by Gabriel Donnelly
In a previous article for With Sober Senses, “Amazon Labor Union Victory Has ‘Made God Bleed,’” I wrote that the successful Amazon Labor Union (ALU) election in the Staten Island JFK8 warehouse was “both the most impressive and most visible labor union victory in America in decades, and it was accomplished by a newly formed independent union.” The second clause in the above sentence was not thrown in arbitrarily, because even at an early point in recent organizing, the independence of the ALU was remarkable. What could then only be suspected, now feels nearly certain, namely that the independence of the union was an asset for the workers in attaining this achievement. They were able to build the exact tool they needed for the organizing job.
Subsequent events have shown that the ALU’s victory was not a one-off win for independent unionism. That victory has inspired a slew of other new, independent, worker-led unions. It can’t be overstated that any union victory against a corporate behemoth like Amazon would have been impressive. Amazon has all the money, resources, time, and desire to crush any organizing effort, and they have already shown their capacity to do that. After all, they successfully defeated the RWDSU in two elections in Bessemer, Alabama, by employing both illegal and legal methods. ALU president Chris Smalls, in an interview with the Guardian, explained that the decision to form an independent union was inspired by the elections in Bessemer. Smalls explained: “If established unions had been effective, they would have unionized Amazon already.”
I think that Smalls is putting his finger on something crucial about the ALU, mainly that its independence was not incidental to its victory, but rather a crucial component of it. Instead of trying the same thing over and over again, employing a methodology that had twice been defeated, Amazon workers recognized that a new approach might be required. That being said, even though Amazon workers decided to build something of their own, they didn’t need to develop a methodology from scratch. ALU organizer Justine Medina wrote about the roots of the union’s organizing approach in an article for Labor Notes: “We studied the history of how the first major unions were built. We learned from the Industrial Workers of the World, and even more from the building of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.” By learning from the past, these workers developed a union that was able to engage other workers, actually win an election, and shock the world.
Crucially, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. Traditional labor organizing over most of the past 70 years is conducted by labor union staff who agitate and organize from outside the shop. In his writing on the labor union organizing resurgence of the past year, veteran labor journalist Steven Greenhouse pointed out that this resurgence has been marked by an increase in “worker-to-worker” organizing. It has also been characterized by an increase in independent unions.
In the interest of understanding this moment, these tactics, and these workers, I reached out to two members of two newly formed independent unions. Both of these workers cited the ALU as an inspiration for their own workplace fights. Lowe’s Workers United (LWU) was formed in a Lowe’s department store in New Orleans. I spoke to Felix Allen, LWU’s lead organizer. Home Depot Workers United (HDWU) was formed in a Home Depot department store in Philadelphia. I spoke to Vince Quiles, HDWU’s lead organizer. Each walked me through their decisions to form a new, independent union, the processes of their respective organizing campaigns, and the struggles that organizing workers faced. Something both campaigns had in common was that their initial impetus was not a desire to form an independent union and build something new. These campaigns started with a desire to organize their workplace, win tangible improvements, and actually get stuff done for themselves and their coworkers. It was only in the course of organizing their workplaces that it became clear that the independent route was the most feasible one.
Getting Campaigns off the Ground
We should start at the beginning. As these campaigns are marked by “worker-to-worker organizing,” the beginning is conversations on the shopfloor. When I spoke to Vince Quiles, he told me that there were a lot of conversations on the shop floor about job conditions. Finally, one worker pointed out to Quiles that instead of just complaining, they could try to fight back.
I would say [the desire to unionize] has always existed, in terms of the reasons why we [tried to unionize] have always existed. Things like short staffing, the pay not really being adequate, and a lot of similar concerns. That was the ground which it was based on.
But actual follow-through organizing happened probably late summer to early fall… like July. That was around the time I started collecting signatures. Basically, I remember having a conversation with one of my co-workers and it was just about how much money Home Depot was making, a lot of the concerns we were having at the store. I was being like, yo, this is insane. You won’t get paid more for doing various additional things throughout the store, they just expect you to do more work without paying you more. Meanwhile the store is clearing thirty million in profit; the company is clearing 4.4 billion in profit. And [my co-worker] looked at me, and he was like, “what are you going to do about it?”
