Since the Amazon Labor Union’s victory in New York, interest in organizing has surged nationwide. In North Carolina, worker-organizers are building solidarity by helping coworkers struggling with starvation wages and an increasingly punitive management.

Amazon employees at a warehouse in North Carolina are organizing to demand fair pay and better working conditions. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson / MediaNews Group / the Denver Post via Getty Images)

As was the case with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in Staten Island, Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment (CAUSE), the nascent union of Amazon workers at RDU1, a fulfillment center in Garner, North Carolina, just outside of Raleigh, started because of COVID.

In January of 2020, Reverend Ryan Brown, CAUSE’s president, was asked to work in a part of the warehouse that he knew to be a COVID hot spot — not, he will tell you, because Amazon informed employees about outbreaks, but because workers contacted one another to communicate about COVID cases. Brown, a former pastor at a black Baptist church in western North Carolina who has worked at Amazon for nearly three years, didn’t feel comfortable with the assignment. So, he used some of his time off to go home instead.

“En route to my residence, my soul was just so troubled,” says Brown. “I thought, ‘You’re trying to make me go somewhere that I don’t feel comfortable and I don’t feel safe and you’re telling me I don’t have any other choice?’”

When he got home, he couldn’t eat. Unable to shake the discomfort, he decided to express himself in the way he knows best, by putting his thoughts on paper. He typed up the words in a personal letter to RDU1’s general manager, posting it on the Voice of Associates board, an online channel for Amazon workers to offer feedback to the company.

The next day, Brown returned to work. Within ten minutes of clocking in, he was asked to go to the general manager’s office.

“The GM and I had an hour or hour and a half private audience,” recounts Brown. “When I was looking this man in the eyes, he kept giving me the same corporate talking points, something to make me feel good so I don’t talk about it.” Upon leaving the meeting, Brown still felt troubled, so he went home early again.

When he got home, he decided to pray. “In my prayers, I heard a voice that kind of whispered into my spirit, ‘Organize,’” says Brown.

Soon after, he approached Mary Hill, a fellow RDU1 employee, to talk about organizing. An older black woman in a warehouse composed of predominantly black and brown workers who commute as much as an hour and a half each way, Brown knew Hill garnered respect among her coworkers. His experience in the church also led him to prioritize her.

“My grandmother only had around a fourth-grade education but when I was growing up, we were in church every day and she was on the pastor’s aide committee and so on,” explains Brown, who was raised by his grandmother in Shelby, North Carolina. “When you’re in the black church, everything that you do is organizing.”

As Brown tells it, CAUSE was born the moment Hill responded by telling him, “Yes, I’ve seen this racist, discriminatory demon before when I was growing up in the Jim Crow South. We have to do something.”

A Popsicle Versus a Raise

The effort has grown substantially in the months following that conversation. While Brown may be one of CAUSE’s most visible figures, the organization has a steering committee, a recruitment committee, a grievance committee, a fundraising committee, and a public relations committee.

They are starting to coordinate a food bank system to address food insecurity among the workforce. In an interview with More Perfect Union, Albert Elliott, another RDU1 worker, attests to the problem.

“I have to be able to choose between gas and my meal, and personally, I want to be able to get home after a ten- or eleven-hour day,” says Elliott. “Either you buy bread or milk, but you can’t buy both.”

CAUSE also holds leafleting sessions, circulating petitions with demands informed by what RDU1 workers say are their most pressing concerns. Pay is the biggest issue: the starting wage at RDU1 is $15.50. While that is double North Carolina’s abysmally low minimum wage of $7.25, it is well below a living wage for Wake County, where the warehouse is located — that would be $18.95 for an adult without children. CAUSE’s petition seeks a $10-an-hour raise.

Inadequate break times are another problem. Workers receive a thirty-minute break, hardly enough time to traverse the massive fulfillment center, pass through metal detectors, and eat. CAUSE seeks an additional thirty-minute paid break. Other priorities included an additional twelve hours of paid time off and that the facility have an on-site therapist to address mental health concerns among the workforce.

During a recent leafleting session, Brown says that several members of RDU1 management came outside of the facility, offering popsicles to workers.

“I became so angry,” he recounts. He pointed out that while management offers workers a popsicle, CAUSE is trying to win a raise. “They were there to intimidate me, but soon they felt uncomfortable and moved to the other side of the sidewalk, and I followed them.”

