Non-Union Workers, Rise Up

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Can habitually abused and underpaid non-union construction workers in New York City look to the Amazon Labor Union for inspiration?

New York City construction workers who seek to unionize might consider looking to the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) for inspiration.

 

On April 1, 2022, more than 2,500 Amazon workers at JFK8—the company’s colossal warehouse on Staten Island—voted to form a union. The vote is being touted as one of the biggest victories for organized labor in decades. The ALU, formed by Christian Smalls with coworkers Derrick Palmer, Jordan Flowers, and Gerald Bryson, relied on current and former workers to unionize, foregoing the traditional route of hiring professional labor organizers. As the New York Times put it, the remarkable success of an independent drive has organized labor asking “whether it should take more of a back seat.”

 

Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, told the Times that the pro-union vote at Amazon is “sending a wake-up call” to the rest of the labor movement. “We have to be driven by workers to give ourselves the best chance.”

“All good organizing campaigns start from the bottom up.”

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Amazon Labor Union members, including the lead organizer Christian Smalls, celebrate their union-vote victory in New York. Mr. Smalls and several other Amazon employees ran the unionization effort as insiders. -- DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times

Many workers and union representatives in New York’s construction industry agree with Dimondstein’s reaction. “I’m very inspired by what [the ALU organizers] did,” said a former longtime union carpenter who opted to remain anonymous for this article. “They took on one of the richest men in the world and won, and the reason they were able to win is because they were led by a couple of guys in the warehouse, people who were regular workers. No outside organizers were parachuting in without a clear understanding of what was going on.”

 

Jordan Flowers of the ALU echoed this statement when he spoke to The New Yorker earlier this month. “It made sense that workers like us need to have a union, and we should take it upon ourselves, because other unions don’t know what Amazon facilities look like,” he said.

 

The Complexity of Unionization for Construction Teams

The ALU’s recent triumph should set an example for unionization efforts for many in New York City’s tumultuous construction world; recent data shows that a staggering 75.6% of the state’s construction force is not unionized. 

 

But while ALU’s bottom-up campaign method worked at Amazon, the organizational logistics become more convoluted for New York’s non-unionized construction workers. Construction laborers do not always work on one location, like the Amazon workers in Staten Island. On construction sites, the personnel are constantly changing; once a contract is up and their portion of work is done, workers move on to the next job (or workers might be moving around between five to ten job sites). It’s hard to track the whereabouts of the workers, let alone organize them to form a union. “It’s just a difficult animal to tackle,” said Rubén Colón, a council representative at the Area Standards Department of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. “It’s a lot more complicated than what you saw at Amazon.” Colón continued that if a company has 50 workers on a site, ten to 15 of them are probably the core workforce, and the rest are often “fly-by” workers, there only temporarily.

“Casting a wider net to attract a more diverse group of workers and educate them about the benefits of union membership is key to their success”

– Sandra Ung

New York City Council Member 

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City Council member Sandra Ung says New York needs to do more to educate about the benefits of unionization and facilitate unionization for more workers.

Still, though bottom-up campaigning would be more difficult for construction workers, Colón said it is nevertheless the sole way to go. “All good organizing campaigns start from the bottom-up,” said Colón. “The workers must own the fight. It doesn’t always work when people come from the outside and try to organize workers. Who are they? Do they understand the conditions that the employees are working under? Are they part of that? Are they on the job themselves? It has to come from within.” He added, “They must have ownership over their fight for a campaign to be successful.”

 

Key Issues: Legislation, Immigration

Local politicians who champion the Labor movement, such as Council member Sandra Ung, are working to bring more of the city’s non-union workers into the union fold. “Casting a wider net to attract a more diverse group of workers and educate them about the benefits of union membership is key to their success,” Ung told Union-Built Matters, adding that it is among her responsibilities to inform her constituents of the “avenues available to them to join unions—such as certifications and apprenticeships—as opportunities rather than hurdles.” Such a campaign, she said, would help create a “strong union workforce in this city for generations to come.”

 

But there are many reasons why many non-union workers don’t cross over to a union. Colón remarked that often it is simply easiest for non-union trade workers to keep their jobs rather than devoting their time to unionization efforts. Workers may also be suspicious of unions and unwilling to pay potential dues, plus they may have the valid fear of losing their job. Non-union jobs are generally easy to find and quick to hire.

 

And for immigrant workers, it’s a whole other monster; documented or not, they may face harsh discrimination when trying to complete the certification process to unionize. If they are in fact undocumented, the idea of risking a job and possibly deportation to join organization efforts is daunting. As Brima Sylla, an ALU member and a Liberian immigrant who works as a stower on the morning shift at JFK8, told Jacobin earlier this month: “As immigrants, we work hard to live in this country, and we don’t want to jeopardize our jobs…I had to take a lot of precautions.” So Sylla would only talk about the union during breaks or after work, trying hard not to violate any rules.

 

According to the Office of the New York State Comptroller, immigrants held 53 percent of the construction jobs in New York City in 2021. Many of the non-union workers in New York City are immigrants, and a large percentage of them are undocumented, though exact statistics are not logged. But it’s clear that in order for mass-unionization efforts to happen across the city’s construction industry, immigration reform is crucial. “These workers need a pathway to citizenship,” said Colón. “For most workers, that is their main goal—citizenship and then unionization.”

 

New laws in this arena are needed. “It’s going to take legislation,” Colón said, remarking that it would not be enough for workers to make demands on their own. “Legislation, however, won’t happen unless the workers themselves rise up.”

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For Amazon workers, organizing meant person-to-person outreach between workers to drive awareness of the union vote and win opinions. -- Dave Sanders for The New York Times

 
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Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at jessica.beebe.ny@gmail.com.

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