Karen Ponce stands in front of the Staten Island warehouse, where she and her coworkers successfully unionized.
When Karen Ponce chose to study sociology at the College of Staten Island (CSI), she could never have dreamed that her coursework would one day inspire her to take stands that would make her sought after by the international media. In April, Ponce rallied with her fellow Amazon Labor Union (ALU) members who had won a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote recognizing them as a union at one of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouses. It was a historic first for workers at the notoriously anti-union company. Ponce currently serves as ALU’s interim secretary.
Ponce met her “mentor,” Jay Arena, an associate professor of sociology, when she was an undergraduate at CSI. In Arena’s class, Ponce said she was exposed to ideas she hadn’t encountered before college. She and her classmates debated whether or not the “American dream” was an attainable goal or an out-of-reach ideal. She read books by Frances Fox Piven, the distinguished professor emerita of political science at the Graduate Center, who has written internationally renowned works on poor peoples’ movements and the disruptive power they can exercise.
“My mind was definitely opened in so many ways,” Ponce told Clarion. “We learn about rich people and politicians, but for the first time I learned about gaining power from the bottom up.”
In an interview with Clarion, Arena said that Ponce was active against federal detention of undocumented immigrants and had a clear vision for social justice.
Jay Arena, associate professor of sociology at CSI
“[In my classes] we always emphasize linking your knowledge with action. I keep in touch with many of our graduates. I have my students do a learning-by-doing activity, where they have to participate in a protest,” said Arena.
“She was one of my best students,” Arena said, adding that when it came to activism, “she really embraced it.”
When she was still a CSI student, Arena brought her to a PSC meeting, Ponce recalled. She was inspired by adjuncts talking about their strategies for organizing to win higher wages. The PSC meeting left a lasting impression on her.
Ponce graduated from CSI in 2021 and immediately landed a job at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse. She applied because the warehouse advertised wages above minimum wage. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the second richest person, in the world and Amazon has come under scrutiny for its unforgiving work environments and intense hostility toward unionization. When Ponce started, the Amazon Labor Union campaign was already underway.
“All I saw was Amazon’s propaganda in the building,” Ponce recalled. She had known about the unionization campaign, but she felt overwhelmed by Amazon’s anti-union propaganda. Then, she had a phone conversation with Arena.
When he heard that Ponce had taken a job at Amazon, Arena wanted to know if she was working with union activists.
“I knew [Ponce] was working at Amazon and I thought that this [organizing effort] was a great opportunity to apply that knowledge that she got at CSI,” said Arena.
He asked Ponce about the unionization, and Ponce responded that she didn’t think the union would “stand a chance” against such a big, anti-union company. Arena countered that it was her responsibility to engage in the social issues around her.
“That woke me up,” Ponce said. “I thought, ‘He’s right.’ I was only listening to Amazon.”
Ponce immediately got in contact with ALU activists and became involved with union organizing. She told Clarion that seeing successful union organizing by Starbucks workers led her to think that winning a NLRB vote at the warehouse was no longer impossible. “Hey, that could be us,” she thought to herself.
Amazon workers rally in support of forming a union.
CUNY has a history with Amazon. In the winter of 2018–2019, PSC members at LaGuardia Community College and the CUNY School of Law joined with other community groups and labor unions to protest a proposal that offered the company massive state subsidies to build an Amazon headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. The plan, which included a partnership with CUNY and was championed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, was scuttled because of community and labor protests against the huge public giveaway to the company, which has an appalling labor rights record.
This past March, CUNY announced a new educational partnership where “Amazon’s Career Choice program will provide an annual benefit to cover tuition and select fees for all qualifying hourly employees accepted into participating CUNY schools.”
But Ponce, who dreams of returning to CUNY to pursue a master’s degree in social work, regards the latest tuition assistance plan for Amazon workers as company propaganda. She said she was saddened to see this program linked to CUNY, because there are other financial aid and assistance programs like TAP, SEEK and FAFSA.
“Amazon is doing this to show off. They’re not the only option. If anything, we would hope that CUNY would be free. Now, CUNY is looking like they’re a business,” said Ponce.
The PSC applauded ALU’s victory in a statement saying, “Amazon is the country’s second largest employer after Walmart, and, like Walmart, has engaged in egregious anti-union campaigns, firing workers and spending millions to fight against those asserting their right to collective representation. We thank the ALU for showing us all what grassroots solidarity can accomplish. We are hopeful that the ALU’s historic win will mark a turning point in the multiyear efforts by workers across the country to force Amazon into just and decent contractual standards for all its workers, and for Amazon workers to have a union voice at work.”
The New York State United Teachers and the AFL-CIO have contacted New York State Attorney General Letitia James to ask her office to investigate whether Amazon’s flagrant violation of labor laws during the ALU campaign disqualifies it from the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax credits it received.
At a labor rally supporting another vote at a warehouse on April 24, congressional candidate Brittany Ramos DeBarros asked the crowd, “You know what we could use that money for? A New Deal for CUNY!”
While union members are celebrating the NLRB vote at Amazon, ALU workers face the hard work of reaching their first contract. The union is also looking to organize other Amazon workplaces. ALU is seeking help from the labor movement in what will likely be difficult bargaining sessions with Amazon.
“We’re really proud of Karen because she’s really putting the theory and the knowledge that she learned in our department into action,” Arena said, speaking for himself and other PSC activists in his department at CSI. “We’re going to keep building support for this campaign.”
Ponce said that ALU meetings have the same kind of energized spirit she recalls seeing at the PSC meeting. But it was important, she said, for all unionists to get over their differences. “At the end of the day, we have to stay united because the other people are going to break us apart, like Amazon and the bosses,” she said. “They love to see us divided. We have to stick to a certain agenda.”