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John Hopkins, a warehouse worker by trade and a coder by passion, went to work one day in January 2020, hoping to pitch coworkers about joining a union. He had built a website where workers could sign up and distributed homemade fliers to get the word out. But the fliers repeatedly disappeared from the warehouse bulletin board and Hopkins’ work locker, so he switched to telling coworkers one on one about his website. At first, his coworkers wouldn’t even take a slip of paper with the website’s address.
On May 1, Hopkins started his night shift at Amazon’s Oakland distribution center and noticed chalked slogans on the ground outside for May Day, a day of international worker solidarity. Inspired by the messages, Hopkins stayed in the breakroom after work to ask a manager why his fliers were being removed. The manager replied that he was violating social distancing rules. The following night, Hopkins was suspended from his job.
“The real reason for the disciplinary actions that Amazon is taking is not about safety,” he said. “It’s really about silencing workers.”
Retaliation against workers attempting to organize is common in U.S. workplaces, according to a 2019 Economic Policy Institute study, “Unlawful,” which says “U.S. employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns.”
As the cost of living in the Bay Area increases, workers are seeking ways to use their collective power to protect their workplace rights and better their conditions. Workers at two local Amazon warehouses and San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery have conducted organizing drives, aiming at primarily young people of color who are challenging employers who try to silence them. Their efforts are part of a larger movement to redistribute power that they say is increasingly concentrated with the wealthy and powerful.
UNSAFE WORKING CONDITIONS, INADEQUATE PAY
Working conditions at Amazon and Tartine changed drastically when the coronavirus pandemic began. At the start of the pandemic, Hopkins said, managers would assign all workers to the same aisle of the warehouse, making social distancing nearly impossible. He repeatedly asked for training about how to dock and unload trailers. He received no such training, just a badge authorizing him to do the work.
“The whole training is really just supervisors telling you how dangerous the work is and that if you do it wrong one time you’ll be fired,” Hopkins said.
Two days after his suspension, Hopkins received an email from Adrienne Williams, a driver at Amazon’s Richmond warehouse, inviting him to meet the small group of organizers responsible for the chalked demands on the sidewalk outside the Oakland warehouse.
Before working at Amazon, Williams was a junior high school teacher at Summit Charter Schools. After battling with administrators over her efforts to get the school to provide better education and safety for students, she thought driving a delivery truck would be less stressful. But she was often sent on unsafe or deserted routes well after dark with no cell phone service or protection, and Amazon would not allow her to carry pepper spray or defend herself in an altercation. If she did, she remembers being told, “You better run like your life depends on it because if you throw a punch back, you’re fired.”
When Williams told her manager she and other employees needed company support following school shutdowns and parents having to homeschool their children, he laughed and mocked her. “I work really hard, and I’m being forced to leave work and he’s acting like taking care of my child is a joke,” she said.
Managers also told Williams she wasn’t included in the COVID-19 relief fund for Amazon employees because Amazon drivers work for the company indirectly, hired by a third party delivery service provider. Drivers wear Amazon uniforms, drive an Amazon van, deliver Amazon packages and are held to Amazon standards but the company claims no responsibility to support them or protect them on the job. After talking with drivers and even directly hired warehouse employees, “I haven’t found one person who’s gotten money from that relief fund,” she said. Amazon’s $15-an-hour wage is far below what it takes to support a family these days, she said. “It just keeps 500,000 workers on the brink of ruin every month.”
Inadequate pay, unsafe working conditions, and a lack of upward mobility for workers of color are among the complaints Hopkins enumerates.
Black workers, he said, face discrimination and racial profiling at Amazon, and see this treatment as part of the social bias that extends from the warehouse to communities where Blacks face police abuse, a sizable portion of it lethal. Williams and Hopkins said managers labeled them as aggressive and troublesome for voicing their concerns at work.
“Because we are Black men who don’t necessarily back down and run away with our tails between our legs anytime someone in a supposed position of authority steps out of bounds, we are considered aggressive and dangerous and angry and all these words with negative connotations that are often associated with Black men,” Hopkins said.
