Meet the union leaders powering a wave of organizing at Amazon, Starbucks, Target, and more
Derrick Palmer's campaign base was a Staten Island bus stop.
For nearly a year, he would pitch up at the stop day and night with two tables and a tent, along with other leaders of the Amazon Labor Union.
They held bonfires, toasted marshmallows, and waited up at 4 a.m. with breakfast sandwiches to catch workers coming off the night shift nearby at JFK8, Amazon's main New York distribution center, where Palmer works as a packer, and encourage them to sign up to support a trade union.
On windy winter nights, the tent would often blow away.
Their efforts were rewarded in April this year when JFK8, which has more than 8,000 workers, became the first and only Amazon warehouse in the US to unionize following a vote — the process to formally establish a union by showing enough workers support it.
This year has seen a wave of union activism after decades of declining membership.
Union-representation petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board jumped almost 60% in the nine months that ended in June. A Gallup poll last year found support for unions to be at its highest since the '60s.
But the ordinary people leading this workers-rights revival have their work cut out.
American corporations often fiercely resist union efforts. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute estimated that US companies spend nearly $340 million a year on "union avoidance" consultants, and illegal firings are alleged to happen in up to 30% of union-election campaigns.
Insider spoke with people organizing workers at Amazon, Trader Joe's, Target, Wells Fargo, and Starbucks, in conversations spread over several weeks, about what drives them to try to unionise in America today. Some have had their unions recognised, others are still campaigning.
Derrick Palmer, Amazon, New York
Derrick Palmer and his best friend led a strike at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse in March 2020 in protest at the company's safety measures after a worker contracted COVID-19.
His friend, Chris Smalls, was fired after the strike, though he remains the president of the Amazon Labor Union they then founded together. (Amazon says it fired Smalls for violating its quarantine policy. Smalls disputes this.)
But Palmer, who is now 33, kept his job.
He told Insider he felt no sense of direction before unionizing, going through a string of temporary warehouse roles before he joined Amazon.
"I've been in their shoes," he says of finding purpose in supporting his Amazon colleagues. "I know what it's like to be unmotivated — I know what it's like to not be taken seriously."
Palmer told Insider the union started small, with money from a GoFundMe page.
He said he spent up to eight hours a day, on top of his 40-hour workweek, working on the campaign ahead of the vote.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights," he said, later adding: "We were building a community, and I felt like the last thing we wanted to do was let them down."
An Amazon representative told Insider that "it's important that everyone understands the facts about joining a union and the election process itself."
Amazon has since tried to overturn the vote with objections, including taking issue with organizers' handing out marijuana during campaigning. The Amazon representative said the company has filed evidence that the ALU "improperly suppressed and influenced the vote."
Palmer said he believed the company was monitoring his actions and tweets. But "fear is the last thing on my mind," he told Insider.
The union is trying to secure a contract with Amazon to bargain for things like higher wages, increased job security, and cutting back on mandatory overtime.
Tensions are said to be high at the warehouse, and the two sides have yet to engage. No other Amazon centers have unionized despite efforts around the US.
But for the organizers, it's still a time to celebrate. Palmer's co-leader, Smalls, met President Joe Biden in May at an event where the president called him "my kind of trouble."
Palmer's mother raised him by herself. He says he's changed a lot since childhood. "I was a very small kid, very soft-spoken. I used to walk with my head down. I didn't have the confidence that I do now," he said.
"I feel like that relates to Amazon workers now.
"It's like I'm talking to my old self saying, 'You've got to keep your head up, you've got to fight back, you've got to stand your ground.
'You've got to let your presence be known.'"
Adam Ryan, Target, Virginia
"I've always had the itch to organize" Adam Ryan told Insider. "If I'm not doing it, I don't feel okay about myself."
Ryan started working at Target because of a rumor he heard in a trailer park.
He was asking the park's residents about housing issues as part of a workers-rights campaign when one told him about a manager at Target who was widely accused of abusive behavior, including sexual harassment.
He got a job at the store in his hometown of Christiansburg, Virginia, in 2017 with the goal of forcing the manager out. Four months later, he organized a strike that he says triggered an internal investigation into the claims. The accused manager was later fired.
Ryan, 34, is a serial campaigner. He was trained in organizing in 2011 and has pushed to unionize at every job since then.
He grew up in a conservative, working-class family as the youngest of four brothers in what he describes as a "small, ranch-style house." His father worked at an Army ammunition plant, and his mother was a school cafeteria worker for over 20 years.
He told Insider he "didn't feel poor per se" but felt an expectation that "if you want anything, you're going to have to get a job and work for it."
Things were tense between Ryan and his family from his teenage years into his 20s. But his involvement in unions has helped them reconnect.
"We're in a common struggle, and we're dealing with a lot of the same issues," he said, adding that his efforts had inspired his brother to push for unionization in his job as a wildland firefighter.
