The Teamsters’ new president has pledged his powerful union will step up the pressure on Amazon and mount its own efforts to unionize the company after workers in New York voted to form the company’s first US union.
In an interview with the Guardian Sean O’Brien said it was vital to organize Amazon, asserting that the e-commerce company has “total disrespect” for its workers and was putting downward pressure on standards for unionized warehouse workers and truck drivers across the US.
“You have an employer like Jeff Bezos taking a joyride into space, and he bangs on his workers to be able to fund his trip,” said O’Brien, who was inaugurated as Teamsters president on 22 March. He asserted that Amazon workers would benefit greatly from joining the Teamsters, saying that Amazon’s drivers and warehouse workers are treated and paid considerably worse than their unionized counterparts at other companies.
“They’re awful, they’re disrespectful the way they treat their employees,” O’Brien said of Amazon.
On Friday, a final vote count showed that Amazon workers in Staten Island voted to unionize, 2,654 for a union, 2,131 against. Another vote to organize workers in Alabama hangs in the balance. Amazon beat off the union drive by 118 votes but the final tally is awaiting a review of 416 challenged ballots.
O’Brien said he applauds any organization that seeks to take on Amazon: “I commend anybody who tries to take on a schoolyard bully like Amazon.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is seeking to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, while a new, independent union, the Amazon Labor Union, was behind the organizing at two Amazon facilities on Staten Island.
O’Brien said that no union is better positioned than the Teamsters to organize Amazon because his 1.3-million-member union has decades of experience in unionizing and winning good contracts for warehouse workers and truck drivers. “This is the only union that has the proven track record of organizing workers in these industries,” O’Brien said.
He said the Teamsters needed to organize Amazon as an obligation to “our members” and “our largest employers”, most notably United Parcel Service and DHL. Concerned that Amazon’s lower pay is undercutting Teamster employers and Teamster contracts, O’Brien said he didn’t want Amazon to threaten the livelihood of Teamsters or “diminish the standards established by collective bargaining agreements”.
“We have to organize Amazon,” he said. “We have to have a plan in place. We have to execute that plan and not be scared to change that plan if it doesn’t work at times. Even a world champion team doesn’t win all the time. Hopefully we will have a favorable win-to-loss ratio.”
Before winning a five-year term as Teamsters’ president, O’Brien headed a large Teamsters local in the Boston area for 15 years. He succeeded James P Hoffa, who stepped down after 23 years as Teamsters president.
“We the Teamsters have the best resources out there, not just financially” to unionize Amazon, O’Brien said. “We have the ability to utilize our members who work in the industry, who know the benefits of working under a collective bargaining agreement and having dignity and respect in the workplace.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he continued. “We have a plan to focus on the big metro cities,” where he said the likelihood of winning unionization elections would be greatest. He said that the Teamsters would mount “non-traditional campaigns” that include up lining politicians’ support and extensive community support behind unionization. He stressed the importance of worker-to-worker organizing: “We need to utilize our best organizers: our worker members who work in these industries.”
Amazon officials say their company’s pay levels are competitive – $18 for a full-time entry-level worker in Staten Island and nearly $16 in Alabama. The company notes that its benefits, including health coverage, begin for full-time workers the day they join the company.
Amazon officials have repeatedly said they are committed to maintaining an environment where its employees can thrive and feel appreciated and respected.
News of the Staten Island victory comes as union activity is experiencing a resurgence in the US. Joe Biden has positioned himself as the most pro-union president in generations.
“The Biden administration has done a great job for unions right out of the gate,” O’Brien said. “An administration that’s not afraid to endorse unions is great.” He praised, in particular, a 2021 law that Biden backed that helped secure the pensions of millions of union members and retirees, including many Teamsters whose pension plans were seriously underfunded.
O’Brien said the Teamsters and other unions need to do a far better job explaining to Americans how unions lift workers and the nation as a whole. He said many Americans view the Teamsters favorably despite the movie The Irishman about scandals inside the Teamsters a half-century ago. “During the worst pandemic we’ll ever face people saw that we delivered packages, did trash pick-ups, did food and grocery deliveries,” O’Brien said. “We’ve proven our worth providing goods and services to keep this country moving.”
He talked at length about the importance of holding politicians accountable, especially when they fail to back workers and unions. “I can’t remember people’s birthdays. But I can remember the last person that screwed me. That’s how we’re going to deal with those politicians who vote against us. We’ll run people against you. We’ll campaign against you.”