The latest issue of In These Times is a special, extra-length issue devoted entirely to the subject of socialism in America today. This special issue is available now. Order your copy today.
Read the full transcript below.
Amazon: The company we hate to love, for its convenient next-day deliveries, and we love to hate, for its egregious treatment of the workers that execute that miracle.
It really needs no introduction. Amazon is a corporate giant with 1.5 million employees, most of which are in the Teamsters’ bread and butter industry: logistics, meaning warehouse workers and delivery drivers. Only, these workers are almost entirely non-union. But the problem with Amazon is not just its own non-union pay and working conditions. Left unchecked, Amazon may just start a race to the bottom for the working class as a whole.
The Teamsters, alongside other unions and worker collectives, are trying to change that. And in April earlier this year, 84 of Amazon’s delivery drivers and dispatchers in Palmdale, California joined Teamsters Local 396 and won a first contract. This is a huge deal, but it’s not an uncomplicated victory.
In this episode, you’ll hear from one of those Amazon drivers, Arturo Solezano, about their working conditions, and why he and his now-union siblings joined the Teamsters. We also spoke with Alex Press, staff writer at Jacobin magazine, who unpacked why Amazon is a threat that needs to be taken seriously by the Teamsters and the rest of organized labor.
Finally, you’ll hear an update on UPS contract negotiations from Greg Kerwood, a package car delivery driver from Teamsters Local 25 in Boston.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Teddy Ostrow: I’m gonna make this intro pretty quick because we have a lot of ground to cover. In this episode we’re unpacking the existential threat - to UPSers, to the Teamsters, to unions in general, and the working class as a whole: Amazon.
It really needs no introduction. Amazon is a corporate giant with 1.5 million employees, on pace to become the largest private sector employer in the country. And the majority of that workforce is in the logistics industry. Warehouse workers, delivery drivers. And surprise, surprise, they’re mostly unorganized.
But Teamsters, alongside other unions and worker collectives, are trying to change that. Indeed, the Teamsters has its own Amazon Organizing Division, with organizers around the country, which it launched a few years ago.
And in April earlier this year, 84 of Amazon’s delivery drivers and dispatchers in Palmdale, California joined Teamsters Local 396 and won a first contract. Now, this is a huge deal.
For this episode, we spoke to one of those drivers, Arturo Solezano, about the working conditions at Amazon and why he and his now-union-siblings joined the Teamsters.
But before you hear from Arturo, we’re gonna zoom out with Alex Press, staff writer at Jacobin magazine, who is one of the key reporters covering Amazon workers’ conditions and organizing over the past three years. She’s gonna help us understand why Amazon is a threat that needs to be taken seriously by the Teamsters and the rest of organized labor. And she also recently wrote an excellent article about the UPS contract campaign that you should definitely read and I’ll put in the description.
Now, before we even get to Alex, it’s been a little while since we discussed the state of the contract campaign and negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters. I spoke to Local 25 UPS rank and file, Greg Kerwood, in Boston this past weekend about what’s been happening since negotiations at the national level started.
But we did speak before Monday, June 5, when the international called for an in-person strike authorization vote.
That means that UPSers at the gates of their hubs, at their union halls. will be voting on whether or not the union has the permission to call a strike in the event there is no new contract by August 1.
The results will be known June 16. The IBT is recommending UPSers vote yes.
Now, how this vote goes - what percentage of UPSers vote yes and what percentage of the workforce participates at all - it’s an important test of how successful the contract campaign has been over the past 10 months — how successful locals and rank and file around the country have been at organizing their ranks, educating Teamsters on the stakes of this contract, and why the threat of a strike is the greatest leverage any union has in bargaining.
Now, it should be clear from this show that many locals are more than prepared, but I think it’d be disingenuous not to note that it’s been clear in my reporting that there are also many out there that will have their work cut out for them between now and June 16.
We’ll have to wait and see just how ready the Teamsters are to take on UPS. And you better hope that they are. If there’s an episode that makes that any clearer, it’s this one.
Now for an update with Greg Kerwood.
Teddy Ostrow: Greg Kerwood, thanks for joining me on the upsurge.
Greg Kerwood: Thanks for having me today. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Teddy Ostrow: So I just wanna make clear to everyone, Greg is not speaking on behalf of the Teamsters National Negotiating Committee. He’s just an informed rank and file member of the International Steering Committee of the Teamsters for Democratic Union, also local 25 in Boston.
He’s a union activist and he does a lot of work organizing and educating his union siblings. So that’s why he’s gonna give us an update. and since we last reported on this podcast, the supplemental or the regional agreements, they weren’t going too well. They’ve since almost been completed entirely.
There’s two left. and of course all of them will have to be voted on by the membership. But Greg, can you bring us up to date? We’re, we’re speaking on the weekend right before negotiations. We’ll start up again. there was a week break, but perhaps you can summarize just how things have been going as far as we know since negotiations started at the national level?
Greg Kerwood: Well, so far, it seems to be a case of more of the same from the company. I know our committee put forth the elimination of the 22-4 position. I’m not sure how that worked out or what the company’s response was. They also spent a week discussing technology issues.
Again, I don’t really know for certain how the company responded or whether any of that was resolved. I know there is an agreement that came out this week, to limit some of the package flow into the SurePost system. Not too many specifics, but in general it seems to be very slow going.
There seems to be a lot of posturing on the part of the company. Not a whole lot of seriousness, still. So the clock is continuing to tick down. We’re down under 60 days at this point. So it’s really just, it seems to be more the same. I don’t think the company has really taken this seriously since the beginning of negotiations, and it appears as though they’re continuing down that path.
