The Teamsters and the UAW Gear Up for Struggle

The fight is heating up — but wins for workers won’t come easy.

An employee handles a bag of packages at a DHL Worldwide Express facility in Chicago, Illinois, Nov. 26, 2017.
An employee handles a bag of packages at a DHL Worldwide Express facility in Chicago, Illinois, Nov. 26, 2017. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last month, the United Auto Workers took part in a historic election. Shawn Fain was elected president of the union, who represents a reform group, looking to give more power to its workers. At the same time, DHL workers have been engaged in a unionizing push, at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport; the Teamsters, a union with a rollercoaster of a history, are trying to organize the DHL workers. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Brandi Dale and Steve Fightmaster, two DHL workers active in the unionizing efforts at the airport. Then, Grim is joined by labor reporter Alex Press, who breaks down developments with the United Auto Workers leadership and provides an update on Amazon’s unionization attempts.


[Deconstructed theme music.]

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim, and today we’re taking a look at the radically changing fortunes of the American labor movement. 

Organically, without the intervention of organized labor, we’ve seen a surge in workplace union drives, everywhere from REI to Amazon to Starbucks. That led to the spectacle of outgoing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz getting dragged before the Senate’s Labor Committee to explain why his company’s been breaking labor law to push back on the unionization wave. The committee happens to be chaired by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Over the past 18 months, Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country. That union-busting campaign has been led by Howard Schultz, the multi-billionaire founder and director of Starbucks who is with us this morning only under the threat of subpoena.

Howard Schultz: Yes, I have billions of dollars. I earned it. No one gave it to me. And I’ve shared it, constant —

BS: — [indistinct phrase]

HS: — ly with the people of Starbucks. And so anyone who keeps labeling this billionaire thing is —

BS: Mr. Schultz, I don’t mean to cut you off. We have time limits here and you have opportunity — I’m not cutting you off. 

HS: Your moniker, constantly, is unfair.

BS: Were you informed of or involved in the decision to withhold benefits from Starbucks workers in unionized stores, including higher pay and FAFSA sick-time accrual? 

HS: My understanding when we created the benefits in May, one month after I returned as CEO, my understanding was, under the law, we did not have the unilateral right to provide those benefits to employees who were interested in joining a union. 

BS: Am I hearing you say that you were involved in the decision to withhold benefits from Starbucks workers in unionized stores? Is that what I’m hearing?

HS: It was my understanding that we could not provide those benefits under the law.

RG: Inside labor unions, meanwhile, we’re seeing a process play out that is quite similar to what we’ve seen inside the Democratic Party. In the 1980s, unions, like Democrats, were in retreat, and union leaders played defense on one hand while getting cozy with corporations on the other. 

There were stirrings of opposition to this, just like there were protests against the same tendency inside the Democratic Party, but those workers, who pushed for union democracy and reform, represented a largely powerless rump through the 1990s and into the 2000s. 

But workers aren’t putting up with it anymore, and these movements inside labor unions have grown too large to ignore. 

After years in the wilderness, militant teamsters managed to elect Sean O’Brien to take over the union, which could lead to a titanic clash this summer with UPS. 

And last week, UAW workers responded to years of weakness and corruption at the top by electing Shawn Fain president. 

A member of the caucus that has been fighting for union democracy, he pledged to empower workers to seize the reins of power:

Shawn Fain: Our power as a union as the UAW is our unity. Our power is in our members. It’s not who we call our president. It’s not who’s up here on this stage. It’s in you all. So I want to ask all of you: When are we, all of us, going to rebuild our power as a working class? [Audience yells: “Right now.”] Damn right. Right now.

RG: Labor reporter Alex Press covered Shawn Fain’s victory and has written about it in her latest piece for Jacobin, and we’ll talk to her later in the show about the historic resurgence of the UAW and the Teamsters. 

But first, the newly revitalized Teamsters are now trying to organize roughly 1,000 new DHL workers at the CVG Airport situated in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It’s a crucial hub in our global supply chain, and can also be a dangerous place to work. 

Two DHL workers involved in the union drive, Brandi Dale and Steven Fightmaster, join us now to talk about why they’ve decided to try to join the Teamsters.  

Brandi and Steve, thanks so much for joining me.

Brandi Dale: Thank you.

Steven Fightmaster: Yeah, absolutely, thank you for having us today.

RG: Brandi Dale, can you kind of walk us through what a day in the life of an intercontinental ramp agent is?

BD: Yes, absolutely. So when we arrive at work, our lead usually sends out a text message and lets us know what gates we will be setting up; setting up means we get the dollies, which is what we call the freight on, we put out the cones that go around the engine and around the plane. We put out the chalks. We get the stairs ready. Basically,  almost like if you were setting up for a restaurant, you would get all your food ready. 

So we get that done. And then we find out what our actual assignment is, what plane will be downloading or uploading, or we just need the check one to make sure that it can be sent to, um, the remote part of the airport to be maintenanced properly. Then we do our download or we do our upload. We usually have one to two of them before we go to lunch. We go to lunch, and then when we come back out onto the ramp — for my crew when we come back out, we do our upload, which is we put the freight on a plane to send it to its destination. Nine times out of ten, our destination is Narita, Japan. 

So we load our 747. We make sure that everything’s in place, everything’s secure. We get the plane all closed up. We check and make sure that everything’s right, everything’s where it’s supposed to be. We talk to maintenance and tell them we’re ready. They tell us when it’s time to take the chalks out; when the flight crew is ready. And then we take the plane, we send it out, and we go on our merry way, and the freight is on its way to Japan.

 RG: And Fightmaster, you’re a ramp lead. What’s the difference there? 

SF: The biggest difference, really, is just between the intercon ramp and the domestic ramp in general. When I get there, I’ve gotta get all the equipment ready for my guys for the night, right? And then I go and pick them up, ’cause I arrive just a little bit before they do. And then we’ll call what we call ramp control or the tower; they give us assignments. And so we’ll call up shortly after midnight and get our inbound assignments as they come. And depending on the night, that can be anywhere from two to five offloads in a night; usually take a quick break and then go and do our outbounds.

And so the biggest difference, um, really is just in the size of the aircraft we’re working on. While Brandi’s crews are working on 777s and 747s, a lot of times I’m on 767-300s. It’s just slightly smaller. 

The real difference is the automation between our aircraft. My crew’s much smaller. I have six guys on it, including myself, also including my tug driver. So realistically, when we’re working on an aircraft, there are four of my guys on the plane between the top side of the aircraft and the belly side. We have six people, but I’m on the ground, and my tug driver’s on the ground. 

So without the automation, it’s tough ‘cause a lot of times I might only have two guys pushing a 6,000-9,000-pound can, and depending on the gate we’re at, that can be almost entirely uphill.

RG: Geez. [Laughs.]

SF: So it’s definitely a physically demanding job. 

RG: Yikes. And so, Brandi, you’ve been there about five years.

BD: Yeah. 

RG: So, I’m curious: When did people start kicking around the idea of organizing into a union, and what were the things that got people talking and thinking in that direction? 

