Battlefield Bessemer

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The unionization drive at Amazon in Alabama revives the Black labor tradition.

Jeff Bezos is the richest man alive. He could afford to pay a $105,000 bonus to all of Amazon’s 1.2 million employees and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic began. This wealth is created by the extraction of huge levels of surplus value from Amazon’s workforce through grueling work, low pay, and nonunionized labor. The 5,800 workers at the Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, Alabama, are trying to do what no other U.S. Amazon employees have been able to do: win a union. This campaign is being organized almost entirely by Black workers in a Republican, right-to-work state.

Amazon is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at this unionizing effort — from intimidation to paying workers to quit to endless anti-union phone calls and texts. They have almost unlimited resources for this fight.

This is David versus the Amazon Goliath. And in this story, “David” consists of Black workers, many of them women.

Black Lives Matter

This unionization struggle is a direct product of the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement, alongside the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, laid bare all the injustices of racist capitalism. Those who mobilized over the summer declared in no uncertain terms that Black people deserve better. Black lives should matter. But they don’t matter to the cops who systematically terrorize and murder Black people. And Black lives don’t matter to Amazon either. Sure, Amazon says “Black Lives Matter.” They even donated to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which has been the subject of criticism by the BLM10 and Black Power network (formerly BLM Inland Empire). But that money is just a desperate attempt to cover up Amazon’s refusal to grant basic rights to its workers, many of whom are Black.

With a combination of repression and co-optation, this summer’s protests have been quelled. Democrats and Republicans gassed, arrested, and beat protesters while Democrats claimed to represent the movement at the ballot box. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris contained the summer’s explosive protests and diverted their energy to the polls—the graveyard of social movements at work. Despite his long record of neoliberal and racist policies, Biden promised to be a pro-labor and anti-racist president. Many working-class and oppressed people voted for him in hopes that Biden would offer at least some reforms. But after just a few weeks in office, Biden is going back on many of his promises. He and the rest of the Democrats won’t even provide a measly $15 minimum wage, highlighting yet again that Democrats make progressive promises in order to quell movements, but won’t hesitate to go back on those promises.

Having mostly left the streets, Black Lives Matter is perhaps reemerging in a different form — a unionization effort. That’s because there are no impenetrable boundaries between labor struggle and social movements. The Black workers at BHM1 in Bessemer have been part of the political and ideological experiences of the pandemic and the mass movement.

They are part of a long legacy of unions in Alabama that combined workplace demands and civil rights demands. This kind of labor struggle highlights that racism and exploitation are linked in this racist capitalist system. This dialectic has existed throughout U.S. history, despite attempts by the capitalists to co-opt and stop it. This struggle to unionize Amazon has immense potential to open the way to more unionization efforts and for a new era of unionism that connects labor struggles to Black Lives Matter, as well as other struggles of oppressed people.

The Amazon Goliath

As the summer’s uprising began to wind down in August, Amazon workers in Bessemer reached out to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. Eighty-five percent of them are Black, and many of them are women. On February 8, the workers began to vote on whether to join RWDSU, which represents 12,000 poultry workers in Alabama and 100,000 workers nationally.

Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the United States, bested only by Walmart. Its workforce includes an army of warehouse workers and tech workers, as well as delivery workers, many of whom work as independent contractors. As business analyst Scott Galloway explains, “Amazon is building the most robust logistics infrastructure in history.”1 Yet, Amazon paid less than 3 percent in federal income tax.

Amazon and Apple are the first two companies in history to be worth a trillion dollars. As Kim Moody notes, “Jeff Bezos and his crew of techies and quants simply did what robber barons have always done: raise, spend, and sometimes lose other people’s money, dodge taxes, swindle suppliers, and avoid unions.”2 And now, Bezos has become more than a robber baron; he is a pandemic profiteer, making a fortune off the unprecedented global crisis. In 2020 alone, Bezos made $70 billion in profits. As a result of the barrage of bad press, Bezos recently announced that he will take a step back from his role as CEO, although he will continue to play a role in the company.