Teddy Ostrow: So we’re talking about some progress made perhaps on basic technology. On everyone’s mind, of course, are those inward facing cameras. SurePost, just so everyone knows, basically UPS is giving Teamster work away to the post office. And the big demands, 22-4’s, PVDs wages, those sorts of things, we’re gonna have to wait and see.
But given what’s happened so far, Greg, which doesn’t seem like very much, what’s your perspective on the possibility of a strike? We’re speaking eight weeks out from contract expiration. Is there a chance that you believe they’ll get to everything or. Are you guys barreling towards hitting the picket line?
Greg Kerwood: I would say that given the current pace of negotiations, a strike almost seems inevitable. Now obviously it’s in the company’s hands if they want to change that approach and come to the table and address issues in a more reasonable and more timely fashion. I haven’t seen any indication of them doing that.
Perhaps that will change and perhaps, you know, the laundry list of major issues that we have can be addressed, I believe. I think our proposals, to my knowledge, are all there and ready and waiting.
It’s just a question of whether the company wants to take them seriously and bargain in good faith. So it is still possible that that could be done, but if things continue at the current pace and with the current attitude of the company, I think it very likely that we will be on strike come August 1st.
Teddy Ostrow: Greg Kerwood., thanks for giving us that update and offering your perspective.
Greg Kerwood: My pleasure. Thank you.
Teddy Ostrow: Alex Press, thanks for joining me on the Upsurge.
Alex Press: Thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here.
Teddy Ostrow: So I wanna open with the threat of Amazon. Why should Teamsters, UPSers, but really the broader working class, be concerned about this one company?
Alex Press: Yeah, so I mean to say Amazon is just one company sort of downplays how big of a scale we’re talking about when we talk about Amazon as well as the different kind-of core functions Amazon has, different parts of its business. Amazon is a gigantic employer of warehouse workers as well as delivery drivers, though, you know, important caveat that we’ll get into, which is, those delivery drivers are not direct employees of Amazon. This is a gigantic workforce, the second biggest private employer in the United States, but you know, the joke I make is that Amazon kind of functions as a pacesetter of sorts, a vanguard of capital, if you will. What Amazon can get away with, other companies will then follow in that direction.
That often, quite literally, is true in that Amazon executives will go on to be hired as consultants, especially in human resources for other corporations, who will pay them gobs of money basically to implement and replicate Amazon’s model. Amazon’s model’s being squeezing workers, a very high pace of work, incredible use of surveillance technologies on the workforce. And this doesn’t just mean warehouse workers or say delivery drivers like UPS workers, but actually, white collar workers as well. Amazon is sort of exporting these technologies and this sort of way of squeezing workers in a way that really applies to all kinds of people, including those who think “I have nothing in common with an Amazon warehouse worker.” You do.
Specifically about UPS, I think it’s a pretty obvious argument here. You know, UPS has already existed as this sort of island of unionization within the broader, logistics industry, you know, they have fought very hard to have decent wages and benefits and a sustainable schedule for delivery, for example. Amazon exists to undercut that, right? That’s, if it’s not its aim, it’s its function. So Amazon famously will get something to your door within a few hours if you pay enough money for it.
That means that they have this entire gigantic network of both warehouse workers and delivery drivers who are being worked at all hours, who work seven days a week, who have a very high pace of delivery. The famous stories about how no one who’s delivering for Amazon has time to pee at all, you know, because there’s nowhere to go, right? You need to get your next delivery out immediately. I often say this to people where I’m like, “Have you ever really had a conversation with an Amazon delivery person who is delivering packages to your apartment building? No. They don’t have time for that.”
They, you know, even if you tried to stop them, you would actually be annoying them because they have a schedule to stick to. So that undermines the standards that UPS workers have fought for a very long time to get. I think the new leadership of the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien recognizes that existential threat that you cannot exist forever with this growing behemoth constantly undercutting your standards, you know, UPS will use Amazon as kind of a wedge and say, “Well, we can’t agree to this in the contract because we’re gonna go out of business if we keep having these heavy labor costs.” And while that’s nonsense — UPS has an enormous amount of profits — it is a real argument that the Teamsters need to take seriously. The best answer to it would be organizing Amazon workers themselves.
Teddy Ostrow: You sort of began with this, but I do wanna take a step back. What even is Amazon? Is it a logistics company, retail tech? Can you give us a sense of the landscape?
Alex Press: Yeah. So it’s a surprisingly complicated answer. It’s all of those things. It is a logistics company. It is an e-commerce, retail company. It’s one of the largest e-commerce companies in existence. It’s also, importantly, the web infrastructure that other companies rely upon. So, you know, if you’re on a Zoom call, you’re using Amazon Web services or AWS, which is the company’s most profitable arm.
If you’re using Uber, you’re using Amazon’s computational power and space. There’s also smaller things like selling surveillance technology to law enforcement. Amazon is a major cultural producer. It is a member of the producer organization that is currently being struck by the Writer’s Guild of America.
They make television and films, and this is something Jeff Bezos really likes, you know, the cultural arm, the cache and glamor. It’s also importantly one of the biggest platforms for third party vendors. So other companies, small businesses use Amazon’s websites, as well as Amazon’s warehouses and delivery drivers to get their goods to customers’ doors.