BD: I actually wasn’t around for the very beginning of the talks. I didn’t really know about it until they had already contacted the teamsters and they had already started to kind of organize stuff. 

But I would say, as far as my own experience, I noticed that there were a lot of things that could be better, a lot of things that could be changed; there was a lot of favoritism. And there was no real accountability for the management team to uphold the rules and regulations that they were supposed to be following. There was no real drive to be honest and fair about things. And I think that, as far as I’m concerned, at least, that’s one of the biggest reasons that I was interested when someone mentioned to me that we would be getting, possibly, the Teamsters Union in, I knew that there could be a lot of room for change. I mean, I feel like it’s a great company, but I feel like it could be a phenomenal company with just a few tweaks here and there, you know, and having the employees actually have a voice rather than being basically held verbally captive for the most part. 

RG: Yeah. And Brandi, can you talk a little bit about what the conditions are like and what the safety is like? I hear you got hurt on the job recently. What happened? And what are the types of situations that you’ve experienced a rise as you’re kind of moving all of this cargo around? 

BD: Yeah, sure. So at DHL, safety is paramount, according to their word of mouth. It’s written on all of the supervisor’s trucks: “Safety before block time.” And it puts on a great front. I mean, to the naked eye, it would definitely seem like safety is paramount there.

However, on a daily basis, we have so many things that are just completely unsafe and really unrealistic to be done the way that they want them and be able to be safe. I mean, you have K-loaders that are broken. I witnessed a K-loader the other day, which is, as Steven said, the unit that we use to bring the cargo into the plane, OK? So you’re 25-30 feet up in the air on these big planes and sometimes they just kind of have a mind of their own, they just do whatever they want. You won’t be touching a switch or anything, and the K loader will start to rise. And that’s very dangerous because if your freight isn’t in the right place and your K loader rises, it could drop a can that weighs 9,000 pounds right on somebody’s head. I mean, I’ve never heard of that happening, where it hits someone, but I’ve seen them come off a K loader I don’t know how many times. And just the other day, I was in the airplane and the K loader started rising by itself and it rose to such a pitch that the guy that was operating it could have been seriously hurt. 

So with my experience, we were doing a domestic plane, the kind of plane that Fightmaster works on. I believe it was a 767-300. Is that —?

SF: Probably. 

BD: Yeah. And there was a can in the back — cans are just these big, big containers that are made of like metal and almost plexiglass.That’s what we put the freight in. And they have different sizes. So you have an LAK as a small can and an AMX is a huge can, and they fit the contour of the plane. So these cans are on rollers and they have sections on the bottom that help them roll down the plane to make it easier to push them. But if they get, it’s a nightmare to get them unstuck, especially on domestic planes because you don’t have an automated switch helping you. 

So myself and another employee were on this plane and the last can in the plane was bowed. So I was standing on the can trying to level it out a little bit to get it to where it would catch on the rollers so we could pull it. And we got it to move, so I got off of it and I turned around, and I was trying to pull it behind me, and the can went up over the back of my shoe and caught me right on the Achilles tendon, and it took my shoe down and it wedged my foot between the can and the floor of the plane, it pressed my heel down while bending my toes up, so it’s nothing that my steel toes could have helped. 

And initially, I thought that it was like many injuries or incidents that happen at DHL — and it hurts for a little while and then doesn’t hurt anymore. So I didn’t immediately turn it in because I figured, you know, it’ll be OK. And my lead kind of looks down on anyone that gets hurt. He kind of — for lack of a better word — he kind of treats you like a sissy or like you’re being a wimp if you get hurt. 

RG: Just toughen up?

BD: Yeah. Basically, yes.

RG: Yeah. 

BD: Kind of tough it out, shake it off kind of thing. So I was trying to continue on and it started to really hurt. So I came down off of the plane and I was kind of taking it easy. 

We went to lunch, and when we came back from lunch, I was walking down the plane, and I just noticed that it just hurt really bad. So I went to the nurse. She treated it as a first-aid incident, not an injury, not an incident, just first aid. Basically, the equivalent is I came there for, you know, a bandaid or an ice pack or something. 

RG: Right.

BD: So then on Wednesday, I was driving a tug, which is what we use to haul the freight around. It’s a little, almost looks like a Tonka truck, and I noticed around lunchtime when I really actually started driving and getting in and out of my tug that my foot just was in an incredible amount of pain. So I went to the nurse’s station and I told her what was going on and she said: I have some people in front of you, so it’s gonna be a wait. 

As I’m sitting there, waiting for the nurse, I hear a lead— no, I’m sorry, let me take that back. He was a supervisor. I didn’t catch his name or his department, but I heard him tell someone on the phone that he was there for someone’s injury, and I heard him say the most appalling sentence. He said: How can I keep this from becoming an injury and just make it an incident? 

So DHL, when they classify injuries and incidents, the incident is something less serious. It just says: Hey, this happened. It’s not really a big deal, but somebody should know about it. 

RG: Mm-hmm. 

BD: When they have an injury, it’s more of: Hey, somebody got hurt. 

The man in question had somehow been hit by a tug. And I believe he said he had back surgery from it and he hadn’t healed up all the way, so they had him on light duty and he re-injured himself on light duty and the guy was trying to find out how to, basically, keep it less serious so it didn’t reflect badly on management.

I was just flabbergasted. I mean, here’s your employee, and this guy, from what I understand, is an incredibly hard worker. He was injured trying to do his job! And they want to try to sweep it under the rug. Like, that’s just insane to me. That’s basic human decency to not want someone to be swept under the rug. And he said it right out in the open! And he was totally unashamed, like it was the most normal thing ever, like he was asking someone if they wanted a piece of candy or something. 

And I felt very disrespected and I felt bad for the guy because the guy was standing right there! He heard his manager basically say: This guy doesn’t matter all that much. 

And it’s just stuff like that that I feel like we definitely need to be able to have our voices heard and have representation.

RG: How’s your heel?

BD: So my heel is doing OK. When I actually went back the second time, they transferred me from an incident to an injury because, when I went back the second time, they had noticed that I actually had sprained my ankle. So that’s when they moved it from just being basic first aid to actually being an injury; they opened a workman’s comp case and all of that. 

So at DHL, they do what’s called a job offer when you’re injured, and they give you something to do that’s light duty. So my job offer was, they call, it “stop bar audits” and a stop bar is, it’s out on the ramp, we can’t have signs because a metal sign going through a plane engine would be a terrible thing. It’s like on the ground at a stop sign, when you see the word “stop” painted, it’s that exact thing. There just isn’t a sign there with it. So when a vehicle comes to a stop bar, they are supposed to honk their horn. They’re supposed to come to a complete stop. You have to document whether they were speeding or not, whether they had on their PPE, their personal protective equipment, and whether they had any distractions like they were on their cell phone or they had a Bluetooth speaker or something of that sort.

So I got that job. And the first day I was on stop-bar duty, I was told by safety, which is the person that assigned me to it that I needed to ask my supervisor for a chair if I wanted a chair. Well, I’m on light duty; I mean, it’s for my foot, I can’t be standing for eight hours. So I asked my supervisor for a chair.