… ultimately, if you want things like that to change … personally, I feel like the only way to go about it is to talk with your co-workers and try to organize a union. Because otherwise, things ain’t really going to change.
The workers in Philadelphia weren’t the only ones inspired by tales of unionization in the news. Felix Allen told me about how the campaign in the New Orleans Lowe’s got started. He says that seeing union drives, even unsuccessful ones, get off the ground in the Deep South encouraged him to try to do something that he may have otherwise thought was impossible.
We started towards the end of April. My main impetus was that I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while but I didn’t think it was possible. But then this year a Starbucks across town from us, Maple Street Starbucks or something, they unionized. And, you know, I’ve been seeing, through the whole pandemic, these racial justice protests and union activity at Amazon. Folks had been organizing in Bessemer, Alabama for a long time. Particularly the organizing in Bessemer had been in the back of my mind. I was thinking: ‘Well, they’re in the Deep South, and they’re still doing this. Why can’t we do it in New Orleans?” So, I think, finally, we reached a breaking point around the end of April. I started asking for advice from local organizers. I spoke to a few people in established unions.
Allen’s thinking about organizing and solidarity is strongly influenced by contemporary struggles for racial justice. He says he’s been thinking about what he could do to get involved, fight back, and empower the people around him since at least the 2020 Black Lives Matter campaign.
That was 100% the case for me. That [struggle] has been going on for most of my life. I remember that Trayvon Martin was murdered maybe when I was in high school, so that’s always been at the forefront of my mind. We do learn about a lot of these things at school, although they’re not always emphasized as they should be.
Particularly, the labor movement does have a history of racism in the US. But then there’s people like Dr. King who was working with the labor movement right up until the day he was assassinated. Facts like that are important. Then you see organizers like Christian Smalls–there were some emails leaked about him where [Amazon bosses] called him “inarticulate,” which I think is a pretty clear racist dog whistle.
This is the present day, in dialogue with the past while keeping its finger firmly on the pulse of the living, struggling moment. In fact, a vivid current struggle in modern-day New Orleans was also an inspiration to Felix Allen and his coworkers, namely, the struggle for justice in Gordon Plaza. Houses in Gordon Plaza were built on top of a toxic landfill site, and residents were not informed until major health issues became very common. The fight of residents for relocation and monetary restitution was an inspiration to New Orleans Lowe’s workers.
If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in Gordon Plaza [New Orleans]… you can probably look that up. But basically, a bunch of residents were sold housing which was deemed affordable or marketed as affordable back in the eighties, and it turned out to be on top of a toxic waste dump. So a lot of them have died now of cancer. But they’ve been fighting for forty years to get fully funded relocation, and they’re still working on that. It’s made some progress, and it hopefully looks like they’re on the brink of something, but they’re still fighting various legal battles. That instance… seeing how those residents have been able to organize, actually was an inspiration as well. Because they’re pretty near the store. They’re in the Ninth Ward, our store’s in the Eighth Ward. So, it’s just very clear that there’s a lot of power in New Orleans and people are very ready to organize. Particularly working class Black people. No shortage of people ready to do that.
Abandoned home in Gordon Plaza, New Orleans.
The struggle for justice in Gordon Plaza was an inspiration for Lowe’s workers in New Orleans. When Lowe’s workers saw that, through organization and perseverance, the residents of Gordon Plaza were able to secure a settlement, they realized that, in Felix Allen’s words, “there’s a lot of power in New Orleans and people are very ready to organize.”