Amazon’s rise is a product of the neoliberal era — characterized by globalized chains of production built on increasingly “free” trade that facilitated the movement of commodities produced by hyperexploited workers, increasingly located in the Global South and in non-union manufacturers in the U.S..  This era was characterized by brutal attacks on organized labor and a massive drop in unionization rates. Corporations in the U.S. increased exploitation rates by flexibilizing labor relations, generalizing independent contractors, and switching to the gig economy, while at the same time driving down taxes for large capitalists and privatizing industries. These anti-worker neoliberal policies have been pushed forward by Democrats and Republicans alike for decades. This economic model has been in crisis since 2008, with a partial recovery that has been blown to bits by the pandemic. The pandemic only deepens the “Amazonification” of the economy.

Amazon has for years been vying to overtake Walmart for the no. 1 spot as the top Fortune 500 company. Alimahomed-Wilson, Allison, and Reese claim we are entering an era of “Amazon capitalism” that builds on the neoliberal policies of the past decades in order to create the Amazon Goliath. Not only has Amazon grown exponentially, but it “propelled many novel features that currently animate the world’s economy,”3 including online consumerism and the one-day delivery of many commodities. As they explain, Amazon makes global trends visible: monopolization, the growth of online retailers, bankruptcy for in-person retailers, and an increased importance of the logistics sector. Amazon has been wildly successful because it has perfected “lean production,” using  technology to maintain a grueling pace for a relatively small workforce. of workers to work at an inhumanely fast pace. Amazon has an atomized workforce, including warehouse workers and subcontracted delivery workers who are slowly replacing the unionized U.S. Postal Service. As USPS is systematically underfunded, Amazon displaces more stable work there. Black workers feel the brunt of this, being disproportionately represented among the disappearing USPS union jobs and the nonunion Amazon jobs.

Unionization rates have dropped exponentially throughout the neoliberal era. In 1994, when Amazon was created, 10.9 percent of private employees and 15.5 percent of all workers were unionized. In 2020, the number dropped to 6.3 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively. In addition, from 2000 to 2020 the unionization rates of unionized transportation and warehouse workers dropped from 25.7 to 17 percent. That’s owing in part to the growth of Amazon. And the trend will only continue, since Amazon is on track to become the country’s biggest employer. Amazon jobs increased by 50 percent during the past year and a half.

“Amazonification’’ highlights the essential contradictions of capitalism in 2021: mass wealth and low taxes for the corporations; the use of high-tech robotics and surveillance to oversee workers; and the exploitation and dehumanization of employees. It’s not that Amazon is a bad apple — this is just another iteration of capitalism. But by centralizing so many workers and making so much profit, Amazon has also centralized anger and discontent. After the pandemic and the BLM movement, it is ripe for organization and struggle.

Abysmal Working Conditions

The surplus value created by Amazon workers is what has made Bezos rich beyond imagination. Marx explains that surplus value is the value produced by the worker, minus the wage they are paid and the cost of production. It’s essentially the profits that bosses make off workers’ labor. Corporations like Amazon have gotten rich by extracting very high rates of surplus value from their workers at every step. As Kim Moody explains, “The interaction of Amazon’s infrastructure, the speed at which goods move through it, and the rate at which these workers produce this value (their rate of exploitation) that are at the heart of this company’s efforts to constantly increase the intensity of work and lower the cost of this labor.”4

As Moody notes, while Amazon warehouses aren’t necessarily producing commodities, they are creating surplus value, and they are part of the redistribution of surplus value created in productive capital. From the point of view of the creation of value, volume 2 of Capital, Marx is very clear: “The productive capital invested in this industry [transportation] thus adds value to the products transported, partly through the value added by the work of transport.” In other words, Marx believed that work in the “transportation industry” produced surplus value. In the imperialist epoch, as elaborated by Lenin, commercial and financial capital overlap, creating monopolies like Amazon and Walmart. These monopolies influence value chains and sometimes control industrial capital itself, engulfing and redistributing the surplus value created in production. Therefore, Amazon workers produce surplus value directly and indirectly; they therefore form part of the redistribution of surplus value. In other words, these workers’ backbreaking labor is the source of Bezos’ and more broadly, Amazon’s exorbitant wealth.