So there are all these different arms going on. In the labor world, we speak the most about the warehouse workers and maybe to a lesser extent the delivery drivers, and rightly so — we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of workers. It is also all of these other things and they’re integrated together.
You need the computational power of AWS for the warehouses to function. Surveillance technology is tested in the warehouses and then exported not only to other companies, but to other countries as well. I think in trying to think about this, there are a couple of metaphors we could use.
One is that the company is in the company town: asort of private government, that functions kind of as an overlord of sorts, or a control mechanism, or, one metaphor I use a lot is kind of a toll collector. Amazon wants to be the thing you have to go through to get to everything else, whether it’s goods, whether it’s the internet and infrastructure, all of these things.
Amazon has been very good at warming its way into the middle of things, so that it gets a cut as a middleman from everything. There are all those different ways to think about it. Finally I would just say, thinking of it as a utility because it’s so kind of inescapable for all of the reasons I just mentioned, also can be kind of productive in starting to think about what regulation of Amazon would look like.
Teddy Ostrow: That’s a really interesting point to think of it as a utility. You did really great work covering the organizing at Amazon over the past few years. Could you give us a sense of how union organizing or organizing otherwise at the company has been going — what are people fighting for or fighting against and what are the different efforts we’ve seen, the obstacles, and the future of Amazon?
Alex Press: Yeah. So I often start to answer this question by sort of giving some perspective here in the form of an anecdote, which is that I was at the Labor Notes Conference, a biannual gathering of labor activists, rank and file workers and so on. I was there I think five years ago, and there was a sort of little secret side conversation going on, about salting Amazon.
Meaning, you know, purposely getting jobs at Amazon warehouses to then organize those warehouses. And this was a pretty controversial conversation. A lot of people were very negative on it. They thought this was a doomed strategy, that this was actually in fact sort of dangerous and that these efforts would fail.
Aren’t there so many other warehouses with kind of decrepit unions? You know, for example, UPS warehouses, that might have kind of less active locals that would be much better uses of young radicals’ time. if they really felt the need to kind of intentionally get a job, with the purpose of organizing.
It seemed very obvious to me at the time that that all was true, that none of these people were incorrect about the problems with this idea, but also these young people in particular were gonna do it anyway, right? Like this was exciting. This is on, you know, on pace to be the largest private employer in the United States, and so these efforts were going to start and we sort of saw them start to, you know, the outcome of those early efforts has been finally going public over the past couple of years. So you know, everyone’s heard about Bessemer, which, was the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to hold an NLRB election.
That was in 2021. It failed. There are endless back and forths about Amazon violating labor law during that election. But you know, as it stands, they did not vote to unionize that facility. I think it’s an interesting example in that even failed efforts leave a trace on the working class — if you speak to Chris Smalls, the founder of the Amazon Labor Union out in Staten Island, he’ll tell you that it was Bessemer and watching that failure that led him to decide to organize his own facility. It’s why he decided to go with an independent union. He felt there were certain failures that came from the existing union trying to do it, and that actually it would only be an independent union that could win, for reasons that I think are arguable.
But certainly he was proven correct at JFK-8. So that was the first and only Amazon warehouse to win an NLRB election. I think that was what, April of last year? April 1st. Cuz I remember it being a very funny April Fool’s joke that they had actually won.
And there are efforts at, at different different stages, in the works. So the ALU has tried to hold other NLRB elections at other Amazon facilities. They’ve yet to win any of those. There are other efforts underway. There’s a warehouse in North Carolina that’s being organized by a group that calls itself CAUSE, which stands for Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment. So their facility is in Garner, North Carolina, just outside of Raleigh, which is not where one would expect an Amazon effort to succeed. North Carolina has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country. but when you talk to the workers there, as I have, you know, they’ll tell you that it sort of just happens organically.
Racism is a huge issue in this warehouse, which you’ll hear from Amazon workers at just about every warehouse. It’ll often be a majority non-white worker population, and then management will be almost entirely white. That’s the case at this facility. And that’s sort of organically led to a certain kind of unrest in the warehouse that then led to this organizing effort that’s still underway. They have not filed for an N L R B election. And then there are other efforts, you know, in kind of earlier stages.
I think also just in closing it’s worth mentioning this warehouse in Minnesota that has been kind of a site of organizing by Somali workers in particular. So that’s just a short list. I mean, it’s very funny that at this point my head is full of all of these incredibly indecipherable to anyone else names of these warehouses. RDU1, JFK8. This is what Amazon calls its facilities, and now it’s, thank God the laundry list is getting really long. It used to just be JFK 8 that I would talk about. So that’s what’s going on as far as the warehouse organizing.
Teddy Ostrow: Yeah. Thanks for going through so many of those efforts. I mean, you know, there’s also Amazonians United, the international efforts, the Make Amazon Pay campaign.
Alex Press: Yeah. I did wanna say, Amazonians United has been this interesting effort that preceded Bessemer and continues to exist in a sort of minority union, shop floor unionism, you know, where they don’t have the majority of the workers involved.
They’re not trying to build towards an NLRB election. They’re just functioning as a union on the shop floor. And they have actually notched some real victories around working conditions. I think anybody who’s interested in this topic really should also look into that because, you know, when it comes to Amazon, I often kind of explain to people, it’s just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. You know, no unions up until these recent years have been able to breach the impenetrable fortress of Amazon. So there are all different approaches going on, and while there’s real disagreements and differences between these efforts, there is a sense in a larger kind of, meta view here that everyone is on the same page, that you just have to be willing to try some creativity, and that everyone kind of needs each other if anyone is gonna win at Amazon.