He calls unionizing "the only power working-class people have."Ryan's job involves unloading stock deliveries and putting products on the sales floor. He said Target began monitoring workers more closely after the strike he organized, including by bringing in managers from other stores to surveil workers and question them individually. He has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board over this.
Ryan said management had grilled him too: He said after he invited coworkers to labor-rights meetings, he was pulled into a meeting with management and told not to do that. "It's definitely anxiety-inducing — it's stressful," he later said.
Target did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
He started calling for a union election with the wider campaign Target Workers Unite in 2019. "I don't want to see something I've invested a number of years in just like dissipate overnight if I happen to leave," he said.
He filed a petition for a union election in May of this year, but it didn't have enough signatures, which he blames on confusion over "on-demand workers," which he says the organizers didn't realize counted as employees.
He is pushing for benefits like hazard pay for workers who get sick with COVID-19 and seniority pay to reward long-term employees.
Campaigning has taken an emotional toll. Ryan moved to the countryside two years ago and says he finds comfort in the quiet of his garden. He said he felt drained by what he described as "constant infighting" in labor organizing.
He describes himself as "a disgruntled person" who struggles with "how to motivate people when I'm generally very frustrated and upset with how things are in the world."
But he argues the changes at his store so far have exposed "cracks" at Target. "It shows that even if you're small, you can still pack a punch," he said, "and you can punch above your weight."
Jessie McCool, Wells Fargo, Missouri
Like many Americans in office jobs, Jessie McCool worked from home during the coronavirus pandemic. She's a senior compliance officer at Wells Fargo, the US's third-biggest bank.
She told Insider she took one meeting while sitting on the diving board of her backyard pool last year so she could keep an eye on her child who was swimming.
She said she asked her manager whether she could have her camera switched off on the call but was told to switch it on. She said she was later given an informal warning, without her manager being present, accusing her of "disruptive behavior that could have diverted attention" on the call.
McCool describes this as an example of remote-working policies being applied inconsistently, saying she saw someone on a comparable Zoom call running on a treadmill in a bathrobe weeks later. (McCool said her manager at the time confirmed this other employee received no warning.)
McCool said she wanted to lead union efforts to try to "take back some of the control" that she said senior management had "run awry" with, recalling witnessing a colleague reduced to tears by her superiors on another video call in 2020.
She leads unionizing efforts at the Missouri headquarters and says remote communication during the pandemic helped workers start a union drive across Wells Fargo's US offices, though her group hasn't decided whether to be part of the wider campaign or to form an independent union.
Characterizing herself as "confrontational," McCool said she challenged people in her work and personal life.
"If I see something that I don't agree with, I will just stand up and say it, and I think in a way people have begun to rely on me to do things like that," she said.
She said she's lobbying for more transparency around policies and procedures, equitable pay, and fair treatment for employees.
McCool told Insider she was referred to as a "diversity hire" by a human-resources officer in an initial interview. She describes herself as having Hispanic, Jewish, and Middle Eastern heritage.
The banking giant has come under scrutiny over scandals including holding job interviews for "diverse" candidates despite already filling the roles with other candidates, as first reported by The New York Times. A spokesperson for Wells Fargo told Insider that diverse representation across the company has increased year-on-year since 2020.
McCool said she had a six-month internal battle with HR after being asked to remove a reference to the union in the headline bar of her Skype profile, something she argues is a federally protected right. "My coworkers are also having similar experiences," she added. She was ultimately allowed to use the tagline.
The spokesperson for Wells Fargo told Insider it doesn't comment on "specific personal matters".
Outside her day job, McCool is a rally race-car driver, model, and burlesque performer.
Activism was part of her upbringing. "Everybody deserves a community that will uphold them, and I think I just fell into that," she said, speaking of the punk marches in Pittsburgh that she said she went to as a child in the early 1990s.
"My mother was always like: 'You stand up for what's right — it doesn't matter whether you're popular,'" she said.
Jamie Edwards, Trader Joe's, Massachusetts
"I know what it's like to be trapped at a job," said Jamie Edwards, who worked strenuous hours with long commutes across five other retail jobs before joining a Trader Joe's store in Hadley, Massachusetts.
"When I'm employed at a place where there are issues, I'm always thinking about the fact that not everyone has the ability to just easily go find another job," Edwards added.
Edwards, who is nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them, is a lead organizer at the Trader Joe's that in July became the chain's first location to unionize. A second followed in August at the chain, which has more than 500 US locations.
They said they grew up "idolizing too many radicals" but viewed unionizing as a "bare minimum" for working-class people's well-being.
"I think that organizing a union is not really the most radical thing someone could do," they said. "It's a very basic thing."