Amazon’s warehouse employees suffer abhorrent and inhumane working conditions. Amazon imposes Taylorist methods with a 21st-century twist: now it’s not primarily foremen supervising workers but an intricate surveillance system that would make Big Brother blush. Amazon automatically tracks each warehouse worker’s productivity and generates warnings without any supervisor’s input if, for example, someone spends too long in the bathroom. Workers are allotted only a minimal amount of “time off-task” (TOT) — a period in which they are not mechanically scanning packages. Every move is tracked, and workers who fall below a “productivity threshold” are disciplined or fired. Based on one Baltimore facility, we can estimate that Amazon warehouses fire up to 10 percent of their workforce each year.

As a result, Amazon has a serious injury rate of 7.7 percent, which is about double the most recent industry average (which is already quite high). Because Amazon pushes so hard to get things done quickly, workers often cannot use the bathroom. They don’t have time to walk across a huge warehouse — sometimes the size of 17 football fields — and get back to their workstations. As a result, they sometimes pee in bottles in order to keep their jobs. Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker, explains,

My co-workers and I — older, younger, middle-aged people — were all limping from climbing up and down the stairs in the four-floor building. I asked once, “Well, there’s an elevator right there. Why can’t we use it?” My co-workers said, “They told us that we couldn’t.” We could put the products on the elevators and send them up, but then we had to take the stairs. It’s like it was designed to punish us for some reason.

It’s reminiscent of the indignity of a service entrance for domestic workers of color.

Further, Amazon workers put their lives on the line in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. They are essential — they made sure people got PPE and prescriptions, as well as shipments for leisure activities that were also essential under lockdown. While Bezos and other capitalists paid lip service to frontline heroes, the conditions in Amazon warehouses only worsened during the pandemic. At first, there was little to no social distancing. Amazon workers received a measly $2  per hour hazard pay early in the pandemic, but that was terminated in June 2020, when many states had not yet reached their peak of Covid cases. Nearly 20,000 of Amazon’s employees in the United States contracted Covid-19, and Amazon has admitted that at least 10 people died, as of October. Bates said,

Even with Covid-19, they told us they’d let us know if we’d been in close contact with someone who had the virus. But we know for a fact that we’ve worked alongside people who had Covid and we were not alerted.

As a result of these conditions, there were a series of walkouts during the summer. Workers who spoke out and organized actions, like Chris Smalls of New York, were fired. A leaked memo by Amazon’s general council read that Smalls was “not smart, or articulate” — a racist dog whistle. We can see how racism is a necessary part of Amazon’s anti-union policies.

Anti-Union Bullying

Amazon has hired intelligence analysts to track “labor organizing threats” and spied on employees’ interactions in closed Facebook groups. They’ve fired “trouble makers” like Chris Smalls and countless people whose names we don’t know. In 2014, a small group of Amazon technical workers tried to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. While over half had initially signed cards stating they would join the union, Amazon engaged in all sorts of lies and schemes that eventually resulted in the union being voted down.

Likewise, in Bessemer, Amazon has pulled out all the stops to thwart the unionization effort, including everything from threats of job loss, phone calls to workers, anti-union meetings, and a ridiculous anti-union website featuring a doggie DJ. While Amazon is even filling the bathrooms with anti-union propaganda, union organizers are forced to meet with workers off the property. Amazon successfully petitioned the city to change the amount of time at red lights so that organizers have less time to talk to workers in their cars. Amazon is paying consultants nearly $10,000 a day to stop the unionization effort.

