Last month Working People hit a new milestone: We recorded our first live episode in front of an audience! Organized by the Action Builder / Action Network team and hosted by Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC, we got to speak with Michelle Valentin Nieves of the Amazon Labor Union and Harry Marino of the Major League Baseball Players Association about the incredible worker organizing victories for Amazon workers and minor league baseball players, and about lessons we have learned from an intense year of grassroots struggle that we will be carrying into 2023.
Michelle Valentin Nieves is the Executive Secretary and a founding member of the Amazon Labor Union. Harry Marino is an assistant general counsel at the Major League Baseball Players Association. He is formerly the Executive Director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, the nonprofit organization that joined with the MLBPA to unionize Minor League players. Harry pitched in the Minor League systems of the Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Since launching in 2012, Action Network tools have helped the Women’s March mobilize huge rallies across the globe, helped the DNC raise millions for candidates and organizations, and more. The Action Builder toolset, launched in 2019, helps dozens of unions and progressive organizations empower leaders and build strong organizing campaigns.
Additional links/info below…
- Michelle’s Twitter page
- Harry’s Twitter page
- Amazon Labor Union website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Major League Baseball Players Association website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Action Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Action Builder website
- Advocates for Minor Leaguers website
- Working People, “Amazon Labor Union“
- Eric Blanc, Jacobin, “The Workers Behind Amazon’s Historic First Union Explain How They Did It (An Interview with Christian Smalls, Angelika Maldonado, & Michelle Valentin Nieves)“
- Evan Drellich, The Athletic, “‘Hit the Go Button’: The Six Years that Made Baseball’s Minor League Union“
- Tipping Pitches, “The Gang Forms a Union (feat. Trevor Hildenberger)“
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to this special live episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and The Real News Network, normally produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So I am incredibly excited to be here at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC to celebrate with you all an incredible year of workers’ struggles, to look forward to the fights that we still have ahead, and to talk about organizing and what we have learned from some of the tremendous organizing victories that occurred this year, what lessons we can take away from that, and what things like Action Builder can do to help working people build power in and beyond their workplaces.
I could not be more honored to be joined today by two incredible guests, one of whom I’ve had the honor of chatting with for the show out in front of the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island. Feels like many, many moons ago, but yeah, why don’t we go around and introduce ourselves real quick?
So I am Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m the host of the podcast Working People, host of the segment, The Art of Class War on Breaking Points, and I’m the author of the book, The Work of Living, a collection of interviews that I conducted with 10 workers at the end of year one of COVID.
Harry Marino: Okay. I’m Harry Marino. I am currently the assistant general counsel in charge of minor league operations at the Major League Baseball Players Association. I’m a former minor league baseball player with the Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations. And I was the executive director of a nonprofit called Advocates for Minor Leaguers that I’m really proud of that did a lot of the grassroots organizing that led up to the unionization of minor league baseball players earlier this year.
Maximillian Alvarez: Woo!
Michelle Valentin Nieves: Hi. I’m Michelle Valentin Nieves. I’m an Amazon worker for four years at JFK8. I’m also the recording secretary of the Amazon Labor Union. I’ve been with the Amazon Labor Union for a little over a year now.
Maximillian Alvarez: Woo! Hell yeah. Well, Michelle, Harry, again, it’s really exciting to be here with both of you and just, yeah, let’s give it up one more time for the incredible victories of the Amazon Labor Union and the minor league baseball players.
So I’ve been doing this show for a number of years now and I’d love to just sit down one-on-one with different types of workers and different types of fields all over the country and even beyond, and I like to really just start by getting to know more about them, their backstories, how they came to be, the people they are, and the path that led them to doing the kind of work that they do, but since we’re here specifically to talk about workplace organizing, I wanted to do a version of that question but talking about you guys as organizers.
Now, I don’t want to make assumptions about either of you, but I have to imagine that most people don’t know from an early age that they want to be a labor organizer. I mean, maybe in this present company excluded, but most people maybe don’t know that from an early age, but I feel like when I talk to a lot of folks who have stepped into that role, they can look back at their lives and see experiences that they’ve had, struggles they’ve been through, skills they’ve picked up that have ended up helping them become good, caring, effective organizers today.
So I was wondering if we could start by talking a little bit about your organizer origin stories. I guess looking back, did you always know you wanted to do this, I don’t know, the work of mobilizing people or did you fall into that, and looking back, do you realize now that there were experiences that you had or traits about yourself that have really helped you as an organizer now? So I guess, Michelle, why don’t we start with you and then we’ll go to Harry.
Michelle Valentin Nieves: Sure. So I started with Amazon about four years ago. So my story is is that I was actually working previously at a very corporatey office. So I was doing administration work at a corporatey office. I was actually laid off from that company that I was with for three and a half, maybe four years. When I was laid off, it was pretty much devastating because I have a daughter, I have responsibilities with my family and my parents. So it was very devastating because I’ve never been laid off before, and it put me in a really bad place financially, mentally, all of those things.
When you’re laid off, you pretty much, they tell you, “Well, here’s your severance pay. Good luck.” You get on unemployment, which was another thing that I won’t get into right now, but I was pretty much looking for employment and I was getting to the point where I was just trying to get employment anywhere because I was having difficulty getting hired, and I decided to apply for Amazon.
When I first initially applied for Amazon, I had no idea what I was getting myself into because when you see the commercials and they have advertisements everywhere, all over social media, on TV, and then everything, everything looks just so cheerful and it’s about teamwork and, “Yeah, we offer great pay and benefits day one, and we do this and we do that and it’s awesome. Come join the team.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
So I started off as a packer and I started working overnights, which for me was pretty difficult because I had been working in an office. So I was used to working 9:00 to 5:00, having weekends off, and then I started working overnight.
What was going on was just really just crazy, but with my background, I have to say that … So I wasn’t born in New York, I was born in Puerto Rico and I came to New York in 1984. So the reason that we came to New York was because my parents couldn’t find employment in Puerto Rico. So they were pretty much desperate. So they decided, “Hey, let’s go to New York,” and with, I want to call it the migration of Puerto Ricans, they usually happened in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. So we were the last of the native born Puerto Ricans that are coming out and coming to New York.
