Saturday Oct 23

Think Bigger: New possibilities for building workers' power at Amazon

By Peter Olney and Rand Wilson

Two years ago, we proposed a broad conceptual strategy for labor organizing at Amazon in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. Our chapter drew on the experience of the massive CIO organizing drives in U.S. basic industry in the 1930s when unions and the left worked closely together to build dynamic new organizations. To succeed at Amazon, we envisioned a similar organizing collaboration between committed left-wing workplace organizers and one or several unions.

Since writing that essay, much has happened to both deepen -- and challenge -- our earlier ideas: 

  • Amazon has continued to grow significantly, achieving record profits -- especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Independent worker organizations like Amazonians United and established unions have expanded their organizing initiatives;
  • The NLRB supervised election at Amazon's Bessemer, Alabama Fulfillment Center illustrated the need for labor law reform and the folly of taking on Amazon in one location;
  • President Biden's explicit support for the Bessemer workers set an example for the power of political intervention;
  • At its 2021 convention, the largest logistics union in the country, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, passed a resolution committing the union to organizing at Amazon;
  • Labor-backed community efforts to block tax subsidies and win concessions from Amazon have started to take root, showing the promise of wielding local and state regulatory power.

In addition to the other chapters in The Cost of Free Shipping​, two other books have informed our thinking. The first was Wade Rathke's Nuts and Bolts; The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing. It's well worth reading for anyone thinking about taking on the second largest employer in America: Amazon.

As a longtime ACORN and union organizer, Rathke is no stranger to taking on large employers. ACORN, in partnership with SEIU, initiated a campaign in 2004 to organize workers at Wal-Mart, America's largest employer. There were three prongs to Acorn's campaign:

  • Blocking the establishment of new Wal-Mart stores;
  • Organizing workers into the Wal-Mart Workers Association;
  • Building international solidarity.

Rathke observes that, "By most reckonings we had categorically established that, yes, Wal-Mart workers would join a worker-run and worker-led organization that publicly advocated for improvements in hours, wages, and working conditions and fought those issues with some success on the floor of the stores. We had achieved a de facto détente with the company that allowed stewards to represent other workers on grievances and that allowed Wal-Mart Workers Association (WWA) leaders to deal directly with store management."

The WWA succeeded in signing up about 1,000 members in 35 stores -- mostly in south Florida. Rathke attributes the group's dissolution in 2008 to institutional conflicts between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial workers (UFCW), the largest national union representing grocery and retail workers. Wade's reflections are a must read for today's organizers taking on Amazon.

Also shaping our thinking is Alec MacGillis' 2021 book, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, a comprehensive portrait of Amazon's penetration into every aspect of American life. MacGillis writes not only of Amazon's mistreatment of its workforce, but of Amazon's ubiquitous role in information services, food, publishing, and entertainment.  One compelling chapter follows a former steelworker at Bethlehem Steel's giant Sparrows Point mill in Baltimore for thirty years. In retirement, he takes a job at an Amazon fulfillment center built on the very site of the shuttered mill. Although one of the warehouse's best workers, after talking with coworkers about unions, he was targeted by management -- and then fired.

Rathke and MacGillis, along with so many other great writers have contributed to a growing body of critical work about Amazon. As our national understanding about the impact of Amazon deepens, many people are concluding that reforms to its business model are needed. If the government takes anti-trust measures, it's essential that Amazon workers gain a strong democratic voice in the company's future.

Now we turn to the developments outlined above that have improved the landscape for organizing at Amazon.

 

Base Building on the Rise
Prior to the pandemic, organizing at Amazon facilities was already underway; principally at delivery stations in Sacramento, Chicago, and Queens, New York. But the pandemic has radicalized many more Amazon workers, leading to a welcome increase in worker-led walkouts and protests that garnered substantial media attention and public support. In many situations these confrontations with local management have led to significant concessions on workplace issues while building workers' confidence that unity on the job can win tangible results. 