The Decision to be Independent and Worker-Led
Usually, union authorization cards are collected by union staff organizers. So–fired up and ready to fight, the workers at the New Orleans Lowe’s began the struggle to organize their workplace, but they had a question to answer. What union to designate on the cards would they sign? Typically, you call a union office and introduce yourself as unorganized workers that are looking to join a union. They did that and they “shopped around” to determine what was best for them and their fight. That work brought them into contact with the barebone realities of organizing with an established union, at least in Allen’s store’s experience:
I sort of got the idea that if you want to go through an established union, there are going to be all sorts of stipulations. Basically, we had to do all the work, because they weren’t going to give us any organizers. And, if we could get a basically impossible amount of signatures, like 70-80%, then they would do the icing on the cake and help us win an election. So, my thought on that was, cool, we’ll do all the hard work and the impossible, and then you’ll help us out. I don’t say that to speak badly of anyone. All the people I spoke to were incredibly generous with their time. But that was one of the reasons why we thought that going independent would be a good idea.
Moreover, there was hesitancy among some workers about established unions:
It was a minor thing, but there were some people who said, “I am in a union and I feel like there’s some sketchy stuff going on.” That did play a role in [the decision]. I think if it were possible to go through an established union we’d have thought harder about that, but we didn’t think that was possible at our place with how difficult it is to organize in retail. We had seriously considered going with an established union, but folks, for various reasons, just weren’t ready to do that. Some folks said, “Look we want this to be worker run.”
These workers discovered that the independent route was the most feasible for their workplaces. In my experience of labor organizing, their logic was sound. The acceptance of this logic in more and more workplaces is a sign of a shift. There has been a hesitancy to start new, independent unions because they have not been perceived as credible. However, the AFL-CIO can no longer sneer that “ideological” unions may make you feel better, but aren’t capable of getting the goods. In the cases of these workers, they didn’t see any way that a union not built and led by them could get any goods. That’s a huge and exciting shift.
At the Philadelphia Home Depot, Vince Quiles describes a similar thought process behind their decision to build an independent union:
I would say that a lot of conversations were had about it. People didn’t always have the best experience with unions, so that was something we all tried to take into account. We were also trying to consider the fact that… The main question in the beginning was, how can we get people to confidently sign on? People’s bad experiences with unions was a point that kept appearing. Some people had great experiences with unions, but we also heard some stories that had left those people saying: if we’re going with a preexisting union then we’re not going to roll.
So, we looked around. I would say it was the Amazon union that was a very, very important learning experience for us and an inspiration. Because they’re in that warehouse, and Home Depot’s a warehouse. I think a lot of the arguments that Chris Smalls and Derek Palmer and the team over there at their union made were really, really strong in making a case for an independent union.
The Philadelphia Home Depot store where Home Depot Workers United was formed and held its first election.
So these campaigns were inspired by the very public Amazon Labor Union, and by struggles for racial justice, and also by each other. Allen told me how the New Orleans’s store’s decision to go independent was affirmed by speaking with Quiles:
I shouldn’t neglect to mention, I actually spoke to Vince Quiles right after he filed [for a union election at his Philadelphia Home Depot]. We got in contact on Twitter and then spoke on the phone… That gave us confirmation that maybe that’s the route we should go. He shared some of his strategies with me and we’ve stayed in touch.
He definitely shared some very valuable insight and advice into what his situation was. We definitely need more of that, overall. We were both in the same situation where we both wanted to get something happening even if we were in an uphill battle.
Their contact and encouragement of each other makes these two disconnected but similar struggles part of one concrete struggle. They are the first gasps of a fledgling, burgeoning struggle for independent, worker-led trade unionism.
Interactions with the NLRB
American workers organizing their workplaces have to collect signatures for an authorization petition that is submitted to the National Labor Relations Board, which then initiates an election. The election is scheduled and held somewhere on the workplace grounds. On election day, the proceedings are supervised by a board agent. At least that’s how most workplace organizing goes, and this is the route that LWU and HDWU workers went in their respective campaigns. However, their questioning of established institutions was not reserved for other trade unions, and LWU workers considered another route first:
We made the choice of going with… of going with [the NLRB route] We did that because that was what people were most comfortable with. I sort of tended to favor the idea of just taking more direct action. I had spoken with some people from the IWW [International Workers of the World] and I sort of liked their approach [of not fighting for legal recognition and contracts but instead using frequent direct action on the job]. But the folks on our committee thought it would be a better idea to go with the NLRB process, which meant having to deal with all these legal hurdles ….