So when I first came, I didn’t speak any English. So Spanish is actually my first spoken language, and now I don’t speak English or Spanish correctly. I just makes the both of them up as you can tell, but we ended up being homeless for the first few months because my parents just packed up whatever they had. Things were really bad in Puerto Rico. It was starvation type of situation. It was pretty bad.
So we ended up moving to East Harlem. My parents got a low income apartment in 1985, which was the beginning of Ronald Reagan and the cheese line, and I don’t know if anybody’s here from New York or if anybody was in New York in 1985 or the ’80s, but it was the cheese line, that’s what I remember growing up. So we moved to East Harlem and there was just a lot of stuff going on.
So when you’re brought up in some type of areas or specific areas, sometimes you’re just used to drama and certain type of environments. Then also, me, particularly in my case, I was a single, parent and with single mothers, sometimes we deal with a lot of abuse at work and we feel that we’re doing it for our kids. You know what I mean?
Even with my corporate job, I would keep pictures of my daughter here or there all over the cubicle, on the ceiling, in the floor, behind the keyboard, in front of the keyboard, over here, over there, and everything was Happy Mother’s Day and this, that, and the third to keep myself from exploding at work because of all of the crap that we have to constantly deal with at work. When you’re a parent, it completely changes everything because you’re responsible for another person. It’s not just about you anymore. I can’t just quit my job or get fired.
So with all of that being said, once I did get into Amazon because I was furloughed and all of that other stuff, I saw a lot of the abuse and the exploitation that was happening, but because of my situation, it was just like, “Okay, this is happening, but I have no idea what to do about it.”
So at that time, I made a lot of really good friends at work and I have really good coworkers or ex-coworkers, unfortunately at this point, and we were actually having organizing conversations at work before TCOEW, before AOU, and we didn’t even realize it. Now that I think back because now I’ve had so many organizing conversations, I’m like, “Wow, we were actually having organizing conversations about, ‘Hey, can you guess they gave me a writeup and I didn’t even know about it? I got a writeup two months ago and someone from human resources just told me that I had a writeup,'” but we were already having these organizing conversations.
I think pretty much there was just so much going on and the thought of a union wasn’t in anyone’s minds, but again, this is before COVID. So then when COVID hit, that’s pretty much like the stick that broke the horse’s back. That was like, “Okay. This is it. Now, the situation’s gotten out of control,” and that’s pretty much, for me personally, that was a turning point for me with the pandemic.
I then switched from overnights to day shift. When I switched to day shift is when I actually got put in the same department as Derrick Palmer, who is the vice president of the Amazon Labor Union, and that’s how I was recruited. So me and him ended up in the same department and he would come to my station every single day and he’d be like, “Hey, Michelle, how are you doing? How are you feeling today?” His very low voice, very calm, very cool and collected.
There was a situation where I was getting into a huge heated argument into a manager, which unfortunately was happening because by the time I met Derrick, I had already been in Amazon for three years. So I had already been to the point where I was just flipping out on everybody like, “Union or no union, you’re getting cursed out. Get the fuck out my face. I don’t want to talk to you. Get away from my station. Send me an email, call me, I don’t care. Just get out of my face.” I was at the point where I just … COVID, everything, I was just like, “Get out of my face.”
So he witnessed that. He came up to me. We went to the break room. We had some coffee. We sat down and that’s how I eventually ended up with the Amazon Labor Union. That’s how it happened.
Harry Marino: So I think my origin story would go back to the time that I played in the minor leagues. I played in 2012 and 2013 and 2014. The first year that I played in the minor leagues, I made $3,300 for the entire year. Coming into the system, I knew minor league players didn’t make what major league players made, but I had no idea that that was the situation, and I thought it was a joke, honestly, at first when people were like, “No, that that’s all you’re going to make. That’s it for the year.”
So immediately I was like, “This is not right. This isn’t fair. I knew how profitable the teams were,” but it really was interacting with teammates, and in particular, I was a relief pitcher and we would sit out in the bullpen, and the other six guys I played for team not too far from here in Aberdeen, Maryland, the Aberdeen IronBirds, and I was in the bullpen and there were six other guys in the bullpen with me, all of whom were from Latin America, and I was the only American player in the bullpen.
So I knew a little bit of Spanish and I learned a lot of Spanish that year talking to them and hearing the stories of guys who had dropped out of school at 10 years old to go into these academies down in the DR, signed at 16, were sending all of their paychecks home. Really, we would eat, pick them all up. We’d go to KFC every day on the way to the field, and just really that whole time realized this system is deeply broken.
After I played a few years in the minor leagues coming out of college, I had graduated from college before playing in the minor leagues, and at the time had really envisioned going to law school. So when I finished playing in the minor leagues, I did go to law school. Part of what I remember my law school admissions essay was about was trying to advocate for these players and using them more as an example of players in the minor leagues didn’t have a voice, and that’s the thing you could do as a lawyer I thought. Never really imagining that I would end up actually doing that exact thing.
Fast forward five, six, seven years later, whatever it was, in 2020, I was working at a law firm here in DC and I was sitting at my desk and I read an article on espn.com that this organization had formed called Advocates for Minor Leaguers. It was a handful of former players, Garrett Broshuis, Ty Kelly, Matt Paré, Raul Jacobson, a media specialist named Lisa Raphael, and then a longtime labor leader named Bill Fletcher Jr., who’s in the room today.
Maximillian Alvarez: Shout out to Bill.
Harry Marino: Shout out to Bill. I had known Garrett a little bit and I saw this and I was like, “Wow, this is amazing,” and I called him right away and I said, “What are you guys doing with this? What’s this about?”
He told me, “Hey, man. It’s been too long and we all know this is wrong and it’s got to change and we don’t know what this is going to be, but we’re going to try to do something about it.”
I said, “That’s amazing. I want to get involved.”
