The Teamsters Announce Coordinated Nationwide Project to Unionize Amazon

In an official resolution obtained by Motherboard, one of the country's most powerful unions has declared an unprecedented effort to unionize Amazon.
June 22, 2021, 3:58pm
Teamsters Amazon solidarity
San Bernardino Airport Communities/ Anthony Victoria
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the country's largest and most powerful unions, has said in an official resolution obtained by Motherboard that unionizing and building worker power at Amazon is the top priority moving forward. The announcement comes on Prime Day, one of Amazon's busiest days of the year.

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"The Teamsters will build the types of worker and community power necessary to take on one of the most powerful corporations in the world and win," said Randy Korgan, the Teamster's National Amazon Director, in a 26-minute video on "the Amazon Project" obtained by Motherboard, that will be played at the Teamsters convention on Tuesday. 

At their virtual convention on Tuesday, Teamster delegates from roughly 500 local Teamsters unions will also receive a copy of the resolution, which will receive a vote on Thursday, and is expected to pass resoundingly.

The resolution states the Teamsters plan to create a special Amazon Division, specifically to aid Amazon workers in unionizing and defending standards in the logistics industry—and will fully fund the project. 

If implemented, the project will be the most ambitious and focused endeavor so far in the United States to organize the fiercely anti-union retail behemoth. Since its founding in 1994, Amazon has kept unions out of its workforce and is on track to become the country's largest employer within the next year or two. The Teamsters have 1.4 million members in the United States and Canada.

"We've been working on this for quite some time—well before Bessemer broke out," Randy Korgan, Teamsters National Director for Amazon, told Motherboard, referring to the unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama that Amazon thwarted earlier this year. 

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Randy Korgan, National Amazon Director at the Teamsters, who was appointed in 2020, speaks at a picket at the site of a future Amazon fulfillment center in Oxnard, California in February. (Teamsters)

Since 2016, various departments within the Teamsters have been tracking Amazon's growth and impact and speaking to thousands of workers to develop the best strategies for organizing Amazon workers, according to the resolution. At the convention, the Teamsters will declare a sharper, unified approach across the Teamsters International, 500 local unions and dozens of joint councils. 

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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The Teamsters—which represents workers across the logistics industry, including warehousing, package delivery, freight, airline, and food distribution—sees itself as a natural fit for organizing Amazon. "We have an intrinsic knowledge in the industry," Korgan said. "We understand transportation and logistics companies that are only motivated by profit will make changes that always end in workers losing. There’s been one unified organization for those workers and that’s been Teamsters members and the Teamsters union as a whole." 

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Earlier this year, following an intense union-busting campaign led by Amazon management and hired consultants, Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama voted against unionizing in a landslide defeat for the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which ignited a wave of interest among Amazon workers from New York City to Iowa City in forming unions and having a say in their wages, workplace safety protections, productivity requirements, and rest time. 

With the Amazon Project, the Teamsters are taking a different approach that doesn't rely on the traditional National Labor Relations Board election process that allows employers to run sophisticated anti-union campaigns and involves the task of running elections warehouse by warehouse. 

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Instead the Teamsters plan to focus on a series of pressure campaigns involving work stoppages, petitions, and other collective action to push Amazon to recognize a union and bargain over working conditions. This tactic mirrors how the Teamsters organized its first members, horse drivers, grave haulers, and beer wagon drivers, who did not have union rights in the early twentieth century, using shop floor strikes, city-wide strikes, and other mass collective action in the streets.  

"We could have been the first Bessemer, but we chose not to go down the path of an NLRB election for the reasons that were validated in the Bessemer union election," Korgan said. "At the same time, the Bessemer workers' message was heard by millions of workers in their position who realized, 'Oh there's something I can do about this.’ The list is very long in how workers can seek justice on the job. The NLRB is not the only way." 

The Teamsters hold a convention every five years where delegates across the United States and Canada vote to set a new agenda for the union. This year's convention will focus on the Amazon Project. The project has six main components, according to the convention video obtained by Motherboard—educating and engaging its current union members, organizing Amazon workers, engaging the public, antitrust enforcement, industry pressure, and global solidarity. 

