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A Hard Country to Organize

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MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2021/02/20: Participants seen holding signs and marching on a picket line at the protest. Members of the Workers Assembly Against Racism gathered across from Jeff Bezos-owned Whole Foods Market in Union Square South for a nation-wide solidarity event with the unionizing Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After the UPS contract win last year, Teamsters president Sean O’Brien talked a big game about trying to organize Amazon. Since that moment, the only reason he’s been in the news is to get into bed with Donald Trump and send campaign donations to Josh Hawley and the like. Meanwhile, the supposed Amazon drive is going absolutely nowhere. To some extent though, it’s because the structure of the modern American workplace makes organizing exceptionally difficult. The Times had a good dive into this issue the other day.

The Teamsters provide an instructive case study. Many of the workers doing deliveries for Amazon and FedEx work for contractors, typically small and medium-size businesses that can be hard to organize. And delivery workers employed directly by FedEx in its Express business are governed by a labor law that requires unions to organize all similar workers at the company nationally at once — a tougher standard than the one that applies to organizing employees at automakers, UPS and other employers.

Some labor experts also said the Teamsters had not made as forceful a push as the U.A.W. to organize nonunion workers after securing a new contract with UPS.

“You didn’t have that energy that you saw with the U.A.W.’s leaders,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist who studies labor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Teamsters officials said the UPS deal, which increases the average annual compensation, including benefits, of a UPS driver to $170,000 from $145,000, was helping them gain members. At DHL, a delivery company where the union has long had a big presence, the union added 1,100 members last year and is pushing to gain another 1,500. The Teamsters are also pursuing a legal challenge against Amazon that could allow them to gain ground at the company and its contractors.

“It’s been very helpful for us to mobilize,” Sean O’Brien, the Teamsters’ president, said in an interview, referring to the UPS contract. “We’ve set the standard in the industry.”

But the union has also suffered losses. Yellow, a trucking company that employed 24,000 Teamsters, shut down and filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

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Despite UPS’s superior pay over the years, the Teamsters have not made many inroads at FedEx or Amazon.

The high turnover of delivery and warehouse workers at Amazon and FedEx — where each part-time position was on average filled and vacated twice last year — makes it difficult to organize them.

Another challenge is that delivery workers at Amazon, and drivers who deliver for FedEx Ground, are employed by contractors. Mr. Rosenfeld, the labor academic, said trying to organize a few dozen people at each contractor could be time consuming and costly.

Last year, 84 workers at an Amazon contractor near Los Angeles joined the Teamsters. But days earlier, Amazon terminated the contract with the operator, Battle-Tested Strategies, the company said, for failing to follow proper safety procedures, among other things.

The Teamsters asked the National Labor Relations Board to rule that Amazon was a joint employer of the workers and order the company to reinstate the contract. The board has yet to rule.

A favorable ruling would be “a massive deal” and an “inspiration for thousands of other workers across the country,” said Randy Korgan, a Teamsters official.

A NLRB that would rule favorably on joint employers would do a ton to help unions succeed in this country. How can you organize when you have a bunch of workers doing the exact same job in the same facility for different companies? It’s basically impossible. This is the reason that such arrangements exist. Moreover, for all I might slag on O’Brien and the Teamsters right now, as we saw with the UAW in Alabama, you can do all the right things and have a really progressive union leadership and really organize from the ground up and still lose your campaign. It’s just damned hard in this country to organize into unions.

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