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Amazon Labor Union’s Small Army of Volunteer Law Students

Issue 275

Around 100 are helping in the battle against the country's second-largest employer.

Katie Pruden & Amba Guerguerian Nov 21

Seth Goldstein is fast-talking and full of information. He’s been a labor lawyer for more than 25 years, the last 16 at the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), and looks the part: in his mid-fifties, a graying head of hair, and always wearing a suit, tie and loafers. He takes calls on-the-go, constantly driving around the Northeast to meet with workers and negotiate labor contracts.

Recently, he’s been volunteering for the Amazon Labor Union. The road to that began in late 2015, he recalls. “I was sitting at a cafe in the East Village reading The Progressive, and I saw that Menards had a policy in which they were going to cut managers’ pay by 60% if a facility unionized.” Goldstein knew this was illegal. He called the magazine’s editor and asked if anyone had brought a claim against the home-improvement chain store for that policy. No one had. He got to work, on his own time. 

“I’d had enough. I was tired of the billionaires telling us what to do. John Menard is very rich,” Goldstein says.

After helping win gains for workers at Menards, Goldstein continued to volunteer legal support for workers organizing, at the tech companies Alorica and WeWork. In late 2018, he met with Kickstarter workers trying to organize, and in February 2020, they became the first white-collar tech-company workforce in the United States to unionize, when they voted to join OPEIU Local 153, Goldstein’s local.

Goldstein wondered about tackling Amazon, the nation’s second largest employer and fierce opponent of unions. He felt that “an intersectional, grassroots, worker-led campaign would work better than traditional labor organizing.” 

One day in mid-April 2021, he was sitting on his couch after work surfing Twitter, when he saw a tweet from Christian Smalls, president of the newly formed Amazon Labor Union (ALU), requesting an attorney to assist him and other workers fighting to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island: “Any Union labor lawyers in NY that can assist @amazonlabor please contact me ASAP! We’re ready to go!”

“I’d had enough. I was tired of the billionaires telling us what to do.”

Goldstein responded instantaneously. “It’s essential to bring together police brutality, Black civil rights, and the labor issue. I felt Chris embodied that,” he says. “I knew that an opportunity to be able to represent Amazon workers against Amazon would change labor law, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Smalls called him about a week later, and Goldstein was soon spending 20 hours a week as a volunteer lawyer for the ALU, on top of putting in 60-hour weeks for the OPEIU — “working from my kitchen table, using my iPad.” 

•   •   •

In April 2022, the ALU became the first union to represent Amazon workers in the United States, winning a union election at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island. But it has lost two elections since then, at the LDJ5 facility on Staten Island and at ALB1, near Albany, and is having little luck in forcing Amazon to negotiate a first contract. 

Goldstein now has a small army of law-student volunteers assisting him in various legal efforts against Amazon. 

A month after the JFK8 victory, he was asked to speak by the student-run Labor and Employment Action Project (LEAP) at Harvard Law School. Third-year law student Maxwell Ulin saw an opportunity and a need he and other students could help fill: The ALU’s success had inspired workers at other Amazon warehouses, which meant there was more legal demand than Goldstein could handle. 

Other LEAP members and some of Ulin’s friends at Yale and New York University law schools were likewise eager to help, and soon they had around 20 students ready to work alongside Goldstein for the ALU. 

“The ALU campaign has captured the imagination of labor supporters and the urge that young people have for correcting the unfairness and inequality that they see in this economy,” says Ulin. “The enthusiasm for ALU and unionization among young people currently in law and grad school made it a compelling pitch that drove itself.”

Amazon Labor Union members including Christian Smalls, Derrick Palmer and Tristian Martinez march from Jeff Bezos’ penthouse to Times Square in a Labor Day 2022 protest. Photo by Nina Berman.

The volunteers created a sign-up form, a mailing list, and a resumé review process, and in six months, had amassed 100 volunteers — more than Goldstein knows what to do with. “And now I’ve had to start turning some away!” he says.  

“ALU is not some big established union and they are able to successfully organize, and I think the other side of that, from a law student’s perspective is, like, this legal team is really scrappy too,” says Anita Alem, a third-year law student at Harvard who started working with Goldstein in May. 

Most of the volunteer team’s work goes toward filing unfair-labor-practice (ULP) charges against Amazon with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), accusing the company of union-busting tactics illegal under federal labor law, such as interfering in a vote on whether to join a union or firing or punishing workers for being union supporters. The agency, created after the National Labor Relations Act of 1937, is supposed to oversee union elections and protect the rights of organizing workers. If an NLRB regional office finds a ULP charge credible, it issues a “complaint” against the employer and then holds a hearing, roughly equivalent to an indictment and a trial. 

If the employer is found guilty of a ULP, however, there is very little the NLRB can do to enforce the law. It has to ask the federal courts to enforce penalties it imposes, and if it finds that a worker was illegally fired, the most it can do is order the company to rehire them and give them back pay — minus anything they’ve earned on other jobs since they were axed.

In April, after Amazon’s union-busting campaign leading up to the JFK8 election, the NLRB ruled against “captive-audience meetings” — anti-union sessions that workers are required to attend by management. Yet, during an ALU union drive that began in June at ALB1 warehouse near Albany, NY, workers reported that they went to anti-union meetings held by Amazon because it was not made clear that attendance mandatory. The ALU filed ULPs in retaliation.

“We believe [Amazon’s] strategy is to overwhelm not just us, but the government,” says Ulin.

Emma Barudi, a second-year student at NYU School of Law, met Goldstein through the Peggy Browning Fellowship, a nationwide fellowship for law students interested in the labor field. She and Goldstein are looking to file a discrimination claim on behalf of a woman after Amazon stopped recognizing her disability. When she submitted a letter from her doctor, the company denied her request for accommodation — and then began to write her up because she wasn’t meeting its efficiency quotas. 

