BUILDING WORKER POWER AT AMAZON
A picket line of Teamsters walked across the parking lot entrance of DAX8, an Amazon delivery station that sits along the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. Loud chants and bullhorns pierced the desert air, sounding off the first strike by Amazon delivery drivers in the U.S. on June 24, 2023.
“This is a fight for all of us,” said Jarrid Long, an Amazon delivery driver on strike at the Palmdale, Calif., delivery station. Long, who has worked as an Amazon driver since 2020, said he and his co-workers decided it was time to take a stand against dangerous working conditions and low pay. “Jeff Bezos can go to space when he wants to. I can’t even afford to go to a decent restaurant with my children.”
The first-ever unfair labor practice (ULP) strike by Amazon delivery drivers follows an historic organizing victory in which Long and his co-workers successfully formed their union with Teamsters Local 396 in Los Angeles.
The 84 workers bargained a first-of-its-kind contract with Amazon’s Delivery Service Partner (DSP), Battle Tested Strategies (BTS). Despite the absolute control it wields over BTS and workers’ terms and conditions of employment, Amazon has refused to recognize and honor the union contract. Instead, Amazon has violated labor law.
Amazon’s unfair labor practices compelled the workers to strike, and they have extended their picket line to more than 20 Amazon facilities all over the country.
“Teamsters stand up to bullies and these workers are standing up to one of the biggest corporate bullies on the planet,” said General President Sean M. O’Brien. “But the fight out of Palmdale is just the beginning. Amazon better pay attention because there’s more to come.”
“Since this strike started, these Amazon workers have remained united,” said Victor Mineros, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 396. “Despite Amazon’s illegal refusal to recognize their union or engage in bargaining, millions of Teamster members stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our brothers and sisters at Amazon.”
Amazon drivers in Palmdale organized with the Teamsters to protect their safety in extreme temperatures, which regularly exceed 100 degrees during Palmdale summers. Their Teamster contract guarantees the rights of workers to drive safe equipment and refuse unsafe deliveries. But making the contract’s protections a reality will require an overhaul of Amazon’s exploitative labor practices.
A Shipping Shell Game
One afternoon, Long found himself en route to a dangerous delivery. His Rabbit app — Amazon’s GPS tool for DSP drivers — directed him to a long narrow road that hugged the slope of a mountain toward the remote residence of a customer. From his larger step van, he spotted signs restricting large vehicles like his. He called his dispatcher, who told him to keep going and try not to get stuck.
He drove slowly, nervously watching the outer edge of the road inch closer to his left tires and the roughly 100-foot drop on the other side. The underbody of the truck scraped the jagged road surface before he finally made it to the customer’s driveway.
“Even the guy who lived there was like, ‘Why would Amazon send you up here in a truck like that?,’” Long remembers, adding that the customer helped him turn the truck around so he could drive back down the mountain and on to his next stop.
Amazon Teamsters in Palmdale deliver to a mostly rural area where it is common for drivers to encounter wild animals and vicious dogs. Dog bites are a frequent occurrence on drivers’ routes. When delivery vans and trucks become stuck in the mud, drivers are often left stranded for hours.
Drivers are also pressured by a merciless algorithm to deliver faster while being monitored and scored on a range of metrics that frequently lead to write-ups for unavoidable maneuvers on poorly mapped routes.
When Palmdale drivers first petitioned their DSP owner to address many of these issues, the owner was sympathetic.
“He really understood our issues and wanted to help us, but he said his hands were tied,” Long said.
Amazon has long claimed it is not the employer of the drivers who deliver its packages in Amazon-branded vehicles. The e-commerce giant has used this subcontracting scheme to avoid accountability and prevent worker organizing.
“I have never seen a company that has this much control over their subcontractors. There’s a reason almost all the DSP owners lack industry expertise and experience. It’s because Amazon essentially runs the business for them. This is the business model Teamsters are exposing in Palmdale to the point that Amazon will have to concede they are the employer and they need to bargain in good faith to address their workers’ issues,” said Randy Korgan, Teamsters Amazon Division Director and Joint Council 42 Director of Organizing.
Reclaiming Our Industries
The successful organizing campaign and subsequent ULP strike in Palmdale didn’t happen on a whim. It took years of painstaking groundwork to build the community support and worker militancy that propelled delivery drivers to take action.
“Before anything could get off the ground in Palmdale, we had to build the infrastructure by engaging the community, the workers, and Teamsters in the industry. None of this works without our members engaging with the community,” Korgan said. The areas that have had the most success in stopping new development of Amazon facilities are those that have participated in trainings offered by the Amazon Division and built those community relationships.
“It’s the communities themselves that are disrupting many of these Amazon projects because of the partnerships we’ve built — it is community-led, anchored by the Teamsters’ strategy,” Korgan said.