Teddy Ostrow: I think that’s a great perspective to bring. And now let’s, let’s dig into one of the efforts right now that is pretty unique, and exciting, especially for teamsters.
So 84 Amazon drivers and dispatchers, just recently unionized Teamsters, local 396, that’s out in Palmdale, California. That of course was super welcome, really, really exciting for labor folks. But it’s not an uncomplicated victory. This is because of something you hinted at, the structure of Amazon’s Last Mile Delivery Services, which poses barriers to unionization, certainly getting a contract.
Can you unpack why this is such a big deal, but also why it’s more complex than one would hope, such that this battle of the Teamsters in Amazon really is just getting started?
Alex Press: Yeah, so the most basic thing to mention is what I said at the top, which is these delivery drivers are legally, technically, not Amazon employees, which is absurd because as probably anyone listening to this show knows they drive in vehicles that are branded with Amazon branding.
They often wear Amazon branded uniforms. But Amazon very cannily set up this delivery service partner program to give themselves distance from the legal responsibilities of being an employer. So these workers have to petition their bosses for redress on all kinds of things, and their bosses are usually these small business owners who just started this company specifically to service Amazon. There are around 3000 of these companies nationwide, these delivery service partners or DSP’s. There are nearly, I think almost 300,000 drivers now who are driving for them at least part and full-time.
So that means under US labor law right now, until and unless Amazon is declared a joint employer, so also having the legal responsibility to bargain with these workers, right now, they have to petition, you know, just their small business, their DSP’s, which is what happened at that company, Battle Tested Strategies, in Palmdale.
When the news came out, not only that had they organized a union, but the owner of BTS had given them voluntary recognition — which is a sort of, while I think every boss should voluntarily recognize workers, it’s pretty unusual these days in the United States — it’s sort of displayed something that has since been kind of panned out in the reporting, which is that the owners of these DSP’s often have just as many problems with Amazon as their workers. There have been cases of these companies, their owners shutting down their companies in protest against Amazon’s expectations for them.
They work these drivers through the bone and often they’re not lying when they say “Amazon makes us do this”. So they have limited autonomy here. It’s very funny in that if Amazon has set up this, this totally arbitrary distance, to pretend that these drivers are not their workers, the owners of these companies are gonna realize that in fact, they too are just lower level managers for a workforce.
So it’s no surprise that they might end up kind of tacitly supporting unionization. The Teamsters announced that these workers had unionized, that they had gotten recognition, and in fact, they had voted and accepted a tentative agreement, so they have a contract.
Amazon immediately came out and said, “One, these are not our workers as laid out in the law. Two, we actually already told this guy who runs this company that he’s gonna have his contract canceled for poor performance. And this is just a kind of PR play on his part and on the Teamsters part.”
No one has gotten the documents really about when the timeline of Amazon’s contract cancellation happened. You know, if it happened after Amazon became aware of the union organizing, you could make the case that that was a violation of labor law. So that’s all gonna play out in the courts. I think the BTS owner himself is now kind of going along with trying to sue Amazon.
It is worth noting that the Teamsters have tried this before and Amazon has just canceled the contract with that DSP, because they have the right to do that. They do have total control over these DSP’s. The owner of a DSP is always instructed to fight any union efforts.
Amazon by every legal standing should be considered the employer, but they also, as it stands right now, can simply retaliate by canceling a contract, effectively making these workers out of work, come the end of that contract. So we’ll see what happens. I think it’s just worth noting as a last point on this, that the teamsters have kind of anticipated that this would happen.
In May, they did file a complaint with federal Labor regulators, saying that Amazon should be considered a joint or sole employer of the Palmdale workers. I am not in the prediction game, especially when it comes to extremely, untested unionization efforts at Amazon. I think Sean O’Brien, and all of the rank and filers who are sort of leading this organizing at the ground level really understand that they need to find a way to break through at Amazon, even though the legal structure of these delivery drivers’ employment makes for immense obstacles. So I’m very glad that they are, again, throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.
Teddy Ostrow: Well, I certainly won’t ask you to look into the legal crystal ball here, but I think it’s also worth just noting that while there is this complex, complicated barrier for these workers, what they want in their contract would be life changing, right? $30 an hour, the right to refuse unsafe delivery, which is a serious problem across delivery services. A number of things that we’ll see if they get it. A no no-strike clause. This is kind of transformational stuff, if it’s implemented.
Alex Press: I just wanna add that when you talk to those Palmdale drivers, a key impetus for the organizing was that just like Amazon warehouse workers, just like UPS drivers, heat on the job was becoming incredibly unsafe. They’ll say that one of these workers, I think last summer passed out and had to be taken to the hospital.
I think I read a quote from someone in the bargaining unit who said, it’s like being in a sauna. It’s completely unbearable. This has also led workers to organize across industries; these are very serious issues that Amazon certainly has proven it is not taking seriously and cannot be trusted to take seriously.
I know UPS workers similarly have been agitating not only for UPS to be responsible for regulating the temperatures both in the vehicles and in the buildings. The Amazon warehouse workers that I talked about earlier, often, that’s also a leading thing. You know, they want higher wages, they want better benefits and better schedules, they want less unsafe work in the sense of less of a strenuous quota on them, but they also often are passing out in these warehouses or having heat stroke. So this is again, a unifying kind of issue across the industry. No matter what type of logistics work you’re doing with rising temperatures, especially as summer approaches, you know, this becomes something that is not so hard to understand for anyone who works these jobs.
