Workers who are leading some of today’s most notable union campaigns gathered at HuffPost’s New York City office on Wednesday to share their stories.
The panel, “A New Labor Movement,” showcased workers from Amazon, Starbucks, REI and Apple. All of those companies have seen a share of their workforce unionize for the very first time in recent months, part of a pronounced increase in labor organizing in the U.S. over the past year.
The panelists explained why they decided to organize their workplaces and how they managed to pull it off, considering their employers all campaigned against their efforts and urged workers to vote against unionizing.
Angelika Maldonado, vice president of the Amazon Labor Union, was a lead organizer at the retailer’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, the first and so far only Amazon facility in the U.S. to form a union. Maldonado discussed the mammoth undertaking of trying to organize an 8,000-employee facility while the company spent millions of dollars on anti-union consultants who held meetings with workers at the warehouse.
Maldonado, who works as a packer at Amazon, said she and her coworkers openly challenged those consultants.
“I’m a very bubbly person, very kindhearted,” she said. “However, once I feel defensive, I become very combative.... Not only myself but other organizers from the ALU were speaking out and ruining these meetings. We had proof and facts for our coworkers. We were standing up for our coworkers.”
Maldonado’s experiences resonated with CJ Toothman, a worker and organizer at Starbucks in Brooklyn.
Toothman’s store is one of nearly 200 Starbucks locations that have unionized with Workers United since December in a remarkable burst of organizing at the previously non-union coffee chain. Federal labor officials have accused the company of breaking the law by firing union organizers and closing certain stores where union support is high, though Starbucks maintains the terminations and closures were legitimate and not retaliatory.
“Just last week I had to have a meeting with 12 different managers at one time,” Toothman said. “So many managers they couldn’t fit into the office and were literally standing around the door. I think they’re definitely trying to use scare tactics against any store that unionizes or any store that wants to unionize.”
Emma Kate Harris was one of the workers who formed the first union at outdoor retailer REI, at the company’s store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Workers there approved of unionization in a landslide in March, voting 88-14 in favor of joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. REI fought the campaign despite its progressive image as an employer. Harris discussed why the company’s arguments against a union ― including a widely mocked podcast produced by the company ― fell so flat.
“The more they try to show that they’re a progressive company, the more they’re showing that their activism is really performative,” Harris said. “With all of that union-busting… they’re just bringing in more evidence of how out of touch they are and really highlighting the fact that they don’t actually know what’s going on with us.”
An Apple Store in Towson, Maryland, became the tech giant’s first U.S. location to unionize last month. Billy Jarboe, a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, was one of the workers leading that effort. Jarboe said the pandemic made him and his coworkers realize that they didn’t have much of a say in workplace policies that affected them.
“The pandemic… what that really revealed for me personally and for a lot of us was how many decisions were made in succession without our consideration or inclusion,” he said. “The messaging from our company was ‘we’re progressive, you already have a seat at the table.’ Well, no we don’t.”
The full video of the panel can be viewed above.