Amazon, he said, does not reveal criteria for promotions or information about employee performance. His supervisor refused to show Hopkins his performance review. “They will not allow you to have even the most basic information about yourself. Let alone the aggregate information you need to judge how you’re being treated compared to your coworkers,” he said.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
UNIONIZING AMAZON: GROWTH AND LOSSES
Williams helped organize the May Day demonstration at the Richmond warehouse after connecting with Chris Smalls, a Staten Island warehouse worker fired by Amazon in March. Smalls led a walkout demanding better protection against coronavirus and, like Hopkins, was dismissed for allegedly violating social distancing rules.
A few weeks later, Seattle employees Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa lost their jobs after raising concerns about the company’s climate policies and warehouse safety during the pandemic. Amazon executive Tim Bray left the company following the firing of the two women. Workers in Minnesota and New York also were fired for protesting warehouse conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hopkins returned to work in July after more than two months of suspension and is awaiting an investigation of his case by Amazon. He believes media coverage of Amazon’s treatment of the other four workers kept the company from firing him for his organizing activity. “That’s four people who had to lose their jobs so that I’m in a position where I may not lose mine,” he says.
Williams and Hopkins are the founders of Bay Area Amazonians, one of multiple Amazon workers’ organizations in the country. Hopkins said he is focusing on building a safe online platform where workers can collectively determine how the union moves forward. “I want people to be able to organize without having to become experts in organizing,” he said.
The Amazonians United network has started groups in Sacramento; Queens, New York; and Chicago. “This is the movement that is going to unionize Amazon. But we just can’t have too high of expectations of how quickly this is gonna move,” Hopkins said. “Amazon is working hard, tirelessly, night and day, to prevent unionizing, so you know we’re up against the monster, we’re up against a literal giant.”
BAKERY UNION BEGINNINGS
About the time Hopkins started bringing fliers for his coworkers at Amazon, a group across the bay took a big step in workplace organizing. On Feb. 6, 2020, workers at San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery went public with their union.
The upscale Tartine is exponentially smaller than Amazon, whose wealth surpasses that of several nations, yet the bakery used similar anti-union tactics when its 200 workers began to organize.
Tartine has not responded to a request for comment.
Barista Matt Torres was one of the first Tartine employees to start organizing after managers made it clear that added benefits for employees would not be part of the company’s growth plan as it expands to Los Angeles and South Korea. The company cut its health insurance for part-time workers and managers dismissed any questions about raises. Torres said he and other workers would joke about having a union, but it wasn’t until hearing about the successful union at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co., that they began to have real hope.
“We met for the first time and just started talking about our problems about the corporatization of Tartine, the lack of raises, the way that the company wasn’t paying attention to us,” he said.
The Tartine workers contacted the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, which had helped the Anchor Brewery workers. Chapter members explained the ins and outs of organizing and building a union. Workers complained of no holiday pay or vacation time, inconsistent scheduling, disrespect from supervisors and lack of healthcare coverage. They chose the union that Anchor Brewery workers had joined, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
“I’ve known of the ILWU for a very long time. We wanted them because we knew their history,” Torres said. “They are anti-racist, they’re led by Black people, they’ve shown up in communities of color. They’ve done a lot of work and we wanted to be a part of that.”
The ILWU has been active in local and international labor and racial justice campaigns for decades, including the refusal to handle cargo from apartheid South Africa and El Salvador during its civil war. The ILWU’s international president and the presidents of its two largest Bay Area locals are African-American, while leaders of its Los Angeles local are Chicano.
Although most Tartine employees and customers are white, people of color led much of the organizing effort. Torres said white chauvinisms and systematic racism meant that historically, “a lot of the front of the house workers in the restaurant industry are white.” The union decided to challenge that by making sure that people of color had leading roles in the organizing campaign.
TARTINE FIGHTS UNIONIZING
Tartine workers soon started working with ILWU organizer Agustin Ramirez, who has work the union for over 20 years and previously organized farmworkers and women’s garment workers. According to Ramirez, the ILWU believes all workers have a right to select a union, organize and make their own decisions.
“We had to court Agustin,” Torres recalled. “We had to show him that we really wanted to be part of their union because they’re putting their money into helping us.” For months the workers organized underground. “We mapped [identified] everyone who worked with us. We had to keep quiet for a year and not say anything to people we didn’t really trust.”