Teddy Ostrow: Let’s bring in the Teamsters UPS contract campaign. You wrote a great piece about it in Jacobin that I encourage everyone to read. You noted how organizing at Amazon as well as negotiating a better UPS contracts as central to Teamsters United, Sean O’Brien’s bid to the Teamsters general presidency. And I wanna try to thread these goals together.
What, what are the stakes of this contract campaign for the unionization of Amazon? And then what are the stakes of unionizing Amazon for the future of the Teamsters Union? And, you know, the greater working class.
Alex Press: Sure, sure. So it sounds complicated, but it really is not. So when you walk up, say you’re a UPS driver and you walk up to, whether it’s an Amazon warehouse worker who lives on your block or it’s an Amazon delivery driver who is parked outside of the same apartment building as you.
So you start chatting about unions, they’re gonna say, well, how’s your union contract? Like, what do you get? Not to to pretend that workers are only interested in that, but of course that’s what they want to know. and you know, I think it’s not a secret that the Teamsters negotiated a very weak contract in the last round of negotiations. So weak that it ended Hoffa Jr’s career and led to Sean O’Brien becoming the President of the Union. It has tiers. It has all these things that you’ve talked about on the show before. and so that is not something a worker can confidently approach an Amazon worker with and try to convince them that their union has their back, will never sell them out, will never abandon them, and is democratic.
None of those things were true in that last contract. A democratic vote was overridden by arcane union bureaucracy rules, you know, the classic kind of worst version of unionism. So it’s very important that Sean can go out there and actually win a strong contract; pay for part-timers will be part of that because Amazon workers are often part-time and they’re going to have more in common with the inside workers at UPS than they might have with the UPS drivers, as far as the direct Amazon warehouse workers. But similarly with delivery drivers at both companies, there needs to be this sense of victory that’s very rooted in real progress, including undoing concessions. So that’s on the one side, very practically, it’s almost like suicide to go tell your rank and file organizers, your best union militants to go pretend to another worker that you have a great contract when in fact they’re the ones who are most certain that they don’t have good contract.
So that is existential. And then on the flip side, I think I’ve kind of laid this out earlier: what does organizing Amazon do for UPS workers? Well, as I said, if they don’t organize Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers soon, they may just not exist as a union.
I mean, that’s like catastrophism that I’m saying. But Amazon has so much power, has so much growth and so much political control as well. I mean, with the lobbying arm and the tax breaks that they get, and the influential people in their realm. It’s hard to imagine how the UPS bargaining unit stays together going forward. They will be chipped away at every single contract round with UPS executives saying through their lawyers across the table, we can’t do it because there’s Amazon workers that are gonna undercut our business and they’re gonna take our business and we’re gonna go out of business unless you agree to concessions.
So these things are incredibly tied up with each other, and I think Sean O’Brien did a very good job of laying that out throughout his campaign. My understanding from speaking with the UPS workers who lead this Amazon organizing, sort of behind the scenes and on the ground, is that they really do feel like they’re being charged with trying what they can to organize certain facilities, to support things at legislative levels that gives a little more power to workers, that makes it a little easier to actually organize them in the first place. So, you know, my hope is that that vision continues to stay kind of connected in that integrated way that was laid out during the campaign.
Teddy Ostrow: And while I have you, the Amazon guru of labor journalism, is there anything else that we didn’t touch on on Amazon that you think is really important for the Teamsters listening for non Teamsters listening?
Alex Press: I’m sure it’s been said on your show before if Amazon has come up, but you know, as I tried to say, there are very different efforts going on among Amazon workers, right?
There has been, you know, formal organizing with RWDSU in Bessemer, and with the Teamsters, both among warehouses, workers and delivery drivers. There has been minority unionism like Amazonians United. There’s been independent use unionism like cause in North Carolina or the ALU. And again, like there are real tensions of course.
Before any of these efforts started many years ago, workers would say to me, “Our working conditions are so terrible. This work is so dangerous and detrimental to our bodies, and the pay is so low. Why aren’t unions helping us?” You know, there was a real sense of loss or betrayal or just confusion about, you know, isn’t the labor movement supposed to be here for us?
And so it’s very hard to just immediately undo that distrust. But I think I’ve seen, just in the course of my short five years since that opening anecdote about the Labor Notes Conference, there have been real ties being built across these efforts, across these divisions of strategy. I just think UPS workers, everyone I’ve spoke to already understands this, but I just wanna underline it, that everyone needs each other if anyone is gonna win.
Whether a Teamsters’ organized warehouse down the line is gonna win, whether the ALU is ever gonna win a contract, it requires every single person in this broader kind of ecosystem of organizing logistics to have each other’s backs, despite, and even with those differences. So that’s really the thing I try to say to people, you know, often I think people outside of the labor movement or outside of the left, want to play up the divisions and say like, “So do these people hate the Teamsters? Do these people hate the ALU?” And it’s like, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, everyone has each other’s phone numbers and they need each other. That is kind of the perspective I try to take. I certainly would hope UPS workers would take that kind of bigger view, whether it’s about organizing or about the fact that Amazon workers seem to undercut their job standards.
You know, everybody has the same enemies here. In fact, their enemies are like friends who hang out at dinners in DC; the CEO of one company or the other. I just never want people to lose sight of that.
Teddy Ostrow: Alex Press, thanks for joining me on the upsurge.
Alex Press: Thanks for having me.
