How Amazon workers turned union-busting "captive audience" meetings against the corporate giant

Union organizers say Jeff Bezos' company's tactics backfired at Staten Island warehouse

Published April 5, 2022 5:00AM (EDT)

CEO and founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
CEO and founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in In These Times.

Amazon workers in Staten Island, N.Y., astonished the world last week when they voted to form the first-ever U.S. union at the e‑commerce behemoth, which is known for ferociously opposing its workers' efforts to organize. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which won the effort at the JFK8 fulfillment center, had been targeted by such anti-union efforts, and its co-founder, Chris Smalls, had been called ​"not smart or articulate" by Amazon officials. (Smalls co-founded the union after he was fired for organizing for safer conditions during the pandemic.)

Workers and organizers across the country are looking to this campaign for lessons on how to overcome such aggressive tactics from Amazon, which has long proved difficult to organize. As of Friday there were 2,654 votes at the JFK8 warehouse in favor of joining the union and 2,131 opposed (67 ballots have been challenged). With a separate union drive in Bessemer, Ala. too close to call, and unions across the country eyeing future unionization efforts, many labor advocates hope that the Staten Island victory will inspire other workers to take similar action.

"In These Times" spoke with two workers about a key tactic they used: turning Amazon's union-busting against the company. Justine Medina is 32 years old and has been working at the JFK8 warehouse since September, first as a counter, then as a packer. Medina, who is a member of the Communist Party and chair of the New York Young Communist League, started working as a salt, which means she became a worker at the warehouse to help with the union effort. Tristan Dutchin, 27 years old, who goes by the nickname Lion, started working at JFK8 in March 2021, and joined ALU in April. A picker for Amazon, he also wrote and performed a cover of the classic labor song ​"Union Train" specifically for the Amazon campaign.

Y'all have shocked the world by voting to form a union at Amazon, one of the most powerful corporations in the world. How does it feel?

Tristan Dutchin: It's a life-changing situation. I went from being a regular Amazon worker to being in the media. I joined this miraculous, wonderful group that has changed my life. It's a great experience, we're here to fight the good fight. It's very mind blowing. The dedication and time we put into it has really paid off. This is a moment I'm really proud of.

Justine Medina: It's still incredibly surreal. Really. The Amazon slogan is, ​"Work hard. Have fun. Make history." We would always bandy that slogan around, and say: ​"We're doing it, Jeff!" But you know what, we did it. This is a world-changing moment, led by the workers. 

I was inspired to get involved as a salt in this campaign because I heard about what the workers were doing, and saw they were doing it with a new union, building their own union. That's why it changed the world: It was a very grassroots, very working-class, salt-of-the-earth, Black-led union drive. That's what scared the Amazon executives more than anything.

Tristan, tell me what inspired you to get involved in ALU.

Tristan: Ever since I started working, I've been getting a lot of write ups from managers and supervisors. They would come at me and harass me, say ​"we want you to go as fast as possible, want you to reach a high expected rate." You're like a machine. You can't leave to go nowhere, to stretch your legs, clear your mind, or drink water. I did that one time and got written up. I got another write up for being late to my station. 

The warehouse is big, you don't always know where you're going, and they don't give you a map. It got me frustrated. I left work and saw a group of guys [affiliated with ALU] with a big tent. The first guy I met was [ALU leader] Derrick Palmer. He discussed with me what the union was, gave me his experience and other workers' experience of getting written up and harassed. I wanted to be part of something that would benefit the other workers.

Amazon is known for its vicious and high-dollar union-busting campaigns. But I read a great interview with worker Angelika Maldonado in Jacobin where she described using some of their union-busting tactics against them — like going into captive audience meetings, when uninvited. Can you describe how common this was and what it was like? Why did it seem to be effective?

Justine: They started captive audience meetings initially in the fall after we filed the first petition. But then we had to withdraw the petition, and they kept them going a little while then stopped them. They were like, ​"Oh, we're done with that." But then once our second petition was accepted, they restarted captive audiences right away, around early February. We were like, ​"We need to push back immediately and make our presence known. We need to start demanding time in these captive audience meetings to tell our side." 

So when they brought them back, we were ready to come together. At first they didn't want to let us in. Some of us said ​"you have to let us in," and asked the union buster who was blocking the door, ​"What's your name, show us your worker identification badge. Do you work here?" Being just as antagonistic to them as they're being to us. We were well within our rights. 

At the Amazon workplace, you're not actually allowed in unless you have a badge, unless you are a worker there. It's funny, because at Amazon's new-hire orientation, they encourage you to be on the lookout for things like that — to ​"have a backbone and commit." We were like, alright.

So then we went in, marched in, made a bit of a disruption, sat down, and then we would interrupt with questions, and answer [other] questions. We decided that at the next captive audience meeting, we're not going to be disruptive. It seemed to throw people off. We said, ​"let's sit here respectfully and ask questions." The general manager had been called in and said we were insubordinate and couldn't be there, and if we didn't leave we would get in trouble. I was like, ​"We are protected by law to be here and we know that." We were glancing around at each other, and we were spread throughout the room. A few of us were thinking, ​"Are they going to call the cops?" Other workers were whispering about whether they were going to call the cops. And then eventually, they knew we weren't leaving so they ended that session. 

