By Robert Holst
When it comes to people and the labor movement, I’m a bit pessimistic. I’m a bit pessimistic by nature though. But that’s not to say in this instance perhaps, it isn’t warranted. I’ve been active in my union and community since at least 2002. The labor movement hasn’t exactly tore it up during that time. That isn’t for a lack of trying. I’ve met a lot of good folks in that time that have worked hard to bring about positive change for workers.
Before Amazon even opened on Staten Island my brothers and sisters in my union were asking about tax subsidies and who would be building the warehouses. We wanted to know what benefits the community would gain and if there were any assurances that workers would be treated fairly. We wondered if we could ask for pledges from employers to employ union members. We wondered if we could ask employers to refrain from interfering in union organizing. None of the answers were known of course. Getting people to answer was impossible. As usual on Staten Island everyone was working from their own silo. See where I live we have multiple organizations that have been started to address the same issues. We’ve had for a long time a lot of chiefs. Not so many Indians. My dearly departed friend and activist Rich Florentino used to say “The focus of the group quickly becomes about the group itself.”
He was right and many folks have had trouble getting traction. Even establishment groups have trouble. We have like 8 democratic clubs on this island because somebody always ends up saying or doing something somebody else doesn’t like. If you don’t like the cause this month, start a new group! But that’s the left and democrats for you. They don’t want to get in the boat and help row. They all want to be the star rower of their own boat.
So I went to my first Amazon labor union rally on Sunday. I’ve dedicated most of my adult life to being an active part of my union (IBEW LOCAL 3) and trying to advocate for workers. You may wonder why this, after all this time was my first rally. As referenced above this development and the idea that Amazon was coming to Staten Island was known for awhile. Before it was built I attended meetings about organizing at a “Make the Road” office on Port Richmond Ave. I offered opinions and ideas. The organizers had a plan. I don’t know how many involved in those early days are still around. I suspect not many. But it was clear that I was not going to be able to help. I also suspected that a larger union was involved. It wasn’t of course. We know that now. But it was their movement and I wanted to respect that. I know I can be a pain in the ass. I’m aware of that about myself. But as that original push seemed to have died on the vine I took things into my own hands. I showed up at that location and talked to workers on the bus stops. Had short conversations only about what a union was. The jobs were new and people were excited to have them. Many weren’t interested to hear how forming a union might help them. They told me “It was the best job they’ve ever had!”
Many young. Some doing a second job. 20 dollars an hour on Staten Island driving a forklift is good work compared to what’s been available here for a long time. Government has watched as middle class blue collar jobs have left this island. The whole time was spent trying to figure out not how to keep those jobs, but how best to get developers to convert land into condos. But that’s a whole other issue to write about.
It would seem organizing a union there wasn’t possible. Even the larger well established unions stayed away. I guess an argument could be made that unions aren’t good at organizing anymore. But we know, organizing is about the workers and the workers didn’t seem interested. I am on my community board where I live and we heard there that the new workers at Amazon were inundating the city busses from the ferry that went to the Amazon campus. That indicated that many of the workers weren’t from Staten Island if they were coming in on the ferry. That seemed like an added obstacle for organizing. It was quiet on the organizing front for a short while. At least for the folks in the community and not directly involved.
But the relationship between the workers and Amazon was new. The company put on its best face and wanted to make it work. The workers felt lucky to have those jobs. Some love affairs are enduring and stand the test of time. Yeah, this wasn’t one of them. The relationship was short and tumultuous. It wasn’t long before the workers discovered that they were being abused. We all heard the stories of what it was like to work at Amazon. But like most people you want to see it for yourself and make your own judgement. Surely those workers complaining are cry babies. They just don’t want to work. Right?
Not so much. The pace really is hectic. The hours were long. You were just a number and you can’t compete with a robot. The algorithms don’t understand bathroom breaks. Sick kids and a general overall inability to work like a machine. So write ups fly. Firings commence and attitudes change. That’s before Covid. Once that happened a lot of workers finally realized where they rate on the scale to their employers. (Especially corporate behemoths.) That is to say, they don’t.
