Labor unions have always meant something special to Stacey Cowsette.
He remembers his younger days when his dad, a steel worker, went on strike in Illinois and how union members banded together during negotiations for better wages and safer working conditions.
The union label was still stamped in Cowsette’s consciousness when he worked at UPS seven years ago. In April 2021, he was hired as a dock worker at Amazon’s St. Peters location. He knew the job was nonunion, but he figured he’d train for other positions and perhaps earn more money.
Just a few months into the job, Cowsette said he learned that Amazon workers who are “cross-trained” aren’t paid anything extra. He was also told there was a cap on raises so no matter what position he worked, there would be no bump in his pay of $18.96 an hour.
Cowsette said he also found the company’s break policies unfair. It’s difficult, he stressed, standing for more than 12 hours with only two breaks per day.
When his fellow coworkers started talking about organizing a union, the demands resonated with Cowsette. Then, eight months after he started, the unimaginable happened.
An EF-3 tornado hit Amazon’s Edwardsville facility tearing off the roof, collapsing exterior walls and killing six people. The tragedy brought attention to codes that govern the construction and use of large, delicately engineered storm shelters in warehouses and employee safety.
Just weeks after the calamity, Congresswoman Cori Bush and more than a dozen fellow Democrats, including Sen. Elisabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, penned a letter demanding answers from Amazon.
In a Tweet, Bush bluntly said the company's greed killed the workers at the warehouse. Addressing what she defined as Amazon’s “anti-worker policies,” Bush publicly stated: “People are worth more than profits and Amazon’s profits should never come at the cost of people's lives, their safety, or their health.”
Echoing the intent of the letter signed by her Democratic colleagues, Bush added: “Amazon’s got to unionize.”
Almost a year later in Nov. 2022, Cowsette joined the two dozen or so Amazon workers who walked out of its St. Peters facility. They were joined by another 100 people from multiple local unions. Together, they called for higher wages and better working conditions.
Cowsette was interviewed by a couple of local TV news stations.
“We needed to walk out a long time ago because we’re individuals, we’re people, we’re not machines,” he said in response to a KMOV news reporter’s question.
The timing of the walk-out was not accidental. In recent years, Black Friday hours start as early as Thanksgiving evening. Amazon workers, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, had to sign mandatory 50-hour work week requirements. Not only are they expected to work mandatory overtime, but workers also said they are expected to sacrifice their own time with their families during the holidays.
The Missouri Workers Center, a self-described group “comprised of low-wage workers dedicated to fighting racism and winning economic justice for workers” organized the walk-out. The organizing committee of Amazon St. Peters Fulfillment Center #8 call themselves “STL8.”
The STL8 protestors delivered a petition to management with demands including a $10 per hour raise, safer working conditions, accommodations for workplace injuries and the right to form a union without retaliation.
More than 3,000 people work at the 855,000-square-foot facility in St. Peters. Speaking to the Post-Dispatch, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel defined the walk-out as a “small protest,” adding that more than 95% of the facility’s employees continued to work.
Stefano Perego, vice president of customer fulfilment, and global ops services for North America and Europe at Amazon told CNBC the company is “not concerned” with union efforts in America and overseas.
“As long as we offer competitive pay invaluable benefits, we don’t think that our people will choose to be represented, but this is their choice,” Perego said.
Cowsette, as part of the STL8 Amazon Workers Organizing Committee, hopes to lure more employees and the public into its unionization efforts. To that end, they are taking part in an unusual unionizing event.
On May 19 and 20, Cowsette will be one of the Amazon performers participating in the “2023 Workers’ Opera: Blue Light Special.” It’s presented by the nonprofit Bread and Roses.in solidarity with the Missouri Workers Center and the STL8 Amazon Workers Organizing Committee.
Emily Kohring, director of Bread and Roses, said the organization has a long history of using art and culture “to elevate the stories of working-class people and the struggles of the labor movement.”
She said the term “opera” is used loosely. The play, written by playwright and former Amazon worker, Mariah Richardson, includes spoken word, comedy, gospel, theater and music. All these elements, Kohring said, come out of the tradition of the labor movement.
Summarizing the opera, Kohring said the story follows a group of Amazon workers and organizers who are trying to get the workers to join the fight to form a union. A major character in the play is resistant to the idea. For various reasons, including getting fired and losing her health benefits, she doesn’t want to unionize…at first. Slowly but surely, through a series of unfortunate realities, the protagonist comes to realize that the fight for unionization is well worth it.
There are basic outcomes, Kohring said she expects from the opera.
“We want to raise awareness about what workers are facing not just at Amazon but many different workplaces like Starbucks where billionaires are trying to convince everyone that they’re a big family that treats workers well when they have legitimate issues around safety and compensation.
“We all should be paying attention, whether we’re in a union or not,” Kohring said, adding: “I hope people leave (the opera) with a new understanding of why the struggle is important and find ways to support the workers.”
Cowsette has been singing since the age of seven. Although it started as a “family thing” at church when he was younger, he’s been a part of several local singing groups over the years and is a regular at local karaoke venues.
He said he’ll be singing “uplifting spiritual songs” in the “Workers’ Opera” and looks forward to a packed house. He commiserates with the central character’s fear of unionizing. His wife, he said, and several coworkers have expressed fears of losing their jobs or being targeted by management who seems to have doubled down on union-busting and ignoring workers complaints.
But, Cowsette explained-as a two-time black belt karate aficionado who won several championships-“I don’t scare or give up too easily.”
According to Forbes, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, one the richest people in the world, has a 2023 net worth of $114 billion. That alone, Cowsette said, is a reason for unionizing and garnering community support.
“They make too much money to treat the employees the way they do.”
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