2022's Labor Uprising Reminds of More Radical Past and Possible FutureHistorians in the News
tags: New York, urban history, labor history, radical history, Latino/a history, Puerto Rican history, Young Lords
On Friday, labor history was made on Staten Island: Workers in Amazon’s largest New York warehouse voted to unionize. This is the first union in the history of Amazon, America’s second-largest employer, which has focused all its corporate might on beating back previous union efforts. And unlike the Starbucks union, which had the support of the Service Employees International Union, or even many of the nascent media unions that have had the support of WGA East (my own union), the Amazon effort was independently run by employees, fueled by social media, and financed with only about $120,000, all raised on GoFundMe.
Meanwhile, the 2021 union drive at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, launched and backed by the National Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, failed (a second, more recent vote was too close to call and is being deliberated now). When Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, two of the leading organizers behind the unionization effort on Staten Island, visited the Alabama facility last year, they found the organizers from the national retail union “less than welcoming to them,” The New York Times reported, “and thought the professionals seemed like outsiders who had descended on the community.” So Smalls and Palmer decided to go it alone.
Even more striking: Union sympathizers began taking jobs at the Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, to help support the effort. Justine Medina, who had been doing gig work, is one such employee. “I wanted to help the labor movement, and for me that meant putting myself where my values lie,” she said.
By many accounts, victory through this kind of grassroots approach is the future of organizing: It “can’t be about people coming in from the outside with an organizing plan that people have to follow,” Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants’ union, told The New York Times. In other words, the call needs to come from inside the house.
While the David versus Goliath victory at Amazon did surprise me a bit, I was not at all shocked that this approach was a winning one. While Smalls and Palmer were leading from their instincts and observations, their strategy has historic precedent that immediately rang true to me.
I’d run across this same philosophical approach to “saving” a declining labor movement in doing research for my novel, Olga Dies Dreaming. In my book, we follow Olga and her brother, the adult children of two former members of the Young Lords Party. The Young Lords was the predominantly Puerto Rican, socialist-based, human- and civil-rights organization that started in the late ’60s, largely modeled on the Black Panther Party. My protagonists’ father, Johnny, has died after succumbing to relapsed addiction, and their radicalized mother, Blanca, has been absent for years but communicates with them through letters. In one letter, Blanca explains that the Young Lords (YLP) became fractured when, in an attempt to do more for workers by galvanizing unions, the party mandated that its members take up jobs in factories. Johnny adopts the cause, turning his back on his dreams to be a teacher, but Blanca refuses.
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