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Grassroots Unionism: Lessons from the Victory at Amazon

Amazon workers in Staten Island defeated one of the wealthiest and most anti-union corporations in the world. Their victory is a repudiation of the failed strategy of the labor bureaucracy and shows the power of real rank and file organizing.

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Photo by Luigi Morris

We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because while he was up there, we were signing workers up. — Chris Smalls

The Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island, New York, is a true David-and-Goliath story: a ragtag group of workers faced off against the world’s second-richest person, and they won.

Amazon, the second-biggest employer in the United States and the third-largest corporation in the world, has made record profits off the backs of its more than 1.5 million employees, many of whom work in unsafe, sweatshop conditions in warehouses where they are treated like human machines. In 2021 Amazon raked in an astounding $33.6 billion in profits, yet it still pays its warehouse workers on average less than the living wage. Meanwhile, the company spent more than $4.3 million last year alone on anti-union lawyers in an attempt to kill organizing efforts at warehouses across the country, including Bessemer, Alabama, and Staten Island. After all, demands put forward by a union, including the end of forced overtime and a higher wage, would significantly hurt the profits made off hyperexploited workers.

Despite these efforts, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) persisted, and with a grassroots organizing campaign, a couple of pro bono lawyers, and an operating budget of just over $100,000 raised mostly from workers and community supporters, it managed to establish itself as the first union at an Amazon facility in the United States. The ALU’s organizers threw out the rule book of traditional top-down union organizing. Their worker-led campaign not only defeated Bezos but also taught a lesson to the bureaucratic, ossified, and well-funded unions.

How Did This Happen?

In late March 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Chris Smalls (now president of the ALU) and Derrick Palmer helped organize a walkout of over 50 workers at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in Staten Island demanding greater Covid protections. The company not only denied these basic demands but also used the opportunity to send a message to its employees by firing Smalls for — of all things —  “breaking social distancing and quarantine practices,” even though he had never tested positive for the virus.

Instead of giving up, Smalls, Palmer, and other workers continued the fight for their rights by forming a union.

According to leaked memos revealed in April 2020, company executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos, began to discuss how to defeat the young organizing efforts by smearing Smalls. In language dripping with racist undertones, the company’s general counsel described him as “not smart or articulate,” and argued that Amazon could easily win a PR battle by highlighting Smalls’s leadership role. But they clearly underestimated their opponent and the organizing ability of their workforce.

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Smalls and workers from the warehouse began their campaign like so many other working-class movements: by setting up a table and regularly talking to their coworkers, both inside and outside the work site. And from the low starting wages to the unbearable working conditions, there were plenty of grievances to organize around. As JFK8 warehouse worker Brima Sylla put it, “All they care about is how they can use and control your time while you’re in that building. It’s not humane — to be honest, it’s a real plantation.” Motherboard wrote about an Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8 who sleeps in her car and showers at Planet Fitness because she cannot afford rent in New York City.

The emerging labor union tapped into Amazon workers’ anger that these working conditions generated, and as their numbers grew, the table grew to a tent, and organizers began bringing coffee, food, and other refreshments for their fellow workers. Amazon workers are diverse: they come from all over the area, including across New York City and New Jersey and from multiple generations. There are many immigrants, some of whom don’t speak English. And so the Amazon union had a challenge of uniting this diverse workforce for a common goal. As one organizer, Angelika Maldonado explained to Jacobin, bringing African food to the tent attracted more African workers. Sylla, who is himself from Liberia, also made WhatsApp chats for the many African immigrants to get them more involved in the unionization effort. The ranks of the worker-organizers grew, and they recruited even more organizers, formed study groups, distributed union T-shirts to be worn in the warehouse, and began to collect the cards needed for a union vote.

Dispensing with the traditional union strategy, the ALU was open and public from the start; its organizers spoke up in the warehouse and had a tent stationed outside. Rather than waiting to convince every worker before filing for a union vote (a Sisyphean task in a workplace where turnover is so high and management is intentionally targeting organizers), they submitted their cards as soon as they had the minimum number needed. And after much complaining by Amazon, they managed to get enough verified signatures that the NLRB had no choice but to call an election.

These efforts were resisted by Amazon every step of the way. As they did at the Bessemer Amazon facility, they bombarded workers with anti-union flyers, anti-union text messages, and mandatory meetings to persuade workers to vote no on the union. Around the country, Amazon spends millions on anti-union activity. In fact, the company even went so far as to hire the notorious anti-union Pinkerton detective agency, (the same organization that killed and terrorized generations of U.S. workers) to spy on organizing efforts at the warehouse.

Watch the ALU’s press conference here

But the mandatory meetings backfired — workers denounced Amazon’s lies, allowing them to connect with other workers and counter management’s efforts to divide them. Another Amazon union-busting strategy that backfired was the February arrest of Smalls and two other warehouse workers who had come to drop off food for Amazon employees. Immediately, even the workers who were anti-union were incensed. Brett Daniels, a JFK8 warehouse worker, explained that a manager who was anti-union and sought to stop workers from collecting signatures at lunch ended up joining the unionization effort after the arrests. “We’re not going to let that happen,” the manager said.

