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Salts: Enter the Amazon Job Fair

Try to make it out alive and unionized; union salting explained

Kris LaGrange's picture
Sep 15, 2020

Only 6 percent of private-sector employees are covered by a union contract, however, unions are becoming as popular as ever. Combined with the urgency of the pandemic and the failing economy, this presents an opportunity for the American labor movement to get creative and try something they used to do all the time: get union activists hired at the largest companies and organize new union shops.

This tactic is known as salting. It’s a lot easier said than done, but if not now, when?

Talking about opportunities, Amazon, the fifth-largest private employer in the world, is currently on a hiring spree. The internet retailer will host its first virtual Career Day on September 16, and potentially hiring 33,000 new corporate and tech employees. These are well-paying positions, so in the current job climate, the competition will be more intense than ever.

It’s not hard to imagine that any mention of a union will get you kicked out of the event, even if it is virtual.

Amazon has hosted similar job fairs before in person. They allegedly offer health insurance, retirement plans, and stock options. The company-wide minimum hourly wage rose to $15 in 2018, but the thousands of new corporate and tech positions average around $150,000 in salary and stock options. Sounds good on paper.

The reality, according to first-hand accounts from Amazon employees and a report by RWDSU, is much darker, especially inside the “fulfillment centers” or warehouses. Part-time or temp employees make less than full-time direct hires, and assistant managers make barely $1 more per hour. Mandatory overtime, speed-ups, and evaluations abound under the threat of write-ups, probation, and firing.

The pandemic only made bad situations worse. A sizable number of Amazon employees are clearly agitated, as seen in strikes and walkouts from New York City to Germany.

The hourly, entry-level employees are not alone in their struggles. Tim Bray, a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services (AWS) resigned on May 1, 2020, after the firing of whistleblowers. This solidarity between the warehouse workers and the tech professionals will be essential in any organizing at Amazon moving forward.

During Amazon’s Career Day, attendees will learn next to nothing about workers’ rights or their most recent grievances. Instead, they will learn about the internal culture and founding mission of becoming “the most customer-centric company” in the world. This can’t be changed in one day.

It will take many days, nights, and people working on the inside. This is where salts come in.

To be clear, salting is legal. As employees, salts fall under the National Labor Relations, but Republican-appointed NLRB judges have chipped away at those protections.

Getting hired is the first step and often the hardest. Amazon’s Career Day is a chance to learn how the hiring process works, not only at this company but also across all of Corporate America.

The message to organized labor is this; take a chance! Resumes might not be screened as strictly as they once were. Over 13 million Americans are unemployed, and the majority of job-seekers are looking for new jobs in different industries. Your trained undercover union activists could slip right through the cracks.

Once hired, salts should commit themselves to binge good, reliable employees — show up on time, get work done, act professionally and avoid costly mistakes — in order to gain the trust of management and to keep the job. At the same time, salts should identify leaders and activists who potentially could form the union or at least fight for a concession from corporate, such as a worker-driven safety committee on the shop floor or mandatory PPE and training.

Amazon workers seem to already know what they want, but they need organization. This is where organized labor comes in.

Unions can support salt campaigns with resources, best practices, and funding, as they have in past campaigns. They can recruit (and pay) union activists eager to start fresh in a new workplace and get down to organizing and empowering their co-workers. Institutional support and coordinated effort on this level can make salting, hard enough as it is, more effective. IBEW Local 98 in Philadelphia was successful using salts, so this tactic can work.

Unions, like all of us, are looking at an uncertain future. Falling market share, even in union towns such as New York City, and the utter dominance of tech giants like Amazon call for more creative and ambitious organizing drives. Plus, with Amazon’s popularity among consumers, the time is ripe to lean on the consumers who come from a union household. Unionists make great consumers, earning on average 22% more per year. Most union workers understand this, and the plight of the low-wage delivery guy could be met with not only sympathy but activism when packages are delivered at their door.

Salting is but one tactic for a new generation of workers and unions looking to seize this historic moment. Amazon and their like won’t see it coming.

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