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The Teamsters would not go into detail about the funding or timeline for the Amazon Project, but said Teamster International, local unions, and dozens of regional joint councils have "committed tremendous resources to this." Around the country, members are already participating in volunteer organizing training and education sessions related to the Amazon Project, and will continue to do so in the coming years. These trainings focus on how Amazon degrades pay and working conditions across the logistics industry, the history of worker struggles that led to the formation of Teamsters, and how Teamsters members can organize and engage Amazon workers. 

This volunteer organizing program, which was developed by Korgan in Southern California and is the model for the Amazon Project's worker education program, is based on the premise that Amazon workers often belong to the same communities, families, and neighborhoods as Teamsters union members—and should leverage those connections to organize Amazon. 

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A Teamsters member picketing at a work stoppage in Oxnard, California in February targeting an Amazon warehouse development. (Teamsters)

"I have a son who worked at Amazon and a cousin who works at Amazon. I really see Amazon how they're in a position where your hands are tied and you have management not treating you fairly and you’re not getting your fair share of the pie," said Donnell Jefferson, a forklift operator at TForce Logistics in Memphis, Tennessee and a Teamsters union member. 

Jefferson helped unionize his worksite in 2008 and got a $4 raise. He now makes $29.08 an hour and says his treatment from managers improved with a union contract. He joined the volunteer program to help other workers organize.

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"My young cousin [who works at Amazon] always calls me asking for a loan," he said. "I don't mind but she shouldn’t be in a position where she has to live with her mom and borrow money. They ought to be able to get better wages and healthcare and take care of their family. I struggled before I unionized but it's changed my life." 

"I do volunteer organizing because I feel Amazon workers should have what I have," said Robert Martinez, a UPS driver and member of Teamsters Local 63 in Ontario, California who participates in the volunteer organizing program. Martinez, who is 42 years old, earns $39.23 an hour as a yard shifter, and receives a pension and healthcare benefits. 

"I’m here to educate workers on their right to organize to stand up to employers," he continued. "I have talked to Amazon drivers when I run into them. They're overworked and are not employees of Amazon. One day when I'm out there on a street I hope I am able to greet an Amazon driver and know he’s in a union and he’s getting paid like he should be." 

As a point of comparison, Amazon delivery drivers in Southern California earn $15 or $16 an hour. As Motherboard has previously reported, Amazon frequently touts its $15 an hour minimum wage, while positioning itself against Walmart and other retail jobs, where workers are typically paid much less.  But in reality, Amazon is driving down wages in the warehouse and delivery industries. 

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Even with the benefits and protections of a union, Teamsters members, particularly at UPS and other logistics companies, say they've seen their working conditions deteriorate as Amazon has expanded its reach in the parcel delivery sector. 

They cite higher delivery quotas, more weekend and holiday shifts, unpredictable schedules, and a greater reliance on temps and contractors. Motivated by improving these worsening conditions, UPS and other unionized logistics workers are joining the effort to organize Amazon workers. 

"Quotas are going up. Astronomical figures. We've seen a massive increase in Amazon packages," Anthony Rosario, a UPS driver in Brooklyn and a shop steward at Teamsters Local 804 who has been in the union for 27 years, told Motherboard. "Industry standards are being diminished that we fought for for decades. They're forcing people to work holidays and weekends. [UPS] is bending to Amazon's competition."

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Activists with San Bernardino Airport Communities, a community group with ties to the Teamsters, stops Amazon traffic at action in the Inland Empire, California. (San Bernardino Airport Communities/ Anthony Victoria)

Unlike the Bessemer union drive, which went public a few months into the campaign, the Teamsters are keeping much of their internal strategy under wraps in order to avoid Amazon's union busting campaigns. 

Still, the Teamsters has been publicly engaging in a community pressure campaign in California's Inland Empire, where Amazon is the largest private employer and has at least 14 Amazon fulfillment centers, to implement a community benefits agreement that would mandate that a new Amazon Air Regional AirHub pay prevailing wages and agree to a zero-emissions plan. Earlier this year, USA Today reported that the union has been organizing hundreds of delivery drivers at two warehouses in Iowa. 

"Every region must understand the systems that are at play," said Korgan in the video that will be shown at the convention on Tuesday. "If [Amazon] workers are organizing independently, the Teamsters will help. If workers are not organizing, Teamsters will get it started. Our union has been the leading expert on how to create good career jobs and it's time Amazon workers know this."