Amazon, Starbucks and new frontiers in labor organizing

An electrifying session Friday morning focused on new organizing opportunities and how we are overcoming challenges, featuring AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, and Starbucks organizers Richard Bensinger, Kylah Clay and Jordie Adams.

Chris Smalls and Starbucks workers at AFT Convention

“If we don’t step up, who will?” asked Shuler (who made history in June with her election as the first woman president of the AFL-CIO). Along with calling for the labor federation’s 57 member unions to organize more than a million working people in the next 10 years, she spoke of the labor movement’s huge potential to create good jobs in big tech, green industries and beyond—from breweries to Apple stores to emerging sectors like the cannabis industry.

Shuler praised AFT President Randi Weingarten as an “indefatigable” labor leader who supports new organizing everywhere: “She truly cares about the entirety of the labor movement, not just AFT.” Shuler concluded with an optimistic take on the unique place unions occupy in the hearts of Americans. Despite public trust in institutions “cratering,” she said “there’s one institution they still trust: unions. … We are the only ones that can reach real workers” to create “a fairer, more just country for everyone.”

Shuler decried Americans’ growing income inequality and exorbitant CEO pay: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos “earned in seven seconds what an Amazon worker earned in a year. That is not right. That is not fair.”

Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls came to the convention fresh from testifying at the ongoing, weekslong National Labor Relations Board hearing in which Amazon is trying to overturn the ALU’s decisive 500-vote victory. Smalls and his worker-led movement won a landmark election for more than 8,000 workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse—the first union win at an Amazon facility in the United States.

Yes, workers made history, Smalls said, but “there’s a war going on outside, every day, against us. … We have a long uphill battle” for a first contract. “I’m asking the labor movement to help us claim this victory,” Smalls said, urging delegates to attend the hearing virtually, whenever they can, to show solidarity. (Follow the ALU on Twitter, @amazonlabor, for links to the Zoom hearings.) “We need every little bit of help and support collectively ... to defeat Amazon and Jeff Bezos.” (The AFT recently donated $250,000 to help the ALU set up an office on Staten Island. To learn more and get involved, go to

Smalls ended with a special plea to educators: Keep teaching honest history. Describing himself as a “tough student” who “got bored real quick,” he knew he would have found honest history far more engaging. “Please continue teaching these kids the right history—labor, Black history,” he said. “I’m begging you. … As a student that didn’t like school, … I would have paid attention.”

The Starbucks Workers United speakers who followed gave chilling firsthand accounts of the organizing risks workers are facing. Their organizing drive has caught fire, with more than 190 stores in 30 states now unionized, but as with Amazon, organizing a corporate giant is not a task for the faint of heart. Richard Bensinger, Starbucks Workers United senior adviser and longtime labor activist, told delegates that this is “the worst company campaign I’ve witnessed in four decades … [but] they will not win; they can’t turn back these workers. It’s impossible to turn them back.”

Organizer and barista Jordie Adams shared the news that her store in Vernon, Conn., became the second store in the state to vote union, just yesterday. Adams confided, “A year ago, I did not know what a union was.” She said, “Support from people like you—that’s new to us.” (In June the AFT contributed $50,000 to the campaign.) Adams reflected on a question that she said she’s sure is often posed to AFT members too: “‘If things are so bad, why don’t you just leave?’ … It’s because we love what we do. But we know that we could love it more if given the opportunity to make it better.”

Kylah Clay is a barista and organizer right here in Boston, at a Starbucks on Commonwealth Avenue—the first union Starbucks in Massachusetts. “I have witnessed firsthand what happens when you threaten to weaken the power of a corporation,” she said, describing what Starbucks Workers United says is a company pattern of firing pro-union workers and retaliatory closings of stores with active union drives. (Last month, the NLRB asked a U.S. District Court to reinstate seven Starbucks workers who’d been employed at the company’s Buffalo, N.Y., locations and who were allegedly fired illegally for their involvement in union organizing.)

“Starbucks has declared war against its own workers,” Adams concluded. She urged delegates to stand with Starbucks Workers United by signing the “No Contract, No Coffee” pledge.

[Christina Bartolomeo/photo by Michael Campbell]