By Marty Goodman
“This is a revolution!” said Chris Smalls, the Amazon Labor Union’s President to a jubilant rally of Amazon workers and supporters in New York City’s Staten Island. Smalls and the ALU organizing committee, a diverse group of young Amazon workers, battled for union recognition against an over $1 trillion corporate monster at its JFK8 facility of 8,000 workers and won. Beating back a $4.3 million union-busting campaign, victory was declared on April 1st, workers voting 2,654 to 2,131 to unionize.
“We shook up the labor movement,” said Derrick Palmer, ALU vice president of organizing. “This is history in the making.” Worker James De Ville, “They tried to force people who are immigrants, or young people with little job experience, away from fighting back. But it backfired.” Putting it simply, ALU secretary Karen Ponce told an April 8 press conference, “We kicked Amazon’s management and union busters’ ass.”
The ALU promised in the course of its campaign that it would fight for a wage increase to $30 per hour, job security, paid sick leave, extended break time and a free shuttle service to work. At an April rally, Smalls declared, “This is a Black led union.”
Staten Island is the first Amazon location to unionize. Founded by Jeff Bezos, who’s personal wealth is $172 billion, Amazon unleashed its’ dirty tricks against an earlier unionization vote at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama location in 2021. Aided by the bureaucratic organizing of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the first round of voting failed but tragically a second vote – held after the union protested – also failed. (See SA’s, “Behind Union Defeat at Amazon Bessemer,” 4/19/2)
After meeting with the Teamsters in DC to seek resources and legal assistance, Smalls told “Labor Notes” magazine, “We’re not affiliating” with the Teamsters or other trade unions. “We will remain independent. We won this way, workers organizing ourselves. We won’t give that up.” Since April 1, Smalls has been contacted by at least 100 Amazon workers across the U.S. and abroad. He has 100,000 Twitter followers.
Smalls led a walkout in March 2020 to protest the company’s failure to provide safety measures against COVID. Amazon fired him, supposedly for violating Covid protocols. Amazon called the cops who arrested Smalls. Internal Amazon memos revealed that the company’s general counsel insulted Smalls in a meeting of company brass, calling him “not smart or articulate.” Smalls rallied supporters to found the ALU and leafleted the ranks daily at a nearby bus stop with flyers calling on workers to vote to unionize, while also providing music and food to workers.
In response to a recent ALU appeal, more than 300 workers have stepped up to become shop stewards or to just help the union. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has not yet officially certified the union due to Amazon’s challenges to the vote. An NLRB hearing is scheduled for May 23rd. The union predicts its certification.
A second Amazon unionization vote was conducted at an adjacent Amazon facility, LDJ5, which employs 1,600 workers, mainly part-timers. Ballots were counted by the NLRB on May 2nd and, unfortunately, Amazon won, 380 voted yes for unionization but 618 voted no. It was a heavy blow but the ALU vows to continue organizing at the facility. Organizers attribute the loss to the heavy emphasis on organizing the year-long campaign at JFK8, the LDJ5 vote scheduled soon after JFK8 and the always more difficult job of organizing part-time workers at the newer LDJ5.
Said ALU Treasurer Madeline Wesley, 23, “Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8; they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything that they’ve got here at LDJ5. They successfully rallied some anti-union workers, so we had to fight a lot of misinformation and rumors and lies.” Organizers reported racist, sexist and homophobic slanders against the ALU.
“Every worker who votes yes for the union—JFK8 and LDJ5—is a hero,” said Wesley. “Can you imagine standing up to one of the richest companies in the world?” After that loss Small announced that the union would hold a national meeting with workers from more than 100 other Amazon locations in late June.
Amazon’s robo world
In March 2020, Smalls, who is African-American and a former supervisor at JFK8, walked out in protest over Amazon’s virtually non-existent COVID precautions and cover-up of worker COVID positive cases. In keeping with Amazon’s union-busting strategy it did not allow ALU worker-organizers into its’ mandatory anti-union propaganda meetings. When ALU president Chris Smalls came onsite to give out food and answer questions, Amazon had Smalls and two co-workers arrested. Smalls was fired for “trespassing.” Soon after he began recruiting for what would become the ALU.
