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Amazon Organizing Is Teamsters Top Priority, New Leader Says (1)

Dec. 16, 2021, 10:00 AMUpdated: Dec. 16, 2021, 3:46 PM

Teamsters President-elect Sean O’Brien already knows how to play the part. A former linebacker with a sturdy frame, a shaved head, and Boston brogue that would give Mark Wahlberg a run for his money, his entire demeanor seems to send one signal: Don’t mess with me.

O’Brien, a fourth-generation Teamster, won the union presidency in a landslide victory last month, promising to take a tougher stance in organizing and collective bargaining negotiations with major employers—including the labor movement’s great white whale, Amazon Inc.

In an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Law, O’Brien offered new insight into how he plans to organize the nation’s largest e-commerce company when he takes office in March 2022. It starts with demanding better contracts with similar employers and leveraging those gains to make a case to Amazon workers around the country, he said, adding that his administration will push back against new Amazon distribution centers, rallying local opposition for those that don’t meet certain standards.

“From a union perspective, we’re going to negotiate the strongest contracts in similar industries like UPS and DHL, and that’s going to be our marketing tool to bring to these workers and say, ‘Look, this is what you get when you work under a union contract,’” O’Brien added. “If we’re going to sell our product, we’re going to make sure it’s a product that, you know, these folks at Amazon are going to buy into.”

Listen: Hear a podcast featuring O’Brien

The Teamsters historically have represented truck drivers, but because Amazon relies on independent contractors, the union will first have to focus on warehouse employees, much like the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store union did in its still-disputed election in Bessemer, Ala., earlier this year.

“We’re going to definitely have to start with the warehouse,” O’Brien said. “It’s not going to be a traditional organizing drive where you stand outside the gates and hand out cards that say ‘join the union.’”

Instead, O’Brien said, the Teamsters will focus on worker-to-worker engagement, with part-time employees at UPS and DHL taking a more active role in selling Amazon workers on the benefits of a union.

“As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” Amazon spokeswoman Barbara Agrait said in a statement issued late Wednesday. “Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes—quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”

O’Brien also discussed the transition to the presidency, his relationship with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and the conversations he’s had with Washington’s movers and shakers.

The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

During the campaign, you talked about restoring Teamsters’ faith in their union. Where do you start?

We have to restore the faith first off with mobilizing our members and bringing our members back together—unifying our membership, because it’s been fractured for the last 10 years. Also just making sure these employers understand that the concession stand is going to be closed.

You and Marty Walsh are cut from the same cloth. I mean, you both could probably be in central casting in a Ben Affleck movie. Did you know him growing up?

I didn’t know him growing up. He grew up in Dorchester and I grew up in Medford, which is just outside Boston proper, but I’ve known Marty for almost 30 years. I knew Marty when he was a state rep. We helped Marty get elected to the head of the building trades and we helped him get elected as the mayor, and I actually took a plane ride down with him yesterday to Dorchester.

President Biden has pledged to be the most pro-union president ever. Have you talked to him yet?

I haven’t talked to President Biden yet. I’ve talked to many other people. I’ve talked to the secretary of transportation [Pete Buttigieg], I’ve talked to Sen. Schumer, I’ve talked to many Congress people and senators, so it’s been great. You know, I’m sure there’s a lot more important things to be dealing with than Sean O’Brien, but at some point I’m certain I’ll have a conversation with President Biden.

Capitol Hill is kind of a weird world. As an outsider, how will you work with lawmakers to help your members?

Certainly I’m going to be hands on to make certain that when the Teamsters have an ask—and when the Teamsters have a demand—that it’s coming from the head of the Teamsters, not from some lobbying firm or some high-paid consultant.

Your campaign was largely in opposition to President Hoffa. Has it been difficult to get along with his people during the transition?

They’ve got a liaison, basically, that’s working for us. That’s been great, everybody’s been cooperative. He still hasn’t, to this day, reached out to congratulate any of us on our slate. We’re not going to focus on any of that stuff. We’re just going to focus on what we need to learn about the building, what we need to learn about the organization, and just move forward.

(This article has been updated to include a statement from Amazon. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com