So I did. I left the law firm and I got involved with Advocates I guess late 2020, which was, I guess it’s only been a couple years. It feels like a lot longer than that, but every day since then, I’ve been really fortunate to work with really intelligent and compassionate people who really want to change this industry for the better, first at Advocates, and now since we’ve unionized the Major League Union, but really at the end of the day for me, what it’s all about is the players.
I mean, when I got into Advocates and I started talking to the players, hearing guys’ personal stories, forming the connection with players, talking to them about our shared experiences, and then being able to connect them with other players to talk about that shared experience and then to talk about how can we make that shared experience a little bit better, a little bit fairer, a little bit more just, I can’t personally get enough of that. I love that.
I’m a lawyer by training, but I can’t. Now that I’ve done, I just want to talk to the players. It’s like we have other people now who are supposed to be talking to the players. I’m always trying to take the calls away. One of them’s in the room, Brandon Withers. I’m like, “Let me talk to some of those players. I don’t want to do any of this bargaining stuff,” but no, that’s really the story of I think how I got into organizing and how I got there.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, I want to drill down on that for a quick second. Not to belabor the point, but before we talk about the practical challenges and strategies that y’all developed for effective organizing, I wanted to refresh all of our memories about the reasons why workers in these two industries, like so many workers around the country and around the world, felt the need to organize in the first place, right? Because I think that that can end up receding into the background when we talk about organizing.
I remember when I was reporting down in Bessemer, Alabama for The Real News Network about their attempt to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, it became a media spectacle that I wasn’t expecting, but suddenly I was like, “Oh, shit. ABC’s here. Who the fuck am I?” but it ended up getting very caught up in how many votes are there, how many votes are challenged, what is the union saying, what is Amazon saying, did they win, did they not, are they going to get a second chance.
What I started to get uncomfortable with was the fact that no one was talking about how win, lose or draw, they’re still getting exploited to hell, right? They’re still getting run into the ground. Their bodies are still breaking. They’re still walking four football fields’ worth to pick up orders and pack and ship stuff, right? So none of that went away.
So I wanted to ask you guys if you could talk a little bit about what the key issues or working conditions or personal issues that you were hearing from other people that became really central to people’s sense that as individuals, something needed to change and then their collective sense that unionization was the path to making that change happen.
Michelle Valentin Nieves: Okay. So I’m going to go back to I’d say about the middle of COVID. So with Amazon, the thing is is that a lot of the things that are happening inside of the facility people don’t know about because they’re very secretive and they’re very private. When you first get hired with them, you actually have to agree to … There’s a privacy form that you have to agree and sign to and all of that stuff because they’re so anal about their privacy.
So a lot of the stuff that’s happening in the facility people don’t know about, the average people don’t know about, and sometimes even the workers themselves don’t know about because the departments are very, very separated. Even though we’re all in the same building, if we’re not in the same department, I mean, we could be working at Amazon for two years and never have a conversation because we’re in two different departments. So I could be upstairs and you could be downstairs and we see each other maybe when we’re coming in and out of the building.
So there was a lot of stuff going on and things that go on, it depends on every single department. So with Amazon, there’s a lot of different types of people. So there’s people that don’t speak any English, so there’s people that have the language barrier. There’s a lot of exploitation in people that have disabilities. There’s people that are deaf, there’s people that are mute, there’s people that are in wheelchairs, and Amazon has this thing where they say that they hire anyone and they don’t discriminate, and they’re supposed to give you some type of an accommodation, but sometimes the accommodations don’t go through.
So there’s a lot of exploitation going on with people that are disabled. There’s people that have mental disabilities. Also, there’s huge population of women inside of Amazon. I do know that the Amazon Labor Union right now, the representation seems to be a bit male-dominated but it’s actually not because I’m actually the one telling everyone what to do, but I don’t do a lot of press and interviews and stuff like that. It’s just a personal choice of mine. This whole thing where the union is male-dominated is not true.
Anyway, just going back to women’s issues. So Amazon actually has one of the highest miscarriage rates in the companies and all over the world because the labor is so hard and so physically demanding and the hours are standing on your feet, that a lot of women that do come out pregnant when they’re employed at Amazon, they don’t even make it to full term, which is something that’s not talked about. There’s a lot of women that go into they’re giving birth early. So instead of full term at nine months, you’re giving birth at seven, eight months because of so much stress that’s going on.
Some women are being accommodated during the pregnancies, some are not. There’s women that have had their water break at work because of the stress and the constant having to walk and be on your feet. The restrooms are very far away. There’s a lot of sexual harassment happening inside of the facilities. This is another thing that no one really talks about, where the managers just have so much control and there’s so much favoritism that there’s a lot of women being sexually harassed. There’s a lot of women that report it, nothing’s being done about it. They just change the woman’s department.
So let’s say if I’m in a particular department and I have a problem with Max and I go to HR and I say, “Hey, I’m having a problem with Max. He’s sexually harassing me. He’s saying all of these inappropriate crazy things.” I come into work the next day and I’m changed to a whole another department that I’m not trained in, that I’ve never been in. So now, you’re separated from your coworkers, you’re separated from friends, from people that you’re used to working with for a long time. So it’s almost like blaming the woman for being harassed and punishing her for being harassed by the manager. Also, a lot of the managers in our particular facility, a lot of them are men. So the managers and the higher ups and stuff are also men. It’s very male-dominated within the facility as well.
So with that being said, with us, it was easy to organize, and I don’t want to say that it’s easy in the sense of physically because physically it wasn’t. It’s physically draining and it’s really hard, but as far as verbally and mentally, it was really easy for us to organize because as an organic worker, I’m able to really relate to a lot of … So it was really easy to have those conversations.
Amazon workers are actually really eager to speak at work because none of the managers ever speak to them. They only speak to them if they’re about to get fired or if they want to harass them or target them or whatever it is that they do in their creepy lives or their creepy time, but speaking to them and actually organizing and having the organizing conversations, for me, came really easy because we were already having those organizing conversations before we even decided that we were going to unionize and we were going to go through with everything. Just physically, it’s just not easy because we were doing everything on our breaks.