While Amazon clearly cares about its public image, management's willingness to make quick concessions to workers' demands shows how it is attuned to, and concerned about, any disruption in its promise of "next day" delivery to its Prime customers. However, when workers sought to win actual collective bargaining rights in Bessemer, it brought on an enormous effort coordinated at the top levels of Amazon leading to a crushing union busting campaign. Labor organizers would do well to remember Sun Tzu's maxim in The Art of War, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

National Spotlight on the Election at Bessemer BHM1
In November 2020, the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU) petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election in Bessemer, Alabama. It seemed like the whole
labor movement, progressive organizations and many Amazon workers were watching and rooting for success. No union election in our lifetime has ever attracted the public attention, glamorous movie stars, and support from the left than this government supervised union election. In the five months before the vote, it brought increased scrutiny to the reality of working conditions at Amazon in Bessemer, across the country and around the world. Critical, in-depth reporting on the inner workings of Amazon also increased as the drive gained national interest. Organizations like the Southern Workers Assembly moved to make Amazon a major focus of their organizing. Young cadres from socialist organizations were inspired to take jobs at Amazon.

While at the time we expressed our reservations about the limitations of a "one-facility-at-a-time" organizing strategy, there could be no doubt that a victory in Bessemer would have been a victory for all Amazon workers and a credit to the RWDSU and its members. Ultimately, as predicted by many, the union drive was soundly defeated.

The national attention and support for the Bessemer campaign, undoubtedly increased the number of Amazon workers willing to consider the possibility of organizing and the benefits of collective bargaining. But for far too many Amazon workers, the union's defeat only affirmed the futility of uniting to take on their powerful employer. In our experience, even pro-union workers won't come forward to support a union unless they see credible leadership and a viable strategy to win. While there is no single model for success at Amazon, we hope the lessons from the campaign in Bessemer will encourage Amazon workers throughout the company (and any unions supporting them) to consider alternative organizing strategies.

Bearing in mind the national and international reach of Amazon, its sophisticated logistics capacity, and its vast resources to oppose worker organization, building workers' power and sustaining a viable workplace organization must ultimately be national and international in scope. It must also contend with the flexibility built into the Amazon business model. Same-day delivery, and the efficiency of the last mile, is also flexibility that can be used to thwart worker organization if it remains isolated at single facilities.

The election also showed the clear limitations of pursuing union certification through a broken NLRB election process – although it did help increase the support for the PRO Act.

"President Biden Wants You to Join a Union."
Students of labor history will remember that John L. Lewis and the Committee on Industrial Organization promoted the slogan that "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union." In fact Roosevelt never made such a public statement on the record. Evidently Lewis, in a private conversation, heard FDR state his support for unions and decided to run with it publicly -- angering the President no end.
Biden's statement of support for the Amazon workers on video was therefore unprecedented, but political support for large scale organizing is not new. In 1937 when the Flint workers sat down in GM's car body production facility (a key strategic production choke point), management attempted to get Governor Frank Murphy of Michigan to call in troops to dislodge the strikers. The governor refused to do so, effectively forcing the company to negotiate with the fledgling UAW.

Union rank and file have potential to become an organizing colossus

The Amazon effort will ultimately require the dovetailing of internal worker organization at multiple facilities—like what Amazonians United is already doing—with the power and resources of one or several national unions: Teamsters, RWDSU, SEIU, and UFCW; all of whom have shown interest in the Amazon project.

Essential to the future success of any organizing at Amazon will be engaging rank and file union members whose wages and working conditions are thrown into competition with Amazon's business model. As the Amazon "octopus" grows, it is fundamentally undermining wages and working conditions of more than one million Teamsters, postal, longshore, and grocery store workers. For example, more than 300,000 Teamsters are employed at UPS and hundreds of thousands United Food and Commercial Workers members work at unionized grocery stores.

A resolution passed at the 2021 Teamsters Convention is a welcome development along these lines. It resolves to maintain standards in Teamster core industries against the threat posed by Amazon and support Amazon workers as they build power across the country. Randy Korgan, the Teamsters' National Director for Amazon, summed up the importance of the convention resolution:

"For Teamsters, and the labor movement as a whole, Amazon poses an existential threat to the rights and standards our members have fought for and won. But it also poses a tremendous opportunity for us to engage our members, build large volunteer organizing committees, build even stronger community labor alliances, more deeply integrate racial and other social justice struggles into our work and more. Standing on the shoulders of proud working people, who built our union for more than 100 years, the Teamsters will build the types of worker and community power necessary to take on one of the most powerful corporations in the world and win."