I don’t know Chris Smalls or his background. I don’t know the details of his time at Amazon or anything about how he was treated. But knowing what workers face I can imagine he met the corporate machine close up. The professional H.R. reps and the one size fits all employee relations handbook chewed him up and spit him out. The algorithm said he had to go. So he went. Nobody asked I’m betting what his issues were. If they did it was only to make sure they built a case. Nobody was going to change anything. The model is profitable. A few troublemakers aren’t going to mess with that. But how he was treated sparked a fire in him and now we are where we are. The details of that story are unknown to me. Be cause Mr. Smalls and the workers in that warehouse are the only workers that could organize that place. They are the only ones that can relate to their issues. The Amazon workplace is a new workplace and the traditional union organizers are unfortunately starting on their back foot. Not a good place to start from. What these workers did truly is what makes this story special. They are forging ahead with the labor movement in a place it hasn’t been. It’s like when the workers organized at Ford. Nobody knew what it was like to build a Model T. But they did and they knew they wanted it to change.
Staten Island with its industrial past, it’s blue collar neighborhoods and plethora of union cards would seem like the perfect place for union organizing you’d think. Yeah, you’d think that. We have two local political parties here. One doesn’t understand workers and the other understands that it’s easy to get workers to not understand. Working families and the basic concerns involved with earning a living and feeding your family run a distant second to, well, everything. We have a working class so hyped up over the cultural war issue of the day they have forgotten they are workers. In their heads they think they are more Mr. Big than Mr. Smalls. (Pun completely intended) Somehow a collection of firefighters, cops, teachers and construction workers think they sit at the commanding heights of our economy. In a place where about 30 percent of the population is in a union we have a Congresswoman (Malliotakis) that repeatedly votes against unions. Again, that’s a whole other issue to write about. Suffice it to say the labor movement struggles to find traction with laborers here.
The real struggle is ahead now. Getting a contract and holding their union together in the face of an all out assault from the richest man on the planet won’t be easy. As I write this I am seeing that Amazon will challenge the federal government itself over this union election. Think about that. You can’t get government to put a speed bump on your block. But Amazon will challenge the National Labor Relations Board. What chance did Mr. Smalls have? They will need their supporters whom I hope are not fair weather friends. After the Charter/Spectrum strike I’m not so confident in the staying power of these “supporters”. If Amazon starts making it rain, forget about it. I learned that by watching “community pillar” Nicotra do that on South Avenue. The man won’t use a union anywhere on that property. From construction to taking the garbage out. But yet I see the “labor supporters” in his ballroom celebrating in pictures with him. Or how about BFC partners? The developers on the North Shore? Another group “labor supporters” love to be in pictures with. A little money goes a long way. I hope the Amazon supporters have better staying power than I have seen exhibited here thus far. If Bezos wants to collapse the public support from the community leaders, he’ll take my advice and spread a little wealth around Staten Island. Support will melt away. That’s very pessimistic I know. But I’d argue not unwarranted.
As for the politicians, we’ll especially the off island ones, the cameras are here now. So they will be too. AOC wasn’t very interested in Amazon besides kicking them out of Queens. I thought she would commit to fighting Amazon after that. But Gulf Ave. on Staten Island is hard to find. So maybe I’m being too hard. But I still don’t know if she knows Spectrum workers are on strike, and that’s been for 5 years now.
It won’t be easy but nothing worthwhile is. It will be a tough and uncomfortable task ahead. Uncomfortable in a lot of ways. But we don’t grow and nothing changes unless we are uncomfortable. That’s where the good stuff is. I hope everyone is ready for that. This is historic and will require everyone that “supports” to come out of their comfort zone. I said to my daughter this weekend that the whole thing had me feeling uneasy. That the things I thought I knew might be changing. That this labor movement I have loved might be changing. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it needs to go. She told me I’m in my Joker arc. Where the normal rules don’t apply to what needs to be done. So If anyone asks you what’s going on over there in Staten Island you should tell them in the spirit of Ben Franklin when asked if we had a republic or a monarchy,
“It’s a labor movement, if you can keep it.”