At first, he just completely ignored me; did not answer me at all. I then realized that it was his night off, but he actually had come in because he was mandated to work that night. So I asked him for a chair. He didn’t answer me. And then I asked another supervisor for a chair. He also didn’t answer me. 

And then I asked my lead: Hey, what can I do about this? How can I get a chair? 

He said: I don’t know anything about it. 

Now, I’ve been on the same crew for the whole five years I’ve been there, and I usually have a very good rapport with my lead. We’ve gotten along very well. I’ve worked overtime. We’ve talked about our lives. He’s told me about things that he’s had. And I feel like since I got hurt, I feel like the whole dynamic has changed. I feel forgotten and disrespected. I mean, my crew got food catered in for a 90-day safety thing — [laughs] — ironically. I was not included in that. They have meetings at the beginning of the shift called a pre-shift; I have not been at a pre-shift since I was hurt. My lead will walk right past me and not talk to me. My supervisor, I have messages in my phone — I never delete any of my messages and I’m thankful for that — I have messages in my phone where I’ve sent him five, six, seven, eight texts that have all gone silent. No response; no anything. 

I’m an open supporter of the Teamsters Union and I just feel like since I started wearing my Teamsters vest and since I have been injured, I just feel like I’m a nobody. I feel like I’m invisible half the time. And it has totally jaded my whole opinion of working there. I mean before, I mean I’ve made like $5,000 in referral bonuses because I love working there and I tell everybody I meet like: Oh, you need a job? Come to DHL. It’s a great place to work. But now I just feel like I’ve been so disrespected that I don’t know that I want to tell people that anymore. I feel like if they’re gonna treat me like that after five years — five years doesn’t sound that long, but on the ramp, it might as well be 20. 

RG: Mm-hmm. 

BD: You talk to people, and people in lead positions say: I’ve been here for two years, I’ve been here for a year and a half, I’ve been here for three years.

I’ve been there for five years! There should be no reason — they know my work ethic. They know my attitude towards my job. And I just feel like all of that has changed and I don’t feel like a simple article of clothing showing support for something they say that we should be able to have should change that whole dynamic.

RG: And Fightmaster, you’ve also been kind of publicly supportive of the union. What’s been the response from managers and supervisors to that?

SF: It’s been a lot of harassment and intimidation. Not always directly. 

I mean personally, I’ve been followed off of the property by corporate security and security contractors. I’ve been followed to my place of residence. I’ve been followed to union meetings. They’re stepping up and increased security outside so that it’s harder for us to talk to our coworkers in our parking lots. From my understanding, they just hired a bunch — I believe the number was 20 new security guards — to help patrol out there. 

RG: And so what’s the organizing like? How much help are you getting from Teamsters, folks from the outside, and how much of it is being done kind of organically by workers who are already inside the airport?

SF: Not to downplay what anybody in this is doing, ‘cause it’s a team effort, right? But just in any organizing situation, the vast majority has to come organically from the workers. Otherwise, it’s never gonna be successful, right? 

So, I mean, we have an organizing committee. There are several of us that are talking and trying to get things together. And we’re working with workers inside every night. And while we’re inside in our crew vans, on breaks, we’re talking to folks. We’re in the parking lots trying to talk to our coworkers before and after our shifts.

RG: Yeah. What are the counterarguments that you hear from people? Like when you approach them and say: We need to organize — you don’t have a date yet, but it does look like there’s gonna be an election at some point. What do people say, in general, when you’re suggesting that you unionize?

SF: There’s a ton of fear out there still. There have been failed organizing campaigns at DHL in the past — never with the Teamsters Union, to my understanding. And some of the people that have been there a long time are afraid for that reason, right? Because it failed in the past. 

And I think really that’s the biggest obstacle we have right now is just the fear that’s been created and persists because of the atmosphere there that the company’s created — that they can put out these things where they say they respect our right to organize, they can talk all these great things, but in reality, I mean, when you hear management referring to the employees as inmates — 

RG: Yeah. 

SF: — when you see the increased security, when you see them patrolling and coming up to myself and my coworkers as we’re talking to other people in the parking lot, their words and their actions don’t align.

RG: Just so people know what you’re talking about, there was a report in The Guardian that a manager quit his job in management because he was angry that his fellow supervisors were referring to workers at the airport as inmates and themselves as wardens who needed to get them under control and squash this union drive. Had you heard that from anybody else before it was reported in The Guardian? I would assume that the supervisors are not saying that around the workers, that that’s the kind of thing that they’re just saying kinda in back rooms. 

SF: Yeah. I mean, you would think that that would only happen in back rooms. Right? The reality is that I have heard things like that and including that itself nearly since I started. 

RG: How so? How would that come out? 

SF: As a lead, part of the equipment that I have to go and grab is in the office where a lot of the managers are, and supervisors are, and they talk openly. Just not really — there’s such a level of disrespect towards us that they don’t care to hide it. They don’t care to try and openly say things like that behind our backs. I mean, I’d been there maybe two months by the time I had heard a supervisor or a manager refer to hourly employees as inmates or whatever other disparaging names that they think of to call us.

And then they’ll turn around and say, well, we’re a family and we have this great culture here. And then they’ll continue to just blatantly disrespect us. And it’s really unfortunate that it takes us coming, coming together and trying to form a union, trying to become Teamsters, to get the respect and dignity that every man and woman in this country deserves in the workplace.

RG: So Brandi, he mentioned the fear of losing, because, you know, you come for the king and you miss, you’re in trouble. What about some of the other kinds of propaganda that you often hear from management that, oh, things will be worse actually if you get a union? The dues and you’re not gonna have the same kind of freedoms in the workplace … do you ever hear that from other workers or what types of responses have you been getting from people?

BD: It’s almost like you work at DUL. You’re so accurate with what you’re saying. 

RG: [Laughs.]

BD: My personal experience, even just to touch back on what Steven said, my own lead back in, I think it was December, we had just started wearing teamster vests out on the ramp and management had decided that it was not part of the dress code. However, I’ve literally never in my five years seen the dress code. So, my supervisor came to me and told me I wasn’t allowed to wear my vest, and my lead had just finished a meeting in which he told us basically — to summarize what he said and not make a long story out of it — he said that unions before, when they had come in, had failed and everyone that had signed a card or showed that they were openly supportive of the union was terminated. He put that fear into not only myself but my entire crew. 

So there are roughly 10 people on my crew. And out of those 10, me and my nephew also work there. We are supporters, we’re open supporters, we wear our vests, we wear our Teamsters bracelet. We were the only people that were even daring, shall I say, to show support because everyone else was afraid that, they would be terminated or that they would be ostracized or treated differently. And some of the other things that I’ve heard is people are afraid that, oh, if we get the union, they’re going to take away the lead positions and they’re going to take away overtime and they’re going to make it to where people that don’t work and don’t do their jobs basically are treated better than the people that are working and doing their jobs — and it’s just a lot of propaganda, honestly. I mean, it’s just management thinking of anything they can say to kind of make the employees, again, to come back to it and circle around [it], scared; scared they’ll lose their rights, scared that they’ll have a harder time at work.

