Zara Cadoux Takes on Amazon

Zara Cadoux has been a rabble-rouser from the start.

“I began thinking about power and justice as a kid,” Zara said. “I was one of three siblings growing up in a suburban household in Westchester, and although we were quite different from each other, we all had a similar critical lens on the world. We got that from our mom.  She is from Sweden and has more of a socialist outlook. She was always questioning things, saying ‘Why is this happening? This seems very unfair.’ I remember her saying, ‘Your health care is tied to your job? How is that not exploitation?’ She taught us to ask questions and not accept the first answer we got.”

Growing up in the affluent village of Hastings-on-Hudson, Zara began to realize that her public school was better-resourced than schools in nearby Yonkers and the Bronx. So like her mother taught her, she started asking questions. “I asked a number of adults about what I saw as inequities and inequalities between the education I was getting compared to kids who lived in the Bronx. And they would say, ‘Don’t think about that. You’re a hard worker, you deserve to be in this school.’ And I would reply, ‘I know that I’m a good student. What I’m asking is why does my school have this but that school doesn’t have it? Why do I go to a school that is predominantly white, and other schools are mostly Black and Brown and don’t have the same resources? Can someone please explain that to me?’ And overall, adults could not explain it to me in a way that satisfied me.”

“When I went to college at Vassar I kept trying to understand the world through a racial lens, looking at race and white supremacy,” Zara continued. “I got a degree in geography and anthropology—I never realized the connection before, but I think I went into geography because I was trying to understand the world spatially. I was doing human geography.”

“I graduated in 2009 and like a lot of my peers, I had to scramble for a job due to the recession. I was offered a job with Americorps in Baltimore so I moved there, but they lost their grant funding before I could start work. I decided to stay, however, and started building relationships and community. I love Baltimore—it’s where a lot of things crystallized for me with regard to social justice issues.”

During her ten years in Baltimore, Zara continued to explore issues of power and justice. “I started a business with several other anti-oppression facilitators, doing trainings and workshops. A lot of my focus was on organizing white women in the nonprofit sector to make racial justice demands, taking collective action to make changes in those programs. That was based on my experience in the nonprofit sector, where I saw myself reflected as a white woman in a majority Black city. I knew we needed to take collective action.”

Zara continued, “But eventually we closed that program. We realized that we were actually reinforcing and reproducing a lot of things in the nonprofit sector that we wanted to challenge and take apart. We were getting hired by nonprofits and private companies to come in and work with their staff, and we realized that we were being hired by the boss and brought in for HR purposes. It wasn’t really justice-oriented. That made me understand that if I wanted to be on the side of the workers, I needed to make some changes. I realized that I was doing labor organizing, but I didn’t understand how to do labor organizing. I didn’t have the tools to bring people together collectively to make demands. I also didn’t understand that most people were not prepared to undertake a level of antagonism against management without some sort of workplace protection. I realized that I needed to get skilled up. And that’s how I ended up at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.”

How did she find SLU? “I googled it,” she laughed. “I moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 2019, and I started asking around the CUNY network, and everyone said, this is a really great school, you should definitely go there. There are so many people at SLU who are doing activist work as well as academic work, making sure that work seeps back into social movements. I felt really lucky to have this terrific resource right in my backyard.”

“I started at SLU in January 2022 working towards the Advanced Certificate in Labor Studies, so I could get a feel for the School and see if I wanted to continue. I was fortunate to do an independent study that first semester with Stephanie Luce. I really loved working with Professor Luce because she gave me room to explore. I like to plan and I will build myself a program and a syllabus and say, these are my objectives and outcomes. She saw me starting to do that and said, ‘Let’s back up. I would prefer that you get more confused before you get clear.’ No one had ever asked me to do that before, and it allowed me to become curious about things I was reading and take different paths that I might not have chosen for myself. It made me realize that my questions couldn’t be answered in a semester. Dr. Luce was patient and let me struggle through my resistance to that.”

“My independent study with Dr. Luce was on the nonprofit industrial complex, which are words that essentially describe the systemic relationship between government, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. I wanted to study the flow of money between these different actors, and the impact of the nonprofit sector on social movements. I would argue that overall the nonprofit sector is used to dampen social movements, make them more palatable. We often see leaders and organizers coming out of social movements who get funneled into nonprofit jobs where their mandates and the parameters of their roles are determined by the folks who fund—either government or philanthropy. So it’s going to be very hard to have an anti-racist, anti-capitalist revolution through a nonprofit sector funded by interests who do not want that revolution to happen.”

Soon a new opportunity arose for Zara through SLU. “On April 1st the Amazon Labor Union won its first NLRB election. The following Monday I had class with Dr. Ruth Milkman, and she told us that SLU really wanted to support ALU and there might be internship opportunities for students so please send in your résumé. So I did and about a week later I got a call from Chris Smalls’ team asking when I could start. I was so impressed—SLU provided material support to help this new union get established and grow!”

And for Zara to grow, too. “I’ve been involved in a lot of different aspects of ALU’s development. I traveled around the country a lot with President Smalls last summer. I was in charge of managing his schedule, organizing events, prioritizing meetings and appointments. I’ve been a part of worker training, building relationships throughout the labor world. Now I’m onboarding a new intern from SLU but I’ll be staying on as Program Coordinator. I’m really looking forward to helping build this union.”

How has Zara managed to work full-time for ALU and keep up with her studies? “It’s definitely a challenge,” she said. Every day is different and you have to go with the flow. It’s particularly difficult in a job where things are coming at you all the time, because it means you don’t have the space to do something like write a paper. What I’ve gotten better at working at ALU these past few months is letting go of the idea that the time I take for my studies has to be uninterrupted time, and accepting the need to do things in small chunks. And I’m getting better at taking advantage of the time I do have. Instead of thinking that I need to set myself up at my desk with my cup of coffee, I’ll do work on the bus or the subway or at the airport.”

What’s next for Zara? “Eventually I hope to become a public scholar. I plan to apply for Ph.D. programs in labor studies and geography so I can continue to wrestle with questions about the nonprofit industrial complex and how building worker power can challenge the oppressive mechanisms within that sector. I’m continuing to do some freelance and coaching work, and some research, so I have my hands in a lot of places. Most of all I want to continue to be a part of the movement. Whatever I do next and wherever I go next, I’m building resources that will be put back into organizing.”

She paused and then added, “I’m sort of a strange case in that I got this opportunity at ALU that came about in response to a unique moment. So many staff and faculty at SLU have helped me. I joke with everyone that I’m SLU’s problem child, but everyone here is working together to help me navigate this and succeed. It’s not something I expected coming back to school, to have this incredible team supporting me every step of the way.”