So on top of working 10 hours when we were supposed to be taking breaks, we weren’t taking breaks because we were organizing in our breaks because the lunchroom, we are protected by federal law and they can’t really harass us inside of the lunchroom. So that’s where a lot of the organizing conversations happens. We got a lot of food delivered like pizza, sandwiches, things of that nature, and that’s how we did it from the inside. It was pretty much just simple conversations, sharing good food, and just speaking to people about their traumas at work because a lot of people don’t speak about their trauma at work.
People feel that, “Well, I’m here, I’m getting a paycheck, and I’m paying my bills, so I should have to put up with all of this abuse and exploitation and this toxic environment,” where a lot of people are just not willing to talk about their trauma at work, and that part was a bit difficult because some people just don’t want to talk about it or they don’t want to admit that they’re traumatized from work. Some people find it embarrassing. Some people just don’t want to talk about it. So some conversations came pretty easy and then some of them, it was like pulling teeth pretty much. Then just the physical part was just very demanding for me personally, but yeah.
Harry Marino: So I mean, the issues that minor league players face, I mean, the primary one is pay at the end of the day. I mean, as I said, made $3,300 for a whole year. Guys are expected to go off and be world class professional athletes that cost a lot of money to train for that. So guys are going into debt often to play. I made $3,300. That was a little while ago. Things have gotten a little better, but I think last year, the average player was still making less than $12,000 a year.
Maximillian Alvarez: Was it the Protect the America Pastime Act?
Harry Marino: Save America’s Pastime Act?
Maximillian Alvarez: Save America’s Pastime Act, where the MLB was beseeching the federal government to let it pay less than minimum wage.
Harry Marino: Yeah, successfully. So yeah, in 2018, Congress passed the Save America’s Pastime Act, which is quite a perverse title for this legislation, which said that, basically, minor league players were exempt from the FLSA, so don’t have to pay minor league players minimum wage or overtime. So yeah, really, the pay was the biggest issue, but as everyone knows, there’s a lot of ancillary issues that come along with not being paid minimum wage. In our case, probably the biggest one was housing insecurity, also food insecurity, but the typical minor league player was living six or seven guys to a two-bedroom apartment, everyone on air mattresses just to try to make ends meet. That was the norm across the minor leagues forever.
So that was a huge issue for guys. I mean, not only just inhumane, also, how are you going to perform as a professional athlete living in those circumstances? Same thing as I said, KFC every day, McDonald’s, Taco Bell just to subsist because you didn’t have money to feed yourself properly. So those, really, those core issues were the main things that we organized around and the guys knew were really wrong and needed to change.
In our case, I think, I’m happy to go through the whole story of how we did it, but I think the thing that was unique is in professional sports, unions are the norm, right? There’s a players association. That’s a norm. Even in baseball itself, it’s the norm. The Major League Baseball Players Association has represented major league players since the 1960s.
By the way, major league players, before they were in the MLBPA, were treated basically as poorly as minor league players are treated now. They were working second jobs just to make ends meet. They were making $6,000 a year. I mean, which, okay, $6,000 in the ’60s isn’t $6,000 today, but still not a lot.
So players, I think, knew that a union could be the answer here, but the problem was every player wanted to make the major leagues and nobody wanted to rock the boat. So it was just this culture of fear, culture of silence that we were dealing with. It took the right group of players to say, “We’re going to risk our own careers and our own shot to make millions and get to the big leagues to better this industry going forward for this to happen.”
I was a former player at the time, so I wasn’t one of those people, but there were people, Karyn Lovegrove, Brandon, who’s in the room, other guys who stepped forward and said, “I’m going to get on board with this and I’m going to be a part of this even if that means I know I’m decreasing my chances of making it to the major leagues because if nobody ever does that, it’s still going to be the same situation in 50 years.”
I can’t give enough credit to those guys, honestly. It’s pretty inspiring just to be around them every day and see people who are willing to sacrifice like that, knowing that they’re not going to be the ones who really reap the benefits, honestly. The system isn’t going to change and they’re really just taking the risk and not going to see the rewards, but they’re doing it because they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s very, very cool to be a part of.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean, that’s such an incredibly important and brave thing to do as you said, right? Because that’s how they keep us in place, right? That’s how they keep us in line. Minor leaguers in that regard aren’t all that different from adjunct faculty in higher education or freelance musicians trying to make it into the industry or interns, right? So many different types of jobs exploit the crap out of you and treat you like shit, but you accept it because of the promise of some future payoff, right?
Even if you are sleeping on an air mattress next to three other guys, eating KFC every morning, the hope of making it, and not just making it so you can be rich, but I mean, you’ve devoted your life to this. It’s not a bad thing to want that. It’s not a bad thing to want to reach the heights of the thing you love doing most or to achieve more in your profession, but they weaponize that against us.
I think that it’s so interesting hearing you guys talk across what seemed like so wildly different industries that the same thing that I realize every week when I talk to different workers at dollar stores, at Starbucks, in manufacturing, in higher education. I think that probably the most common thing that I hear from folks is that getting over that mental conditioning that we get in this country that convinces us that we don’t deserve better than this, right? If we complain, we’re just being troublemakers, we’re being ungrateful. We should count ourselves lucky just to have the job.
In many ways, the biggest obstacle to organizing is breaking that ideological crust that gets set around our brains from just living and working in this damn country, but I think that that’s why the conversations you guys are talking about, that face-to-face interaction, just being there, being a presence, checking in on people is so important.
I was going to break this up into two questions, but I want to leave time for Q&A, so I’m going to smoosh them together, but I wanted to ask you guys if you could talk a bit more about … You already started talking about this, Michelle, but talk about the no shortcut side to organizing, the kind of things where you just got to roll up your sleeves, you got to keep showing up, you got to have the conversations. There’s no way to speed through them, right? So what are some of those aspects of the day-to-day interpersonal side of organizing that you think maybe the public doesn’t see? Then also, what do things like Action Builder, what can digital tools like Action Builder offer organizers like yourselves to ramp that process up?