And it comes down at the end of the day, too, DHL still has product to get out. They still have jobs to be done. The union isn’t some outside force that comes in. The union is us. And if you’re not going to vote to have your rights taken away or your wages decreased, or your vacation time decreased, they can’t do that. They don’t just say: This is what happens! 

It’s not a dictatorship. 

RG: So if you think about things on a national, kind of 30,000-foot level, you’ll hear economists and politicians talking about the way that kind of full employment — once they’ve pushed unemployment down below 4 percent, they start calling that full unemployment. Which kind of means that if somebody is not a felon and is remotely qualified for a job, they can find a job. There are more jobs than there are job seekers now. There are millions of people who, because of criminal justice laws, et cetera, are locked out of that workforce. But within the people who are trying to participate in the workforce, they’ll say: Look, there’s more jobs than there are people looking for jobs, which is way different than say10 years ago when you had five or six people competing for every job opening. If you’ve got a lot of people competing for reopening, then it becomes much harder to talk people into joining a union. 

So I’m curious if you’re seeing the effect of full employment — and Brandi, I’m curious for your take, too, but let’s start with you Fightmaster — like if you’re seeing the effect of full employment, that it kind of puts some steel in the spine of workers, they’re saying like: You know what? Let’s go for it because they need us here. There’s a labor shortage. They can’t just easily push us out and replace us. 

Or is there so much precarity just generally in life and in the workforce that isn’t really a factor at this point? 

SF: I think it goes kind of both ways, and it depends on who you’re talking to. For me, I definitely kind of come from more of that line of thinking. They absolutely do need us to do their job. We handle a vast majority of the freight that comes through the Americas at the CVG hub. We’re extremely important to DHL’s global business model. And they’re making record profits just like almost every other Fortune 500 company in the world. They absolutely need us.

That being said, I mean, the way we’re treated out there we’re just numbers to the company, and I definitely think that’s felt. I mean, things that aren’t necessarily your fault or things that you can’t necessarily control, you can be punished for. If you get injured and they think you didn’t do something properly. 

I mean, you’re getting written up, you’re getting disciplined for getting hurt at work. So there’s definitely a fine line of we definitely realize that we have that power and that kind of momentum just generally in the country, I think is in our favor. 

But at the same time, just the daily environment we work in intends to push back on that because they’re completely fine to run us ragged, run us short-staffed, and give us too much to do that can be done safely with the amount of people that we have.

RG: Brandi, what do you think? Is the national labor shortage, the low unemployment rate, empowering folks? Do you feel a stronger sense of power in the workplace than you did, say, 5, 10 years ago?

BD: I agree a lot with what Fightmaster said. I feel like, at DHL, there is a high turnover rate anyway. I feel like there shouldn’t be because the job we do is a good job. It’s a needed job. When the pandemic hit, I mean, we were absolutely essential to getting supplies to people, to shipping face masks, and gloves, and Covid tests and everything like that. I mean, I don’t wanna sound like I’m trying to make us heroes or anything, but —

RG: Well, that’s what everybody was saying then. 

BD: Yeah. I mean, if DHL wasn’t running; if we weren’t there putting in the hours; doing the work, running short-staffed with entire crews off for Covid or if we weren’t doing that, the country wouldn’t have been able to function. 

And I feel like for us having such important roles, such necessary roles, we’re just treated with such disregard — they basically wanna pretend that, like Fightmaster said, we’re just numbers. You know? 

I mean, they give us all an employee number and sometimes I almost feel like their analogy about the prison thing, I almost feel like it is accurate in their eyes because you know, on documents you write your name, but you also write your number. And it just makes me feel like that is all we are, is a number, and 1054264 can be replaced by 1054265 — that we’re all replaceable, and we’re not that important. 

I feel like once we have our voice, once we can say what we need to say without worrying about being bullied or being fearful, I feel like we’ll be able to stand up and make the changes that we need to make people feel respected, to make people feel like they’re not just a number, that they are part of a team and part of a — honestly, we’re around these people so much, they’re like our family — so part of a family. 

RG: There’s also an Amazon warehouse nearby that’s going through — 

BD: Directly across the street. 

RG: — an organizing drive. Yeah. Is there any interplay between the people organizing that and you guys? Are you kind of trading tips and tricks or anything?

SF: I’ve got a couple of friends that work over there that I talk to from time to time just kind of about, you know, what’s going on on their side and what’s going on on our side. 

BD: Hmm!

SF: I think the biggest difference is from my understanding, they’re not going with the Teamsters Union for whatever reason.

RG: They’re Amazon Labor Union, is that right? The crew that organized the Staten Island one. Is that right? 

SF: Yeah. And so I wish nothing but the best of luck to those folks over there. We need more organized labor in this country, especially when it comes to these supercorporations. We handle a lot of Amazon freight at DHL and a lot of their international shipments we will carry for ’em. I think it’s hugely important that the men and women across the street also get a contract.

BD: That’s very true.

RG: And so, how optimistic do you guys feel about the coming election? 

BD: I feel like we’re definitely on track with where we should be. I feel like it’s gonna be great. I feel like if people stop being afraid and stop feeling that they’re alone and recognize the unity and the numbers, I feel like people are gonna come out in droves when they finally feel like they’re actually free from concern about being fired. I feel like they’ll see the numbers and see that there is a lot of support and they won’t be afraid to come out. They won’t be afraid of being singled out as a single unit, when we all stand as a united front.

SF: I’m very optimistic. I wish we had a date at a time already. 

BD: Yes. 

SF: But I mean, we filed for this election on September 13 of last year. They’ve done everything they can up to this point to drag it out as long as possible. So I’m not surprised we still don’t have an election date. But we’ll get there and before long, before anyone knows it, we’ll be at the bargaining table. 

BD: It’s been a long wait, but it’s definitely gonna be worth it for the prize at the end of the race. 

RG: Well, Brandi, Fightmaster, best of luck to you when the election’s called. We will continue to follow this and thanks so much for joining me.  

BD: Excellent. Thank you for having us. And, I’d just like to also say we don’t need luck. You don’t need luck when you’re good and it’s the right to. 

RG: [Laughs.] There you go. 

SF: Yeah. Thank you all very much for having us. We definitely appreciate the platform and the time.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: That was Brandi Dale and Steven Fightmaster. 

So we searched through NLRB filings and found 16 open complaints against DHL in Kentucky, including three retaliatory dismissal complaints filed by the union. We invited DHL to appear on the podcast, but the company declined, instead sending a lengthy statement, which I’ll include at the end of the show. 

But next, we’re joined by Alex Press, a labor reporter for Jacobin. Alex, welcome to Deconstructed. 

Alex Press: Thanks for having me, Ryan.

RG: And so you have this great new piece out in Jacobin on the UAW reform movement. And I wanted to start by reading a little piece of it to you and ask you to kind of unpack where this tension that you witnessed is coming from. You might know the part I’m talking about, but I’ll just read it here — 

AP: Yes. 

