The unofficial end of summer is also the official celebration of working people.
Labor Day is a federal holiday recognizing the strength, prosperity and well-being of the American worker. The conditions American workers may take for granted today did not come without a fight.
“The history is lost on the average person,” said Randy Korgan, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 1932 in Southern California. “Workers have more protections on the job than they did 100 years ago and they don’t understand how that happened. People aren’t aware of the maturity of that. People actually died on the picket line. Pinkertons killed strike people. There were a ton of sacrifices made by people who just wanted a fair shake.”
The first Labor Day holiday was held on September 5, 1882 in New York City. The founding father of the holiday is still up for debate between two Irish Catholics — Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and Matthew Maguire, a machinist. Two years later 23 states had adopted the holiday and on June 28, 1894 former President Grover Cleveland made it official by declaring the first Monday in September to be the annual Labor Day holiday nationwide.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been around since 1903. The union started with horse-drawn wagons delivering blocks of ice to doorsteps. It is one of North America’s largest unions with more than 1.3 million members. In June, the Teamsters announced plans to organize Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers, calling the e-commerce giant “an existential threat.”
Korgan is leading the efforts to organize Amazon workers and he is armed with mountains of data. Poor working conditions inside Amazon warehouses have been well documented from coast to coast. High injury rates, huge employee turnover, dehumanizing surveillance methods and limited bathroom breaks are often cited in news articles.
“Can you find someone that works at Amazon for five years?” Korgan asks. “Very hard to locate them. A driver? Warehouse worker? … very small pool. Do they have a trajectory to get them into retirement? Amazon’s business model is a high turnover rate. By design. They want it to be high turnover. Weren’t we here already in 1920?”
Amazon employs more than 950,000 workers, making it the second-largest private employer behind Walmart in the United States. Amazon calls its warehouses fulfillment centers and there are 10 in Florida, including MIA1, an 855,000-square-foot facility in Opa-Locka.
MIA1 is in the district of Florida Senator Shevrin Jones (D-Miami Gardens). Jones, Florida’s first Black gay Senator, said he was undecided on the Teamsters’ Amazon project.
“That’s a hard one,” Jones said. “I have to think that one through because I have not really looked at that issue.”
It should be noted both Amazon and the Teamsters welcome LGBT employees and members. Amazon has an LGBT affinity group called Glamazon and actively promotes Pride Month to its employees and customers. SFGN reached out to Amazon for comment on this article but emailed requests went unanswered.
An educator, Jones did acknowledge the historical significance of the labor movement.
“Much of the working class in America now was built back in the days behind the right for workers to organize,” Jones said. “This is nothing new. Teamsters voting to prioritize unionizing at Amazon, I believe it's their right, it’s their right to come together. I think it’s the right thing to do, maybe they feel they are not being represented the right way. I’m in favor of it.”
In a workplace dramatically changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, approval of labor unions has reached new heights. Gallup’s annual poll showed 68% of Americans supported labor unions — the highest measure since 1965. A study by the Pew Research Center found 55% of adults in the United States said labor unions have a positive effect on the country’s direction.
“I believe people have the right to organize and to unionize,” said Jones. “I don’t oppose what the Teamsters are doing. Amazon should be open to it, they should want their workers to feel as if they are being represented.”
When workers tried to organize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama earlier this year they received support from an unlikely ally — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a conservative Republican from Florida. Rubio, however, seemed more interested in fighting Amazon’s diversity and inclusion culture than its questionable working conditions.
“Its workers are right to suspect that its management doesn’t have their best interests in mind,” Rubio wrote in a USA Today Op-Ed. “Wealthy woke CEOs instead view them as a cog in a machine that consistently prioritizes global profit margins and stoking cheap culture wars. The company’s workers deserve better.”
The unionizing effort in Alabama failed as the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost an election administered by the National Labor Relations Board. Korgan, a labor organizer for 27 years, called the NLRB process antiquated and said there are other ways to unite workers.
“That’s not the only method and if that means we’re going to utilize very assertive processes for worker action, worker power then that’s what we’re going to do,” Korgan said. “What that looks like in each area, you’re not going to get that defined because it would be crazy to lay out our strategy in print because we already see Amazon making adjustments to the way they communicate with workers.”
This week marks a major step in the battle as a bill heads to the California Senate floor. The bill would force Amazon to disclose its rates, quotas and speed metrics as well as ban the controversial “time off task” policy and prohibit retaliation against workers that complain.
“We can’t trust them to do the right thing on their own,” Korgan said. “History has absolutely proven that over and over again. The Teamsters union takes great pride in the fact we have good middle-class jobs in this industry with protections on the job. Compare a UPS driver and an Amazon driver. A full-time UPS driver in Southern California in 1996 made $26.50 an hour. Find me an Amazon driver making $26.50 in Southern California today.”
Throughout the pandemic, Amazon profits have soared. The company boasted $368 billion in revenue in 2020 alone. The pandemic, Korgan said, created an environment where the average consumer recognizes the importance of the goods movement.
“Amazon is deciding to go into the transportation industry in a very aggressive manner,” Korgan said. “They’re looking to open thousands of facilities all over the place thinking it’s okay to pay people $15 an hour for jobs that have been well established, much more than that with benefits and not dumping all the responsibilities on the subcontractors. If Amazon is allowed to continue growing at this pace and if they double their size, how much of the industry will they control and how much displacement of jobs that would otherwise be done by a postal service person, a FedEx person, a UPS member or any other person we represent in this industry. Those jobs will be displaced and Amazon will be doing them.”