“ALU is not some big established union and they are able to successfully organize, and I think the other side of that, from a law student’s perspective is, like, this legal team is really scrappy too.”

Discrimination against disabled workers is one of Amazon union supporters’ central grievances. The company receives millions in tax breaks each year for hiring disabled workers, but frequently disregards their accommodation needs. 

Its efficiency quotas demand highly dangerous work rates. Its intensive computerized tracking tactics can flag workers for “Time Off Task” (TOT) for as little as stretching while on the clock. In one month last summer, three Amazon workers died on the job at different warehouses in New Jersey. 

Goldstein and the volunteers are usually connected to potential ULP cases through the ALU. Even Amazon workers who aren’t officially with the union go to its members with problems, and they connect the worker with the legal team to figure out if they have a valid case for filing a ULP.

The legal team has also learned about safety concerns through Twitter threads that share stories and photos of unsafe conditions or injuries on the job. One worker tweeted, “Stasis Dermatitis, from being on my feet and walking long distances with steel toe boots. I will have this for the rest of my life.” 

“Belly button scar from my hernia surgery due to lifting heavy objects,” wrote another. 

Volunteers also frequently file ULPs for unfair disciplinary actions against organizing workers. In a voice memo that went viral in August when the Coalition to Defend Amazon Workers posted it on Twitter, ALB1 worker Heather Goodall recounted how Amazon disciplined her for being on her cell phone after she used it to take photos of unsafely stacked boxes falling off shelves, “as instructed,” with permission of her manager. 

According to NLRB records reviewed by The Indypendent, Goldstein and his volunteer team have filed 118 ULPs against Amazon in the past year, sifting through details and finding where Amazon has violated some labor law. “It’s shocking what a group of law students, not even real lawyers, can help with,” said Alem. 

Public records filed by Amazon in 2021 indicate the company spent $4.3 million on anti-union legal consultants. Goldstein believes that number is far higher because Amazon was only required to file expenditures on captive audience meetings and not those on other union-avoidance activities. (It should also be noted that the 2021 filing does not account for expenses during the critical period of the JFK8 election or the LDJ5 and ALB1 elections.)

Amazon Labor Union members organizing inside of the break rooms at the Staten Island warehouses early 2022. Photo: Amazon Labor Union.

“It’s a complete cognitive dissonance, spending their money on lawyers, instead of spending their money on workers,” says Emma Barudi. 

The legal team, spread over four different time zones, is constantly working. The ALU lost its most recent election at ALB1 by a nearly two-to-one margin. “We filed at least 27 ULPs before and during the critical election period,” says Goldstein. The ALU has filed 23 objections to Amazon’s conduct during the election, he says, and is looking not just to overturn the election, but for a “bargaining order,” in which the NLRB, instead of ordering a revote, says the company has made a fair election impossible and orders it to begin bargaining with the union. 

In Moreno Valley, California outside of Los Angeles, workers at the ONT8 warehouse recently filed with the NLRB for a union election. The struggle continues. As worker-organizers build shop floor support for the union, the legal team continues to pore over Amazon’s labor law violations.

“The legal work supports the organizing. You need lawyers to be involved in campaigns,” says Goldstein. “The problem is that a campaign of organizing will be crushed unless you have the support from people who know what the process is. On the flipside, lawsuits don’t get you a contract alone — it has to be in the context of worker engagement and organizing.”

•   •   •

The volunteer team meets weekly on Zoom. A rotating group of 15-20 students attends and picks up tasks. 

“Seth is always so appreciative of the students,” says Alem. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with him where he wasn’t like, ‘Thank you so much for the work you’re doing’ — even if it was a thirty-second call.”

“I don’t expect everybody to be involved all the time because they’re law students,” says Goldstein. “These are very talented, highly educated, empathetic individuals that could make a lot of money working for corporations, but they’ve chosen to work on behalf of workers. That’s a wonderful thing. When I was growing up, my generation just wanted to get a job and make a lot of money.” 

He supposes millennials and Gen Zers are more socially active in general than their predecessors because they don’t have a choice. “The issues are greater,” he says. “When I was in college, my tuition was $750. I didn’t have any student debt. I wasn’t facing the extermination of human life because of corporate greed. I didn’t have to deal with corporations like those in Big Tech. It’s craziness. We didn’t have Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.”

Goldstein, now a socialist, says he “accidentally” got involved with labor law. Coming from a moderate-Republican family in Rochester, he wasn’t interested in the labor movement, but, as he was looking for a job after law school, he met an attorney for the Con Edison union, Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2, through one of his wife’s friends. At first, he thought it would be a temporary stint, but after a few months, he fell in love with the job. 

His workload has slightly lessened with the volunteer team’s support but he considers himself a workaholic, and says that especially with this work, there is no time to rest. “We are truly living in — as they say in Succession — ‘a shit show in a fuck factory,’” he said. “All of us work a lot, but sometimes you have to do that.” 

To avoid getting burnt out by their workload, the students and Goldstein turn to different strategies. 

Barudi has “a relatively long skin-care routine that I get made fun of by some of my friends, but by doing it every night, it calms me down and helps me focus on something really small.” 

“In my spare time, I read. I walk around my neighborhood. I spend time with my family,” said Goldstein. He lives in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia with his wife and has two daughters that have flown the nest.

Goldstein soon won’t be volunteering for the ALU any more. He accepted an offer to become a full-time lawyer for Julien Mirer & Singla, a law firm that has represented both the ALU and the Trader Joe’s United union.

“It’s the most left-wing, worker-rights-oriented law firm in New York City,” he says. “They’re committed to social change.”

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