Michelle Valentin Nieves: Okay. As far as the organizing, it’s a lot of conversations, a lot of conversations and then different types of conversations, and also with dealing with people that are anti-union leaders. There’s a lot of people that don’t want to be unionized, and there’s a lot of people that just don’t agree with wanting to unionize, and those people were pretty difficult because you have to stand there and try to figure it out and see, and then the conversation would station would just go on and on. So you would just try to pinpoint what’s their issue at work. So they don’t want a union, but everyone has an issue at work.
So it was almost like, I don’t want to say like a therapy session, but it was a therapy session pretty much. “What’s your issues at work? Does it bother you that you’re making the amount of money that you’re making, you’re not making a living wage, you have a second job? Is that what’s bothering you? You don’t have any paid sick leave. Is that what’s bothering you? What exactly is it? The way your manager treats you? Were you injured?” So you have to try to figure out how you can start the conversation and start the icebreaker and it’s just a lot of conversations. You have to show up. A lot of coffee.
With that being said, with us, there was a lot of papers going on and a lot of literature going on. So the literature was good for the most part, but then sometimes things will get lost in translation and that’s where Action Builder comes into play because sometimes I would be able to get somebody’s cellphone number really quickly, and this is when we were actively organizing and trying to get people to come to meetings, trying to get people to call us or we could call them, and sometimes I will put the wrong phone number in or sometimes the conversation would just go on and on and on and we didn’t even get the phone number at all or we got the wrong email address or something like that.
When Action Builder came, it was so much more easier because we didn’t have these. Before, we had a paper list. We were doing a paper list in the break room, which is so old fashioned. Even me, I thought that was just so old fashioned because if the paper gets lost or whatever the case may be, that’s it. The information’s gone, but with Action Builder, it was like we could put it into Action Builder and we could have it there forever and then we could just add notes.
If we have an anti-union leader, we know that this is an anti-union leader. We can identify what department they’re in. So let’s say if there’s an anti-union leader in Pack Singles or whatever department you’re in, “Okay. We’re going to have Michelle and Derrick try to talk to this anti-union leader that we have in Pack Singles,” and we were able to keep track of that. We were also able to keep track of when we were flipping these anti-union leaders, which was really important. So we will be able to notate it, “Well, this person went from being an anti-union leader to a supporter,” or, “This person went from being a supporter to an actual organizer and a leader.”
So we were actually able to sit down calmly and go through this. It was so much more easier for us because everything for us was just so frantic that we we’re just lugging around boxes with papers and we were just all over the place. So it was a really good tool for us to get organized and be able to sit down and see what was being done, who is now supporting of the union, what departments needed help because we were able to see it by department by department also.
So let’s say, well, overnights, we don’t have any support in overnight, but we have support in day shift. So then we would get in contact with our organizers or our leaders in overnights and say, “Hey, guys. Can you speak to anyone?” or, “Do you have someone in this particular department?” and start reaching out to people there.
Me personally, as far as women, because I want this union to be very woman-orientated, in our facility, almost half of the building are women and they’re working mothers. So there has to be a representation for these workers because the union is a representation of the workers, right? So with me, what I’m doing right now is one of my projects right now is forming a women’s committee, and with Action Builder I’m able to do that because I’m able to find out, I go by first name like Samantha, Rebecca, Chasity. So I’m able to just go through Action Builder and see, “Well, this is a woman, this is a woman,” and I’m just able to reach out and call them.
I actually have a meeting set up for next week with about, I believe, 14 women from JFK8 and I was able to do that through Action Builder because it’s so difficult to speak to women inside of the building. Women, for me personally, have been very, very hard to recruit because a lot are working mothers and they don’t want anything to get in the way of their employment because of their children.
So with that being said, it’s been extremely difficult. I’ve been trying to do it for almost two months now. So hopefully, we had a meeting set up last week, but there was babysitter issues and then some of the kids were not feeling well, they’re coming down with the flu. So I’m using Action Builder for that and that’s been very, very helpful. We’ve also set up a children’s room inside of our union hall so that when the kids are from school or when they want to come on their days off, they can bring the children with them, and that way, we’re able to bring more women on board because I want this union to have more women because, unfortunately, a lot of established unions are very, very male-dominated like everything else, and I really, really want it to be a really good representation of women, of all types of people, whatever you want to identify as. I just want it to be as inclusive as possible, and Action Builder has helped me very much with that project.
Harry Marino: So it’s interesting listening because I think as different as these situations are in some ways, they’re really similar in a lot of other ways and that’s probably true of a lot of organizing scenarios. I’m happy to walk through the process that we took to get from point A to point B, but I won’t bury the lead. Action Builder figures very prominently in it, and we really wouldn’t have been able to organize 5,500 baseball players with only six organizers without Action Builder. I mean, that’s just a fact.
Really, I mean, our journey started back in 2020 with a couple of, well, I guess actually in 2020 it was just volunteer work from the folks at Advocates, from Bill and others who in 2020 the minor league season was canceled, so players were not going to get any paychecks and we started agitating around that, pressuring through social media for teams to start just pay some stipends to guys so that they could make ends meet during the pandemic.
It wasn’t until early 2021 when we had a couple of grants from the Ford Foundation and from the Major League Union that Bill and the others were able to hire me, and then Kevin Slack was also in the room today and some other folks to actually come on full-time and start the work of organizing.
Really, our organizing started around the issue of housing that I had talked about earlier, where we knew guys had these housing issues and we knew basically everyone was facing it across the board. That’s really what we started. I mean, I just sat there on Instagram and we knew you got to find players where they are and all the minor league players are on Instagram. So I literally would just sit up all night. My wife thought I was insane, which she’s not wrong, and just send Instagram messages to guys about, “What’s your housing situation?” and then just start talking to them about it.
Literally, that’s how it started. As people have done this work now, 95% of the guys ignored the message, but 5% responded. Then some percentage of those guys I’d say we’d go back and forth for a while, I’d say, “Give me a call,” and then they would call and then you just build off that and then, “Hey, why don’t you put me in touch with a teammate who might be interested?”