Even without these anti-union maneuvers, the laws are stacked against workers. For one, workers essentially need to ratify a union twice — the first time signing up co-workers for a union petition and then, weeks later, getting workers to certify the union. The extensive time between “going public” and actually ratifying the union gives bosses tons of time to interfere with the process and hire law firms that specialize in union busting. Retaliation, extortion, and intimidation are commonplace, but the huge lag between registering a complaint and getting a response from the NLRB — seven to 14 weeks — means there is little legal recourse for workers. It’s very common for unions to have overwhelming support before going public but then get beaten in the certification vote. In over 40 percent of cases, the NLRB charges employers with unfair labor practices. The bosses don’t care. The NLRB cannot force them to pay damages, beyond back wages and reinstatement. Union busting is worth it for them.

Most countries in Europe permit sectoral bargaining, in which agreements are established that cover entire industries rather than individual workplaces. The U.S. allows only enterprise-level bargaining, meaning unions must organize workplace by workplace. The arrangement pits one colossal Goliath of a company against pint-size, atomized Davids.

On the other hand, the Amazon union has had some support. The National Football League Players Association, which represents more than 2,000 NFL players in the U.S., released a video in support, and Major League Baseball Players Association also released a statement. Poultry workers stand outside Amazon to talk to workers about unionization and unions like National Nurses United have also expressed support. There have been small actions of solidarity around the country over the past month. Politicians like AOC, Bernie Sanders, and Ilhan Omar sent videos in support, and Sanders sent pizza to a unionization rally.

Almost three weeks after Amazon workers started voting and facing mounting pressure from unions, Joe Biden sent a video condemning intimidation and supporting workers’ right to join a union. He did not, however, demand any repercussions for blatantly illegal intimidation. It stands in stark contrast to the harsh language Biden used to condemn and demand prosecution of BLM protesters, while the cops in cities with Democratic mayors jailed, beat, and gassed protesters. Further, he refused to speak out in favor of the PRO Act, which had been a Biden campaign promise. The PRO Act promises to end right-to-work laws, ban meetings used by companies to bully workers, and raise fines and penalties for employers who break labor laws. Biden gave lip service to Amazon’s union — but didn’t push forward any concrete proposals that would actually help workers unionize. Typical of the Democrats, Biden used flowery rhetoric to cover up the fact that he governs solely on the side of the capitalists.

Fuel for Amazon’s Unionization Effort

During the pandemic, it became clear to many workers just how essential they are. As a result, small mobilizations and walkouts occurred across the country among healthcare workers, grocery store workers, teachers, and more. The understanding of their own “essentialness” led to a strike at Hunts Point Market in NYC, the biggest wholesale market in the country. Marcos, a worker at Hunts Point, summed up the sentiment: “A lot of the guys died with me here [on the job]. We kept this place open. … While the bosses were home, I was here working for them. They got money, they got millions. They didn’t share it with us. We deserve more.” The Amazon unionization effort is part of the same sentiment among the working class.

The pandemic played out clearly along race and class lines, with Black and Brown essential workers being put on the front lines to die. As a result, Black people are hospitalized at three times the rate of white people and die at twice the rate. This helped fuel the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Last summer’s movement against racist police violence was estimated to be the largest in U.S. history. Although most of the people mobilizing were workers, the labor movement organized only a few actions. On Juneteenth, the ILWU shut down all the ports on the West Coast. In July, SEIU organized a Strike for Black Lives day, which was mostly made up of small protests. These were important acts of solidarity, but far from the strikes and mobilizations that should have been called to protest police violence and defund the police. Yet even these small actions, including the actions of Amazon workers, made key connections to the workplace. But workers also found ways to express solidarity on a small scale — like the bus drivers who refused to transport arrested BLM protesters in San Francisco, NYC, and Minneapolis. These are small expressions of workers who were part of the movement, but they did not organize themselves in their workplaces owing to the misleadership of union bureaucrats.

It is no exaggeration to say that the current Amazon unionization effort is a product of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Some of [the Bessemer] workers participated in the Black Lives Matter movement over the past year and reached out to this union because they were tired of dealing with the grueling nature of their work. There is a heightened political climate.” The energy, the defiance, the political conclusion that for Black lives to matter, we must fight — all this led directly into the unionization campaign. After all, how can one chant “Black lives matter” and then go to work and watch a largely Black workforce suffer inhumane conditions without connecting the dots?

