For a long time union organizing at Amazon has had a predictable outcome. Today the future feels unwritten.
The bombshell victory of the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at the company’s Staten Island warehouse has captured the imagination of people across the globe. The retail tech giant lost its first union recognition election in its history, and there’s a great hope that this foreshadows more union victories to come at Amazon. Bloomberg Businessweek captured the wider implications well, “It’s a stunning upset that’s already upturning received wisdom about what’s possible in this moment in America, and just what sort of moment that might be.”
Over the last four decades, workers in the U.S. have seen their collective power consistently weakened. This new moment raises the prospect of wider horizons and higher expectations for the labor movement. The ALU victory took place while the successful national organizing campaigns at Starbucks continue to move forward.
The organizing campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks have raised the question of whether the anti-union shield—that has protected the giant retail and tech giants that have come to dominate the largest parts of the economy—has finally been pierced.
Are we at a turning point? Hopefully. But to turn the corner at Amazon, the ALU deserves our wholesale support.
The ALU, a worker-led independent union with few financial resources, trumped the global behemoth led by its founder Jeff Bezos, who fluctuates between being the first or second richest man in the world. But the struggle is far from over. For example, the second union election at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama saw the RWDSU improve its vote considerably but still came up short of winning. While the ALU has to transform its small number of activists into a rank and file structure to win the post-election battle over rights, grievances, and win their first contract. It also faces a second union vote at another Staten Island Amazon warehouse starting on April 25.
The ALU, led by interim president Chris Smalls, whose racist victimization by Amazon turned him into a hero, when asked in an interview on Inside City Hall hosted by Bobby Cuza, shortly after their victory how they dealt with Amazon’s anti-union propaganda, he replied:
“Having conversations with these workers every single day. They [Amazon] had all the money and resources but we as people knowing the reality of the situation, knowing the grievances, being Amazon workers ourselves, coming from the community they hire from, we were able to reach these workers on a sentimental level, and we valued their time. We talk to these workers and connected on individual level, and that always overcomes a machine.”
When Cuza ask Smalls if Amazon had a point questioning the inexperience of the ALU organizers, he said:
“No, absolutely not. We may be new but who creates [a] union in 2022, right? But, we had lawyers that have experience with bigger unions, and we had them from day one. I don’t know how they issued the fact that we filed the most ULPs against this company in history. We signed a national agreement with them. We’ve had small victories against them on the legal side the whole time. If [we] weren’t a real threat they wouldn’t have spent millions of dollars to try and stop us.”
When he asked about lack of support they received from other unions and politicians:
“We should have had support a very long time ago. This campaign should have been talked about the way it’s being talked about today on day one, when we first started organizing there. But it’s never too late to show support in the labor movement. We understand that everybody has their own lane.
That’s the reason we decided to create this worker-led independent union and do things our way. We couldn’t wait on anybody else; we wanted to make sure whatever we were doing workers would be in the drivers’ seat. That worked for us and we were victorious. I think everybody has reached out to be today. It’s been great to see —my phone’s been buzzing, the workers have been talking to a lot of people, yeah, they’re coming around.”
When Smalls was asked about the future political role of the union in New York City, he said:
“I don’t want to say political. I think this union is going to remain independent. We like [it] that way. We don’t want to have on paper any ties, whatever we do we have full control of it. That gives us our alternate power to control our destiny. That is the reason we didn’t do that from day one. Everybody asked, and criticized that we didn’t, but I look back on it Amazon has been around for twenty-eight years. So, the bigger union unions had twenty-eight years to do exactly what I [have] done today with this union.”
When asked about upcoming negotiations, Smalls told Cuza:
“I’m the interim president and if I’m still president I’ll be with workers. We have a worker committee. We built it up from day one. We have over a hundred and fifty members. We have a core committee. We have an executive board. Every decision that is made by the union is democratic. So, whatever way we want to go, move, I’ll listen to the workers, and I’ll try to lead them in that way. When it comes to negotiations we have some time and we’ve been talking about it with our lawyer, but in the meantime we have a second election to win. That’s what we are preparing for now.”
Justine Medina, a member of the ALU organizing committee and a packer at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, in a guest column in Labor Notes, reported that the secret to the success of the ALU was no secret at all, “We just did the thing you’re supposed to do: we had a worker-led movement.” She also emphasized the study of radical union history was important to the ALU activists:
“We studied the history of how the first major unions were built. We learned from the Industrial Workers of the World, and even more from the building of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. We read William Z. Foster’s Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry (a must-read, seriously).”
But, the key issue according to Medina, “you have an actual worker-led project—a Black- and Brown-led, multi-racial, multi-national, multi-gender, multi-ability organizing team.” She also talked about the role of radical activists,
“You get the Communists involved, you get some socialists and anarcho-syndicalists, you bring together a broad progressive coalition. You bring in sympathetic comrades from other unions, in a supporting role. Do not be afraid to fight, to get as dirty as the bosses will, to match or beat the energy they’re bringing. Do not be afraid to agitate and to antagonize the bosses, as a union should.”
Such unabashed radicalism is a welcome change from the staid, top-down, failing strategies for union organizing that have been with us for so long it has been hard to imagine anything different until the ALU’s victory on Staten Island took place. Hopefully, the ALU’s victory will have a positive impact on the labor movement and the U.S. Left reembracing its radical tradition and the importance of radical politics in the workplace. Yet, one should also cast a skeptical eye on the many unions praising the ALU’s triumph over Amazon. They are smiling on the outside but crying on the inside.
The big service and industrial unions have spent millions on lavish campaigns to organize Walmart and other retail giants only to come up empty handed. Despite employing an army of organizers, high-paid consultants, PR firms, and relying on the much-hyped “experts” for strategy. The ALU turns all of this thinking on its head. Yet, we must also recognize that the framework for carrying the campaign forward is also quite thin. Right now the ALU is not a national organization. The appeal of allying with a larger union with large treasuries and lots of staff will be strong for some. The major U.S. unions are bureaucratic monstrosities that have staggered from defeat to defeat for decades.
It’s always important to look at long-term trends and where they finally break through. Is the victory on Staten Island, the most conservative borough in New York City but where most of Amazon’s workers are drawn, an example of the Black Lives Matter movement finally impacting the workplace? It appears so. Recognizing this will be an important factor in building a new labor movement in this country. Those who try to muffle the power of the growing number of deeply embedded radicals, or who try to skip over the questions that are facing the rank and file workers who we hope to organize will be doomed to failure, whether at Amazon or other retail or tech giants.
If a different future is to be written for the labor movement, our contributions must start with the broadest campaign of support for ALU in its next battle, and unconditional support for the rank-and-filers organizing Starbucks. From there, the future may start looking a bit brighter.
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