So really, this was 2021. We were focused on that kind of outreach through the whole season. I think sent way more than half of minor leaguers this message, 3,000, 4,000 guys and got a decent amount of responses. We were able to use social media to our advantage, and a lot of credit for this goes to Kevin. We were able to take players’ stories and then put it on our Twitter account and get it out there.
We found out that a lot of baseball fans really didn’t know that minor league players were living like this and were outraged by it and were particularly mad at their team. So they were like, “I’m paying money to this team, I’m going to games, I’m doing this. Why are they doing this? It’s not right.” So that public pressure, it had a reinforcing dynamic where then players were able to see that other people cared and then it was easier to get responses.
In September of 2021, we had a really agitated group of players with the New York Mets that decided to stage basically a demonstration on the field during a game. We gave them these wristbands that said Fair ball and put together a statement saying, “This is what we’re asking for.” One of the benefits of being in sports is it’s pretty easy to get media coverage and this blew up. Within a few days, the league actually voted to just give players free housing going forward, which was awesome.
Looking back, they were probably just trying to appease us and say, “All right, go away now.” It’s definitely what they were trying to do, but it actually had the exact opposite effect, which is then players were like, “Oh, we can actually make things change. We should keep doing this.”
So really, at that point, the major league players through the Major League Union gave us a little more financial support. We brought on an experienced organizer named Andrew Tripp. Yup, there we go. We got a shout out for Tripp, well-deserved. We really started thinking about how do we actually organize these guys in a real way.
The traditional conventional wisdom was it’s impossible to do. There’s 5,500 workers. They all want to make the major leagues. There’s a huge language barrier. Nearly half of the players are from outside the country. It’s just not going to happen. We said, “Well, maybe it will. Let’s find out.” So at that point, we really started doing more phone calls with guys, then Instagram outreach, and from there built in organizing committee. We called it the Player Steering Committee. We would just do a weekly Zoom call, and before you knew it, there was more and more guys on each week.
Then spring, this past spring, Kevin and I and Andrew for part of it, and another former player who was on staff named Kiran went around to all 30 of the different teams’ spring training complexes and did meetings with guys in-person, which was the only time really that we ever … We saw these guys once in-person. It was helpful to do that just because it’s easier to build trust in-person, but really, this was a digital organizing effort at its core, and that was thanks to Action Builder because right around that time, we came out of the spring training tour, we suddenly had a lot of players involved and it was impossible at that point to manage the number of players with who we had on staff.
I remember Bill and Andrew both saying, “We need to have some digital organizing database. We have to do that.” You can’t be using this Google sheet, right? It was ridiculous, right? So I think it was Bill introduced me to Mark Fleischman, and Mark immediately was like, “Anything we could do to help, we’re here. We’ll help you. We want the tools to work for you. Talk to me about what the situation is and how do we make this work.” He connected me with Christian Norton at Concerted Action, who knows the tools really well and was extremely helpful throughout the process.
From there, we basically ran a couple of tests. We did a spring training pay petition. We did a platform-issued survey. I think sometimes the guys were like, “Why are we doing this? Let’s just unionize,” but we really wanted to … There were a couple reasons. One, we knew we ultimately wanted to give guys the best chance to be a part of the Major League Union, the MLBPA, because it had and has such power in this industry. The other is we didn’t want to do this and fail. We wanted these guys to succeed. So we were a little bit patient and we ran these tests and we knew we had good support.
At some point throughout this, I had been in pretty close contact with Tony Clark and Ian Penny at the Major League Union. Ian and another lawyer at the PA named Hiram had been talking for a while about this idea of a shock and awe campaign, where we would just send out electronic cards and get guys to sign overnight, and the league wouldn’t know what hit them. It sounded crazy at the time and it was crazy, but it actually, yeah, Kevin’s laughing because we sat through this in August. The major league players voted to say, “Yes, let’s bring these guys in and let’s support this and let’s send out the cards.”
So we were there in the office in New York and we had every player. We got, I don’t know how many, I think we had nearly 5,000 players’ phone numbers that we had gotten through our leaders and we had an electronic card and we sent it out. I mean, literally, they just came flooding back in because our leaders were set up all over in every … We had leaders in every clubhouse, English speaking and Spanish speaking, and they said, “This is it. It’s happening now. Sign right now before the league knows what hit them. We can’t have any anti-union campaign here.”
Literally within, I don’t know, 72 hours, we had the support we needed and we went to the league pretty shortly thereafter and asked for voluntary recognition. I think just the level of support was so overwhelming and so fast and they were so taken by surprise that they voluntarily recognized the union and now we’re bargaining with them.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I feel like Bernie Sanders. When Rob Manfred, my good friend Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner, said, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to voluntarily recognize,” I was like, “Oh, they must have got a lot of cards signed,” right? They must be keeping track. They must have some receipts that made Rob shit his pants. So just by way of quickly wrapping up because I want us to get to Q&A. You guys have been so incredible and this is such an honor to talk about this with y’all. I just wanted to ask by way of rounding out, since this will be on the podcast feed, for any people, working people out there in their own jobs, maybe they’re in the service industry, maybe they do home healthcare, but anyone who turns this on and hears you both, I guess after this year of intense struggle for Amazon workers, minor leaguers, there are a thousand coal miners in Deep Red Alabama who’ve been on strike for over 600 days. Please don’t forget about them.
Maximillian Alvarez: Shout out. Starbucks workers who have also been waging their own historic campaign and are facing a brutal scorched earth, blatant and illegal corporate crime wave, a union busting campaign from Starbucks for which they need to be held accountable. A lot has happened this year, and we want to keep this momentum going. We need to keep this momentum going. So for anyone who turns this on and hears you, I guess, do you have any messages for folks in their workplaces about why they should do this and how doable it actually is?
Michelle Valentin Nieves: Well, my message is that it is doable. Everyone should do it because you should care about your coworkers. That’s one of the reasons why I got involved in the first place. Not only was I going through a lot of bullshit at work, but a lot of my coworkers that I had worked with for two, three years I saw being wrongfully terminated. A lot of people were injured at work. So that’s one of the other reasons why I got involved was caring about my coworkers.