Bloomberg reported that the union drive was the result of “the growing acceptance that systemic racism has hurt the economic prospects of people of color.” The growing understanding of racism as systemic, not solely interpersonal, also encouraged Black workers to look up — to look at whose knee was on their necks. It’s the cops, it’s the Democrats and Republicans, and it’s also the bosses.

In the real-life experiences of oppressed workers, there is no arbitrary delimitation between being oppressed as a Black person, immigrant, or woman, and being exploited as a worker. Black life should matter both when someone walks down the street and works at a distribution center. That’s why mass movements like Black Lives Matter have the power to activate the labor movement.

Alabama Unionism

The town of Bessemer has 27,000 residents and is 71 percent Black. It has a poverty rate of 28 percent — more than double the national rate of 10 percent. These numbers highlight how Black towns like Bessemer have been deeply impoverished during the neoliberal era. Jordyn Holman and Spencer Spoer explain that Bessemer “was once a thriving steel town and manufacturing center. For much of the 20th century, U.S. Steel and train-car maker Pullman-Standard employed thousands of locals, catapulting them into the middle class.” But manufacturing began leaving in the 1970s, and Pullman-Standard closed in 1981. As a result, unemployment went up to 35 percent, and many people left town. A predominantly Black community was left behind.

There are still some industries, including poultry plants, where workers are organized in the RWDSU. People still understand that unions provide higher-income jobs. In fact, in an effort to stop the unionization effort, Amazon told its workers that they were lucky to make $15 an hour. But some responded that nearby poultry workers make more than $15 —  highlighting the advantages  of a union.

The Amazon warehouse opened about a year ago and received $41.7 million in tax breaks to open the warehouse. The unionization effort began shortly thereafter. Writer and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor correctly notes that “the Black Lives Matter movement has the potential to make deep connections to and create relationships with organized labor. Black workers continue to be unionized at higher rates than white workers. The reason is simple: Black union workers make far above and beyond what nonunion Black workers make, in salary and benefits.”5 As a result, Black people view unions significantly more favorably than other groups. This is in part because unions have played a central role in the history of Black struggle. Alabama in particular has a powerful history of interracial unions.

If you look at history books, Alabama is most well known for harsh opposition to integration. Today, Alabama is one of the country’s reddest states and has an 8 percent unionization rate. That is 3 percent below the already dismally low national average. Alabama was among the first states to adopt an anti-union “right-to-work” law; it was on the books since 1953.

It may, at first glance, seem like a strange place to have the first strong push to unionize an Amazon warehouse. But Michael Goldfield’s book The Southern Key refers to “Alabama exceptionalism” in the 1930s and 1940s: Alabama was quite different from the rest of the Dixiecrat states. Why? Because it has a deep history of strong unions. The Amazon warehouse in Bessemer is actually situated on land that was formerly owned by U.S. Steel, where workers were part of United Steelworkers.

The term used by historian Robert Kornstad, “civil rights unionism,” is apropos: unionism organized by Black people who fought not only for unionization and labor rights, but also for demands in the Black community like voting rights, against white supremacist violence, and actively linking civil rights and labor rights. The trends towards civil rights unioism had powerful enemies, including the the government, the bosses, and the KKK, which was employed to terrorize and crush interracial unionism. While union leaders linked to the capitalists and class-collaborationist politics of the Communist Party in the late 1920’s onward limited the movement from inside, the rank-and-file struggles are well worth remembering and learning from.

In the early 20th century, the United Mine Workers had organized about 65 percent of the miners in Alabama — Black and white together. It was an interracial union in the midst of the Jim Crow era. The UMW was not exempt from the widespread racism of the time, but it also had very progressive tendencies toward interracial unity against the bosses. For example, Black workers were elected leaders of mining locals. In an amazing accomplishment, in District 20 in Alabama, the workers forced the bosses to end wage differences between Black and white workers and forced Birmingham to allow integrated union halls for meetings. As has been the case throughout history, the government used a combination of racism and repression to crush interracial labor unionism in Alabama. The result was a drop in unionized workers.

