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But unions were sharply divided about how to deal with the tech giant.
Updated On: Feb 21, 2019
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, second from left, speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area.

Ever since Amazon’s plans to open a second headquarters in New York were announced last November, two things have become clear about organized labor and Amazon. First, labor is eager to unionize Amazon, or at least parts of Amazon, a fiercely anti-union company that doesn’t have a single unionized facility in the United States—none of its “fulfillment center” workers, Whole Foods workers, or drivers are unionized. Second, labor is seriously divided about how to achieve its ambitious goal of unionizing Amazon.

Days after Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio trumpeted the deal in which Amazon promised to create 25,000 jobs in Queens and would receive $3 billion in subsidies, New York’s building trades unions announced that Amazon had given its blessing to letting the project’s construction work, involving an estimated 5,000 workers, be unionized.  Moreover, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union said that Amazon and the developers on the new project had agreed that the janitors and security guards who worked at Amazon’s new headquarters would be unionized. 

Even as the building trades unions and Local 32BJ openly supported Amazon’s plans for New York, however, many New York progressives railed against the deal because of Amazon’s anti-union reputation, the $3 billion subsidy and fears that Amazon’s arrival would push up New York’s already high rents. 

But many labor leaders wanted more from Amazon than what the construction trades and Local 32BJ were getting. 

These labor leaders noted that the unionized construction workers and janitors would not be directly employed by Amazon, but by contractors and developers working with Amazon. The AFL-CIO, the Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) were intent on using Amazon’s New York ambitions as a way to get a union inside Amazon. For too long, union leaders argued, major corporations like Amazon have allowed a little unionization on their fringes—for instance, among janitors and construction workers—but not in their core operations. 

As one union strategist put it, “The labor movement had to decide: Are we happy to be a movement on the margins, or do we want to fight for the real pie? … Do we stay in the box or do we fight for the real economic core of the labor market?” The AFL-CIO, Teamsters and RWDSU concluded that with Amazon growing so large and so central to the nation’s economy, it was time to confront the giant. 

“We had a broad message that if Amazon wanted the largesse of New York, if they wanted the subsidies, they first needed to respect workers and respect communities,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s president. “We looked at how Amazon treats workers all over the world, and it was unacceptable. We looked at the health and safety problems when you go to work at Amazon, and it wasn’t good. We talked about how the International Trade Union Confederation named Jeff Bezos [Amazon’s founder] one of the worst bosses in the world.”

The AFL-CIO, Teamsters and RWDSU called on Amazon to agree to neutrality to help unions organize the 2,500 workers at Amazon’s new fulfillment center in Staten Island. Appelbaum voiced confidence that neutrality (a commitment not to oppose unionization) would enable labor to organize the Staten Island warehouse and that this would lead to unionization at other Amazon facilities. As a model, Appelbaum pointed to what his union had done with Zara. The retail clothing chain had agreed to neutrality at one New York store, and once the RWDSU unionized that store, it used that as a launching pad to unionize all eight Zara stores in New York. Similarly, that union used neutrality to organize more than 1,500 workers at 17 H&M stores in the New York area.  

“Everyone knows the history of Amazon across the world, their labor relations and how they treat their workers—it’s notorious,” said George Miranda, the top Teamsters official in New York. “Now that they were coming into New York, the most progressive, union-heavy state, we were looking for neutrality where they would not fight unionization.”

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