Teddy Ostrow: Arturo Sono, welcome to the upsurge. So to start off, I just wanna hear about you — can you tell everybody about yourself? How did you come to the job, what exactly do you do, how long you’ve been doing it, uh, and where you are right now?
Arturo Solezano: I live in Hartsdale, California. I have a fiance, a baby on the way in August, it’s gonna be a girl. We are trying to plan a big future together. Before driving, I was actually at a fulfillment center, but the drive was too far from me and this was a lot closer.
Teddy Ostrow: So you’re a driver. How long have you been doing that?
Arturo Solezano: About two and a half years now.
Teddy Ostrow: And what, what exactly does that entail? Can you kind of explain on a day-to-day basis what you do?
Arturo Solezano: So, in the mornings we grab our pouches, we check the vehicles, make sure there’s like no nails, nothing damaged, line up, load of our vans and go get gas if we need to, and then just start our routes.
Teddy Ostrow: So it’s very similar, to what perhaps a, a number of other, so-called last mile delivery drivers do, like at FedEx, like at UPS, you pick up the packages, you drop ‘em off at people’s homes as I take it.
Arturo Solezano: Yes.
Teddy Ostrow: So I’m curious, around the country, we’ve been hearing a lot about some of the issues that drivers at Amazon deal with. Some of them are pretty similar to the issues at UPS, listeners of this show certainly know about those. Maybe you could get into some of those issues that you and your coworkers have with the workplace.
Arturo Solezano: In the summertime, those vans, they feel like saunas and they don’t have AC so all day we’re just sweating and being dehydrated and there’s only so much that water bottles can do for us; and then they get mad at us if we are trying to take our breaks cause it’s just so hot, we’re trying to recover.
I had a friend who actually had to go to the hospital cause she overheated. But thank God now she’s safe. But she had to leave the job because it was just too dangerous for her.
Teddy Ostrow: Wow. So you guys don’t have air conditioning at, at all, or it doesn’t function or, and you guys have to deal with that in some sense?
Arturo Solezano: The air condition is supposed to work, but it is very light. Then we have like just the little fans, regular fans, but they just throw hot air.
Teddy Ostrow: Do you feel unsafe when you’re doing this; you’re in Southern California, right? So I assume it gets ridiculously hot.
Arturo Solezano: Yeah. So I try to, whenever I can just try to find somewhere with shade sometimes, I’m trying to protect myself.
Teddy Ostrow: Have you ever told your employer like, “Hey, look, it’s, it’s too hot out here.” What kind of responses do you get? Or is it not even worth going that far?
Arturo Solezano: We told ‘em and they told us like, “Amazon are the ones that set the routes.” Sometimes the, the temperature would read 130, 140 even. We had customers that come out there and look at us and they feel so bad they’ll rush back inside their house and get ice and stuff, cause they see how bad it is.
Teddy Ostrow: Wow. That’s a major safety issue. As I understand it, that isn’t the only safety issue you guys have, right? Can you tell me about some of those other issues that have to do with your safety?
Arturo Solezano: Yeah. I actually got bitten by a dog once, it was hiding underneath the van, and as soon as I stepped out, it bit me. And it was a stray dog. There were other houses and none of them claimed it. So I ended up getting a tetanus shot.
Teddy Ostrow: Wow. Do you ever feel like that might happen again? That you, you see a dog in a yard…
Arturo Solezano: Yeah, so now I don’t even feel safe to go into people’s yards to drop off their packages. Sometimes they’ll order heavy things and I don’t like to leave it on the sidewalk, you know? I’ll call ‘em and I’ll wait.
But I can’t stay there forever, cause Amazon is tracking my movements. They said you gotta do, you know, a certain amount by this time.
Teddy Ostrow: You know, UPSers for example, they can, if it seems like it’s unsafe, they’re generally allowed to say like, “Hey, this is an unsafe delivery. I’m not gonna make this delivery.” What would happen if you told your employer that, “Hey, this is too, this is too risky for me.”
Arturo Solezano: They’d rather have us try to risk it and deliver it anyway. Amazon will analyze us and then we end up losing days, you know, hours. And that’s money that we need to provide for our families.
Teddy Ostrow: Speaking of money, the pay I’ve heard is an issue. Can you talk about that? Maybe your personal experience, but also those of your coworkers. What, what is the pay like at Amazon? Is it enough?
Arturo Solezano: No, we feel like we’re getting underpaid. We should be getting paid at least the same as UPS, they get 40 or 30. We feel like we should get somewhere similar cause we’re doing the exact same thing as them. And our conditions are probably a lot less safe than theirs.
Teddy Ostrow: What is it like to not get enough money? I mean, you, you live in Southern California, I can imagine the cost of living is high, where you are. What does it mean to not make the same as other drivers for you? You mentioned you have a fiancée and child on the way.
Arturo Solezano: Yeah, on the side, I have to donate my plasma to make the extra money for anything that I can’t cover with my paycheck. On my days off I have to go do something to make sure I have that money for us to make sure we can get by.
Teddy Ostrow: Now, the last thing I wanted to touch on, because it seems like such a major issue, is these performance requirements that at times seem really extreme.
Can you talk about the pressure on you guys, and how Amazon is tracking you and wanting you to perform at a pace that is probably unsafe?
Arturo Solezano: So Amazon tracks our system through their van and our package count and they’ll say, “Hey, you’ve only done certain amount at this time. Ask them why they’re behind cuz they need to catch up.”
