Unions Can Organize High-Turnover Workplaces

Organizing workplaces like Amazon with enormous turnover is a steep challenge. But workers there and elsewhere are experimenting with different tactics to unionize despite the churn.

Amazon warehouse workers protest Amazon’s unfair labor practices and shameful response to workers’ demands for better, safer jobs with fair wages and an end to retaliation at Amazon Air Hub on Friday, October 14, 2022 in San Bernardino, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) first submitted union authorization cards, “we had to withdraw and file again,” recalled organizing committee member Justine Medina, “because Amazon challenged over one thousand of our signatures saying they no longer worked there.”

The sky-high turnover at the eight-thousand-worker fulfillment center on New York’s Staten Island, made collecting cards “a race against Amazon firing everyone,” she said.

Amazon has annual turnover of 150 percent. “They design the productivity quota, the rates system, to be a constant speedup situation, and that makes it hard to keep the job,” said Medina, who still works at the warehouse. Several ALU leaders have been fired.

Still, ALU, an independent union now with affiliates in Kentucky and California, was able to collect enough valid cards and win its election in 2022. “The faster the turnover is, the harder it is to organize,” said Medina. “You can still do it, but it’s obviously a challenge.”

Despite the churn, at Amazon, in charter schools, in restaurants, and among student workers, unions are developing strategies to organize high-turnover workplaces.

Built-In Turnover

The 150 percent turnover figure at Amazon can be misleading: some people stay for years while a lot more stay briefly. But at Grinnell College in Iowa, where student dining workers organized a union in 2016, the workforce of undergraduates turns over completely every four years.

In light of this, the Grinnell Union of Student Dining Workers won in its first contract the right to do a union orientation with new workers.

The union deliberately kept contracts short — just two years long — so at least some members remember the details of the last negotiation, said union member Isaiah Gutman: “Outside the nuts and bolts, the negotiation experience helps members and leaders understand who we are up against, what [management] thinks of us.”

Resident advisors at Columbia University in New York City faced even more intense turnover when they started to organize last year. Only sophomores and above are eligible, and nearly half the workforce of 153 turns over every year.

To cope, they went public with the union earlier than would be recommended in a normal union drive, circulating a campus-wide petition on wages and worker input. They needed to cast a wide net to reach incoming RAs, said organizing committee member Leena Yumeen.

Columbia RAs attend a sixty-hour training before the semester starts, so the union, the Columbia University Resident Advisor Collective, used that opportunity to talk to new RAs about workplace problems and got one hundred to sign up for a group chat that was explicitly union. In May the RAs won their union election with 95 percent of the vote.

“Coworker Culture”

Ted Miin works at an Amazon delivery station in Chicago where, despite high turnover, workers have won drinking water and paid sick time, and conducted safety strikes after COVID hit. The independent worker-led collective Amazonians United coordinated walkouts at two stations and won a $2 raise that was extended to all delivery stations in Chicago.

Though workers don’t have a union that’s recognized by the company, new hires quickly learn about Amazonians United, because coworkers talk to them on break, and might invite them to a nearby potluck lunch after work (shifts are 1:00 a. m. to noon).

Their conversations with new workers emphasize a “coworker culture,” Miin said, “bringing attention to what the managers are doing, how they’re treating us, and building a culture where coworkers will look out for each other, don’t snitch on each other. . . . That kind of culture picks up pretty quick.” They petitioned to make their break room worker-only, and managers no longer sit there.

As a result, the facility has had a hard time finding workers willing to move up to management, Miin said. Two even stepped down after promotions.

Amazonians United also builds cohesion through a group chat, getaways, and get-togethers at restaurants, parks, ice-cream shops, or a neighborhood organization near the workplace. They also conduct a Union School political education program and hold annual citywide barbeques.

Recognizing that even committed organizers may leave or get fired, Amazonians United works to keep them in the union. “We have to develop our consciousness as a shared class that should be continuing to work and build together,” Miin said.

Even after they leave Amazon, some people continue to participate in the Union School and social events. One person used techniques learned fighting Amazon to stop wage theft at a new job administering COVID tests in prisons.

Union Outside Workplace

The same spirit animates the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), a new group started in Durham, North Carolina. Its structure is designed for workers who often switch low-wage jobs, like Iesha Franceis. She has worked in fast food and retail, and now works at a long-term care facility, but the whole time she has been a USSW member.