So, my thing was that the IWW gave me great training, but I never really intended to go with them. I even had some co-workers talk with one of the IWW’s organizers too. That was really cool. I appreciate what they’re doing, but I and my co-workers didn’t think that it was very realistic either. We weren’t going to be able to get ten people to march on the boss or whatever. That wasn’t happening. We had to recognize what our odds were. And, even if we were going to lose, we wanted to lose as loudly as possible. We wanted to show them our power.
One of many crises facing the labor movement in America is the Supreme Court’s upcoming case on the Wagner Act, which I discussed in my previous article for With Sober Senses. Due to this case, workers may have to organize in a post-NLRA world. Here, we see that these workers did consider alternative methodologies of workplace organizing, before, collectively, settling on the NLRB route for their workplace.
The Structure of Worker-Led Institutions
Starting from scratch and building a new union comes along with a whole mess of issues and hurdles. For the LWU, filing their own election petition with the NLRB meant the paperwork was challenged by Lowe’s legal department, and LWU had to withdraw their petition. In Philadelphia, HDWU lost their union election. But neither set of workers have any intention of giving up. Quiles told me he has spent a lot of time reflecting on what the structure, constitution, and by-laws of the HDWU could be, as they reach out to other workers in other Home Depots across the country:
We thought that maybe if we could get the structure right, it would be the best for workers in the building. Because, eventually, what we would like to do is try to do the same thing in different stores, and develop a national apparatus that exists to support the stores. A national apparatus that would exist to have a strike fund and things like that and literally just offer support, but when it comes to agendas and things like that … that has to be up to the store to decide for themselves. Every store is a little bit different. Their concerns are different. The issues in their face are different. Rather than trying to push too much on a whole structural level, we want to give full autonomy to the stores themselves and basically have a [national apparatus] that can come in with money ….
We wanted to have our own Constitution and Bylaws, right, because working in Home Depot every department is its own unique space. So, rather than adhering to someone else’s rules that [were] maybe made with respect to the work they are in, we would rather make our own rules that understand the place we’re in. Which we do understand. We understand the concessions that are reasonable and so we would rather force our path for ourselves than going under the umbrella of someone else.
For me personally, I wasn’t all the way closed to the idea of an established union. But a lot of the times when you go to them, you go to them for the organizers; you go to them for the money you need if you go on strike. And … look, if you put in the work, you can do that stuff yourself. It might take a lot of work, but I felt like in trying to reach that, that would better to reach the end goal of what you would want a union to be. And I think, in talking with my co-workers who I talked about this a lot with, they agreed with the sentiment that if you go [the independent] route it encourages more engagement from the workforce, which is ultimately what you want from any work environment. So if you’re sitting down at the negotiating table, or you’re just actively going through your day-to-day life as an associate and paying attention to what’s going on, in both cases staying in contact with union leaders and saying what you’re seeing and what’s affecting your job is what’s important. You want everybody engaged and working on it. And I felt like that structure, and my co-workers agreed, promotes that mentality a little more.
This is an interesting idea and inspiring thinking about how to build a responsive and worker-led union. It runs up against a fundamental issue of organizing any workplace, but especially retail. In retail jobs, there is a lot of turn over, and this is by design. This is why it’s so hard to organize these workplaces, and many of the workers there think of their jobs as temporary. These are also jobs with grueling shifts, and people don’t want to spend more time than they have to thinking or talking about their job. It’s an issue that Allen ran up against in New Orleans.
You know, as you would expect, there were a lot of people who were interested or supportive but not willing to go to a meeting or be on a committee. Then there are people who say they would do those things but then they’re no-shows when the time comes. I set up one meeting where I expected six to ten people to be there. Right before the meeting, I started getting texts rolling in canceling, and no one showed up. There was a lot of that.
Eventually, however, Allen did get people to get involved.