And when I tell ‘em, you know, we gotta wait for this, we gotta do that. Apartments, sometimes it takes forever to get in. Customers don’t wanna come out to get their packages cause their dogs are outside and they get mad at us and then we end up having to skip our breaks and stuff. Because we have to go and try to catch up.
Teddy Ostrow: Have people been disciplined or, or fired or cut? What kind of retaliation do you see?
Arturo Solezano: A couple of my friends have been let go. A lot of people have been cut their hours. They just like to monitor every little thing with us. they actually let go of someone, it wasn’t the BTS people, it was Amazon that let go one of our workers instead. I don’t know that much details about it.
Teddy Ostrow: Well, I’m glad you brought up that it was Amazon doing this. As I understand it, you drive an Amazon truck and you wear an Amazon uniform.
It seems like Amazon has a lot of control over your employment, but technically you don’t work for Amazon. I’m curious, what do you think about that? Is Amazon not really in control of you? Who do you really work for?
Arturo Solezano: Even though they say we’re not, we really are. Cause they get mad at us if we don’t wear their Amazon uniform. People inside the building, they wear their pajamas and whatever they want. But if we get something like that, wear different color shorts or jeans or something, they send us home. Even though we’re not really Amazon though.
But yet you’re still trying to send us home for not being with you guys.
Teddy Ostrow: So we actually have you on the show because you and your coworkers did something really exciting that everyone seems to be cheering you on for rightfully; you unionized, your DSP or delivery service provider.
It’s called Battle Tested Strategies. You guys unionized with the Teamsters Local 396. Um, That’s kind of a brave thing to do. I’m curious, why did you guys want to unionize with the Teamsters?
Arturo Solezano: We just wanted our fair pay and everything, and safety with this job. Cause being in those vans, it’s just extremely hot. Like a sauna. I’m doing this just cause I wanna be able to provide for my family. You know, my little daughter is on her way. I wanna make sure she’s taken care of growing up.
I feel like they’re the ones that are actually trying, that are actually looking out for me. They’re the ones that have my back a lot more than Amazon ever did.
Teddy Ostrow: Have you noticed any sort of retaliation from Amazon since you guys joined up with Local 396?
Arturo Solezano: Yeah. The very first day, they grounded my van for something so small that was an easy fix, but it took him an hour to clear it. And one of the Amazon people actually came up to me, kind of talked to me like, “Oh, are you gonna be able to finish the route?” I’m like, “Dude, we’re still working. You know, why? Why do you think we’re here? Of course I can deal with my route. It’s gonna take me a little longer now cause you guys are making me wait more, but I could still get it done.”
Teddy Ostrow: And you think this has something to do with organizing?
Arturo Solezano: Mm-hmm. Cause now they’re picking every little thing they can with us, with our vans. They’re cutting down our routes. Sometimes they’re very hostile towards us, and we’re just like, yo, we’re just here just to do our jobs too. Why are you guys even being hostile towards us?
Teddy Ostrow: So you guys not only unionized, but you won a union contract and as far as I understand, you won some pretty transformational stuff.
Some of it may not be enforceable yet, but nonetheless, can, can you talk about some of the things you guys won, in this contract?
Arturo Solezano: Yeah, we fought for the vans, so they’re now safer for us. We’re able to refuse deliveries that are actually unsafe that we can’t do. and we’re fighting for a bigger raise.
Teddy Ostrow: How much money do you guys win? It’s pretty high, right?
Arturo Solezano: It’s $30 a hour.
Teddy Ostrow: Is that gonna make a difference for you?
Arturo Solezano: Yeah, it’ll help me out so much to provide for my family.
Teddy Ostrow: One thing I’m curious about is how you’ve interacted with other delivery drivers or other logistics companies like UPS. Have you interacted with any UPSers?
Arturo Solezano: Uh, yes. Some of them actually come and help us picket. I’ll see someone on my delivery route and they’ll say, “Hey. Welcome to the Union brother. Congrats. This is what we’re here for.”
Teddy Ostrow: Arturo, thanks for joining me on the Upsurge.
Kamau Franklin: I’ll back that up completely. I think Mariah’s completely correct. When we speak to folks in the community, there are folks who are informed, but there are a good amount of people who don’t know about it. And there are other folks who are carrying on with their day-to-day lives trying to survive, trying to make it out of here. But once you start talking about it, the innate reaction based on the conditions that people live in is like, well, why do we need that? We know that that means they’re going to just be in our neighborhoods and communities, arresting more people, taking away our young people that instead of providing centers for our folks to go to, providing other things and activities or improving the education system that they would rather spend again, not only just the 30 million that the city is supposed to be giving. And that number, again, is increasingly going higher once we do further investigation into how the money is actually getting to the Atlanta Police Foundation.
But the same corporations who several years ago were saying that they were on the side of Black Lives Matter, have now given 60 million dollars or close to 60 million dollars to fund a project like this. People see it on their face that these same corporations which underpay us or have enough money like Mariah mentioned earlier, to give to a project like this. So it’s not hard to convince people or it’s not hard to make it clear for folks what the purpose of a Cop City is and what the role is of police in their lives. And so when folks understand that and hear that, for the most part they have questions and they are opposed to the idea that this is the way the city should spend its money.
I will also say for the people who are working class, people who live adjacent to the forest, and it is mostly a working class black community that lives adjacent to the work to the Weelaunee forest, those folks were promised that the forest would stay intact and that it would be used for nature trails, for parks, for places for their kids to enjoy and understand nature and again, to continue to serve as a preventer of climate change.