When COVID hit, she was working at Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers in Durham. Franceis and her coworkers conducted a four-day safety strike in October 2020, winning COVID protocols and paid quarantine time not just for her store but also for the thirty-two others owned by the same franchisee.

When they struck a year later because safety had backslid, the workforce was entirely new except for Franceis and one coworker, Jamila Allen, and included lots of high-school students.

“They were so amazed at what they did, at the fact that they walked out of the store, and the store shut down,” Franceis said. She knew that feeling from her first strike. “It was a whole new world for them.”

Like Amazonians United, USSW hosts a lot of social events and meetings. The union asks everybody to bring two new people each time. USSW members also will walk into stores where they don’t know anyone, introduce themselves, and strike up a conversation about working conditions.

“We know this industry. Everybody’s going through the same problems — not enough work time or not enough money, harassment. It’s universal,” said Franceis.

Strikes Help

At charter schools in Chicago, annual turnover ranges from 15 to 30 percent. Turnover hampered but did not prevent charter organizing, said Chris Baehrend, former president of the charter teachers union. Sometimes losing important leaders meant organizing committees didn’t have the strength to go public with an organizing drive by the end of the year, he said, which was a “huge disappointment.”

Still, they were able to organize thirty-five schools under thirteen different employers, and in 2018 became a division of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Baehrend is now a CTU organizer.

In 2018, teachers and paraprofessionals struck fifteen schools in the Acero chain, the first charter strike in the country. That made it easier to strike up a conversation about the union.

“New members come in and say, ‘I hear you strike here, that’s scary,’” Baehrend said. “But it starts a conversation about what is the union’s power.”

The union also maps schools to identify new people and “pushes delegates to meet new people who come in,” he said. (Delegates are like stewards.)

Strong Basics

The more visible, vocal, effective, and participatory the union is, the easier it is to incorporate new people, said veteran union organizer Gene Bruskin, who has organized in food production, nursing, hotels, and more.

In new organizing, “you can’t avoid the fundamental organizing premises of a strong, representative, active committee and a visible campaign,” Bruskin said. “Without that, the turnover hurts you much more.”

Bruskin worked on organizing Smithfield, the five-thousand-worker pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, an open shop (“right to work”) state. The workers faced massive retaliation — at one point the company fired a third of the workforce, claiming that many Latino immigrant workers didn’t have proper documentation. The union had to completely rebuild its committee after that, but eventually won its union election in 2008.

Meanwhile, Bruskin noted, a neighboring poultry plant that already had a union had “30 percent membership, a weak contract, and they didn’t service it. Nobody’s going to join that union because you walk in there and people will tell you, the union’s for sh*t.”

At Smithfield, the union won an hour to orient any new hires. “An hour with ten people, and you have a good program, chances are you’re going to sign up eight of them,” said Bruskin. But he said many unions don’t take orientations seriously.

Jenn Gott, a pre-loader and Teamster steward at a United Parcel Service (UPS) warehouse in Davenport, Iowa, said it’s important to reach new people right away and tell them about the union. “If you don’t feel like you were invited to be part of it from the jump, then why now?”

Iowa is open shop, so new hires don’t have to join the union, but Local 710’s contract says the union can get contact information for any new hires. And every month they get ten minutes to talk with the new people.

Getting management to allow this is sometimes a battle, said Gott, but it’s worth it. She tells new workers, “I’ve been here twenty-eight years. I was fired once, and I’m here because of the union.”

Union Reduces Churn

Union gains — and the fact that workers are organizing together — can make jobs worth keeping.

Winning strikes teach you that you can make changes where you are, said the USSW’s Franceis: “That just lets you know you don’t have to quit and go to another job only to experience the same problems on the same level or at a higher level.” USSW’s goal, she said, is to make low-wage jobs into respectable high-paying union jobs.

A strong union presence keeps people from getting picked on by managers. “People get in trouble, somebody stands up for them, ‘Oh, don’t let them do that, come on, we’ll talk to your shop steward,’” said Bruskin. “That, and having a strong contract, keeps a lot of people from leaving.”

And day-to-day solidarity with your coworkers directly challenges high turnover, said Miin at the Amazon delivery station: “Many coworkers said, ‘I would have quit long ago if it wasn’t for this group. I never worked anywhere that has a group like this.’”