RG: You say: “Not everyone was happy about the unprecedentedly democratic nature of the convention. Late one evening, I was speaking with a well-known reformer. We had been interrupted repeatedly by fellow delegates who wanted to shake his hand, some of whom were supporters of the old guard but wanted to show their respect. But one man approached us and quickly became belligerent. When the reformer calmly responded, saying, ‘OK, thank you, brother,’ the man shouted, ‘I’m not your brother. Don’t ever call me your brother.’ He made his opinions about the reform caucus clear: ‘Fuck you and fuck that UAWD shit and go to hell.’

So, what is the UAWD? And why does this guy want it to go to hell?

AP: [Laughs.] Great questions. So the UAWD stands for Unite All Workers for Democracy. It’s an internal union caucus that was formed in 2019. 

Now, the context is in the UAW, for about seven years, there has been one caucus, it’s called the Administration Caucus. It was formed by the UAW’s most famous president Walter Reuther. And it has ruled the union with an iron fist, basically. People call it a one-party rule, right? There have never been real challenges to that. 

And part of how that was maintained was there weren’t direct elections for leadership. It was a system where delegates elected leadership, and that system, for reasons that probably will be a little too boring to get into here, was very rife with favoritism and kind of was rigged in certain ways that allowed this caucus to always win every leadership election. 

Now in 2019, UAWD formed and pushed for something that a few people — they weren’t the ones to come up with this idea, of course — but it was for direct elections for higher leadership. So that was their goal, was direct elections, more democracy. And because of — they’ll go into it as they thought they could win it through constitutional measures, they’ll tell you, but then Covid hit, and that sort of hurt their momentum.

But then a federal monitor who had been appointed to oversee reforms within the UAW, thanks to an incredible corruption scandal that has been ongoing, and has landed two of the union’s former presidents in jail, that monitor directed the union to have a referendum about one member, one vote direct elections. 

That passed. And so the result was this new president that had been sworn in one day before the convention I was writing about, the UAWD ran to challenge for seven seats, and they won all of them — all of which is a lot of important context to say that that meeting in a convention lobby in which I’m speaking to a reformer, and a guy comes up and gets extremely belligerent, it’s because, he sees which way the wind is blowing within his union. And a lot of these guys who were at that convention and who supported the old guard, right, the administration caucus, they’d spent decades really building those relationships, showing their loyalty, in hopes that they’d get more resources or maybe a union staff job. And so there’s a real reason for them to be extremely upset, as is shown in that paragraph in which the guy almost comes to a fistfight with my interview subject.

RG: Mhmm. 

And you also have a cool moment in the piece where there are some UAW union members who are working on a pension amendment, basically, that they’re going to put forward, a pension motion. 

And a Harvard graduate comes up and kind of helps them with the wording and, and she says, like upfront, like, hey, I’m probably not going to need this pension, which is a nice acknowledgment of the career track that she’s probably going to have, but let me help you out anyway. And it’s a reminder that the UAW has become this kind of diverse union that pulls in different workforces. And it also — I had kind of forgotten, I almost became a UAW member back in the early 2000s when I was in graduate school, there was a union drive going on at the University of Maryland, where I was, and I was the shop steward for our drive in our public policy department. I was a shop steward there, and we had over 90 percent cards signed because people there are like Union? More power, better hours, better wages, sounds good to me!

Elsewhere, when I would try to organize the philosophy department or history or whatever, it would just be a complete nightmare, because they wanted to argue with you constantly about the nature of a union. 

You get into the sciences, like engineering and math, you just explain to them what the situation is like, and they’re like: OK, sounds good. I’ll sign the card. 

And we actually had a UAW staffer, we had an office, and one person that they had sent down to help us. We ended up never succeeding in actually pulling it off. It’s incredibly difficult. It was illegal in the state of Maryland to even do it. So we had to lobby the legislature and on and on. I really did learn how insane it is to try to organize this union.

But it also reminded me that the history of the UAW has been this complex and this overlapping in different social movements basically since the beginning, and you touch a little bit in your piece about their role in the civil rights movement, and the role even in supporting Students for a Democratic Society. Can you talk a little bit about how that history at least made it so that this type of reform movement had something that it could grab onto?

AP: Yeah, definitely. And I’ll just say that I also was part of the early days of a UAW grad union at Northeastern University. 

RG: How’d that go? 

AP: [Laughs.] We have still not won official recognition. I say we — I left many years ago, which is why it feels like ancient history. But, likewise, was an incredibly sort of formative experience for me. I mean, it’s largely how I wound up becoming a labor reporter. I’d long been on the left, but I’d never really been in a union. Seeing that process and how tedious it is and how much more interesting it is to speak to new people and win them over versus kind of preaching to the choir, which is, you know, what’s required when you’re union organizing, you have to just talk to the other people that work for the same person, many of whom are not going to agree with you, that basically won me to a lifelong commitment to the labor movement. 

So just to say that I think that’s a common story for a lot of people who may no longer be in higher ed, that it was their grad union that kind of formed this new understanding people have about labor unions in the United States. 

Anyway, yes. What you said is correct. The UAW, I brought that up, because people do think it’s sort of odd bedfellows for grad students and auto workers to share a union. Right? And they’re not wrong that there are some tensions involved. I mean, there were comical moments throughout the convention around miscommunication and things.

But at the same time, as you said, it’s not new for the UAW to welcome young people in who might not be sort of the traditional image of an auto worker. 

As I mentioned in the piece, the founding statement for Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, their Port Huron statement, Port Huron was like a UAW summer camp, right? A lot of the leaders of that organization were the children of UAW members and UAW officials. That’s why they ended up there. And likewise, ditto during the March on Washington. Walter Reuther spoke at that; I believe he was the only white guy who spoke during that day. He and Martin Luther King —

RG: And they were major financiers of it, too.

AP: Yes. Yes. Martin Luther King and he were friends, and they spent quite a bit of money on all kinds of aspects, from the sound system to signs, and all kinds of other things. They footed the bill, basically. And the leadership of the UAW back then, not that they all agreed all the time on this, but they felt that it was distinctly important because they felt that the sort of future of the labor movement and of the working class in the United States was intimately bound up with the future of the civil rights movement and Black workers’ rights in particular. 

And that was a forward-thinking analysis. It’s something I agree with, right? If workers are able to be divided around race in particular, that’s going to weaken every worker’s working conditions, it’s going to destroy unions; the history here is very clear on that in the United States. And so the UAW over time has sort of lost those roots. And the interesting thing about this growing number of grad student members is that those are the kinds of people who would sort of be taking, for a variety of reasons, a leading role in the left-wing movements of the current moment. And so by bringing them into the union, it sort of starts rebuilding that question of: What would it look like to take a more political role that the UAW once held?

RG: How influential are the grad students inside UAW? Would the reform movement have been able to prevail without them?

AP: Yeah, I mean, so this is a fraught question. Actually, the numbers are really interesting here. They had an incredibly low turnout for the leadership election that saw Shawn Fain, who we haven’t discussed yet, win the presidency. And it was a very close election. He won after a sort of runoff, revote. He won by something like I think the number now, there are a couple of ballots still contested, but it’s less than 500 votes, right? Which is very convenient, because of course, then we can all say: Well, it was this local that did it, it was those grad students, it was this auto plant. 

RG: [Laughs.] Right. Yeah. 