After a year of quiet organizing and weekly meetings at the nearby DSA office, Tartine workers announced their union online and delivered letters to all managers during a Thursday opening shift.
Tartine management said it would take the weekend to consider recognizing the union, and returned on Monday morning with an anti-union campaign led by consulting firm Cruz and Associates. According to progressive news site Think Progress, these consultants have helped companies like Hilton and Trump hotels, American Apparel and trucking company Con-way, Inc., fight unions. Companies have paid around $500,000 a year to union-busters.
Workers suspected that Tartine, too, was spending a lot of money on the consultants, while, according to Torres, it was cutting benefits to workers, raising the question: “You have money to spend on this, but you don’t have money for us?”
The National Labor Relations Board scheduled an election for the workers to decide whether they wanted the ILWU to represent them. During the four weeks before the election, the company held daily “captive-audience meetings” at all locations, where consultants discouraged workers from unionizing. According to Torres, they told workers that the union was using them for personal gain.
“They really flipped a lot of our Spanish-speakers, because, you know, you come from a different country, you’re trying to make a better place for yourself and your family, and you have your company telling you why the union is evil for you,” Torres said. “People are going to be scared.”
Undocumented workers at Tartine feared Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that were becoming frequent in San Francisco’s Mission District, where one of the bakeries is located. Ramirez said a union can protect undocumented workers by requiring employers to give a day’s notice before a raid, a protection that the ILWU won for Alameda County recycling workers.
UNCERTAINTY FOLLOWING CORONAVIRUS
The union election at Tartine took place on March 12 for the three facilities in San Francisco and on March 13 for the one in Berkeley, just before the Bay Area started sheltering-in-place. The Berkeley vote was unanimously in favor of a union, while the San Francisco vote was 89-85.
“On the very last day that the company could hire people who would be eligible to vote, it hired 12 people just to vote ‘no,’” Ramirez said.
The NLRB held a hearing in early July to determine whether certain votes are valid; results are expected by mid-September. Even with the slim margin, Ramirez believes the result will likely be in the union’s favor. After the results are finalized, negotiations with Tartine management will begin.
When the shelter-in-place started, Tartine laid off 80% of its workers. The Berkeley Graduate Hotel terminated its contract with Tartine, which then closed its Berkeley location. Torres, who worked there, said the company denied worker requests for transfer to San Francisco locations.
“I’ve been working for the company for more than two and a half years and they didn’t want to take me back,” he said. “No matter how much I know about the brand, the coffee and the history.”
The union started a fundraiser to help laid-off workers and their families, especially undocumented workers who do not qualify for government assistance. Ramirez and Torres hope the union’s relief fund can counter the fear caused by Tartine’s anti-union campaign.
“We texted everyone. We texted people who were against the union if they needed money,” Torres said. “We know these are hard times. We’re not going to decide who deserves money and who doesn’t. A lot of the people who received money are going back to work, so that’s good for the union.”
The union’s Tartine unit also worked with San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar on an ordinance to require companies to hire back employees who were laid off because of the pandemic before making new hires. This would prioritize those who lost their jobs, and protect pro-union workers from hiring discrimination.
Torres said he won’t be returning to work at Tartine but will stay on as an organizer until the union secures a contract. “It’s going to reverberate really big in the restaurant industry just because of how much money and effort they put into oppressing us,” he says. “And a lot of people in the restaurant industry, including a lot of undocumented people, will be able to see that a union can be powerful in the workplace.”
UNIONS AS A TOOL FOR SURVIVAL
While the Tartine workers hope to win recognition and a contract for their union, Amazon organizers in the Bay Area have a much longer road ahead. The two units face different challenges, but they both rely on the same core of young, progressive workers.
A growing willingness to confront oppression, combined with worsening economic disparity, racism and a global pandemic, has sparked a movement the United States hasn’t seen in a long time. The issues workers face aren’t new, but today’s organizers are incorporating innovative strategies to address them.
