- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
After decades of union decline, Amazon workers in Staten Island have achieved the most important labor victory in the United States since the 1930s. Taking on and defeating Amazon would be a David versus Goliath story no matter who led the effort, but it is especially stunning that the successful unionization drive at the JFK8 warehouse was initiated by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), an upstart, independent, worker-led effort.
ALU leaders include both former employees like Christian Smalls, who was fired from the JFK8 warehouse in 2020 after organizing a walkout, and a small crew of worker leaders inside the warehouse. While much of the national media attention has understandably focused on Smalls, the remarkable story of how workers on the inside of the building brought about this stunning upset largely remains to be told.
Few people are better placed to tell this story than Angelika Maldonado, the twenty-seven-year-old chair of ALU’s Workers Committee. One of the key leaders responsible for yesterday’s historic victory, Maldonado works as a packer in the outbound department on the night shift at JFK8. After yesterday’s vote, she sat down with Jacobin’s Eric Blanc to discuss how they accomplished the seemingly impossible — and what organizing lessons workers across the country can take from their efforts.
First of all, how are you feeling?
When I found out that we’d won, I was totally speechless — it literally feels like I’m still dreaming. Even right now, talking about it, I’m getting emotional thinking about what we’ve accomplished.
Can you speak a bit about how you got involved in the effort to unionize?
I started working at JFK8 back in 2018, but it wasn’t until last October that I got involved in the organizing. One day leaving from work — after my twelve-hour-and-thirty-minute shift — an organizer came up to me and let me know what was going on. To be honest, I was immediately all in. I’ve never been a part of a union before, but my mom has been a member of 1199SEIU for as long as I can remember. So when I heard Amazon could get a union, I knew from experience how much that would benefit all the families and all the people who worked there. From that point on, basically, I’ve been all in.
Were there any specific grievances at work that motivated you to get involved?
At the top of my list is job security. The turnover rate here is very high — you can be let go for multiple reasons. Anybody can benefit from a raise, but what’s the point if you can’t keep the job?
For a future goal, we need health care. Personally, I pay $54 a week out of my paycheck for health care for me and my son. I can only imagine what other single parents are paying when they have more kids than I do, because you have to pay for each dependent. Up until I was twenty-six, I didn’t have to pay for health care because my mom is in 1199. In the future, I’d love to see everybody in the building have free health care.
What were the main divisions within the workforce that you had to confront?
There are a lot of different types of people who work at JFK8; it’s really diverse in age, race, and where people live — people commute here from all over. But one of the main divisions was age. Keep in mind that the average age of an ALU organizer is about twenty-six — many older workers tended to be more skeptical of the union.
The culture at Amazon is very intense and intimidating, so when a lot of older workers first saw a bunch of young people trying to organize something so big, it was hard for some of them to grasp that we actually knew what we wanted and that we knew how to get there. That’s why we had to educate ourselves — and then educate our coworkers — on how exactly this can be done. We explained what we can do as a unit, all of us together.
And we overcame the age gap mostly just by being relatable and personable — honestly, that’s how we won this election. I’d ask coworkers, “What if your grandkids have to work here? What if your children have to? Yeah, you might be older than me, but I’m a mom also, and we want the same things, right?” When they found out I was also a mom, and that I was sacrificing all my free time to help build a union, a lot of them really saw how serious this was.
Were differences of race and nationality also a factor?
Yeah, that was another thing: reaching out to the diverse races at JFK8. For instance, a lot of our coworkers are African. During the campaign I had an idea, which ended up turning out great: my neighbor, she’s also African and she caters, so I said, “We’ve given out so much food, why don’t we give out food that targets the culture of the workers at Amazon?” So one day I asked my neighbor to make us some African fried rice — and that really attracted a whole bunch of African workers toward us and we gained a couple of new organizers off that.
I would say that having organizers of the same race was also crucial. I’m Hispanic — half Hispanic — myself, but I don’t speak Spanish, so it was easier for one of our organizers who speaks Spanish to speak to those Hispanic workers who had questions.
