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The Different Methods of New Union Leaders

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The Post had a long profile of the new Teamsters head Sean O’Brien as the union moves toward a huge expected strike against UPS, which would probably the largest strike in history in terms of numbers of workers against a single company. I should mention here that I did an interview with the journalist on background for this piece. O’Brien is brash, he is a man who can curse a blue streak, he is a tough guy. Some people don’t like that, but given that this is a union moving from the Hoffa dynasty, there is likely to be some hard feelings generally. O’Brien is not exactly the democratic unionist’s greatest ideal, though I don’t see any evidence at all that so-called “democratic unionism,” which in theory mostly means “when the workers take real control over the union, they will implement my personal ideology,” actually works in reality any more than a more top-down structure.

In any case, O’Brien is a new union leader and so is Chris Smalls, the head of the Amazon Labor Union. I’ve been pretty critical of Smalls after the ALU’s initial win, as if you want to see Smalls, you can go to any big union conference in the country or maybe go to Havana, but you aren’t going to find him organizing Amazon workers. In short, he has totally embraced the celebrity the entire left was so desperate to confer on him, even though he actually hasn’t won any concrete gains for anyone.

The reason I bring this up is that this is the first major piece I’ve seen that takes the differences between these two new leaders seriously and it’s the first time I’ve seen a major union leader being to critique Smalls. It’s important that this happens, not because I have anything personally against Smalls, but because we need to focus on how to actually organize workers.

With more than 1 million workers, many in modestly paid, highly physical jobs, Amazon is seen as ripe for organization by many in labor. Workers say they have been expected to process as many as 350 items an hour, with mandatory 60-hour weeks during some busy seasons — conditions that some employees say have led to orthopedic injuries or urinary tract infections because they don’t have time for bathroom breaks. (Amazon spokesperson Mary Kate Paradis said the injury rate across Amazon warehouses has dropped more than 23 percent since 2019. “We’re proud of the progress made by our team and we’ll continue working hard together to keep getting better every day,” she said.)

Yet the jobs come with little security as Amazon increasingly shifts toward gig employment. Thousands of Amazon drivers actually work for third-party companies, subject to being cut without explanation.

But whose place is it to unionize Amazon? In Chicago, O’Brien shared a stage with a younger man with some claim on that turf.

He was Chris Smalls, a New Jersey native and former rapper in his early 30s who had spent five years working in Amazon warehouses. While O’Brien turned out in a traditional navy blazer, Smalls wore dark sunglasses, a clutch of gold chains and a multicolored jacket with EAT THE RICH stitched in yellow thread on the back.

O’Brien has a compelling narrative about coming of age on the same big rigs as his grandfather, but Smalls has what could be the quintessential origin story for the next generation of labor leaders. In March 2020, he led a walkout at a Staten Island warehouse over what he maintained were insufficient covid safety protocols. Terminated that same day, he joined forces with three other Black workers to try to organize the facility.

It was the scrappiest of campaigns, with a bus stop as the base of operations and Smalls living nearby in a tent. Amazon confiscated union fliers and mounted a high-powered anti-union PR blitz. But in March 2022, workers at the facility voted 2,654 to 2,131 to join the fledgling Amazon Labor Union. (An Amazon spokesperson said its employees “have the choice of whether or not to join a union” and that “as a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”)

O’Brien has been quick to praise the ALU. “You can’t take away anything they’ve done,” he told The Post. “Because they’ve been more successful than … anybody, right?” The Teamsters provided meeting space and guidance for the ALU. It was a no-brainer, as O’Brien explains it — of course the Teamsters want every union in the logistics industry to succeed, to force all employers to keep workplace standards as high as possible.

And yet, the dynamics are complicated. Because O’Brien sure would love to see a lot of those 1 million Amazon workers wearing Teamsters jackets one day.

Even while lending the ALU a hand, the Teamsters have been launching their own efforts to organize Amazon workers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Canada; last month, they negotiated a contract for California drivers and dispatchers employed by a third-party Amazon contractor. And, yes, O’Brien realizes that winning a strong new contract with UPS would make a fabulous advertisement for the Teamsters as they woo potential members.

Onstage in Chicago, he spoke philosophically about the campaign at hand.

“A victory — whether it’s an election, or once you win an organizing drive — it does not end there,” O’Brien told the audience. “Because in an election, you make a lot of promises. You make a lot of commitments. And you have to deliver on those promises and those commitments.”

He was talking about the UPS battle; but for knowing ears in the room, it also sounded like a subtweet. The ALU’s momentum has slowed; an organizing effort at a second Staten Island warehouse failed. With Amazon’s lawyers throwing up challenges to the initial victory, the ALU may be months or years away from even starting contract negotiations. Smalls’s celebrity — he and fellow ALU leader Derrick Palmer made Time’s “most influential” list of 2022 — has provoked some backlash within the ranks, and employees at other warehouses complain about emails going unanswered when they seek ALU help organizing their own units.

“You can win any f—in’ election, whether it’s an international election, a local election, an organizing drive,” he told The Post. “But you gotta f—in’ deliver at the end of the day. It doesn’t mean s— if they don’t get a contract.”

The Teamsters, meanwhile, are attempting to fight Amazon on a political level that only a million-member dues-paying organization could afford — lobbying the White House to end its federal contracts and packing city council meetings to block construction of new Amazon facilities.

In an interview, Smalls expressed wariness of O’Brien’s intentions, complaining that the Teamsters’ moves could stymie organizing efforts by leaving workers confused over which union to join.

Why not just channel those resources to the ALU, he asked. “The old, established unions don’t want to pass the torch to new efforts,” he said.

Ah yes, the Teamsters should just give all the money to the ALU. Sure.

I don’t actually care which union organizes Amazon. There’s probably plenty of room for both. I want workers to have the union of their choice. But this is a good way to get at the very real differences between sides of the labor movement, or more specifically, the left-liberal labor-sympathetic intellectuals who like to speak on Twitter (which includes me of course) but are not Amazon workers or often involved in the labor movement in any meaningful way. They really want ALU. But the Teamsters offer actual resources. They know how to win contracts. And as O’Brien said, it doesn’t mean shit if they don’t get a contract. So before we put the anointing oil on Smalls as the future of the labor movement, maybe we need to see actual victories.

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