We would sometimes try to get onto sessions when we weren't on the list. There was a lead organizing team of about a dozen people in JFK8, and then the organizing committee that had more people in its periphery — more than 100 people. Through those channels we would try to make sure that anyone in that meeting would speak up, say something. [We told people:] ​"If you're invited into a captive audience meeting, talk back." We always had someone in there. If they were scheduled to be in there already, even better, because then you can't kick them out. 

By the final weeks leading up to the vote, they started kicking people out. They said ​"you're not allowed in if you're not supposed to be here." We would try to do it anyway. We were demanding to be heard as a union, but we did so politely. We realized from the first time that workers responded better to that. They saw our being disruptive as disrespectful. So we tried to be polite. We wanted to explain our side. 

A lot of workers themselves who weren't necessarily ​"yes" voters or were on the fence would raise their hands and say, ​"Why won't you let someone from the union speak up about what's going on? Why don't you let them say their side?" We would help push that idea, whenever captive audiences came up in one-on-one conversations in the warehouse. We would say ​"we think they should let us have a meeting too." We would talk about that, agitate. Workers would bring that up on their own.

Tristan: Amazon would call myself and other workers to mandatory meetings. They were very anti-worker. They said, ​"Don't trust the ALU. They will get your signatures, get your money." I would sit down for a good 10 minutes and then walk out. I didn't want to be in an environment that speaks negatively about a group I'm affiliated with. I didn't want the tension to go out of control. I'm a person of peace. I don't like confrontation.

Some workers would come up to me in a more negative, hostile way and give me hard questions about who our union representatives are, what kind of union negotiations we are under. I would say, ​"Go talk to my union comrades, they will give you more insight and info on what we stand for and represent." 

So it sounds like you not only used the actual meetings as an organizing opportunity, but used the fact that the meetings were happening as an opportunity to agitate on the shop floor.

Justine: If you asked people, ​"Do you know about the union drive going on?" they'd say, ​"Yeah, I had this meeting." These meetings were going on every day, every hour. People had to go to them once a week and sit through them for 30 minutes to an hour. People would appreciate being able to sit down and not have to work, but at the same time they thought the meetings were bullshit.

Do you think the captive audience meetings helped publicize the union drive?

Justine: [Laughs] Absolutely. Especially in the fall. Amazon didn't even want to use the word ​"union." In their initial captive audience meetings in the fall, they didn't even use that word. They didn't want to plant that word in people's heads. They said a ​"third party" is coming in.

Calling workers who want a union a third party is a pretty classic anti-union tactic. How did workers counter that? 

Justine: We said we are not a third party, we work here. People pushed back against the anti-union narrative so much they sometimes had to end sessions early, due to workers who weren't even on the organizing committee in a peripheral way. That's why we were confident. On the outside, people said ​"you only have 30%" [on the side of the union]. We said, ​"You don't understand — we have more than that." 

What other Amazon union-busting tactics were you able to use against the company?

Justine: We tried to use all of them. Their own propaganda campaign of voting ​"no" — the posters around the warehouse every few feet — people would get annoyed with that, and we would lean into that. We filed ULPs (Unfair Labor Practices). Every time we'd file, we would tell people that Amazon is breaking the law, that this is union busting. We knew that in order to win, we had to do intense worker education the entire time. We said that they were doing illegal stuff, doing union busting. We would hand out articles about the union busting that Amazon was doing, and then when they arrested the organizers last November, and in February when they arrested three others, we made a flier about what happened, and a petition for workers to sign. I got thousands of them printed out. We immediately used all that info we could against them.

There is one thing we did that I think is pretty unique. We treated this like you would treat an electoral campaign. There were anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 workers, depending on how many were hired at the time. That's why we were public about it from the beginning. There's no way to do one-on-ones with thousands as a rag-tag, scrappy team, especially at the very beginning when it was Derrick Palmer and Chris Smalls. We got a NationBuilder account, and used that to track people. We sent everyone emails about what was going on, and text blasts explaining when Amazon was doing union busting. We used their propaganda against them with our own design. 

Amazon treats the workers like they're idiots. Amazon management is very condescending to workers there. We knew we had to educate people about how this is something companies do all the time.

Tristan: We've been able to stand our ground against Amazon putting anti-union posts all over the warehouse. They were calling, emailing and sending mail to people's homes, encouraging workers to vote ​"no," saying we are not to be trusted, we are the threat. We are not. We are more of an independent group. 

I do think Amazon's anti-union tactics backfired. At the end of the day, we're going to have to keep pushing ourselves to put an end to all the cruel tactics they're using against us. Amazon makes so much money every day. Their main motive against the union is they don't want to pay workers more, but they get paid every day. It would be fair for workers to get compensated more and be given a fair shot. I'm very cautious and careful. I don't want them to come at me as a target. I give people respect the same way they respect me.

The anti-union flyers were very childish. They said, ​"Your voice. Your vote. Vote no." If it's their voice, why are you pushing this narrative and telling them to vote ​"no"? Shouldn't it be the workers' decision how to vote? It's an act of desperation. Like what a child would do if they want candy you tell them no. It's all propaganda and lies.

By Sarah Lazare

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