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Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul could immediately require Amazon to pay its workers a $30 minimum wage, as demanded by the upstart Amazon Labor Union (ALU) that is organizing across New York and beyond, according to a new Lever analysis. As the top elected official of a state that boasts one of the largest economies in the world, she could also take additional actions to strengthen labor organizers’ position with the retail giant, which has so far refused to recognize the union.
As a first step, Hochul could sign newly-passed legislation that would crack down on brutal productivity quotas at employers like Amazon.
Hochul took to Twitter on April 1 to congratulate the union on a historic labor victory at a Staten Island warehouse, declaring that “New York is and always will be union strong.” But since then, the governor has refused to take action to help organizers — even as Amazon has reportedly ramped up its union-busting activities, in possible violation of subsidy deals worth hundreds of millions the company has acquired in the state.
Hochul — who first gained prominence in 2007 when she opposed giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants while she was Erie County Clerk — enjoys several ties to the online retailer. Amazon’s lobbyists have contributed $25,000 to her 2022 election campaign, and the company has also donated $425,000 to the Democratic Governors Association since the organization endorsed Hochul last September. What’s more, Hochul’s pollster, Global Strategy Group, helped spearhead Amazon’s attempt to crush the Staten Island union drive.
As workers across the country take on big brands like Amazon and Starbucks, organizers could use a boost from Democratic politicians like Hochul. And while established labor unions have traditionally adopted a feeble “go along to get along” approach with the Democratic party, the independent and scrappy ALU has a chance to do something different: It could use public pressure to demand solutions from Democratic leaders — especially Hochul, who is facing what is shaping up to be the closest governor’s race in New York since 1994.
The ALU’s April 1 victory at a Staten Island warehouse with 8,300 workers shocked the world, since it was the first-ever U.S. Amazon facility to unionize. As part of its ongoing efforts to rapidly disrupt the norms of American commerce, the $1.24 trillion online retailer is known for waging aggressive and illegal anti-union campaigns against its workers trying to organize.
But the vote was only the first step for the ALU. Now it must negotiate its first union contract with Amazon — a daunting challenge, considering that Amazon has since ratcheted up its anti-union efforts, successfully quashing a union vote at a second Staten Island warehouse when ballots were counted on May 2.
Employers rarely agree to inaugural union contracts without the pressure of lengthy and aggressive labor campaigns that involve extensive research, targeted political action, and ongoing actions on the shop floor. It took the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America (CWA) three years to win a contract at virulently anti-union Cablevision in New York City. Similarly, it took the New York State Nurses Association union three years to get a first contract at Albany Medical Center. Up to 30 percent of union victories don’t lead to a union contract at all.
But the ALU could use the enormous amount of subsidies, contracts, and tax breaks that Amazon receives from governments at the federal, state, and local level as a key leverage point to bring Amazon to the table.
The ALU and its allies have another opening: the well-funded gubernatorial campaign of Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin. A recent survey from a GOP polling firm showed Hochul with just a four-point lead over the congressman, who defeated incumbent Democrats when he was elected to the state Senate in 2010 and in Congress in 2014.
While Hochul’s own polling firm recently claimed that she had a double-digit lead over her Republican challengers, it hasn’t released substantive details backing up the claim, and the results haven’t been verified by any recent independent polls. And while that internal polling found Hochul’s approval rating at 58 percent, an independent poll from Siena College Research Institute found her approval rating at just 36 percent.
In other words, unlike all of her predecessors going back to Mario Cuomo in 1994, Hochul may be in a competitive race — and she will likely need union support in order to win the general election.
Hochul could raise wages at Amazon in the same way her predecessor Andrew Cuomo did for fast food workers in 2015, when he directed his labor commissioner to assemble a wage board that examined the issue and then raised the minimum wage for the sector to $15 per hour over several years.
Hochul could also push for legislative action. Unlike in Washington, Democrats in Albany have an extensive track record of passing progressive legislation since the Working Families Party helped ensure the party’s control of the state Senate in 2018. In this environment, if the governor of New York wanted progressive legislation passed, it would almost certainly happen.
Hochul, for example, could sign the aforementioned Warehouse Worker Protection Act, which passed the legislature on Friday. Based on similar legislation enacted in California in 2022, the bill would let workers sue over employer-created algorithms that result in injuries, such as Amazon’s productivity tracking system, which has resulted in industry-leading levels of workplace accidents by aggressively demanding more work out of its employees.
In a statement provided to The Lever on May 26, Hochul’s office said that they “will review the legislation if it passes both houses of the legislature.”
Hochul has also so far declined to support the 21st Century Antitrust Act, which would significantly expand the state’s ability to crack down on monopolies like Amazon.
Beyond her ability to shape legislative decisions, Hochul also wields extensive executive powers. In April, she used the power of her office to secure $600 million in subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, despite 63 percent of New Yorkers opposing the deal.
Hochul could use similar powers to issue an executive order blocking the $387 million in New York public subsidies allocated to Amazon at both the state and local level until it complies with labor laws.
As The Lever revealed in April, many, if not all of the subsidy deals that Amazon has in New York are subject to rules that mandate compliance with federal and state laws. Amazon has been found to have repeatedly violated federal labor and occupational safety laws, including for firing several pro-union employees in Staten Island in just the past few weeks.
A Bold New Labor Approach
Outside of the building trades and some of the savvier progressive unions, many unions have struggled with articulating a clear vision for political action. In particular, most mainstream labor unions have refused to confront Democratic Party leaders after they’ve broken their campaign promises to uphold union ideals — leading some commentators to describe labor’s alliance with Democrats as an “abusive relationship.”
For example, despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s repeated attacks on labor, unions never picketed him. Labor also went easy on President Bill Clinton, even though he launched one anti-labor free trade deal after another.
The ALU, however, has so far not been co-opted by the Democratic Party. This means that they can be much more aggressive with Hochul and other top New York Democrats, similar to how California Nurses Association launched a powerful and ultimately successful 2005 campaign against then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) after he refused to enforce pro-nurse legislation the union had helped pass.
ALU already appears willing to play hardball with key lawmakers to achieve its goals. Chris Smalls, the union’s president, recently “called in” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for not actively supporting the union campaign prior to its first election. Smalls ultimately mended ties with Ocasio-Cortez, appearing with her at an ALU rally on April 24.
Given the enormous powers at Hochul’s disposal — and her apparent political vulnerability — ALU organizers have a real chance to pressure the governor to help them win a transformative contract for Staten Island Amazon workers.
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