AP: But the truth is that, of course, the grad student members did play a role. But interestingly, in California, which is home to one of the biggest higher ed locals for the UAW, that was in an administration caucus stronghold. And so your vote was very low there, their leadership tried to keep Shawn Fain and the reformers’ momentum small. And so it’s actually hard to say that all of the grad students, you know, are like the progressives. 

But at the same time, I spoke to a fair number of manufacturing workers, and autoworkers, who are very much reformers. And they said that the grad students did help them, right? I mean, in the way that that anecdote points to, where that Harvard grad student is speaking with an auto worker, about a resolution they’re working on to pass around restoring pensions for auto workers. 

And the grad student, it’s very concrete, the grad student knew what page to cite, because as she says, in the piece, she “does her homework,” which was a very funny turn of phrase for a grad student to say. And so that sort of thing. It’s less that they’re like directing in some sort of nefarious or organized way, a different UAW, and it’s more like they just have certain organizational skills that I think at least a lot of reformers I spoke to were very impressed by. 

There is one funny anecdote I’ll say that’s not in the piece, which is that another reporter had been trying to speak to the administration caucus supporters, and had been failing to do so. You’ll notice in my piece, there are basically no interviews with them, they did not want to speak to the media at all, but certainly not to me, a Jacobin magazine writer. 

RG: [Laughs.] 

AP: So this other reporter had also failed to get quotes. And she happened to run into a few of the people that she had been trying to speak to, at the gate, at the airport on her way out of town out of Detroit. And so she did start chatting with them. I have no idea whether those quotes made it into her piece. But the administration caucus people still hated the UAWD, they had things to say about that. But they sort of, by the end of the conversation, grudgingly admitted something like: We do love those higher ed kids. Like they were sort of impressed by the way they could organize, even if they didn’t like what they were organizing for. 

And so I think that sort of sums up the dynamic that people are kind of working through right now within the union.

RG: Yeah, I liked the one quote that you had in here, where you got the worker name Vicente who says: “‘As an auto worker in manufacturing, when I found out that we have grad students, I was shocked […] then I also thought, why have we never talked to these dudes? You hear the words “Harvard graduate,” and it’s like, “Oh my God, these are the most highly educated people in the world. We should be tapping into that resource.” Then you meet them and they have a wealth of knowledge, and they’ve been able to help us to try to organize ourselves.’” 

It all kinds of subverts the kind of flat understanding that we kind of impute to the relationships between working people, Ivy League grad students, like it’s more complicated and mixed in with some type of appreciation for maybe what can we get out of this? How can we get an advantage by linking up with these folks?

AP: I mean, I’ll just say in closing here on this topic, that I think the general dynamic that that’s at play right now in the UA, with all of these reformers ascendant, and with these changes afoot in the union, it’s really, not to get to sort of dogmatic Marxist, use some old language here, it’s really a process of class formation going on right now. The question is — the watchword of the entire convention was unity, and that wasn’t just about unity between the caucuses, right? Unity between the old guard and the new guard so that they’re not a divided union. But a lot of these people really want unity as the working class. And that might sound silly or neat, but that’s really the stakes of what they’re doing right now. 

And when you see quotes, like from that guy, Dan Vicente, who was elected to lead, he’s now the Region 9 director for the UAW, which puts him on the International Executive Board. He’s one of the reformers and he was elected straight from the shop floor of a manufacturing plant in western Pennsylvania. And so I thought his perspective on this was really interesting. But those workers that have you know, been taking the lead in the UAW now, they really want to know how do we unite workers across divides — whether that’s race, sector, age, anything — to build power that has been completely clawed away, or even given up, in the sake of the UAW, by corrupt leadership. 

And so quotes like that are not just about this particular issue, but really the vision that is being fought for right now.

RG: You also touch on another kind of contradiction that is working its way out too. And there’s a good quote from a worker in here that says: “‘I know that I have a vested interest in keeping gasoline engines around as long as possible because there are a lot of jobs involved,’” — which touches on the old climate versus labor argument. But what’s underneath that is the ease with which workers can kind of build electric vehicles is so much greater than the complex process required for a combustion engine. And that’s at the front end, but also then when it comes to mechanics, repairing them, as well. You look at an EV, it’s like four wheels and a battery, basically. 

AP: Yeah. Yeah. 

RG: Whereas you pop the hood on your old car, you stare at that thing and you’re like,: There’s no way I could ever figure anything out that’s going on in here. 

AP: Absolutely. 

RG: And so how high a priority is kind of the EV space for this new, militant UAW?

AP: I think it’s a really big priority. It came up a lot. And you know, it’s one of the things [on] Sean’s slate. I haven’t gone into much about Sean. But to be clear, Sean is a member of the UAWD. And he really acts like one; he does not act like they’re there to help him. He really, at one point in the convention, said: I’m so proud to be a member of this caucus — and teared up, right? So this guy is a serious reformer. He’s a member of that group. 

And one of their priorities during the election and now as well is about finding a way to not only organize the EV plants that are going to be where job growth is coming in coming years as that transition happens, but where they’re organized as well, also putting them in the Big Three master agreement that the UAW has that a lot of people are going to be familiar with. The Big Three auto agreement used to be the sort of historic signal in the United States of: This is what manufacturing workers are going to be able to kind of base their demands around, whatever the Detroit auto workers can win at the bargaining table. That contract still exists, though, of course, it is less of a pacesetter than it used to be. And yet, the Big Three automakers have managed to basically find ways to carve out their EV plants and EV jobs from coming under that master agreement. 

It’s very complicated. And I’ll be honest, I’m not an expert on how this is working. But part of it is that battery plants and things are joint ventures. And so a Ford will be like: Well, it’s not really our plant. It’s this other thing. And the UAW’s prior leadership did not fight hard to sort of push back against that. 

So that’s going to be a big priority. And it was something that all kinds of people brought up to me, from Shawn Fain down to the rank and file. That guy you quoted who works in a Jeep Wrangler plan, it’s something that’s on everyone’s mind. And again, it does sort of bring up these broader questions about if the UAW can play a political role. If we’re talking about EV plants, and the wrench turners like that guy, we also start thinking about what is the Green New Deal. Where does the UAW sort of play a role in broader environmental questions?

RG: And that contract, that four-year contract is up in September, and so we’re probably going to see a pretty significant fight around that, particularly with this newly energized UAW. 

But I want to talk about the Teamsters as well because they’ve been going through a similar process. They’ve got this major UPS contract coming up this summer that could end up dominating the news, at some point, and they have their own reform caucus that you that you touch on in the story, TDU, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, that has been kind of pushing against the Teamsters’ leadership for years, and ended up endorsing a candidate, Sean O’Brien, who won. Now, he’s not a member of the TDU but they had allied. So who is Sean O’Brien, and how does differ from Shawn Fain? By the way, Shawn Fain, what an amazing name, by the way.

AP: It’s incredible. 

RG: [Laughs.]