If you’re already having the organizing conversations at work, which is things like you feel like you’re not being paid enough, you feel like there’s just too much work or things that are happening that are unfair, favoritism, you’re not being heard, there isn’t transparency with your employer, things of that nature, I think that everyone should just collectively get together and show solidarity as far as coworkers.
This should be for all jobs. It’s not fair that some people feel that they have a right to a union and some others don’t because maybe they don’t have the education or they don’t have the background or there’s a language barrier. I think that everyone should be able to have a union at work and it should always be a union of your coworkers so that it’s fair, and just try to have just the basic organizing conversations and just stay focused and just work on your friendships at work because friendships at work really matter.
Everyone spends a lot of time at work, and as much as you try to avoid it, you just can’t. You’re spending an average of 30 to 40, sometimes over 40 hours with a group of people. So it’s really, really important to develop these friendships at work so that you have that support or if you have an abusive manager or an abusive boss, you guys are able to band together and stick up for each other because that’s what unions are. It’s just collective power.
If one person goes, “Pretty much nothing’s going to be done about it,” but if you have a department of 500 people and all 500 of your coworkers show up to back you up, something’s going to be done about it. That’s just pretty much it or just have that type of relationship so that you’re able to go on strike if you need to go on strike and have those type of conversations and just be able to be on the same page, but it should be done I think in every single workplace for everyone, fast food workers, nail techs, strippers, everyone, bartenders. It shouldn’t just be, well, some people have unions and some people have good jobs and some people have security. It should be like that for everyone. Everyone should be able to unionize if they want to.
Harry Marino: Yeah, I mean, look, I would echo 100% of that. I completely agree. I think the message I would give is that don’t underestimate your own power. At the end of the day, you can do it. I would also encourage people, be the leader in your workplace, right? Some people are waiting to be led, people are waiting to jump in on something like that. It’s hard to be the first person, but we saw it in our campaign that it was, “Oh, this could never happen. There’s no support out there,” to thousands of guys signing cards within 72 hours.
Ultimately, that support was there and that solidarity was there. It was just waiting to be unleashed and the power absolutely was there. I think that’s something that is not just true in baseball or Amazon. It’s true everywhere. At the end of the day, the workers have, in any industry, have a tremendous amount of power.
To your point earlier, the greatest trick that the employer plays is making you think that you don’t have that power. I think really, if there’s one thing that people should realize, it’s you do have the power, you can accomplish this. Some people are going to have to jump in first and take the lead, but if that happens, I think it can be done anywhere.
Maximillian Alvarez: Let’s give it up. Give it up for Harry and Michelle. Oh, yeah, I’m fired up. Okay. So well, thank you all so much for listening to us. Gab, I hope that was as fun for you as it was for me. I want to get to Q&A because I’m sure you got a lot of great thoughts and comments brewing. I did just want to offer a quick disclaimer. Obviously, we’re all watching news unfold, but everyone in this room probably knows that things are very delicate when bargaining is ongoing. So I want to ask all of us to … I’m not going to ask Michelle and Harry to comment on ongoing bargaining and would ask folks not to either.
Johnny Walker: My name’s Johnny Walker, Local 610, Smart Transportation Division, Railroad Division. I just want to applaud you all for standing up. Brother, with the minor leaguers and such like that, that’s my path I’m going on now. I’m going back to school. I’m going to get my law degree so I can start fighting in their fields because we can’t, as laborer, fight our way because they look down on us. They always look down on us when we seem to have no education. They seem that they think we’re not smart or anything like that. We have a lot of smart people out there going ahead and stepping foot onto a factory floor or to an Amazon floor or something like that and taking the time to go ahead and organize your workers and talk to them and see what’s going on. We’re some of the smartest people in the world.
We might not be that economically smart like they all have and going away and giving us the raw deal, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re some of the smartest people that are out there and we’re running their companies. As soon as we walk off, they’re all crying that we can’t go ahead and do things. So I, again, applaud all of y’all for standing up for what’s right, standing up for your people and taking one for the team sometimes because that’s the way that we’re all going to go ahead and be able to organize. So thank you once again.
Maximillian Alvarez: I mean, while we’re on the subject, I just wanted to give a shout out to you, brother, and a shout out to all of our railroad workers. I’m sure we’ve all been following the saga going on there. They deserve so much better than this crap. We cannot forget about them. We did not avert a crisis by having Scab Joe tell the rail unions that they can’t go on strike. As railroad workers have been telling me all year on this podcast, at The Real News and Beyond, the crisis is already here, and workers are bearing the brunt of it. Workers are the ones who are on call 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They’re the ones who are dying on the job because they can’t go to their doctor’s appointment because they don’t have a single day of paid sick leave, right? They are the ones who are doing more work with fewer people because billionaires like Warren fucking Buffett want to keep chopping down their operating costs and keep raking in more money through stock buybacks and shareholder dividends.
The government is clearly not going to do anything about this. So I would just implore everyone to please stand with railroad workers, support groups like Railroad Workers United, keep building cross craft solidarity and solidarity between railroad workers, Amazon workers, Starbucks workers because the more of us there are together, the more pressure we can put on these companies to do the right thing because, clearly, Congress and Biden will not. So thank you for speaking up, brother.
Bill Fletcher: Yeah. So my name is Bill Fletcher. I want to thank Action Builder. I want to thank Max for doing this, doing the interview. I wanted just a couple of things. One is I want to recognize Kevin Slack, who was also central to our team in Advocates for Minor leaguers who’s here. I also wanted to just say that Harry is someone you never want to go up against. He is absolutely relentless. He was our George Patton. He just kept moving and really led and kicking the ass to the other side. I want to thank you publicly, Harry, for that. I want to ask you a question. If you could say to folks, “We were told organizing minor leagues was impossible. There was almost no one that said it was possible. We were also told that minor leagues were not interested in an adversarial relationship with the MLB. What changed?
