There's a New Way to Unionize
Modernize, adapt, relate. Can New York City’s non-union construction workers look to the ALU for realistic, fresh methods on organizing?
Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island voted to form a union on April 1st—it was a historic moment. Rising up independently from within with a bottom-up campaign, as the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) did at JFK8, remains admirable, and is arguably the only way that the Big Apple’s tumultuous construction industry can likewise see change.
Rather than going the traditional route of hiring professional organizers to plan rallies and make t-shirts, the ALU embraced technology and a human touch to get their initial win, utilizing social media and holding pot-luck dinners as methods to bring workers into the organizing fold. It was also the ALU members’ commitment to adapting their organizing attempt to the modern age and relating to workers that helped them succeed.
A Human Touch
Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer of the ALU started their push to unionize after being forced out of their jobs following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020. Smalls and Palmer built bonfires at the bus stop outside of the warehouse to provide warmth to the workers heading home at dawn. They brought authentic homecooked meals to the warehouse, like empanadas and rice dishes or baked ziti, and handed out free recreational marijuana. These nontraditional, non-corporate, fully human efforts to connect to workers went a long way and sparked word-of-mouth awareness.
ALU embraced technology and a human touch to get their initial win, utilizing social media and holding pot-luck dinners as methods to bring workers into the organizing fold.
Rather than catered foods, volunteers made authentic ethnic cuisines loved by local coworkers, like empanadas, and shared them at meetings or with overtime shifts to say thank you and to boost morale.
The ALU also turned to modern technology. Organizers utilized GoFundMe rather than gathering traditional union dues for financing and raised $120,000. They embraced social media, frequently posting videos on TikTok and growing an online following there and across other channels. They also used a Telegram chat room to discuss unionization efforts, and immigrant workers took to WhatsApp to spread the message in different languages. Christian Smalls racked up thousands of followers on Twitter, connecting with the pro-union, pro-worker community there (plus he became a prominent figure in the press as the ALU gained more recognition, donning ALU shirts and hats whenever he was on camera).
“Kudos to the ALU for applying new and improved tactics, like using the Internet and apps like TikTok to spread the word,” said Rubén Colón, a council representative at the Area Standards Department of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. “These are all new tools that have not really been properly utilized by trade unions.” Indeed, workers aiming to form a union should look to the free resources at hand, like social media platforms, to promote their causes and garner maximal support.
Rather than rely on traditional fund raising events coordinated by outside organizers, the ALU established a GoFundMe page, which by the time of the union vote, had collected $120,000, which was used to fund the effort. The account remains open and continues to collect donations for the organizing effort, which goes on.
Adapting, Relatability, and Demographics
Colón suggested that trade workers need to better adapt not only to modern technology, but also other circumstances when looking to lead unionization efforts—especially when it comes to construction laborers. “I’ve been known to go out there and throw on my cap and construction boots and do what I have to do,” he explained, adding that rank-and-file workers will relate better to him that way, but not so much if he shows up in a suit. “But when I have to go to Albany and push for certain legislation, I put on a suit and fit the atmosphere that I’m in,” he added. “You don’t go to outer space in jeans, right? You throw on a space suit.”
Plus, having leaders who inspire them is key to getting workers to rise up. “Unionizing is not something [workers] are going to necessarily do voluntarily, unless they are otherwise compelled to, like in the way a strike would tend to get people's undivided attention,” the anonymous former carpenter told Union-Built Matters last month. Workers must be properly compelled to organize by leaders whose principles, behaviors, and strategies motivate them.
Demographics also matter when it comes to this discussion. “I don’t think it’s an accident that the Amazon warehouse that got organized was predominantly Black and Latino,” said the anonymous former carpenter. “And I imagine many of those workers are immigrants as well. I think immigrant workers are quite capable of self-organizing and I hope the success of the ALU encourages them to do so, because the future of the American labor movement will be a revival by our immigrant brothers and sisters.” Indeed, upward of 50 percent of the JFK8 workforce consists of immigrants, according to Jacobin. And New York City’s non-union construction scene is likewise largely made up of immigrants; will they emerge as leaders of a new movement?
“You don’t go to outer space in jeans, right? You throw on a space suit.”
In 2017, local New York construction unions worked with New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) to successfully compel the city council to adopt Intro 1447, which mandates a minimum number of hours of safety training for all construction workers in New York City, whether union or non-union.
In the end, non-union workers within New York City’s construction world who want to fight for their rights will have to do it themselves. “It's about increasing the standard of wages and benefits paid to workers out in the industry, union and non-union alike,” said Colón. “If we can meet somewhere in the middle, there could be a whole new standard, but the workers have to rise up. The workers have to demand better conditions, better wages, better training.” The anonymous former carpenter shares this sentiment. “The non-union workers need to organize and strike in order to turn the industry,” he said. “If you really want fundamental change, it’s going to have to come from the workers. They’re the ones who have the power to make change by trying to compel employers to come to terms with them.”
Despite Amazon's efforts to slander Christian Smalls, he led a new kind of organizing campaign, leveraging technology, media, and authentic human connection. So far, his efforts have succeeded where traditional efforts before him failed.
Non-union construction workers in New York City who are thinking about organizing should also take into account this positive factor: they have their location on their side. As of 2021, according to The New Yorker, 22 percent of employees in New York State belong to a union—compared to just six percent in Alabama, where the pro-union vote at Amazon failed. New York City cares about workers’ rights; remember when city officials and residents alike ran Amazon out of Queens when it tried to open a headquarters there in 2019? Plus, more and more of New York State’s Starbucks locations are pushing to unionize (though with help from professional labor organizers); last month the company’s Reserve Roastery in the city won a pro-union vote, and more of the coffee chain’s city locations have since filed for union elections.
Non-union construction workers in New York City face countless hardships—and often risk their livelihoods and even their lives just to keep their jobs. These workers are the ones who build up the city’s gleaming skyline. So why wouldn’t the Big Apple be on their side if they decide to rally for their rights?
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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