes time to seek union recognition from the famously intransigent company.
The classic pathway of seeking an NLRB election to certify a union — the process that is currently underway for the Amazon workers in Alabama — has the benefits of being clearly defined by law, but it also enables companies to spend months bombarding workers with anti-union propaganda, and to throw money at legal challenges. Korgan implies that the Teamsters may seek other pathways to try to force voluntary recognition of unions. (In fact, a Teamsters organizer in Iowa said that the union would prefer to use strikes to pressure the company to recognize its union.)
“There are many platforms to seek recognition, there are many platforms for workers to do concerted activities,” Korgan says. “Truth be told, that [NLRB] process is where corporate America wants organizing to be, and that’s how they want it to be defined. Because they clearly have more of an advantage there than they do in other spaces.”
The recognition that Amazon has become so powerful that allowing it to remain non-union is not a viable option seems to have finally become conventional wisdom within organized labor. It is safe to assume that the Teamsters are only one of several major unions planning ways to organize their own slice of the company. The union campaign in Alabama, where the votes will be counted at the end of this month, will likely be only the first step down a long and contentious road that will last for years.
“No matter what happens in Bessemer,” Korgan says, “it doesn’t change the trajectory of anything that’s going on.”
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.