By the late 1920s, coal miners again began to play a central role in the Southern labor movement. They helped organize workers “wall to wall” in Alabama, including woodworkers, washerwomen, preachers, school teachers, and more. They provided active support for the Farmers Union, which organized Black and white sharecroppers and renters. As a result, Alabama became the most unionized state in the South.

The crux of civil rights unionism is to go beyond just organizing in a union, and coal miners in the 1920s and 1930s did that. As Goldfield explains,

They organized groups of white and black workers to go together to register to vote. They often paid the poll taxes for black and white workers. They said if you’re in the Ku Klux Klan, that’s incompatible with being a union member and you get expelled. So if you were in Birmingham, or in Bessemer, and you’re connected with the Klan, you were out.

But it wasn’t just the miners who played a central role in Alabama class struggle. In 1933, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (also known as the Mine Mill union), an interracial union organized in large part due to the efforts of the Communist Party, took up key civil rights issues. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes in Hammer and Hoe, “The prevalence of black workers and the union’s egalitarian goals gave the movement an air of civil rights activism.” He goes on to explain that “black workers — many of whom had gained experience in the Communist-led unemployed movement — held the majority of middle- and low-level leadership positions within the union.”6

As a result, Jamelle Bouie argues, “for most of the next 20 years, the Black workers of Mine Mill would struggle against racism and capital in a singular push for racial equality and the emancipation of labor, neither of which could exist without the other.”

The police, the bosses, and the KKK could eventually weaken these combative unions in the McCarthy Era using repression, racism, and anti-communism. But the Black workers who had been radicalized by Mine Mill and the UMW effort joined the NAACP and began to play a role in the civil rights movement.

These historical examples are important. On the one hand, they point to a deep labor tradition in Alabama — one that no doubt many Bessemer natives look to in their organizing work. On the other hand, they point to a tradition of “civil rights unionism” put forward by Black workers in unions — using the union to fight for labor demands as well as demands for equality, both on and off the job.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that this historic struggle is occurring in a red state with a strong labor history — after all, the wave of teachers’ strikes started in a red state with a strong labor history as well. West Virginia teacher Katie Endicott said, “In our ‘neck of the woods’ we know how to stand with courage because we have watched our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents stand on picket lines. The willingness to stand is a part of our DNA. It’s in our very blood.”7

Class Struggle Unions for the 21st Century

The Black workers at Amazon are unionizing because the BLM movement created a growing consciousness of how fundamentally and deeply racist the Unites States is, and that that racism is structural.

But a union is only a step in the fight against racist capitalism. Once workers have a union, that union must be a tool for struggle, taking up the best elements of the legacy of the UMW and the Mine Mill Union. Unions can be weapons for the Black Lives Matter movement and other social movements. In other words, they can strengthen the fight against police brutality and to defund the police by using their strategic position in the economy. They can allow us to shut down not only highways but also capitalist profits in defense of Black lives and the rights of all oppressed people. As Julia Wallace explained in a recent panel, “What if every time the cops murdered us, we refused to work? We are the ones who run society.” It’s important that a future Amazon union — and all unions — act as in the interests of all working people, fighting not just for their own members but against every form of oppression.

Most unions don’t work that way, however. They are often run top-down and refuse to put up a fight for even the demands of their own workers. For example, the RWDSU represents service workers who have been on the front lines of the pandemic, many of whom have fallen ill or even died. Yet the leadership didn’t call any strike or walk out to protect workers’ lives. As Jason Koslowski explains, “As the crisis began to hit last March, RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News calling for more workplace safety — but offered not a word on how workers could win that safety other than by asking the bosses for it politely.” The union newsletter speaks a great deal about “public pressure” on the bosses — not about how to force the bosses to bend to the will of the workers through militant labor actions. Likewise, they haven’t organized any real mass actions in solidarity with the Amazon unionization effort.