Ramirez thinks the struggle to survive in cities that are becoming more unaffordable has turned many workers to unions. “The only way that they’re going to be able to succeed is by joining together and advocating for themselves, and young workers see this,” he said. “In the Anchor campaign, young workers saw that they cannot survive in a city as expensive as San Francisco, and they wanted a little better. Obviously, one contract is not gonna do it, but it gives them the path to advocate for themselves.”
“I feel like I live in a community of people who feel unworthy,” Williams said. “Some of that comes from working a really really difficult job. People don’t get paid what they’re worth and their employer doesn’t even set up safety precautions that says their life is worth anything. They start to internalize this and that’s not okay.”
Former ILWU organizer Peter Olney said the combination of leftist political organizations and established unions are the keys to success of organizing drives. Workers at Tartine and Anchor Steam Brewery found that combination through their partnerships with the DSA and the ILWU, he said. “Those are great examples of community labor organizing, and the conjuncture of the left and labor just cannot be underestimated in both those campaigns,” he said.
Workers at Amazon and Tartine decided that the needs of people of color had to be front and center in their unions. Unions, they believe, give workers the power to address the concerns of racism, economic disparity and healthcare coverage, issues that inspired thousands to protest during this spring’s coronavirus pandemic and uprisings against police brutality.
“In the last couple of weeks, with the protests and people now clamoring for defunding the police, these things are taken seriously in a different way,” Hopkins said. “There’s a momentum and an energy behind organizing right now that all of us want to keep going. We want to build it into a coalition of workers beyond industry boundaries.”
“What’s happening on the street is connected to what’s been happening inside workplaces. It’s all the same,” Torres said. “A lot of young people are asking what they can do in their own workplaces.”
OLD PROBLEMS, NEW PERSPECTIVES: ORGANIZING IN 2020
Olney, who has organized workers in many industries for decades, has been connecting experienced labor organizers with young workers to mentor on forming unions. They are looking particularly at Amazon workers.
“It would be a game-changer if you could organize Amazon and build a real worker organization within it,” he said. “That would have a ripple effect through society because Amazon is hailed as the new paradigm of American life. We’re all using it.”
Unionizing Amazon will require the same underground organizing strategy as at Tartine, but on a much larger scale, one that Olney said is comparable only to the auto industry unions of the 1930s. Nearly a century later, no one who helped organize an industry with hundreds of thousands of workers is alive. Union membership in the private sector, meanwhile, is at a low 6%.
He said this decline in union membership —which was 35% in 1955 — is due to downsizing and outsourcing by 20th-century industries, increased aggression by employers against unions and a failure by unions to reflect the communities they serve.
While union leaders are still mostly white and male, the workforce increasingly includes women and people of color, especially in California. But women are still not getting the respect they deserve as workers or as labor leaders, said Williams, who is Black.
“These organizations are so male-driven and male-led that it’s difficult for men to be willing to listen to a woman, especially a woman who’s opinionated and not willing to be on the sidelines,” she said.
With more female leadership, Williams hopes for a different process for organizing as she builds Bay Area Amazonians. With their online-organizing model, Amazon workers may be able to avoid the face-to-face confrontations that have historically been a challenge in labor organizing. Along with minimizing physical risks, an online platform enables workers to connect within the international breadth of Amazon, which has nearly 800,000 employees worldwide, about 600,000 of them in the United States.
Amazon and Tartine workers’ organizing formats fit their respective needs, but both have drawn inspiration from the ILWU and its worker-led structure and strong community.
“Mostly the groups we try to organize are the ones that self-organize,” Ramirez explains. “We just give them guidance on how to approach the NLRB. The ILWU has a model that the workers make all the decisions in the organizing process.”
Williams also hopes that the steady movement among workers will put pressure on elected officials to enforce existing laws that are supposed to protect working people.
“I’m somebody who’s a radical leftist person, and this is something I wanted to see in my workplace,” Torres said. “But our hardest organizers were people who aren’t part of political history or anything like that.”
From the outside, union organizing might seem dramatic and disruptive. But at the most basic level, it is the people who make morning coffees or deliver packages or in some other way keep the world turning, fighting for a chance at a decent, dignified living.
“I do believe that having a union isn’t the complete answer for full liberation from the system, but it gives you the opportunity and the right to control and say what you want in your own workplace,” Torres said.
by Noor Baig