Clearly, Smalls’s and Palmer’s leadership played an integral role in the union’s success. But the 100+ worker-organizers in the warehouse who risked their jobs to speak up in meetings, met with other workers one on one, made WhatsApp chats, and strategized how to bring in more workers, were also critical to the victory.

A Slap in the Face of the Union Bureaucracy

According to John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University,

Amazon is the most important company in the global economy and it’s the most fearsome anti-union company in terms of its wealth, sophistication, and its efforts to keep unions out. With ALU, it also does seem to turn all of the conventional organizing wisdom on its head. They did it without a huge union or experienced organizers.

We would go further: the union victory at JFK8 is actually a slap in the face of the bureaucratic leaderships of the national unions. For years now, big unions, including the RWDSU and the SEIU, have consistently failed in their efforts to organize new layers of precarious workers, despite the millions of dollars they have spent in the effort.

Consider, for instance, the RWDSU’s so-far failed attempts to organize the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Rather than help build a worker-led campaign there, the RWDSU has instead taken a top-down approach that relies heavily on Democratic Party endorsements and the use of union staffers as substitutes for rank-and-file organizers. When Left Voice traveled to Bessemer to report on the organizing efforts there, we attended an event with Bernie Sanders where there were fewer than 15 workers present. People stood with signs in favor of the union outside the warehouse, but not a single worker was to be found.

This method of organizing is not a coincidence or a tactical error, however. In the ongoing epoch of imperialist crisis, unions and their leaders have become tools of capitalism. Union leaders — whose material interests are fundamentally different from those of the workers they represent — have largely abandoned any real militancy. Instead they have worked to make unions an electoral appendage of the Democratic Party in the hopes of winning a few crumbs from the table of capital. In this way, they work to keep workers passive by telling them that their power is at the polls, voting for their class enemies, rather than in struggle. This subservience to the Democratic Party is one of the reasons why labor unions in the United States were crushed by the bipartisan neoliberal offensive, and why unionization rates, despite rising support for unions, have continued to decline for decades.

This does not mean, however, that working people do not need or should reject big unions like the RWDSU. We need large worker organizations, including unions. But to make the most of those organizations, rank-and-file workers have to fight to wrest control of them from the bureaucrats. Workers must fight and defeat existing union leaderships to control their unions democratically, using them as tools for class struggle against the bosses and the state.

The Dead End of the Democratic Party 

Although the Democrats like to position themselves as friends of labor, they are not. They make promises to labor, like the PRO Act or the Employee Free Choice Act, but they consistently fail to deliver even these meager promises. In the case of the ALU, the Democrats’ electoral machine was actually used against the union. As CNBC reported, Amazon hired an influential Democratic pollster to fight the Staten Island union drive.

Even progressives in New York City like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected by a new generation of voters who are pro-union, pro-worker, and anti-oppression, failed to turn out in support of ALU. As Smalls explained, AOC was slated to visit Staten Island workers in support of their union, but she ended up canceling and made no other efforts to visit. Worse, she failed to use her position as a public figure to call on other workers and the community to lend their support.

In a Twitter exchange with one of her critics, AOC argued that she had a scheduling conflict and that the warehouse was not in her district. She then proceeded to get owned in a series of responses from working people, including Smalls, who explained that not only has she regularly traveled outside her district to lobby for Democrats like Nina Turner, but that many of her constituents actually work in the JFK8 warehouse. Of course, AOC can’t be everywhere at once, but her failure to prioritize what has become one of the most important labor events in years, while making time to attend the Met Gala in a $10,000 Tax the Rich Dress, shows that she is just another career politician.

The truth is that AOC and the Democratic Party machine didn’t want to be associated with a group of radical workers. The lack of support for the ALU stands in stark contrast with all the Democratic Party support for the Bessemer unionization effort, in which the RWDSU put pictures of Stacey Abrams on their pro-union banners.

Since the ALU victory, there has, unsurprisingly, been an outpouring of support for the union, including from Joe Biden, but this support is nothing but smoke and mirrors meant to obfuscate Biden’s attacks on working people across the country. Biden’s new budget, for instance, includes more funding for the military, cops, and ICE, and it goes back on his campaign’s already-meager promises of social. Democrats’ support for the Amazon should be seen for what it really is: an attempt to hijack workers’ power and direct it into the dead end of the Party.

A New Moment for Labor

The ALU’s success should not be seen in a vacuum, however. Like all historical events, this was about more than a few courageous individuals with a bold strategy. The ALU was formed in the wake of a period of incredible crisis and class struggle defined by the pandemic and the mass uprisings against police violence in 2020, events which have helped to radicalize a whole new generation of working people. The pandemic and the BLM uprisings deeply molded the entire working class — as was highlighted by the wave of strikes and worker actions last October (#Striketober), when workers around the country demanded better working conditions. Miners, healthcare workers, carpenters, and symphony workers all went on strike. It was a rebellion of the “essential” workers who risked their lives and kept the economy running throughout the pandemic lockdown.