So first of all, thanks, Bill. Bill and Garrett and the folks who started this organization, as I said, I was sitting in a law firm and I read the article, they had a vision that this could be done that really nobody else had, and they deserve a ton of credit for that. I think the reality is that I think minor league players always were prepared to have an adversarial relationship with the league. I think that they were always ready to do this in some way. I think that, look, we can look and we can see there were a lot of different conditions that came together in terms of why this happened when it happened, but to the earlier point I made, I mean, in my opinion, the power was always there and the desire to be treated better was always there, and the knowledge that the league was treating us and the current players unfairly was always there. Ultimately, guys just needed something to be a part of. I think that’s really what we were able to give them was something to be a part of to say this can actually happen, and once that happened, it was off to the races.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, can I piggyback on Bill’s great question for Michelle because it sounded like you were saying that, like the minor leagues, it’s not as if people didn’t know there were bad things happening on the job, right? It’s like they either just accepted it or they just tried to keep their head down. Amazon’s attrition rate is 150%, so chances are you’re not going to be there by the end of the year anyway, but you mentioned that COVID was really when things changed. Could you say a little more about, in Bill’s words, what changed with COVID?
Michelle Valentin Nieves: Well, what changed with COVID was is that in the very beginning, there wasn’t any PPE and there wasn’t any communication. So when you went inside of the facility, it’s like COVID didn’t even exist. I believe, I could be wrong, but I believe Amazon made about 20, I think it was 27 trillion, if I’m correct. I could be wrong on the number though, but they made a hell of a lot of money during COVID in other words.
So with COVID, we watched people catch COVID and get sick. There was some workers in my facility that passed away. Everyone was just, the ABM workers, which is the people that clean up the buildings and cleaned the restrooms, they were also coming down with COVID. There wasn’t any communication. So when we went outside of the facility and we watched the news, everyone was in a panic over COVID, and then once when you went inside of the facility, it was like no big deal. So there wasn’t any PPE, and it was just pretty hard.
So with this, I want to bring up a worker that her name was Pushaun Brown, and Pushaun Brown, she was a single mother and she worked for Amazon for about four years. So she loved working at Amazon. She was just a really good employee. She loved the job. What happened was is that they had her actually testing other coworkers inside of her facility for COVID without any PPE. So Pushaun Brown was an Amazon worker. She didn’t have any medical training. She didn’t have any medical background. She wasn’t aware of what exactly COVID was and how her life was at risk. Nothing was communicated to her.
So instead of Amazon, with the tons of money that they have, actually bringing in a team of medical people to actually test people inside of the facility for COVID, they had other Amazon employees testing other Amazon employees for COVID. So she caught COVID, and she died. I believe she died within four to five days. She was found by a family member at home. I’m just bringing up Pushaun Brown because that’s just one of the stories that nobody really knows about because Amazon has a way of just squashing these stories and just silencing it so that no one really knows what’s going on.
Her sister, Christina, went and tried to reach out to Amazon and she tried to do some things on her end as far as legally. I don’t want to get into that too much because it’s a legal thing, but apparently, Amazon gave her two therapy sessions with a psychiatrist. So Amazon did not help for the funeral cost. They did not help with the burial. She had to pay for everything on her own. Also, Pushaun Brown was a single mother. So at the time, her daughter was, what, 10 years old, and her mother was also very ill. So her sister Christina had to take care of Pushaun’s daughter, and she had to pay for the funeral and all of those expenses and take care of her sick mom. She also has children of her own.
So I just wanted to bring up the Pushaun Brown story just to put that out there, that that’s how bad it was, that they actually were just doing these horrific things and then no one knew about it. Even I didn’t know about Pushaun Brown. I found out about Pushaun Brown when I got involved with the union, and I was so freaking pissed off because I was just like, “What the fuck is … What is this?” It just blows my mind. So I just wanted to bring that up and say that that’s one of the reasons why COVID was just something that really brought the union out for Amazon.
Maximillian Alvarez: Again, while all of that horrifying shit is happening, just like brothers and sisters on the railroads dying from heart attacks on the job while their parent companies rake in record profits, I’m looking at Amazon’s gross profits and it’s just line going up like that. For annual gross profit for 2020, 152 billion, in the following year, 197 billion, the following year, 216 billion. So it just keeps going up on the backs of people like Michelle and her coworkers. Any other questions?
Speaker 7: Hey, but no, I just want to piggyback off of that one, Harry. I actually worked with a bunch of more than baseball guys over there, and I know that healthcare was a huge issue pre-COVID. So organizing during the lockdown, COVID was a huge impediment, but I’m wondering, was it actually an incentive for your effort as well?
Harry Marino: Yeah, look, I think COVID … So what happened with minor league players during COVID is the season got … They basically got called in one day and they said, “Go home and you’re not going to get paid,” and guys didn’t know what was going on. They told them, “Go train and stay ready.” I think that that experience in a lot of different ways showed guys … It broke the routine of this is just what happens, and this is how it is, and showed guys just how powerless they were in this system that while major league players were at the table negotiating with the league over, “How are we going to return to play during COVID and what are the protocols going to be and how much are we going to get paid and how is this going to impact everything and how’s our health going to be taken care of?” minor league players were literally just sitting at home calling anyone who would take their call to try to figure out what’s going on. So I think that that was a huge element.
Then the other thing that happened with minor league players was the contraction of 42 minor league teams, where MLB basically took over the minor leagues and just eliminated a thousand jobs, and that happened around the same time. So I think those two things as well just crystallized how powerless players were and kept it front of mind here in the last little bit.
Speaker 8: Okay. Great. Thank you all. Let’s give a round of applause to our panelists.
Just a couple things. So there are new appetizers out. If you only had the Brussels sprouts and the sandwich, I’m sorry, but there’s more food now, okay? So that was planned. That was planned. Also, we are workers. A lot of us are unionized. We understand that. So Faith, who has been our solo server for the night, if you have any extra cash, please give her a tip. She is a gig worker. So just also want to name that, but also, thank you all for coming to the Action Builder, sorry, live podcast, and thank you all. We’ll just do the next hour because the real organizing happens when we talk to each other. So the next hour, we’ll just be drinking, eating, and getting to know each other. So thank you all.