Rather, the RWDSU leadership has the same strategy that most other unions do: ask bosses to care more about workers and cozy up to the Democratic Party, enthusiastically endorsing Democratic candidates, and donating $108,000 to the party. While Applebaum says that unionizing Amazon is a civil rights struggle, he is a supporter of Jim Crow Joe (Biden), who opposed school integration. In that sense, Applebaum is a direct roadblock to civil rights unionism and the power of BLM inside the union. As Trotsky puts it, these union bureaucrats are the agents of the capitalists in the workers’ ranks. Applebaum is a prime example: he tries to divert the strength of the RWDSU to the graveyard of movements, implicitly saying that the crux of worker power lies at the polls, not in our ability to shut down production.

So it is essential for rank and file workers to fight against union bureaucrats and their subservience to the Democratic Party; workers must organize and struggle for strong, fighting unions. Amazon workers could build a different kind of union, taking up the radical legacy of Alabama unionism and the radical energy of the BLM movement. For the Amazon union to fight the pressure to become a campaign tool for Democrats, Amazon workers will need to take the union in their own hands. They will need to democratically organize the union in the workplace, with rank-and-file assemblies for discussion and decision making. In this sense, winning a union is winning a tool — one that rank-and-file workers can wield, or one that can be fairly neutralized by a top-down bureaucracy.

A Fire Starter

I think this will be like a fire starter for a lot of companies. Some people have said, “You all at Amazon have given us courage that now we can speak up, and somebody will listen.” Once the union is recognized, I think we’ll really feel the impact. But right now, we’re still fighting.

Amazon employee Jennifer Bates is right.

The whole country has an eye on the unionization effort at Amazon. These Black workers could help inspire a new wave of unionization, as Black workers have throughout U.S. history. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues that “white workers have always followed the lead of Black workers.”8

And it’s no wonder. Anti-Black racism is foundational to the very structure of the United States and has been upheld by Democrats and Republicans alike. It continues to provide extra profits for the wealthiest in the country in the world — from semi-slave labor in prisons, to the unlivable minimum wage, to the Amazon workers who are not given the basic dignity of a bathroom break. But throughout U.S. history, labor and anti-racist movements have joined up to fight back against racism and capitalist exploitation.

In the neoliberal era of “Amazon capitalism,” gig work and a downward trend of unionization and anti-union “right to work” laws, we desperately need fighting unions. This Amazon warehouse struggle, if successful, could be a stepping stone for many others.

This struggle, which blurs the boundaries between the struggle against racism and the struggle against capitalist exploitation, could be a watershed moment for the working class in the Biden era. It could  be a turning point to develop a national movement to overturn anti-union laws and to fight for the unionization of gig workers, undocumented workers, and the unemployed, where the Black community and other people of color are overrepresented. It can help mold a new militant labor movement that fights in the workplace against inhumane conditions imposed by the bosses and in the streets against racist police violence.

A triumph for Amazon workers would boost the morale of the BLM movement and the working class. It could help the Black movement and the working class become conscious of their own strength — instead of placing hopes in the Democratic Party, which uses progressive rhetoric to maintain control of the social movements and the organized working class. It could teach the working class to fight all forms of oppression. And it could serve as not just a national but an international example, as a blow against Amazon’s anti-union methods around the world. If you care about Black lives, support the Bessemer workers.

Notes

1 Scott Galloway, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google (London: Corgi Books, 2017), 41.
2 Kim Moody, “Amazon: Context, Structure and Vulnerability,” in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, ed. Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 21.
3 Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, Juliann Allison and Ellen Reese, “Introduction: Amazon Capitalism,” in Cost of Free Shipping, 17.
4 Moody, “Amazon: Context, Structure and Vulnerability,” 21.
5 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016),196.
6 Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
7 Elizabeth Catte  and Jessica Salfia, in 55 Strong, ed. Elizabeth Catte and Jessica Salfia (Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2018), 23.
8 Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, 205.

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.