That strategy relies on six platforms: member engagement; worker engagement; community engagement; anti-monopoly advocacy; industry pressure; and global solidarity. Each platform helps create the infrastructure to support Amazon workers as they build the power and take on a trillion-dollar corporation.
“We’re issuing a challenge for workers to take control of their industry,” Korgan said. “All of this leads to Amazon workers taking the fight directly to the shop floor. They are not waiting for an NLRB process, for legislation to pass, or for laws to change. This is how we’re challenging the industry and our own organization, calling on locals and Joint Councils to join this effort. Because the only way we are going to succeed is by building worker power at the shop floor level and taking direct action in the areas where workers have shown they are willing to walk out or threaten to walk out to disrupt Amazon’s operations. That happens when our members recognize the power they have in influencing the community and influencing workers in the industry.”
When Amazon recently announced raises for warehouse workers and drivers, it was clear to workers that the raises were insultingly small. But it was also clear that the raises were in response to Teamsters’ organizing efforts, including the industry pressure the union is building with the new historic UPS Teamsters contract which includes unprecedented gains for full-timers and part-timers at the company.
Highlighting the union difference at UPS is key to organizing at Amazon, where workers are doing the same work as UPSers but at rock-bottom industry standards.
Peter Walrond talks regularly with Amazon workers about the union difference at UPS. Walrond is a UPS Teamster with Local 25 who vividly remembers the day his employer’s actions — and the union’s response to them — turned him into a die-hard Teamster activist.
“It was 2020 and COVID had just shut down the world,” he said. “I was driving my package car and needed lunch — everything was closed.”
Walrond was an eighth of a mile from his house where his wife was pregnant with their first child.
“I just stopped to grab a bite, kiss my wife, kiss the belly, and got back to work,” Walrond said.
When UPS fired him for “stealing time,” Walrond was devastated, facing dark uncertain times during a pandemic with a baby on the way and no job. But then his business agent intervened and Walrond’s termination was converted to a two-day suspension.
“When I got back on the job, I was committed to being the best UPS driver and an even better Teamster,” he said.
Today, Walrond is a shop steward at UPS and volunteer organizer on the Amazon campaign. The Teamsters Volunteer Organizing Program that he and other members have joined is built on the premise that the best organizer is the rank-and-file Teamster. Locals around the country that have gotten involved in the program are identifying active members who then participate in a series of training modules.
“I tell Amazon workers my story and they are blown away,” said Walrond, who works part of the week in his package car at UPS and part of the week as an organizer talking with Amazon workers. “When you realize there is a giant corporation like Amazon that is driving down industry standards across the board, that they are coming for our jobs, that’s when you understand why we need to organize. And we all have to be part of it. If you’re out on your truck and you see an Amazon driver, talk to them. Because that conversation — even a short one — can spark something in them.”
Volunteer organizers like Walrond reach out to Amazon workers in their area, identify contacts, and help workers build organizing committees. Volunteer organizers also build relationships with local community groups that are taking on Amazon.
“Their fight is our fight — and vice versa,” said Elizabeth Laster, another UPS Teamster and volunteer organizer out of Local 728 in Georgia. Laster used to work at Amazon before getting a job as a part-time inside worker at UPS, where she is also a shop steward. She spends two days a week reaching out to Amazon workers and talking about the game-changing wins Teamsters secured in the new contract at UPS.
“People get really excited when they hear about the UPS contract, but I try to also help them understand that the solution is not to leave Amazon and try to work at UPS. I tell them they can win the same things at Amazon, but it will take time and organizing,” Laster said.
From her point of view, the decision as a Teamster member to get involved in the Volunteer Organizing Program is simple.
“UPS sees what Amazon gets away with and they want to do the same at UPS. But we set the bar at UPS, and we can raise that bar even higher by helping the workers at Amazon build power, too.”
Taking on Amazon’s empire of exploitation requires fighting on many fronts. Teamsters have been pushing regulators to crack down on Amazon’s business model and that pressure is starting to pay off.
In September, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and attorneys general from 17 states announced an antitrust lawsuit against Amazon. The FTC’s suit details how Amazon engages in abusive business practices to illegally maintain its powerful position in the market at the expense of workers and small businesses.
But the heart of the fight at Amazon is on the picket line and on the shop floor.
“In Palmdale and at the picket extensions, the energy is powerful and we’ve had a lot of Teamsters and UPS workers join us on the line,” Long said. “When the other workers see us, they are all for it, even though a lot of them are still scared to join us because of the fear the company creates. Amazon has big
pockets but a small heart.”
“If we as a union want to stop Amazon from destroying good union jobs in this industry, we need our members to take up this challenge,” Korgan said. “Go to a Volunteer Organizer training. Donate to support the courageous workers in Palmdale. Every Teamster has a stake in this fight.”