Labor Notes: Organizing Despite the Churn

When the Amazon Labor Union first submitted union authorization cards, “we had to withdraw and file again,” recalled organizing committee member Justine Medina, “because Amazon challenged over 1,000 of our signatures saying they no longer worked there.”

The sky-high turnover at the 8,000-worker fulfillment center on New York’s Staten Island, made collecting cards “a race against Amazon firing everyone,” she said.

Amazon has annual turnover of 150 percent. “They design the productivity quota, the rates system, to be a constant speedup situation, and that makes it hard to keep the job,” said Medina, who still works at the warehouse. Several ALU leaders have been fired.

Still, ALU, an independent union now with affiliates in Kentucky and California, was able to collect enough valid cards and win its election in 2022. “The faster the turnover is, the harder it is to organize,” said Medina. “You can still do it, but it’s obviously a challenge.”

Despite the churn, at Amazon, in charter schools, in restaurants, and among student workers, unions are developing strategies to organize high-turnover workplaces.


The 150 percent turnover figure at Amazon can be misleading: some people stay for years while a lot more stay briefly. But at Grinnell College in Iowa, where student dining workers organized a union in 2016, the workforce of undergraduates turns over completely every four years.

In light of this, the Grinnell Union of Student Dining Workers won in its first contract the right to do a union orientation with new workers.

The union deliberately kept contracts short—just two years long—so at least some members remember the details of the last negotiation, said union member Isaiah Gutman: “Outside the nuts and bolts, the negotiation experience helps members and leaders understand who we are up against, what [management] thinks of us.”

Resident advisors at Columbia University in New York City faced even more intense turnover when they started to organize last year. Only sophomores and above are eligible, and nearly half the workforce of 153 turns over every year.

Amazon Turnover: Fired, Broken Down, Forced Out

When an Amazon warehouse moves into a county, the turnover in that sector jumps dramatically, the National Employment Law Project has found. Overall annual warehouse turnover is 64 percent, but it doubles when Amazon moves in.

This is because Amazon fires and drives away workers at a rate that made insiders worry the company would run out of workers by 2024, leaked internal memos showed.

Amazon’s model is to hire lots of people for peak season (November and December) and fire them in the new year. But in any season, there are so many ways to break Amazon’s rules that managers can always find reasons to fire people, said Amazon Labor Union member Justine Medina, who works at a New York City warehouse.

Workers quit because of the grueling conditions and scant paid time off: full-time workers get 50 hours a year. Even unpaid time off is strictly limited.

Injured workers are forced back to regular duties. In April, OSHA fined the Castleton, New York, Amazon fulfillment center for forcing workers to do their jobs injured—often making the injury worse.

It’s particularly challenging to stick it out in the larger Amazon fulfillment centers, where in some jobs people barely interact during a 10-hour shift, said Ted Miin of Amazonians United: “That kind of isolation harms the mind.”

To cope, they went public with their organizing effort earlier than would be recommended in a typical workplace campaign, circulating a campus-wide petition on wages and worker input. They needed to cast a wide net to reach incoming RAs, said organizing committee member Leena Yumeen.

Columbia RAs attend a 60-hour training before the semester starts, so the union, the Columbia University Resident Advisor Collective, used that opportunity to talk to new RAs about workplace problems and got 100 to sign up for a group chat that was explicitly about workplace organizing. In May the RAs won their union election with 95 percent of the vote.


Ted Miin works at an Amazon delivery station in Chicago where, despite high turnover, workers have won drinking water and paid sick time, and conducted safety strikes after Covid hit. The independent worker-led collective Amazonians United coordinated walkouts at two stations and won a $2 raise that was extended to all delivery stations in Chicago.

Though workers don’t have a union that’s recognized by the company, new hires quickly learn about Amazonians United, because co-workers talk to them on break, and might invite them to a nearby potluck lunch after work (shifts are 1:00 a.m. to noon).

Their conversations with new workers emphasize a “co-worker culture,” Miin said, “bringing attention to what the managers are doing, how they’re treating us, and building a culture where co-workers will look out for each other, don’t snitch on each other… That kind of culture picks up pretty quick.” They petitioned to make their break room worker-only, and managers no longer sit there.

As a result, the facility has had a hard time finding workers willing to move up to management, Miin said. Two even stepped down after promotions.

Amazonians United also builds cohesion through a group chat, getaways, and get-togethers at restaurants, parks, ice-cream shops, or a neighborhood organization near the workplace. They also conduct a Union School political education program and hold annual citywide barbeques.

Recognizing that even committed organizers may leave or get fired, Amazonians United works to keep them in the union. “We have to develop our consciousness as a shared class that should be continuing to work and build together,” Miin said.

Even after they leave Amazon, some people continue to participate in the Union School and social events. One person used techniques learned fighting Amazon to stop wage theft at a new job administering Covid tests in prisons.


The same spirit animates the Union of Southern Service Workers, a new group started in Durham, North Carolina. Its structure is designed for workers who often switch low-wage jobs, like Iesha Franceis. She has worked in fast food and retail, and now works at a long-term care facility, but the whole time she has been a USSW member.

Read More at Labor Notes.

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