This is a free edition of Brooklyn, Everywhere, a newsletter where I ponder the many meanings of gentrification, and what we lose in our relentless pursuit of “the American dream.” Sign up here to get it in your inbox. For access to all editions of the newsletter, including subscriber-only exclusives, subscribe to The Atlantic.
Past editions I’ve enjoyed include: And Just Like That... Is A Mirror Image of the New NYC, On Gentrification of Self: An Ode to Jeremy Strong, and America's Inside Voice.
On Friday, labor history was made on Staten Island: Workers in Amazon’s largest New York warehouse voted to unionize. This is the first union in the history of Amazon, America’s second-largest employer, which has focused all its corporate might on beating back previous union efforts. And unlike the Starbucks union, which had the support of the Service Employees International Union, or even many of the nascent media unions that have had the support of WGA East (my own union), the Amazon effort was independently run by employees, fueled by social media, and financed with only about $120,000, all raised on GoFundMe.
Meanwhile, the 2021 union drive at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, launched and backed by the National Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, failed (a second, more recent vote was too close to call and is being deliberated now). When Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, two of the leading organizers behind the unionization effort on Staten Island, visited the Alabama facility last year, they found the organizers from the national retail union “less than welcoming to them,” The New York Times reported, “and thought the professionals seemed like outsiders who had descended on the community.” So Smalls and Palmer decided to go it alone.
Even more striking: Union sympathizers began taking jobs at the Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, to help support the effort. Justine Medina, who had been doing gig work, is one such employee. “I wanted to help the labor movement, and for me that meant putting myself where my values lie,” she said.
By many accounts, victory through this kind of grassroots approach is the future of organizing: It “can’t be about people coming in from the outside with an organizing plan that people have to follow,” Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants’ union, told The New York Times. In other words, the call needs to come from inside the house.
While the David versus Goliath victory at Amazon did surprise me a bit, I was not at all shocked that this approach was a winning one. While Smalls and Palmer were leading from their instincts and observations, their strategy has historic precedent that immediately rang true to me.
I’d run across this same philosophical approach to “saving” a declining labor movement in doing research for my novel, Olga Dies Dreaming. In my book, we follow Olga and her brother, the adult children of two former members of the Young Lords Party. The Young Lords was the predominantly Puerto Rican, socialist-based, human- and civil-rights organization that started in the late ’60s, largely modeled on the Black Panther Party. My protagonists’ father, Johnny, has died after succumbing to relapsed addiction, and their radicalized mother, Blanca, has been absent for years but communicates with them through letters. In one letter, Blanca explains that the Young Lords (YLP) became fractured when, in an attempt to do more for workers by galvanizing unions, the party mandated that its members take up jobs in factories. Johnny adopts the cause, turning his back on his dreams to be a teacher, but Blanca refuses.
This small plot point was inspired by both my own parents’ story and the real-life stories of the Young Lords that I read about in my research. Though the Lords formed in Chicago in 1968 as a street gang with civic priorities, its largest and most powerful chapter was located in New York City, spearheaded by college students.
In that era, much of New York’s Puerto Rican community (and the Puerto Rican community in urban places in general) was employed in industrial work, and that population was well represented in the membership of the YLP. But the group’s priorities and movements—which were predominantly focused on public-health initiatives for the Puerto Rican community—were still largely set by college-educated leadership (most of whom were graduates of a recently diversified City University of New York college system.) By the early ’70s, chasms and government interference had strained the group. In 1972, the New York membership decided that it had been somewhat corrupted by “petit bourgeois” concerns and needed to help its community where it needed help most: the industrial sector. The YLP dissolved and was replaced with the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, which led with a call not for community organizing but for going in, working shoulder to shoulder with other workers, and helping organize labor from within.
Though not a Young Lord, my mother, who had been a part of the battle for open admission at Brooklyn College and an early employee in the Black and Puerto Rican studies programs there, remained an activist working in Puerto Rico and around the globe. By the late ’70s, she and my father were deeply engaged members of another group populated with working-class college graduates: the Socialist Workers Party. In 1978, the SWP took up Jack Barnes’ call for the party to “turn to industry.” For the next dozen or so years, my parents, and many other party members like them, were deployed like soldiers to factories across the country where unions were struggling to form, or, in many cases, stay afloat. Those who heeded the call did not go in as interlopers but as genuine colleagues and co-workers. Perhaps for this reason, despite the continued decline of unions overall through the late 20th century, many involved felt the efforts successful in, at the very least, holding corporations to task and protecting workers.
Of course, if not all the Young Lords were interested in factory work in 1972, you can only imagine that in 1978 not all the Socialist Workers Party members were takers either. In the late ’70s, college tuition in the United States averaged less than $1,000 a year, making education an achievable pathway to a higher-paying white-collar job, which in turn made working on a factory floor a harder sell—to say nothing of the way pop culture glorified the yuppies and their college education in the ’80s. Indeed, in 1973, only 28 percent of the workforce had “some college” or more, and by 1992, that number had jumped to 56 percent. Part of this was also that there were fewer and fewer open blue-collar jobs—the jobs most likely to be unionized. All of this contributed to a precipitous decline in union membership and strength.
But now, suddenly, in 2022, things are very different. Though the Amazon unionization was unique in its execution, it comes amid a growing rise not only in the power of workers but in their will to organize and unionize. From the movement gaining momentum at Starbucks to the white-collar unionization of journalists across the country, most recently at Condé Nast, the concept of unionization is no longer limited to the assembly line or industrial sectors. And, beyond that, we are seeing that the unions that already do exist—like United American Nurses and the Association of Flight Attendants—are galvanized and ready to act.
There are a number of reasons for this, of course. As Time magazine puts it: Essential workers feel essential, their company profits are soaring, and there is a shortage of workers. Unionizing workers are also seeing a groundswell of support. A recent Pew Research poll found that 61 percent of Americans see the decline of unions as bad for working people. But, unlike in the ’70s, when activists called someone a “worker” and that meant a blue-collar factory employee, a “worker” these days means the person at the Kellogg plant as well as the New Yorker staffer who has been fighting for expanded family leave. In other words, the “worker” is no longer an “other.” The worker is all of us.
The average age of a new union member is 35 or under, and in 2018, nearly a third of new union members were white-collar workers. As a 2019 Deloitte Millennial survey indicates, this population is skeptical of corporations and concerned with equality. This, coupled with the general decline of workplace culture and increased feelings of isolation among workers during the past two years of the pandemic, creates a sense of being employed by a distant corporate giant. What so much of the union organization happening now has done—especially in the case of Amazon—is create camaraderie. “What you do is you create a community that Amazon never really had for workers,” Seth Goldstein, the pro bono lawyer for the Amazon Labor Union, told The New York Times.
Which brings me back to Justine Medina, the young woman who’d been kind of freelancing before she heard about the Amazon union effort and decided to join the team. When I think about the members of the Young Lords and the Socialist Workers Party in the ’70s, they had come to socialism, which in turn put them on to the value of unions. But Justine, like so many of these young workers, is finding the value of unions completely on her own, for economic and sociological reasons, without necessarily needing a political ideology to lead her there.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if these young workers end up finding one, if they haven’t already. Let’s not forget (however much the Democratic Party tries to) that it was young people upset about student debt who rallied around Bernie Sanders in 2016. They are older now, frustrated by everything that bothered them in 2016—and then some.