What we did was allow anyone in the building who wanted to organize to organize. And that really worked to our benefit, because the members of the ALU committee that we have right now are a diverse group. We’re a small group compared to the amount of people we have in the building, but we’re diverse.
How did you overcome management intimidation?
Amazon really instills fear in workers. It wasn’t just that there were anti-union posters everywhere; Amazon hired a ton of union busters that were constantly walking around the building talking to workers. It was intimidating. The union busters basically lied and told our coworkers that we were a third party. But in reality, we were workers just like them. We didn’t come from somewhere else to organize JFK8; we literally work there — we’re a worker-led union.
A lot of what we did was a risk, but we knew there’d be a return on it eventually. We did things like going into union-busting captive audience meetings even when we weren’t invited. We spoke up for everyone and we told the facts. We combated what the union busters were saying, letting everybody know that they were telling lies. Of course, we were told to leave because we weren’t invited — what the union busters do is take employees off their stations randomly to go into these meetings. But that time we all went in as a group and demanded to tell our side.
We were told by the general manager that if we didn’t leave, we’d be reprimanded, that we’d be “insubordinate.” But we stood our ground — we stayed and told the truth to our coworkers. That was something that we had to risk. At the moment, we all were a little fearful, but we needed to take that risk, because our coworkers had to see that we could stand up. Though we did get kicked out eventually, action like that showed them that there are certain rights and certain laws that protect us — and that we shouldn’t be scared of Amazon.
Can you speak more about the specific steps you took to move your coworkers?
There were only so many of us on the organizing team, so everything that everybody brought to the table was important. For my part, I tried to be in the building as long as I could, for as many days as I could. Coming in on my days off, spending less time with my child — it took a lot of dedication, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of risk.
I couldn’t talk about the union on company time, but I could on my lunch breaks and my fifteen-minute breaks. And even if I didn’t have time to speak with coworkers on my shift, I’d always make sure to get their numbers and talk to them on my off days. I’d also let them know to tell their family members who work there about the union, and I’d ask them to tell their friends too. I’d tell everybody, “If you have any questions, you can call me whenever — and if anybody else has any questions, pass my number along.” And if I didn’t know the answer to a specific question, then I’d just give them the number of the ALU president [Chris Smalls] so they could ask him directly.
How did you make sure you were talking to as many workers as possible and how did you measure support to see if you had a majority?
Personally, I have a really good memory — so my goal was that if I’d never seen a face before, I’d always go up to that person and have a conversation. It was important to have a tight group of organizers and to keep connected with all the workers who were all for the union. But another key goal of ours was always to speak to new people every day.
And after talking with them, we’d ask them to do things like joining the Telegram chat, or to give us their number, or to come to a meeting, or to fill out a survey. That was the goal — speak to new people every day, get them connected.
What did those conversations look like?
I’d ask things like, “Have you ever heard about the ALU?” And then if they needed any answers or information, I’d do my best to answer, and I’d let them know, “We’re a worker-led union. If at any point you want to become an organizer, you can.” Some of them would want to, some of them wouldn’t. But in the end, the immediate goal was something simpler, like getting them into the big Telegram chat with all union supporters or wearing an ALU T-shirt. Things like that showed that there were many other people in the building who wanted to have a union, not just the same five workers you see at the table in the break room.
We’d use the big Telegram chat to give updates, or to let folks know if something happened in the building on another shift. Day shift and night shift are like two different worlds sometimes, so it was useful to have a way to communicate with everybody. But to be honest, the chat wasn’t that big a concern for us; the main thing was the face-to-face interactions. I think that’s really what got the union going.
Those one-on-one conversations were so important because Amazon told a lot of people we were a third party. And in the end, that bit them. At first workers would come up to us and be like, “How are you guys able to be in the building? You guys don’t even work here.” Then we’d literally show them our work badge and say, “We do work here — everyone that’s in the union here right now works here.” So they’d be curious at that point. And by the end of our conversations, they often felt bamboozled by Amazon because they realized that they had been lied to.
