Hector Figueroa died just a few days before Prime Day. Perhaps he could have appreciated the humor in that. There is only one way to honor his memory: to finally unionize the workers of the gargantuan, monopolistic, oppressive national crisis called Amazon.
Figueroa was the head of SEIU 32BJ, one of the most powerful unions in New York and one of the most aggressive and politically active union locals you will find anywhere in America. He was one of the labor movement’s true believers. He believed in the power of organized labor to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and beaten down people in the work force: building doormen, office cleaners, airport workers, security guards, and more. He went out and organized thousands and thousands of workers who were offered little respect and little money, and helped them build their own collective power, and won them a safety net, and helped them pull themselves off the floor of capitalism, together. He did it. He was a role model. His track record speaks for itself.
Nobody doubted Hector Figueroa’s commitment to the labor movement. But sometimes he had tactical, political disagreements with others in the union world that made everyone mad, even though we were all, in the end, trying to get to the same place. One of the most prominent of those disagreements was about Amazon’s HQ2 project in New York City. Even as other activists and unions came together to oppose the project, Hector and 32BJ very publicly supported it. He did this because he had a deal to secure union contracts for thousands of workers at the site of the Amazon project, and also because he believed that having Amazon in New York City would ultimately make it easier to unionize the company, which has thus far remained union-free.
Some of this is now a moot point. The activists won. Amazon cancelled its New York City HQ2 project. Hector, last week, passed away. But the big idea that Hector worked for is still very much alive. Amazon is worth a trillion dollars. It is one of the most powerful companies in the world, run by America’s richest man. It is engaged in the wholesale destruction of the retail industry. It is leading a massive shift in the low wage work force, from service jobs into warehouse jobs. It sets the standard for the pricing of not just goods, but labor. It leads the way. If Amazon workers are not unionized, the company will have the power to singlehandedly lead a new, more tech-friendly race to the bottom for working people. As Amazon’s union-free power increases, the power of organized labor decreases. If unions are unable to exercise any influence over the conditions and pay of Amazon workers, they will see that failure cascade throughout the global work force. Amazon, more than any other single company in America, must be unionized. We will crack it, or it will crack us.
The good news is that a lot of people are working on this already. The RWDSU, a strong retail workers union, is actively working to organize Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island. In Minnesota, Amazon warehouse workers are going on strike today, even without a union. And even though Amazon, showing amazingly thin skin, canceled its HQ2 deal, it is still expanding its office space in New York City.
The dream of luring Amazon into union-friendly NYC and organizing it is very much alive. We now have thousands of both blue collar and white collar Amazon workers here in our city—a union town. The need to unionize Amazon is as urgent as ever. The means to unionize Amazon are stronger than ever. In an op-ed published the day after he died, Hector Figueroa wrote of Amazon that “Organizing those warehouse workers should be a top priority for the labor movement, but it would be close to impossible for one union to organize so many workers in so many locations. So unions need to pool their resources and work together.”
That is happening, very slowly. It can and must happen more. Everyone can help. You can support the striking workers by boycotting Amazon today. The AFL-CIO and its member unions can cough up the money to fund a special task force organize Amazon. Silicon Valley liberals and the politicians they fund can stop fetishizing Amazon’s productivity and start reckoning with its effect on the working class. And, most importantly, if you are an Amazon worker, you can stand up and exercise your right to unionize. Not even the richest man in America can take that away from you.
Hector would have done this if he had the time. The least we can do is to finish it for him.
If you are an Amazon employee interested in unionizing, email me.