AP: I mean, I keep joking that I’m so glad I spent seven years in Boston because it’s really prepared me for the fact that the two most exciting developments are being driven by middle-aged Irish American guys winning the leadership of the big manufacturing and blue-collar unions. Yeah, so Shawn Fain, from the UAW, he had been first a local leader in Kokomo, Indiana, and then was moved on to the union staff, but he was not really like a — he was not super powerful, right? He was just kind of part of the middle layer, as I’ve been calling it, of leadership in the UAW. 

Sean O’Brien, by contrast, very much comes out of what a lot of people who don’t follow labor are still familiar with, which is Jimmy Hoffa’s regime. Hoffa’s son was the leader of the Union for a long time. And Sean O’Brien was a very loyal lieutenant of Hoffa, Jr’s. He comes out of local 25 in Boston. So that’s his home base. But he had moved up to basically — he was supposed to be the lead negotiator for the UPS contract nationally last time it was negotiated. And that is where he started to break with that regime, right? 

His ascension is a bit like a palace coup in certain ways because he so was an insider. And the reason he broke with his former boss is that the UPS contract that Hoffa negotiated last time was very, very bad. It introduced new tiers into the contract, which are basically the death sentence for a union. It means different pay for equal work breeds resentment, all kinds of problems. And it has a variety of other issues as well. 

Now the membership, which is the UPS contract, is the largest union contract in the private sector in the United States — now it covers almost 350,000 workers. So this is a huge number of people. If every UPS driver, as well as everyone who works inside UPS buildings, deals with the packages, and sorting, and so on. So the membership voted that contract down, which took an incredible amount of organizing, including by TDU, the group you mentioned, the Teamsters reform caucus. 

But the result was not that they got to go back to the table and negotiate a better contract. It was: Hoffa invoked a very arcane sort of measure from the Teamsters’ constitution to force the workers to accept the contract. So he overrode democracy. And as I say, or demonstrate, or try to in that piece, it really was a sense of betrayal. A lot of UPS workers and a lot of Teamsters knew at that point — they already knew that Hoffa was not a perfect union leader. They knew he added problems, he was way too close with the bosses, but to have him fully override their voice here and force a bad contract down their throat, basically was the end for Hoffa. So Sean O’Brien is one of the people who sort of takes the lead on denouncing all of the things that are going on here with this contract, he breaks from his former ally. And then he announces, he’s running for leadership, and he wins. And so that is where we are now is we are going into that new UPS contract negotiation and it’s what Sean O’Brien ran on that he would undo the tears, that it would be the best contract ever negotiated, and it holds this incredible kind of gravity within the union, because it’s exactly why they got Hoffa out and Hoffa’s successors out. And so there’s a lot riding on this — not just in the broader economic sense for the country, because it’s such a gigantic contract, but also for the internal politics of that union.

And my sense is that Sean O’Brien’s base of power really is coming from the reform caucus, because correct me if I’m remembering this wrong — so he was tasked with basically leading the UPS negotiations, and Hoffa ordered him not to put these TDU guys onto the bargaining team that had criticized Hoffa in the past. And O’Brien did it anyway, and said: No, I want to involve the TDU in this so that we’ve got rank and file support. And either he got booted off the bargaining team as result or quit in protest. But then, like, that was the thing that triggered it. And then he ends up speaking at the TDU convention, and really linking up with them, which would mean that even though he’s a Hoffa stooge from way back in the day, his actual power today derives from those rank-and-file workers. Is that a fair assessment of what the politics of it are now?

AP: Yeah, I would say so. 

I mean, again, Sean O’Brien is a little different than Shawn Fain, in that — it’s so funny that these guys have these similar names. 

RG: [Laughs.] 

AP: So Sean O’Brien, but you’re right, that it’s largely his power, as far as carrying out a successful strike, would come from these rank-and-file militants, not all of whom are in TDU, for reasons that are a little too complicated to get into, but certainly a lot are. 

But also, Sean, at least in winning the election, part of it was that he managed to — I said palace coup because he kind of managed to split off certain of the old guard leadership, who saw again which way the wind was blowing, or had had enough. They weren’t ou- leading in their criticisms about the problems in the union. But they did have frustrations and finally saw a chance to break off and actually win some reform. So he still has some support from those guys, too, which makes the dynamic a little more complicated than, say, the UAW dynamic. 

But it’s certainly the case that, as I mentioned in the piece, he knows that TDU and him needed each other and they still need each other in the lead-up to the negotiations, which are starting in about a week and a half, I think, for the UPS contract. It expires at the very end of July, to give people a timeline. And there are definitely TDU people who are helping with planning the negotiations, really the rank-and-file more generally. So Sean pledged that there would be rank-and-file members on the negotiating committee, which is not what used to happen. And so his power is gonna come from whether you can really win back his rank-and-file members to be engaged in the process, not only because that’s the right thing to do, and it’s democratic, but because the pull off a strike at UPS is going to take — that’s what the piece is about — it takes an incredible amount of kind of engagement and preparation that cannot be done — there’s no shortcut from the top down. UPS is spread out across the country. The locals are incredibly uneven. This is not a traditional workplace, you got to get your UPS drivers in Iowa and Idaho to be just as able to strike as the ones in New York City or Chicago. And so that process really needs to be kind of bottom-up if you’re going to pull off a strike.

RG: In the meantime, two workers for DHL in basically the Cincinnati airport on the border of Kentucky and Ohio, there’s a Teamster drive going there. There’s some dispute about the size of the bargaining unit, could be anywhere between 900 and 1,200 workers and the Teamsters already represent a decent number of DHL hubs and workers around the country. And just across the parking lot from there is a gigantic Amazon Fulfillment Center, as they call them, which is a target of the Amazon labor union, which organized the Staten Island warehouse to so much national fanfare about a year ago. 

So can you explain to folks a little bit about how you wind up with, say, Teamsters organizing one hub, ALU kind of organizing another one, UAW coming in and organizing something else? 

AP: [Laughs.]

RG: And also, can you give us an update on the Staten Island organizing drive that we heard about a year ago?

AP: Yeah, a lot of questions! 

Yes. I mean, generally, in the United States, this question of turf is very confusing to people who are kind of new to the labor movement. It’s correct that the Teamsters represent 6,000 DHL workers across the country. And so they’re trying to sort of aggressively add to that. And it seems like with very good reason. I mean, I was reading about the working conditions these workers are speaking of — and, I mean, these are brutal jobs, right?

RG: Mhmm.

AP: Grueling, incredible, awful temperatures, whether hot or cold — all kinds of reasons to want to organize. And it happens that, with Amazon, part of the reason that the ALU came into existence is that there was a lot of — I had been writing about Amazon for many years. My hobby horse was that, to the labor movement, we have to figure out what we’re doing here, folks. This is about to be the biggest employer in the United States, and no union will touch it, you know? Aren’t we just setting ourselves up for further decline? 

And there were many good reasons that unions didn’t want to touch Amazon. People had tried here and there and seen how hard it was in the past. And the answer I often would hear is: Look, there are so many other unions, organized workplaces, that have all but dead unions, right? They’re operating, the union is in decline, it has members, but it’s basically doing nothing. Isn’t it better for us to focus our energy in reviving those unions, rather than taking something on that we’re almost certain to fail at? 