And workers know the massive profits that have been made by the pandemic’s profiteers. The wealth of US billionaires, for instance, rose 70 percent during the pandemic, from $3 trillion to $5 trillion. Meanwhile, rising inflation and supply chain disruptions have made the working class increasingly aware of the inequality at the heart of the capitalist system as well as the power they have to disrupt it. But as the Biden administration increases military, police, and ICE funding while walking back even the meager promises for social spending, workers are facing a difficult battle.

And it is mostly young workers who are on the front lines. The Washington Post says, “Many leaders of the movement are in their early 20s; they’re leaning into the nickname ‘Generation U,’ for union. Approval of unions is the highest it has been since 1965, with a 68 percent approval rating — which rises to 77 percent among ages 18 to 34 — according to a recent Gallup poll.” These are the young people — millennials and zoomers — who are seeking to unionize Starbucks shops all over the country, who have unionized Condé Nast, and tech workers at Alphabet and the New York Times and more in the past few months.

This generation has experienced two “once in a lifetime” economic downturns, a worldwide pandemic and a mass movement for Black Lives. This generation also stands on the side of queer folks, Black folks, and other oppressed people — and that’s expressing itself in small ways in the labor movement. Workers at Jezebel went on strike for trans rights, Minneapolis teachers went on strike for the hiring and retention of BIPOC teachers, and Disney workers walked out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

While some quit their jobs in the Great Resignation, others are going on strike. And we are seeing an insurgent phenomenon of grassroots unionism — of rank-and-file workers, like Smalls, and Starbucks workers organizing and demanding a union. From this will emerge new leaders and new rank-and-file challenges to traditional top-down unionism. 

Looking Ahead

An immediate struggle for the union will be the fight to win a good first contract. The ALU says it plans to fight for a $30 minimum wage, two paid 30 minute breaks, more paid time off, and an end to mandatory overtime. The ALU hopes to begin negotiating the contract in May.

Without a doubt, Amazon will try to punish workers for unionizing by fighting to get the vote overturned and negotiating the worst contract possible. The way forward here for the ALU is to use the same strategy that helped them win the union. 

In contrast to the business union logic that says that you can get a good contract through backroom negotiations or lawyers, the ALU’s victory shows that organizing rank-and-file workers is key. A good first contract will be won not through a few lawyers at the table, but with the strength of all the workers, ready to strike if necessary.

Moreover, the tremendous outpouring of support for the Amazon union can also be used to connect with other workers outside the warehouse. Workers must support one another in collective struggle.

The experience at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse has challenged the typical unionist model, and it is just the beginning. Now, as the workers move toward their first contract negotiation, they must fight for open bargaining sessions, where any and all workers can attend, and use rank-and-file assemblies to discuss next steps in the struggle. Most of all, they must be ready to fight and to strike

A Stronghold for the Working Class

ALU is already being contacted not only by over a hundred other Amazon facilities but also by other workers at Starbucks and Walmart, and by Teamsters and others. It has the potential to become a stronghold for the working class and play even a bigger role in deepening the unionization momentum. Including the goal of having a wall-to-wall contract in Staten Island that includes other sectors of Amazon workers, including drivers.

There is also a question about what kind of relationship the ALU will establish with other unions. Can the ALU be a tool to break the immobility of top-down “business unions” and demand action and class struggle? Can the ALU demand that all other unions put their immense resources at the service of mobilizing in the streets to fight for a good contract for Amazon workers or for other sectors of workers in New York City? 

Further, it’s essential that the ALU maintain political independence from capitalist parties. It’s clear that the Democrats are on the side of the union busters, not the union. But nearly every other union gives money and mobilizes its members to canvas for the Democratic Party. Political independence from capitalist parties is a matter of life and death for this new union. So far it has been made clear that the power of Amazon workers resides in their workplace organizing, bolstered by the support of “Generation U.” While many Democrats have approached the new union and want to coopt the momentum, workers must recall that the party is the “graveyard of social movements.” 

But independence from the Democrats does not mean abstaining from politics — rather, it will mean organizing against the attacks by Democrats and Republicans, against not just Amazon workers but all workers and oppressed people. It means using the union as a tool to really fight for Amazon workers and their communities, for immigrants rights, Black workers, LGBTQ+ workers, and more.

The ALU’s Potential

The ALU is perhaps the clearest example of an emerging grassroots unionism, with Chris Smalls, Derrick Palmer, and others as organic leaders of that movement. And the capitalists have plenty to be nervous about since the ALU has already been contacted by workers at more than 100 Amazon work sites interested in forming their own union.

But the future of the ALU and this phenomenon more broadly is wide open. If multiple Amazon workplaces unionize and demand higher wages, it will raise the standards for the entire U.S. working class. If multiple Amazon warehouses not only unionize but also play a role in class struggle, there is tremendous potential. Workers in the logistics industry have enormous leverage and can cost the capitalists millions of dollars if they shut down production.

The organizers of the ALU and the workers at JFK8 have opened a new breach in the long and difficult battle between U.S. labor and capital. It is the task of all workers now to take up this opportunity to win new ground and build new power for working people everywhere.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

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

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

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