- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
Coverage of the David-and-Goliath story of a group of scrappy New York City Amazon workers defeating their corporate behemoth bosses has been streaming in in recent days. Like the city’s working class generally, immigrants comprise much of the workforce at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island — upward of 50 percent, according to some workers’ estimates. Pushing for a union was a risk for everybody involved in the unionization drive, but for non-natives, it was often doubly so. Their personal bravery, organizing ingenuity, and joyous triumph is the stuff of a Hollywood movie.
At the heart of this effort was Brima Sylla, a fifty-five-year old Liberian immigrant who works as a stower on the morning shift at JFK8. Upon joining Amazon Labor Union (ALU)’s small crew of dedicated worker organizers, Sylla quickly took a lead in coordinating their ultimately successful efforts to reach and involve immigrants. He sat down with Jacobin’s Eric Blanc to explain how they pulled it off — and what Amazon workers across the United States can learn from their experience.
What led you to work at Amazon?
I had been a high school teacher for ten years at a small private school in Staten Island, but that ended when COVID started. After that, I worked for almost two years for Test and Trace, the city agency providing COVID testing for New Yorkers. I also hold a PhD in public policy from Walden University, and I kept sending out my resume, but no schools seemed to be hiring because enrollment has been down during the pandemic. So that’s how I ended up working at Amazon.
What are working conditions like?
Amazon doesn’t treat us like real human beings; we’re treated just like machines. The job is very unhealthy: we have to spend such long hours standing — our shifts can be as long as twelve hours. After a shift, it feels like someone beat you up. Often you don’t want to wake up in the mornings, knowing you have to go back into that building.
At work, we get harassed from management over basic things like bathroom breaks. And if you try to complain, they just ignore you. All they care about is how they can use and control your time while you’re in that building. It’s not humane — to be honest, it’s a real plantation.
Also, the wages are not enough. My wife works at a nursing home, and we have four kids — a family can’t live off $18.25 an hour in New York, which is a very expensive city.
How did you get involved in the unionization effort?
I was at one of those [captive audience] meetings with the union busters when one of the ALU members, Cassio, started correcting the lies they were telling us. He got kicked out of the meeting, but afterward I spoke with him. He told me a lot more about the union, and I said to myself, “This is the right fight — I’m in, I don’t want to be a bystander.” Living in New York, I know that unions are powerful tools to protect the interests of their members: look at subway workers in the MTA, firefighters from the FDNY, sanitation workers, and even the police in the NYPD.
So I told Cass, “I want to be part of this.” He invited me to the weekly in-person meetings on Wednesdays, where I was able to learn a lot and get a lot of literature. At those committee meetings, we analyzed where we were at and talked about how to be most effective. I also started going to the phonebanks at the [UNITE HERE Local 100] union headquarters in Manhattan.
I saw that I was in a good position to help the effort. I’ve never been part of a union, but I do have a lot of experience with organization because I’m the general secretary of ACASI, the African Community Alliance of Staten Island. And I’ve got skills, not just with social media, but also with languages — I speak French, Arabic, English, and three African languages. So that made it a lot easier for me to communicate with immigrant workers inside the building. And there are a lot of us here at Amazon — Senegalese, Nigerians, Liberians, Ghanaians, Algerians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Albanians, Polish, Filipinos, Malaysians, and a lot of Latinos.
We see each other frequently, either at lunchtime or on breaks or sometimes on the way out of work. But to be honest, a lot of workers here were not initially that impressed with efforts to build a union — they just wanted to come to work and go home. People complained a lot, but they didn’t want to do anything.
Was that because they were scared?
Of course. Many people were afraid of retaliation. Even myself! As immigrants, we work hard to live in this country, and we don’t want to jeopardize our jobs. So I was very careful initially — I wasn’t even sure at first whether to wear the ALU shirt. Only later, as momentum started picking up, did I start wearing the ALU shirt. And eventually I became very brave, and I stopped worrying as much about the risks — for this to work, some of us had to step up.
Still, though, I had to take a lot of precautions. I always do my job professionally, and I make sure not to violate any rules, which is why I could only talk about the union on break time or after work.
What kind of steps did you take to help win your coworkers to vote for the union?
I talked to a lot of workers, mostly in the break room but also outside the building. Lots of times, I’d see a group of African workers together, and I’d always go up to them and talk. I’d say, “Look brother, you have to understand: if you want your family to be secure, if you want your job to be secure, you need to vote for the Amazon Labor Union. That’s how we win the American dream.” People working at Amazon are not millionaires; we are working class. I’d ask people, “Do you want to make $30 dollars an hour?” And of course they’d say yes. It’s logical.
