Julian Mitchell-Israel, OC ’21, Talks Organizing Amazon Labor Union and Post-Oberlin Life

Julian Mitchell-Israel, OC ’21, is the field director for the Amazon Labor Union, an independent union that recently won the first Amazon union election in the United States. He studied at Oberlin and worked as an organizer on several campaigns before getting involved with the ALU after reading about its president, Christian Smalls, and connecting with the way Smalls spoke about labor and worker power. He is currently organizing for the union election of LDJ5, another Amazon facility in Staten Island, later this month. This would be the second Amazon facility and the first Amazon sortation center to unionize in the U.S.

What were some of the challenges that you’ve faced in your time at the ALU? 

I think one of the biggest challenges was coming into an organization that had a very distinct culture within it already and trying to figure out where I could be useful without stepping on people’s toes. Another hard thing was making the transition between academia and the structures of more traditional campaign organizing, and then being in a warehouse and having to figure out how to relate to people without imposing any prior beliefs I might have had about people who worked at Amazon. I think things that helped me get past that and work through some of those difficulties were that the team members of the ALU are some of the most welcoming people I’ve met, but also the ALU is really concerned with listening to both the organizers’ and workers’ needs and trying to bring people in in a way that allows them to use their strengths. The other organizers helped me get to know the climate. But the big difficulty I had at first was trying to not feel like an outsider in a culture that’s different from Oberlin. 

Did you ever have moments where you doubted that the union would be successful and accomplish what you wanted to get done?

Up until a week and a half before the election, I thought we had less than a 50 percent chance of winning. We were seeing numbers from phone banking that were putting us around a 60-to-70-percent “yes” vote, but I was really reticent to take those numbers at face value because, from what we were hearing from the organizers inside of the warehouse and talking to a lot of the workers, there was an incredible amount of union-busting going on. I think the people who were talking to us on the phones were more willing to talk to us, more willing to vote yes, so I was worried that the data we were getting back was false. It took until a couple days before the election for me to start feeling confident that we had a shot. And then it took until the first day of the vote count for me to be like, “oh, s**t, we actually might unionize Amazon.” 

Can you speak to the effect that this may have on other efforts to unionize around the country? 

I think unionizing Amazon is a rekindling of the labor movement around the country because of the scale of Amazon. If you can unionize the second-largest employer in the U.S., you can unionize anything. Amazon has an employment system designed to ward off unions, but doesn’t have the incentive where people want to improve the job because they wanna stay long-term. This movement is building worker power for worker power’s sake. I think when that idea gets heard across the country, workers are gonna look at the fact that they don’t just want a pay raise in their job; they want a voice, they want to feel like they are controlling the economy and their place in the economy. Doing this is gonna have a really important impact. 

Is there anything that you wish you’d known before you started organizing for a union? Or anything you would tell someone interested in getting involved with union organizing? 

You have power already. There isn’t some theoretical or academic framework you need to understand to get started. If you feel you are being mistreated, if you feel you are being slighted, the power to organize comes from building relationships and being genuine with people. Whether it’s organizing Residential Education workers so they’re treated with respect by the College, students within co-ops to prevent austerity measures from destroying one of Oberlin’s institutions, or Amazon workers, the power is already there because we make them their profit. We are the mechanism of our country’s productivity and success. When we decide that we want something and we organize around it, we realize that together, we have the ability to shut s**t down. There’s nothing that can stand in the way.