The face-to-face conversations were how we connected. I’d let people know that I was a single mom, that I work twelve-hour-and-thirty-minute shifts, and that I’m here on my off day, you know? Being vulnerable too — I’d explain what I was sacrificing, what we were all sacrificing, being there to make sure that everyone in the building can have better working conditions.
By the time the election was about two weeks away, it was because of those conversations that I was really confident that we’d win. I was basing that off the people I was talking to, the growing support I was seeing — and that the other organizers were talking to their people and their people were talking to people and my people were talking to people. Everybody was talking to everybody.
Beyond conversations, did you do other things to help your coworkers feel like they weren’t alone — and how did you track your level of support?
At about the end of last year, the ALU started passing out union shirts. So when some folks started wearing their shirts in the building, that’s really when a lot of other people started seeing how much support there was. After that, we had to get more and more new shirts for everybody. And as the election was getting closer, we really amped up our game — the last thing we did in the campaign was to get lanyards, about three or four thousand of them. We passed out a lot of lanyards during shift changes, so people could see how much support there was.
All that time, we were getting our coworkers’ phone numbers — and we’d compile all of them into one big list so that we could get a sense of how we were doing support-wise and so that we could follow up with them over the regular phone banks we held out of the [UNITE HERE Local 100] union office in Manhattan. And as organizers, we stay coordinated; for example, we kept schedules for who of us would be in the building or checking the chat at different times.
And when I say dedication, I mean dedication: those of us on the committee, we were in the building seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Even on our off days we were in the building — after I picked up my son from school and it was my off day, I always headed straight to the building.
Because we couldn’t converse about the union on company time, the table in the break room was especially important. I built relationships with coworkers I’d have never known had I not been there. When they were on their lunch break, or on a quick snack break, I’d talk to them for as long as they had time. And once they met one of us, they knew all of us, because, as organizers, we were always trying to build relationships with everybody. That’s what we mean by being personable.
And management didn’t try to kick you out?
No, because we were protected by law. We knew our rights and were in touch with a good labor lawyer. Those of us who were workers could be in the building organizing. We were legally protected as long as we weren’t organizing on company time.
They did try sometimes to push back a bit — for instance, they tried once to get us to take down our table in the break room, saying that it broke COVID rules. But just the day before, they had set up their own table in the break room, so we didn’t back down. Honestly, though, they didn’t try anything too crazy because by that point they had realized that we knew a lot about the laws protecting us.
Before becoming an organizer with ALU, I didn’t have any union or organizing experience at all, so when I got involved I just sat down and listened a lot to the organizers who had been doing this for longer than I had. And I retained that information, because I knew it’d be vital to workers who had questions to ask me.
So with that captive audience meeting that we intervened in, I asked for advice because I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know my rights. That’s when I called our union president, who told me that, under a certain section of the law, we’re protected. And then next, when one of my coworkers said, “I heard you all got kicked out of a captive audience meeting. Are you going to get fired?” I explained to them that no, we wouldn’t get fired, because we were protected.
Congrats again on the amazing victory — could you close out with any final thoughts on what you’ve achieved?
Though I’m new to organizing, my goal became to organize JFK8 and the Staten Island warehouse. I see every day what we all go through working at Amazon. It’s exhausting and we’re treated like robots. I have friends who I went to school with who also work here, and a lot of their families — who are basically like my family — do too. Only if you work inside the building can you possibly know what it’s like to work at Amazon.
And now I’ve also seen what all the organizers I’ve been working with have gone through. We’ve dealt with a lot to help bring about a change. For us organizers, it’s meant a lack of sleep, it’s meant a lack of spending time at home. And we did that on top of also working the whole time at Amazon.
So the fact that we won today, it’s unreal, I feel like I’m in the twilight zone. I’m so proud of, and grateful for, every worker who voted yes and every organizer who put in the work. To be able to celebrate our win today — it’s basically the best thing ever. We made history, right?