And, I mean, they had a really good point. I mean, it’s certainly the case that this is still true today and I’m saying it because I think almost any Amazon organizer will tell you the same thing: You’re almost certain to fail at organizing Amazon. This is true for the ALU, this is true for even the Teamsters. You know, it’s so hard for reasons that we can’t go into here. That said, so all of that to say, that when you have someone like Chris, who had something happen to him, as a mix of the time that it happened when he was fired in response to sort of helping organize a protest around Covid —

RG: You’re talking about Chris Smalls, the ALU organizer. Yeah.

AP: Yeah.

So for a. variety of reasons, some related to the moment he was in, Covid. Others related to the fact that this became a national media story, because Amazon’s leadership said really horrible things about him. And in part because of his own personality — if you meet Chris, you’ll understand this one — he decided this was it, he was going to try to take on and do the impossible.

So you get that sort of random, independent union, entirely worker-led, but also totally isolated from existing unions. You get that because of this long-standing reticence from existing unions to touch Amazon, which led to a lot of resentment by Amazon workers, including Chris Smalls, the first time I talked to him. The question always was: Where are the unions? Why don’t they help us? 

And so that’s how you get where we are today.

RG: And it seems like Amazon has launched a pretty effective counterattack on the Staten Island — 

AP: Yes. 

RG: — warehouse. It sounds like they’re just refusing to ever come to the bargaining table. What can organizers do to force that? Or can Amazon just drag this out indefinitely?

AP: So there are varying opinions on this one. I mean, basically, there’s a two-pronged fight that a union like the ALU can wage. 

One is external: They need to launch, and there needs to be organizing campaigns at so many other Amazon facilities across the country, that it sort of becomes this like fire. There are too many fires to put out. And Amazon both has to focus on those other facilities — but also kind of like how we are seeing at Starbucks is kind of the parallel right now. Not that Starbucks workers have a contract, but there is a sense of momentum there. I hope I’m correct in saying this: it’s going to be very hard for them to ever get a contract in the same way, but there’s a sense that come on, it has to happen, right? There are so many people at Starbucks who voted for unions. So that sort of sense of pressure. 

Internally, what a union like the ALU can do is start building up the rank-and-file strength towards basically getting strong enough to be able to strike for recognition. The ALU is a long way from that. And there are many good reasons for that, of course. It’s very hard to organize a giant Amazon warehouse. You really have to show the company that — they’re never going to do it unless they’re forced. And so you have to figure out how to force them, and stopping work at a key facility like that is about the only way you can force them. So it’s the inside-outside two focuses here. And that’s going to be true at any Amazon facility, really. But certainly JFK-8 and Staten Island is going to be the test case.

RG: And it’s tough because people who follow it kind of casually in the news would have seen that a year ago and be like: Oh, that’s great. Good for them. I’m glad that they’re gonna have a union down in Staten Island. 

And then a year later, you’re like: Oh, actually, they don’t have one and they might never have one if something doesn’t change. 

AP: Yeah. 

RG: And so as we head into the UAW contract negotiations, the UPS contract negotiations, let’s say they do successfully eventually organize in the Cincinnati airport, how far away are they from the prospect of joint actions? Because it feels like, like, at the hub in CVG, for instance, if those workers go on strike, supply chains kind of collapse. And so is there any talk about an industrial approach that coordinates these different actions? Or no, they’re just going one by one?

AP: I mean, I certainly wish the answer was stronger: Absolutely! 

I know, of course, there are people in both of these unions or in all of these unions, who really want there to be a more kind of one big union approach, even acknowledging that technically, they’ll be in separate unions. But the reality is that that is very hard to pull off. We’re looking at this DHL story where even just getting to a Union election is taking so much of a fight: to sort of line these things up, these contracts or joint actions, given the constraints of the U.S. labor law regime, is really tough to fight. That said, I think there are very concrete moves in this direction. One of the few resolutions that passed at the UAW convention was about honoring picket lines. The Teamsters are known as the only union that really, in their contracts, is the right not to cross a picket line. 

So if workers say, at your hub or at a place you’re delivering stuff to — this happened at Conde Nast when there was a The New Yorker strike — if workers at another workplace are on strike, Teamsters do not have to cross that picket line. So they effectively make that strike much more effective because it’s the Teamsters who really often do the work that keeps a company sort of moving and profitable, delivery, things like that, moving things around. 

And the UAW the rare resolution the members passed at that convention was: We want our contracts to have that same provision. We need to make that a priority. They cited a time when their members were basically pressured to cross a picket line. And that picket line had been by other members of their locals is really tragic.

And so there, it’s very clear that people want this. They want more coordination, as I said. The reformers in the UAW are about: How do we organize across division? And of course, the landscape of union kind of turf and laws is incredibly annoying and sort of makes you want to hit your head against a wall. But people are trying to see: How do we link up and coordinate? And you’re seeing that also, even among Amazon workers in the Teamsters.

In this moment of greater enthusiasm, there is also greater coordination. It just might take a little bit of time for people to be able to see that.

RG: Well, Alex Press, her latest piece for Jacobin is headlined: “Can the UAW Rise Again?” And I really appreciate you joining me today.

AP: Yeah, thanks for having me so much, Ryan.

RG: That was Alex Press. And that’s our show. 

Daniel McGrath, a spokesperson for DHL told me this in a statement: 

“At the CVG hub, we prioritize treating our employees with the utmost respect. We deeply value the rights of our workers and always prioritize their safety and welfare, not just at our hub, but in all of our operations. 

Since 2018, we have created thousands of job opportunities at CVG and have raised our wages by $7.45 an hour. We’ve also increased our PTO for all full- and part-time employees, significantly increased both maternal and paternal leave for employees, and recognized MLK Day as an additional paid holiday. We’re committed to remaining a competitive and attractive employer in the region.”

He goes on, “Moreover, we’ve implemented a range of initiatives aimed at improving the safety and well-being of our employees. We offer individual counseling and we’ve introduced automation that reduces physical demands. In fact, our lost time injury frequency is one of the lowest in the industry. 

We also provide training and orientation programs for all of our management levels. To ensure that our core values are integrated into every aspect of our operation. We’re dedicated to creating a healthy work environment both physically and emotionally for all of our employees. 

Additionally, we recognize our employees’ right to unionize within the confines of the law and are fully committed to all agreements we have with our local, national, and international labor partners. We believe that fostering a collaborative and respectful relationship with our employees and their representatives is key to our continued success. 

With regard to the allegation that management used derogatory terms to describe our employees, we first became aware of this allegation via media reports. We have initiated an investigation into this and will seek to take corrective action against any manager found to have used such language in accordance with our code of conduct. DHL prides itself on our positive, inclusive and respectful working environment, and the behavior described does not reflect our values or culture.” 

[End credits music.]

RG: If you missed it, last week’s episode was a bit different than the normal interview show that we normally do, more of a narrative investigation I did with journalist Neha Wadekar into an American company that runs a chain of low-cost, for-profit schools in Africa and India. It’s worth checking out if you haven’t listened yet, if I do say so myself. 

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week.

And please go and leave us a rating or a review — it helps people find the show. If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at Thanks so much!

And I’ll see you soon.

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