Edwards celebrated their 33rd birthday in May. The next day, they said, they were sent home from their job at Trader Joe's for wearing a pro-union pin on their uniform, something that is generally not allowed under the National Labor Relations Act, according to the National Labor Relations Board.Edwards says efforts to create a union were driven mainly by safety concerns.
Though Trader Joe's enforced mask wearing through some of the pandemic, Edwards said they had felt unsafe at times, for example early on when they say the chain discouraged workers from wearing masks and gloves out of fear this would "scare" customers. Trader Joe's did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
Their co-organizers at the store have also said that, though the store followed policies set by the local health board, they felt masks were dropped too quickly once vaccinations became available and the company didn't make them aware of a state law mandating paid time off for COVID-19-related absences (a representative for Trader Joe's told the New York Times this account was incorrect).
Edwards got their first job when they were 17. They have been at Trader Joe's for nine years.
Speaking with Insider on their day off, Edwards said that during the campaign they had feared misinformation was being spread about the union, including rumors that unionized workers would be paid less.
"I've stopped engaging with certain people who have shown themselves not to be acting in good faith because I feel like the purpose of it is to take time away from me actually organizing," they added.
Edwards works night shifts and describes themself as a socialist who has always been pro-union. They had already attempted once before to unionize at the store.
With the milestone of formal recognition achieved, they plan to keep working to try to improve life for colleagues.
"I'm always of the mindset that I should exhaust my options at trying to make the workplace better before leaving," they said, "if only for the fact that there's still going to be people who are working there who are going to have to deal with it."
Lindsey Price, Starbucks, Seattle
Lindsey Price worked for Starbucks for 17 years until she was fired in April.
Price argues she was fired because she was helping to organize workers at her store in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood, where she worked as a shift supervisor.
Soon after her team's petition for a union election went public, Starbucks fired her, citing an incident where she had found the door to her store unlocked one morning, with the lock dislodged.
Price told Insider the door was often left unlocked after deliveries were made to the store, and the lock often dislodged. Starbucks Workers United said there were no complaints about her for nearly nine years before she lost her job.
A Starbucks spokesperson told Insider that Price was fired for putting her team "in an unsafe situation" because she failed to call 911 as the scene could have been a burglary. They added that Starbucks denies firing any workers for invovlement in unions.
Price's old store is now officially unionized. She describes safety at Starbucks as a key concern, telling Insider that her store caught on fire because of faults with the electrical systems in September 2021 and workers were tasked with finding their own shifts at other stores when it closed a few months later.
"We didn't feel taken care of," Price said, adding in another conversation that she felt "completely on my own."
She said her manager once asked her to clean up a "significant" amount of blood without protective clothing while working at a Starbucks store in Costa Mesa, California, in 2012 or 2013 after someone came into the store with a gunshot wound. She said she ultimately didn't clean it up, following instructions from the police.
Yet she hasn't always supported unions. She chuckles when saying her opinions have shifted like "night and day."
"I was raised thinking that unions were not helpful," she told Insider.
Price's father worked a white-collar job, and her mother held a cool view toward unions after her own father had experience with a union that he said treated him "terribly."
But she got involved to advocate on behalf of her colleagues, and, looking back, wishes her store had unionized earlier, saying her career path "could have changed drastically had I felt taken care of and listened to."
Being fired felt like a bad breakup, Price says.
She has a new job at the Seattle Public Library and is in graduate school studying library science. There's relief in her voice when she says she now has "an actual career path, which I've never felt like before."
But she says she will still be part of the Eastlake Starbucks union bargaining committee when it is set up and feels connected to her former colleagues, saying she knows "that feeling of just hopelessness I guess that some people can feel working there, and that I know I felt many times."
"I think that's what makes me want to be on a bargaining committee," she said, "and continue to try to help as much as I can."
- I'm a 56-year-old IT worker who got laid off last year and have been unemployed ever since. I have a hunch I'm not finding work due to ageism. How do I prove it?
- Germany relaxes Schengen visa rules for Indians
- Kanye West says he's selling Balenciaga, Adidas, and Gap hoodies for $20 after the companies all cut ties with him
- Revenge spending effect: Household savings dip to 5 -year low
- With no signs yet of inflation cooling, experts predict more rate hikes
- Covid hit mental health of kids, young people harder than thought
- Smog envelops Delhi, AQI remains in 'very poor' category
- Egypt president to be chief guest at Republic Day celebrations
- Tata Aviation
- Visa Platinum Prepaid Card
- Interest Rate on Deposits
- Uniparts IPO
- Air India crew guidelines
- Mukesh Ambani
- tata Consumer
- Asus new Desktop
- Sandhya Devanathans
- Best Companies for Work
- India's Richest People
- Small Cap Companies
- India Pharma
- Tata Tiago cng vs Alto k10 cng
- Top 10 Colleges in India
- Top 10 Airlines in World