The next day at work, a senior operations manager and a woman who identified herself as a vice president of human resources pulled Brown aside. They told him someone had accused him of passing out CAUSE literature on the shop floor. Brown responded that the accusation was an insult to his intelligence.

“I said that if I was passing out CAUSE literature, we’d be having a different conversation because you’d be walking me out the door,” he says. “I told them straight: I’m not that type of Negro and intimidation doesn’t work on me.” The allegation was dropped without a write-up.

That type of confidence is key to any organizing effort, but particularly one at Amazon, a company with a history of retaliating against union supporters. While most of CAUSE’s supporters are incognito, the organization uses social media to share videos of RDU1 workers explaining why they support the effort — another critical test of courage.

For the moment, CAUSE is not particularly concerned with the question of filing for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), focusing instead on building support among workers and forwarding demands. The organization is independent, though Brown acknowledges that the union will need all the support it can get to fight an employer like Amazon. In the course of our conversation, he mentions speaking with workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse who are organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), those organized with Amazonians United, and those who are members of the ALU; the ALU’s president, Chris Smalls, was recently on a call with CAUSE organizers.

Such cross-pollination is becoming standard among workers organizing at Amazon. Problems remain with such a fractured ecology: existing unions, be they RWDSU or the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, may hold off on taking on a campaign at a facility, fearing it’ll be perceived as an incursion, while independent unions like the ALU, tied up with legal challenges and employer retaliation, lack the capacity and resources to aid nascent efforts. But the ties must be built; no one location can win on its own at a company where rerouting packages away from a warehouse that is, say, on strike, can be as easy as pushing a button.

But the worker-to-worker relationships serve another purpose, too.

“In times when I’ve been discouraged, I just pick up the telephone and reach out to one of these brothers and sisters who were in a completely different state,” says Brown. “Without even realizing it, we’ll find ourselves encouraging one another.”

Asked to whom else he looks for inspiration, Brown cites Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Martin Luther King Jr (though not, he emphasizes, the watered-down version of King). The union recently tweeted a quote from Stokely Carmichael: “The job of the conscious is to make the unconscious conscious.” Key to the effort, too, is a grounding in broader history. Brown estimates that around 75 percent of his personal library consists of history books, and he speaks at length about the Industrial Revolution — “the Bezos’s of their day” — and the slave economy when describing Amazon’s business model.

As for CAUSE’s strategy, what worked in New York might not necessarily work in North Carolina; what didn’t work in Bessemer may work in North Carolina. But to know what did and didn’t work, one must know one’s counterparts at other locations and in other organizations.

The question of what will work in North Carolina remains open. The state has the second-lowest union density in the country — a mere 2.6 percent. Unlike in New York, there are few unionized workers to support them, and few elected officials likely to side with Amazon workers over such a powerful employer.

Asked about the steep odds, Brown notes that the same experts who might say that building a union at RDU1 is impossible also said the ALU couldn’t win at JFK8, and they were wrong.

“I recognize that we have an uphill battle, and it will take a lot of internal education to dispel lies about unions and organizing,” says Brown. “But at the end of the day, these experts, these politicians, these journalists? They don’t work at Amazon, they don’t go through the hell and work like a slave, and they don’t know the conversations that are being whispered. If I didn’t know in my heart that we could overcome and win, I wouldn’t be involved in this process.”

For now, the focus is on building support at RDU1. CAUSE believes that there may be up to six thousand workers at the fulfillment center; thus far, it is in touch with around seven hundred of them. Asked about how the union is building momentum not only in raw numbers of workers signing petitions, but in terms of shop-floor power, the ability to act like a union whether or not one has formal recognition, Brown tells a story from his most recent shift.

Workers often approach him to discuss problems on the job. Write-ups, for instance, seem to be increasing in volume at RDU1 — a member of management recently confided in Brown that the benchmark in his department is to write up a minimum of twelve workers per day, a policy that may be Amazon’s way of pushing out some of the many workers it hired during the pandemic. Most of the time, it is black workers who trust Brown to talk through such issues. This time, however, it was three Latino workers who walked up to him.

“One of them couldn’t speak English and so one of the other young ladies had to translate for her,” he says. The woman felt she’d been written up without cause, and wanted help. The manager responsible for the write-up is someone CAUSE considers racist, as workers of color regularly complain about him. So Brown and Hill, his fellow organizer, took up the woman’s complaint, bringing it to the GM’s attention.

“The GM kind of looked at me like, most of the time you bring black folks to the office, but now the Hispanics are talking to you.”

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