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What Union is Qualified to Organize Amazon?

As Amazon plays politics in where they should build HQ2, what union has what it takes?

Kris LaGrange's picture
Mar 04, 2019

Oh, Amazon, what to do with you.

First, you innovated e-commerce to become the world’s largest Internet retailer, and at the same time, you did your best to thwart organized labor at every turn. Then, you brought together bitter Democratic rivals, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Your City Mayor Bill de Blasio, at the same table. Those guys sold you on the Empire State with almost $3 billion in tax incentives. New York City politicians wanted you here, but now they don’t. Oh, what to do?

That’s what unions and progressives have been asking themselves since Amazon and the top politicos of New York State announced the HQ2 move to Long Island City, Queens last month. Now they are asking what the heck happened that scared that opportunity away. But wait, is Amazon still interested in coming back. God only knows, or do others as well?

Democratic NYS Assemblyman Ron Kim from Queens announced legislation to cancel economic development subsidies and instead use those funds to cancel student debt.  That idea is novel and popular, but there is no way the Courts would uphold that progressive and popular idea. New York City activists wanted to stop the Amazon build completely, and they got what they craved.

One of the few good prospects in the Amazon-deal-gone-awry is the fact that their destination was being developed in the biggest union town in the country. To their credit, some unions were proactive. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, who supported the deal upon its announcement, had secured an agreement with the real estate developers that would have net the union some jobs for maintenance and security workers at the new Amazon HQ2 headquarters. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, (RWDSU) is currently organizing at Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, which opened this fall after being built with union building trades labor, the RWDSU is also trying to organize at trendy Whole Foods Markets, an Amazon subsidiary.

Those successful union organizing efforts at the Staten Island warehouse could have turned the Amazon HQ2 move into a net gain for the local workforce, having benefitted the largely skilled, educated, unionized and diverse workforce of New York City. An Amazon headquarters in New York also could have raised sales, production and performance standards at Amazon; one of the largest corporations in the world.

The recently failed Amazon deal also promised up to 25,000 jobs inside HQ2 that supposedly would have paid six-figure salaries. These are the Silicon Valley-type jobs that have evaded union organizing drives in the past. Any union that attempts to organize these positions face an extremely steep hill to climb. Forget the cowboy-style Pinkertons working security; technical Amazon workers are not just intelligent, but they prize the individual and may have a false sense of social obligation to one another.

Amazon performs tests before hiring these people, many of whom are ex-military or from foreign countries working with H1B visas. It takes a certain skill set to work with this form of labor, let alone organize them to bargain as one collective unit.  Also, NYC hosts some of the biggest and strongest unions in the country. All have a stake in the city’s labor-friendly reputation. NYC has prevented anti-union corporations from breaking ground within its borders, including retailers Walmart and Wegmans Supermarkets.

To make inroads with hostile employers takes time, energy and resources. Let’s take a look at SEIU 32BJ. They made pretty successful inroads into the Amazon campus-to-be. But with them favoring the deal in a clandestine nature, they learned the hard way that they were not on the public’s side at this point in the fight. Live and learn.

If RWDSU/UFCW weren’t already involved in organizing the warehouses and grocery stores owned by Amazon, could they have possibly organized the highly skilled tech workers as well? Is the RWDSU even equipped or qualified to go against a corporation of that magnitude? The Building Trades play ball with all employers, and they will build anything for anybody as long as they get paid. That means Walmart’s, Targets, Amazon, etc. The SEIU plays the long game, often going at it solo, but it works for them and you can’t blame them, however, their workforces are typically low wage with entry-level skills. So who would have been qualified to organize, represent and advocate for Amazon’s skilled technical workforce? That’s an easy question.

When thinking of powerful and strategic unions in New York City, the IBEW comes to mind. With over 900,000 members nationwide, and over 50,000 within the NYC region. Ranging from Local Unions that work in electrical and high-tech telecom, broadcasting, manufacturing, and operations work, the IBEW has a strong history of organizing both blue and white-collar jobs.

Take a look at Local 3 IBEW for example. They could put a dent in any company and work with industry leaders to build stability not only for its members but for an industry as a whole. Local 3 IBEW can work nicely with its employers like they do with the coveted and world renowned Joint Industry Board. While at the same time, they can take a fight to a higher level, a level that RWDSU could never do.

Local 3 IBEW Business Manager Christopher Erikson has led an incredible fight against Spectrum, New York State’s largest cable and internet provider. In the course of the said fight, the union has put together a broad coalition of support from politicians, including bitter rivals Gov. Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio, the NYS AFL-CIO, and Charter’s customers. The union is employing a diverse set of tactics, a media campaign to get Charter’s 2 million customers in New York to cut their cords over a strike involving 1,800 utility workers in New York City.

Here is the scoop; the Tech workers - like those who will fill the offices of Amazon HQ2, are showing more and more signs of labor militancy. Google recently saw 20,000 employees in 50 cities worldwide walk out in retaliation to reports of sexual harassment and insidious contracts with the Pentagon and the Chinese government. Volunteer groups such as the Tech Workers Coalition and the Center for Humane Technology have popped up on both the East and West Coast over the past few years. These type of coalitions on the west coast can be easily replicated in New York City with the direct leadership of the IBEW.

This is the level of organizing needed to be successful at Amazon HQ2. The IBEW is the union with the history, experience, and resources needed to help Amazon organize its workforce for long-term business stability, growth, and development. If Amazon builds in New York, along with the recent news that talks have resumed, building HQ2 in New York may still be an option. It makes perfect sense for the IBEW to be at the negotiations table every step of the way. Few pundits can argue against it.

For the future of Amazon's overall company model, Amazon could maintain and grow a healthy business for years, if not decades to come, with a good working relationship with organized labor. Closed door talks took place that the mainstream media was never privy to between select business and union leaders. Proponents agree that politicians like Senator Mike Gianaris and his fellow NYC elected officials killed the Amazon HQ2 project, but more blame can be doled out.

The New York City Central Labor Council (CLC) could have done more to keep the City’s diverse union workforce lockstep in both messaging and street theatre when it came to expressing their position on the Amazon deal. Both the Building Trades and the RWDSU should have been silent on their pro or con messaging. They weren’t. Instead, ego’s were fed, and now good jobs are gone. Some say that the City CLC should have done anything and everything in their power to keep those egos in check.

All is not lost though. Talks have resumed, organized labor, while licking their wounds, should be doing what they can to now make this work and we can tell you they are. But here is the skinny; the question on who should represent the Amazon workforce is a question that is not easily answered, but to simplify it here we go:

Build it: The Building Trades
Drivers: The Teamsters
Warehouse: The RWDSU
Maintenance: The SEIU
High Tech: The IBEW

Dear Mr. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and the richest man in the world, trust us here at UCOMM. The above-named labor organizations are when they are at their best, good, reasonable people. They will not only make you richer, but they will make you the most successful corporation ever to exist in the history of the United States of America.

Dan Hinton contributed to this article.

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