According to a recent report by the union sponsored Strategic Organizing Center, workers at Amazon were injured at more than twice the rate of workers at other company’s warehouses in 2021 based on Amazon’s own figures. In 2021, Amazon employed one-third of all warehouse workers in the U.S., but sustained nearly half of all injuries.
Amazon’s workers are driven by robots; workers must meet production quotas determined by algorithmic formulas determined by Jeff Bezo’s greed. Amazon has refused to share its’ algorithmic formulas for examination. Legislation has been proposed to curb the secrecy and inhuman pace at Amazon. Conditions are so bad, “the turnover among its work force was roughly 150 percent a year,” the New York Times reported in 2021. “That rate is almost double the retail and logistics industries.” While Amazon propaganda babbles about improving safety, “Earth’s Safest Place to Work,” injuries at its U.S. warehouses were up by about 20% between 2020 and 2021, most of them considered serious. The study’s blamed Amazon’s “obsession with speed” as a main cause of the problem. Earlier this year, the company apologized for denying that its drivers are forced to urinate in plastic bottles to meet outrageous schedules. Nationally, there are more than 50 unfair labor practices pending against Amazon.
Building the contract fight
A ruthless corporate goliath like Amazon will take every opportunity to trick and bully workers. A winning strategy would include mass meetings, a fighting working class perspective that includes strike preparation and independence from both capitalist parties. Union democracy coupled with an aggressive class-struggle union strategy and broad labor solidarity will be key to winning that critical first contract.
At an April 4th ALU press conference capitalist politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others appeared pledging support. Yet, like all such vacuous promises that support always evaporates as the struggle intensifies.
On May 5, Smalls and other labor reps met with President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris before Smalls testified at a Senate hearing. Seeing the meeting as just another opportunity for Biden to pretend that he’s pro-labor, he quoted civil-rights activist John Lewis when he told Chris Smalls that he represents “good trouble.” The phoniness of this hack, anti-labor corporate politician was quickly shown at a White House press conference when administration officials walked back Biden’s “good trouble” comment while pledging to America’s corporate rulers that the Biden administration took no position on labor conflicts!
Indeed, “pro-labor” Biden recently re-awarded a $10 billion federal contract to Amazon, contrary to his earlier pledge not to award federal contracts to companies that engage in anti-union campaigns. A union backed study found that the extent of taxpayer government giveaways in tax breaks and loans awarded Amazon at least $4.2 billion in the last decade, including $700 million in 2021.
At the White House meeting Smalls directly asked President Biden to press Amazon to recognize his union. Biden declined to respond. Building solidarity with Amazon workers, not merely token appearances by union bureaucrats at press conferences, will be the duty of the entire labor movement. The struggle against Amazon intersects with other struggles, such as Amazon’s sale of facial identity technology to Homeland Security to enable deporting immigrants and its sale of high-tech billion-dollar programs to observe and identify Palestinians in apartheid Israel.
Workers in the U.S. may be on the cusp of a big labor upsurge. In 2021, petitions to hold union elections were up more than 50 percent over the previous year during the six months ending in March, on pace to reach its highest point in at least a decade. Successful organizing struggles at Amazon, Starbucks and other locations continue to grow. Angry younger workers in particular are stepping up to play militant leadership roles, many with Black Lives Matter protest experience.
Justine Medina, a member of the ALU Organizing Committee, told Socialist Action, “Capitalist production keeps expanding, they keep exploiting workers, they treat them like garbage and keep throwing them to the curb. They’ll keep doing that for their own profits until they’re forced to stop. We’re fighting for people over profits. We are fighting back as workers.”
As capitalism’s crises deepen, accompanied by ever-more severe and broad-ranging attacks on working people, a new wave of class struggle fightback may be upon us. Join us to become an active participant.