Some younger people were more inclined to action, but it was more difficult to get them educated about the importance of it. I mean, there haven’t been a ton of unions around. I’m only 26, so it’s the same for me, but a lot of people were even younger than me. I mean, they maybe didn’t even have parents who were in a union or anything like that. But a lot of those [younger] folks ended up really willing to get on board. Still, it was really hard getting a committee together, but eventually I found some people who were from New Orleans, which I thought was really important.I’m an Asian dude and the store is about 80% black so it was important to get Black workers on the committee. But that wasn’t hard. I found that despite being the most at risk or having the most to lose, it was working class Black people who were the most willing to participate in this. That demographic in the store really understood what was at stake here. They felt, and saw, that fighting for economic justice and fighting for racial justice were two things that were inseparable. A lot of people, I think, recognized that.
The few people we got on the committee were several people from New Orleans. They help out behind the scenes, because they have kids and they recognize this as a huge risk. But, ultimately, they were extremely helpful, they really educated people, and this would not have happened without them.
We can see from this example how difficult it can be to get workers involved in a unionization campaign. There’s the issue of risking their jobs, and the issue of the work of the struggle being an additional burden at work. So, how can you build a lasting worker-led institution that asks already overburdened people to take on an additional burden? This was on my mind as I spoke to Quiles about his ideas of the HDWU’s potential structure. The Catch-22 of his ideas on union structure is that he is absolutely right that when everybody is involved and engaged, it works better. However, that takes everybody being involved, and people are exhausted!
I put this question to Quiles: How do you thread that needle of creating a forceful, active union that works for everyone, when most people are burnt out, clocking out, and saying “you worry about it”?
What you’re saying is such a great point, and, man, that was something that I really have buckled down on and been really wracking my brain on in the last two months now. How do you get people involved, right? That’s the major thing. That’s why we lost 165-51. Man, how do you flip that?
That was another point we really tried to hammer home. [Home Depot got really friendly after we tried to unionize, but …] now that Home Depot is falling back into the old behavior that had us trying to unionize [in the first place], people are going through those same experiences again. But now, they’re going through those experiences having also gone through the experience of trying to start a union. Now they know that there is an alternative. And another part of it is the work we’re trying to do with different people across the country in different Home Depots. Trying to work with different organizations too, to try and make a national apparatus. Our goal is to try and form a strike fund so people can feel secure in making the fight stronger if they feel they need to. We need to create a legitimate national apparatus so people feel that support.
A couple of years ago, a union came through, and some people signed cards, but they weren’t able to get it to an election. Again, we with an independent union were able to push it all the way through to an election whereas the established unions couldn’t. So, I think that concept of a worker-led movement and a worker-led movement … I feel like there is some power to that and through this experience we had, we’ve learned where we fell short. We’re trying to examine our own mistakes. We invent and we adapt.
Rather than being upset at how Home Depot cheated us or what they did, we’re trying to concern ourselves with what was in our control to change, so we know what we can try to do better. We want to alleviate the concerns that some people had, so they can feel involved and engaged in the union’s development.
I tell people all the time, I work in the receiving [department]. I don’t know what’s happening up in customer service. I don’t work there, I don’t know what the issues are. How could I speak on those problems? I want to have the customer service desk people be active and engaged with workers from hardware, lumber, and toolware. Because when everybody’s doing that, that’s how we get there. And, that’s another thing we say. No matter how pissed you get at the company, they won’t change. But this union is reflective, adaptive, and open-minded, and we know we don’t have all the answers. We do know that we have a better chance if we listen to as many ideas as possible from people actually talking about their work environment as opposed to people sitting in offices and blowing smoke up our asses.
These workers and their struggles could be stray outliers. Only time will tell. But they could also be like the seagulls you sometimes see further inland before a big rainstorm. They could be the first stirrings of a major resurgence in independent, worker-led union organizing.
And it’s up to all of us reading these words to do what we can to help them out and to make this more than a fluke, because workers who risk it all and organize their workplace deserve more than traditional unions have been giving them. Moreover, the approach of these particular workers, in reading the moment, drawing from the past, and questioning everything in order to try to actually build worker power, must be commended. Nothing about this is easy, and they, and we, are faced with big questions about how to build worker-led structures that are strong and sustainable. Instead of sitting on their hands, these workers are trying to answer those questions.