The new head of one of America's most powerful labor unions said Monday that he is ready to take on retail giant Amazon after renegotiating a longstanding contract with delivery company UPS.
Sean O’Brien, a fourth-generation Teamster from Boston, said that if the International Brotherhood of Teamsters can successfully push for higher wages and a more employee-friendly contract, it will immediately roll those gains into unionizing the famously anti-labor Amazon.
O'Brien replaces Jimmy Hoffa Jr., son of the infamously ill-fated Jimmy Hoffa, who has been running the Teamsters for decades. Now 80, O'Brien style is likely to be a revolution for the union, which still communicates via fax and could never convince Hoffa Jr. to use email.
Who Are The Teamsters And Can They Unionize Amazon?
The Teamsters have about 1.3 million members and control a panoply of blue collar workers, particularly drivers and those on production lines in manufacturing.
O'Brien told Bloomberg in an interview that his first stop at Amazon will be lifting its workers minimum wage, ideally after achieving the same goal at UPS.
“It’s got to be $20 an hour. No one can survive on $15 an hour,” he said. “If we don’t get close to $20 an hour for a starting rate of pay for part-timers it’s not going to help us organize Amazon where they’re paying their part timers $18 an hour.”
The renegotiation of the UPS contract with the Teamsters doesn't begin until August, but O'Brien said his members are already ready to strike if they don't see a contract that meets their needs.
“We’ll put them on the street,” he said in the interview.
Still, Amazon has thus far resisted unionization — although it did have a sharp rebuke from the National Labor Relations Board for interfering in a union drive effort in Alabama — despite pressure from at least two other unions that have been trying to organize its 1.1 million American workers.
The company has fought hard against labor efforts within its warehouses particularly, but a new vote in the Alabama drive could change that, despite hard-nosed tactics.
“They’re afraid of losing pay, afraid of losing benefits, or their job,” Amazon employee and union organizer Jennifer Bates told Buzzfeed.
“Those are the tactics Amazon is using. They want to confuse the employees. We often tell them, we have to go through negotiations, what they have is protected," she said. "We go to the table with Amazon … We’re the union, and we have the final say on the contract.”
A Moment in History
Whether or not O'Brien can use classic labor strategies like strikes to force either UPS or Amazon to capitulate to Teamster demands remains to be seen.
But after the Great Resignation during the pandemic, when millions of workers left their jobs rather than go back to ones with no health care, low wages and exploitative scheduling, the moment to unionize Amazon totally may now be arriving.
That is particularly true following a successful unionization at another retail behemoth, Starbucks, which must now collectively bargain with its first union, formed in Buffalo, N.Y.
“O’Brien has a historic opportunity,” Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies labor, told the news service. “There’s no better time in the last 50 years for unions to make the case that they should be a part of the American economy and make it fair for working people.”