I talked with everybody — Africans, Chinese, Polish workers. One Polish guy, I started by asking him about football — it turned out he used to play fullback. We had a conversation, and eventually I asked him what he thought about working at Amazon: he told me the pay was too low and that he had a lot of responsibilities because he had to take care of his elder parents, and it was really hard to do with $18.25 an hour. And when he told me he would vote yes on the union, I realized we really had everybody on board.
Those conversations worked. We had no hidden agenda, and people started to see that. By the time we were close to the vote date, you could see so many people in the building wearing the ALU shirt and our lanyards. And it was workers of every nationality, including the white workers.
In addition to conversations, did you take other organizing steps?
One initiative of mine was that I told Cass and the committee that we needed to get more literature into everybody’s hands. We’ve got four shifts at our building, right? My suggestion was that with every change of shift we have our people passing out bilingual union fliers and talking with workers at the building entrance, as they’re coming and going from work. So me, Cassio, and Tristan would do that flyering every day and other ALU people started doing it on the other shifts too.
We were out there all the time; it took a lot of work because there are so many people to reach at Amazon. I truly think the reason the union campaign succeeded this time, unlike other efforts, was that we had a great team of organizers who worked so hard and believed in what we were doing.
Next I set up WhatsApp groups for Amazon immigrants, so that the news could spread to all the workers in the building. Social media isn’t new to me; I have experience forming and running a big WhatsApp group, which is one of my duties as the general secretary of ACASI. So I made an “African votes 4 ALU” chat, and another “Immigrants 4 ALU” chat, and soon after I helped create separate WhatsApp chats for Carribeans, for Latinos, and for Asians.
Cassio and Karen took the lead on the work with Latinos, which was really important because so many workers speak Spanish. At Amazon, these chats turned out to be a great way to communicate about the union — people could ask questions and give feedback, and these chats also allowed me to pass on information from ALU to our coworkers.
Whoever I met, I’d eventually ask them for their number. Fortunately, they trusted me. I’d add them to the chats, and I’d tell them to spread the news to their friends at work too. And sometimes they’d just add their friends directly to the chat.
Once I even found out from my sister-in-law that a niece of mine had started working in the building. When I saw her, I not only added her, but she gave me the number of about twenty of her friends who worked there too — not just Africans, whites too.
The most recent thing I did for ALU was act as an observer for the vote counts. I’m African and I’ve seen how those in power can corrupt votes, so I wanted to make sure that didn’t get repeated here.
Before the votes were announced, what did you think your chances were?
Actually, I was confident. Let me show you the text I sent out to the chat before the vote totals were announced. [He paused to pull up the chat on his phone.] Here’s what I sent:
By the grace of God history will be made. The people will speak and Amazon will be obliged to go into Collective Bargaining and that will be another battle that we will be ready for. Almost all immigrants I spoke to agree that the situation must change. This is why a majority are supporting ALU. . . . Personally, I believe that we shall win from the economic perspective of the workers. Those who are conscious about the improvement of their conditions will definitely vote for ALU.
And how did it feel when you heard that you won the vote?
Unbelievable — it’s really hard to describe. Here, let me show you another text, from the day we won. When I heard the news, I texted a coworker “power to the people,” and this is how he replied:
Donned in my ALU shirt, I noticed folks outside the masjid after Juma prayers waving and someone said: so you won. It felt good, knowing that all eyes were on us and how the outcome was something everyone wanted to know. Brima congratulations, to all those who voted yes or no, we look forward [to] an improved Amazon with services across areas.
What message do you have for other Amazon workers across the country who are inspired by your victory?
We’re going to help them — starting with the other warehouse in Staten Island, which has its own vote coming later this month. With them, and with everybody, from the warehouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan to all across the country, we’re going to share our experience and help them succeed. We have learned from other unions, learned from experienced union organizers, and to support us a union even gave us their office to use. Now it’s our turn to do the same for Amazon workers everywhere.
I truly believe that we have the power to improve our lives — and that’s what we’re going to do. With a union, Amazon could be a great place to work, a comfortable place to work, a place where people don’t just run out of that building after a shift as they do now — running out like the boogeyman is chasing them. Right now Amazon is just a place you work so you can survive. But we can change that.