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In Staten Island, N.Y., Christian Smalls, a fired Amazon worker, led the charge to unionize a 5,000-worker warehouse. The final vote was 1518 to 1154 with unionization winning out just this last week. Amazon is the U.S.’ second largest private employer, with 950,000 employees, and it is still growing. Will this union win be the spark that reignites the recently rather sanguine labor movement?
Iowa has seven Amazon distribution centers and the company is a growing force in our state. Buzz Malone, the organizing director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 238, has been conducting outreach to Amazon workers interested in forming a union, but there has been no official workplace vote or notable progress.
In 2018, The Gazette reported on a significant decline in union participation between 2014-2018 for Iowans and this month the Des Moines Register reported that since 2018 there was another 18 percent drop, meaning about 20,000 fewer Iowa union participants.
Iowa is a right-to-work state, meaning that if your workplace votes to form a union, you are not obligated to join or pay union dues. New York isn’t a right-to-work state, so if a union campaign reaches a slim majority, everyone must participate.
Earlier this year, workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse voted 1,798 to 738 to reject the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Alabama is also a right-to-work state.
A key difference between union formation efforts in New York and Alabama is that in New York workers formed a new, independent union whereas in Alabama workers would have joined the established Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union was formed in 1937 and is organizationally very similar to the Teamsters, however it lacks the spicy mafia ties. In New York, union campaigners smoked weed with employees, hosted barbecue cookouts and cultivated an environment of union camaraderie before asking people directly for their vote.
Hearing about the Staten Island union campaign, I was reminded of my grandfather's John Deere union experience. We have photos of his union chapter posing together in Europe during World War II, they all enlisted together instead of waiting for the draft, and my aunts and uncles have fond memories of union care packages with food and treats being dropped off at their house when workers were striking. The John Deere union workers went to their local union bar after work, their wives were all friends and there were lots of community activities and opportunities for bonding. The union bars are gone or barely scraping by, there are fewer workers overall because of technology changes, and people find community in different ways today and are less work-centric.
Today, people change jobs every few years, self-manage their retirement savings in independent accounts and don’t have the workplace allegiance or pride in association that made America a manufacturing powerhouse.
The Staten Island union followed the same, grassroots, path that America workers originally followed to form unions around the country, tapping into community spirit I thought was largely lost.
Although I disagree with mandatory union participation, and am comforted with Iowa’s right-to-work status, hopefully this rekindled enthusiasm in workplace union participation is signaling that the American worker is putting down roots again.
Patricia Patnode is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org