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Amazon Labor Union Newspaper Revives Independent Labor Press

Issue 276

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Katie Pruden Dec 19, 2022

“Surviving JFK8” screams one headline, in bold black letters. 

Other, smaller ones read, “Bezos Cuts 10K Jobs to Send Bae to Space?” and “Attention: General Membership Meeting 12/9.” On Page 2, the Editorial Board authors “Can’t Survive on $18.75! Why Amazon’s ‘Raise’ is Actually a Pay Cut for JFK8 Workers.”

Witty and to-the-point. This is The Associate, the official newspaper of the independent, worker-led Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, the only U.S. Amazon warehouse where workers have won union representation. 

ALU members Cassio Mendoza, Ebrima Baldeh and Brima Sylla started publishing the newspaper in July. Previously, ALU worker-organizers circulated union information by posting flyers in break rooms, but felt the need to discuss worker-related issues more in depth, more permanently — to deliver something people could pick up at work and take home. 

“JFK8 is like a rumor mill,” Mendoza, co-editor of The Associate, says of the mega warehouse where more than 6,000 people are employed. Mendoza says rumors there are often started by management, like a broken game of telephone. Creating a newspaper was a way to counter that.

The Amazon Labor Union’s new newspaper is witty and to-the-point.

“Whenever something good happens to the union, you’ll hear whispers about some crazy shit, and then you have to dispel it,” Mendoza said. He recalled that workers came to a union meeting panicked after Amazon suspended around 80 out of 650 employees that took part in a wildcat sit-in in response to an Oct. 3 warehouse fire. Managers had said that those suspended would be fired. However, within a week, all of them except for three lead union organizers were back to work. How did the union respond? In The Associate’s most recent issue carried a story from Mendoza titled “All Hell Broke Loose: Inside the Fire Strike.” 

When co-workers approach the union with grievances or questions, Mendoza said, “We don’t say ‘This is definitely going to happen,’ we just tell them factual information about what’s legal and what’s not legal, and in what ways we can fight back.” 

•   •   •

In June, Mendoza, Baldeh and Sylla began meeting regularly to plan the launch of the union newspaper. They wanted to be sure that co-workers would read it, and that it would have a positive impact. They knew that newspapers have historically played an important role in successful organizing.

The soon-to-be editors studied influential movement papers, such as The Black Panther, the official newspaper of the Black Panther Party, the most widely-read Black newspaper from 1968 to 1971, according to the San Francisco Bay View. They also decided to take a page out of the New York Post’s handbook — draw in readers with hilarious or outrageous headlines.  

In July, the first issue of The Associate was published, three months after the warehouse voted to unionize. The headline read, “After The Election, What’s Next?: The [first issue] will focus on the next steps for the workers of JFK8 after we defeated Amazon on April 1st, 2022, by over 500 votes.” A small group of workers were involved in writing Issue 1.  

Funded by the union but edited autonomously, The Associate is published bi-monthly with a press run of 4,000. It is printed by TriStar Offset Printing, a unionized print shop in Queens, and dropped off in bound stacks of 100 at the ALU headquarters near JFK8 in northwestern Staten Island. 

The most recent issue of The Associate.

Over the course of a week, editors and other ALU distribute the newspapers at the bus stop in front of JFK8, at the entrance to the warehouse, in the breakroom and within their respective departments in non-work areas. There is a network of people who distribute the copies in most shifts and departments, and the ALU hopes to soon ensure the entire facility is covered.

The paper is print only — there is no online version. Delivering the news in print invites readers to carefully peruse it, the editors say, and builds trust and credibility: The distribution process gives union members a chance to interact with co-workers they haven’t met before.

“I see people pick up the newspaper and read it,” co-editor Ebrima Baldeh told The Indypendent. “They are going to spread the word that the articles are interesting. It’s not about gossip, it’s about what is happening in the building,” he said.

Workers write articles that include a mix of political education, union information, broader labor movement news and news from within JFK8. The ALU funds the paper but its editorial board operates independently from the union’s executive board.

In addition to informing workers about what’s going on in the warehouse, the newspaper is aimed at bolstering support for the union and connection between union and non-union members — it is an organizing tool. 

Although JFK8 workers voted to be represented by the ALU, that is not the last step in the process of official unionization. The ALU won’t be certified (meaning it wont represent all workers in the warehouse, collect dues or hold a union election) until a first contract is negotiated between the union and the employer. This process is arduous and lengthy, particularly when dealing with an employer as powerful and staunchly anti-union as Amazon. 

“The slow pace of the certification process is frustrating,” said Baldeh. “Changes are not sudden and the transition is not something that can take place immediately, so, the newspaper has been spreading the word for us.”

•   •   •

Labor historian Toni Gilpin believes a print union paper is “one of the most important tools in a union’s toolbox.” 

“When the labor movement has been the most powerful, it’s had all these kinds of channels of communication between workers,” Gilpin told The Indy. “Labor had their own radio stations, their own newspapers, and working people had alternatives to the reactionary press that they were subjected to regularly,” she said. 

Starting in the late 19th Century, labor press began to flourish alongside the labor movements According to the Labor Press Project at the University of Washington, “between 1880-1940, thousands of labor and radical publications circulated, constituting a golden age for working-class newspapers.” These papers existed in the many languages spoken by immigrant workers. 

During the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the labor press was attacked. “There were literally laws passed that prohibited the publications of those entities deemed subversive or radical,” Gilpin said. 

A print union paper is “one of the most important tools in a union’s toolbox.” 

This caused a major decline in the radical labor press. Then, as union membership shrunk from the 1970s onward, union newspapers became less common while major commercial newspapers dropped their labor beat reporters even as their pages swelled with business coverage. Many left publications, including The Indypendent,  continued to carry the torch for labor coverage in the 2000s and 2010s. In the past several years, major news outlets slowly have gravitated back to doing more union coverage amid the labor turmoil sparked by the pandemic. But, there’s still a large void to fill. 

“You need to have constant communication to combat the inherent advantage that employers have,” says Gilpin. “We can’t count on mainstream media to cover those issues of interest to working people.”

•   •   •

Cassio Mendoza says the commercial media’s coverage of the ALU has failed to grasp the conditions workers face how unions work. “There’s certain things you wouldn’t know to report about unless you worked in the building,” he said. 

The writers at The Associate, full-time workers at JFK8, hope to articulate what’s happening within the warehouse and the ALU in a way that attracts workers who are not currently union members.

“People don’t really understand the value of the union if they don’t understand what is possible and what other workers have done in other places to secure much better working conditions and pay,” Mendoza said. “Political education is a way of opening people’s eyes to what is possible, so that they’ll feel more of a commitment to help build the union.”

Amba Guerguerian contributed to this report.

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper and website. Our independent, grassroots journalism is made possible by readers like you. Please consider making a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home. 

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