That area’s prone to flooding. Clear cutting that’s already happening in that forest will only add to the flooding in that neighborhood which will impact working class black communities. Those communities overwhelmingly have said that they are opposed to the building of Cop City. That that was not what the promise was. The promise was for them to have an area where they can bring their kids to, where they can have a park and so forth. It was not to build a militarized training center, which is going to have shooting ranges where cops are practicing how to shoot day and night in that forest next to this working class community, that people understand that this is a targeted approach to dealing with working class communities as opposed to giving resources to these communities. They’re going to flood these communities with more cops.
Maximillian Alvarez: I’m going to lose my shit, man.
Mariah Parker: Does it not make you feel insane? It makes me feel so insane.
Maximillian Alvarez: I’m losing it.
Mariah Parker: It makes you feel so insane. And particularly they started clear cutting the forest a little bit earlier this year. And so photography and drone footage is coming out where there’s this scar on the earth where this beautiful forest used to be. Where I was at a music festival. There are people out there just vibing, enjoying music. There’s folks camping out, there are families, there’s children. They used to take children here to do field trips, to study the ecology of the forest. And now there is this, you see footage come out, they’re giving some journalists a tour of the forest today or what used to be the forest. And it drives me totally insane to see this. And I feel like speaking of common reactions of working class folks, that same shit of just being mind boggled and infuriated instantly is something I get all the time when I’m talking to people about this who haven’t heard about it before.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I know our task is to turn that into action, which again is why I’m so grateful to folks like yourselves and everyone else out there doing that unsung work, everyone listening to this who is also doing that work day in, day out. We need you guys always, and we need more folks doing that work even just to make sure that people know that this is happening in the first place, let alone building on that and talking about why we should be invested in the fight against it, what the future looks like if we don’t fight. And I think, yeah, it’s the point you both made is just so poignant and I really want folks listening to sit with it because in many ways you guys know this, but it does really bear repeating. The safest communities are not the ones with the most police.
They’re the ones with the most resources and the most kind of shared wealth access to things like drinkable water and a bed to sleep in, a house to live in, schools to send your kids to, grocery stores, not just dollar stores, so on and so forth. It’s not throwing more police at poor and working class neighborhoods, is not going to somehow magically make those neighborhoods safer. How do I know that? Because that’s what we’ve been fucking doing for the past half century or more. And it hasn’t worked, at least by the supposed goals of that approach to policing. But anyway, I digress. So because I know I only have you guys for about 10 more minutes, so I wanted to bring things back to, I think we’ve done a great job of communicating to people why the push to build Cop City, the construction thereof, the sort of shadowy government and industry forces behind it, why all of those are already an issue for working people that we should care about.
But then there’s also the draconian crackdown on the protestors against Cop City and it’s a fundamentally connected issue, but it is almost sort of an issue within itself that we and that the labor movement needs to have a serious discussion about, because that is also going to directly impact us. It’s not just that they’re all the other kind of aspects to labor, workers’ relationship to the police that we already know about when we’re on strike. Who are the ones beating picketers and clearing way for scabs to come through the picket lines? It’s the cops, right? So when coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama at Warrior Met Coal were on strike for two years, who was it who was escorting scabs past their picket lines? Who was it who was enforcing these business friendly rulings by local judges, these injunctions limiting the amount of people who could picket, how far away from the entrance they could picket?
It was the police. And so we already know that in terms of limiting workers’ ability to exercise their right to free speech, their right to assemble, their right to go on strike and to withhold their labor, the quote on quote, criminal justice system has a historically antagonistic relationship to working people expressing those rights. But it goes even deeper than that. And I hope that folks listening to this can sort of hear the resonances with the interviews that we’ve done with workers in different industries over the past six seasons. Just think about the railroad workers. They had their right to strike, stripped from them by the most, quote on quote, pro-labor union president that the US has ever seen, and a congress that happily went with that decision and they gave the bosses, the rail carriers, everything that they wanted. And so when workers have our rights to withhold our labor to speak up and to exercise those basic fundamental rights, the bosses win.
And also most people in this country can be fired without just cause. So it’s not even a question of do I have these rights at work? Most people fucking don’t. We already know that they don’t, you can’t speak up for shit without losing your job and potentially thus losing your home and if you lose your home and we live in a society that criminalizes poverty, so you’re going to get beat up by the police and shuttled into prison. So are you guys seeing the connections here?
Hosted by Teddy Ostrow
Edited by Teddy Ostrow
Music by Casey Gallagher
Cover art by Devlin Claro Resetar
Support the show at Patreon.com/upsurgepod.
Support the newly unionized Amazon drivers in Palmdale, California through their solidarity fund.
Celebrate 47 years of In These Times in style! Get your raffle tickets today for your chance to win a vacation for two to Cascais, Portugal!
One lucky raffle winner will receive a $3,000 gift card to cover the costs of two flights, as well as a stay in a 5-star boutique hotel, housed in a 17th century fortress with medieval architecture and décor. You can schedule the trip on your timeline!
All raffle ticket sales support ongoing In These Times reporting, just like the article you just finished reading. Get your raffle tickets now.
The winner will be selected on the night of September 30, at the In These Times 47th Anniversary Celebration. You do not need to be present at the drawing to win.
Ruby Walsh is an audio producer from Brooklyn. She is a co-producer of The Upsurge podcast and a development producer for Giant Grin LLC. Formerly, she was the associate producer of Moyers on Democracy and wrote for BillMoyers.com.