Union leaders like Korgan recognize the obvious: There will never be enough union resources to hire sufficient professional staff to organize Amazon. However, if only a small percentage of union members who have a self-interest in protecting their wages and working standards begin to actively engage Amazon workers, that "worker-to-worker" organizing will lead to an upsurge. The task for the labor movement is to train and support rank and file organizers who are in a position to find receptive Amazon workers through their family and friends, co-workers' or neighbors.

Building support for workers power in the community and on main street

Drawing from the lessons of ACORN's Wal-Mart organizing, future workplace organizing must also be accompanied by campaigns (preferably union-backed) to stop Amazon from securing any tax breaks and win Community Benefit Agreements around the siting of future Amazon facilities. These community-based campaigns can complement union efforts by raising issues with local elected officials about Amazon's poor wages, benefits, and dangerous working conditions. The campaigns could foster strong relationships between local community activists and Amazon workers that will be essential when workplace actions need community support. 

Good Jobs First, a national resource center for grassroots groups and public officials, is tracking the subsidies that Amazon receives and promoting increased accountability to the communities where facilities are located. Good Jobs First has documented how Amazon follows a highly predictable pattern in locating its distribution facilities. It needs to have hundreds of warehouses in metro areas where the greatest number of Prime subscribers live. And it locates them near highways and airports with quick access to affluent Prime neighborhoods.

The massive subsidies state and local governments have given Amazon for these warehouses have been wasted -- because the evolution of the Prime business model, to rapid delivery, required Amazon to build them.

An example of effective collaboration between the Teamsters and community activists took place recently in Fort Wayne.  There, Fort Wayne's Republican-majority city council turned the tables on Amazon's usual quick – and surreptitious – coercion of public subsidies from municipal authorities. As community concerns were raised about pay, employee safety, and the adverse impact on already established employers and their employees, the city council called into question the real benefits the company's jobs would bring. With the previous lack of transparency where Amazon won a $16 million abatement, the council blocked Amazon's bid for an additional $7 million in tax breaks.

Another avenue that could help strengthen Amazon workers is the growing concern about the company's monopoly power. The Athena coalition, organized to fight Amazon's growing grip over our economy, marks a significant broadening of the anti-monopoly movement to grassroots organizations beyond the Beltway.

Athena is an alliance of more than forty organizations that believe that, "The control over our communities and our democracy should be in our hands. We've come together to fight for people whose lives are affected by Amazon including working people, small business owners, people of color and immigrants."

Regional Power Pods

Organizations like Amazonians United, the Awood Center in the Twin Cities, the Teamsters, and the Warehouse Workers Resource Center in Southern California's Inland Empire are building a significant base of community and worker support that could emerge as "Regional Power Pods." Building a strategic base at "last mile" delivery stations is where Amazon is most vulnerable. These facilities are essential to 24-hour turnaround deliveries but have debilitating schedules for front line workers. They are also facilities with a relatively smaller workforce that, under current labor law, are easier to organize. A regional strategy to paralyze deliveries from these last mile sites could give workers real leverage with Amazon.

As Good Jobs First has pointed out, Amazon needs to site these facilities close to its generally urban and affluent markets. Local communities, working in an alliance with labor, have an obvious opportunity to block Amazon's expansion and extract "Community Benefit Agreements." Amazon's location strategy cannot employ the threat that manufacturers use to blackmail communities for tax breaks and other concessions in order to avoid the factory packing up and leaving for Mexico or the Far East.

Building regional power doesn't need to happen everywhere. It only needs to happen in six to eight metro areas. In these areas, unions could mentor and support Amazon workers, organize actions on issues, and build a base of support for collective bargaining. At the same time, community and political support could be marshaled for siting agreements that address workers issues. Combined, it could create the context for coordinated direct action at multiple facilities, backed by logistics unions, with significant community and political support.

The importance of community support and mentoring cannot be overestimated. The workers who are doing the on-the-job organizing face inhumane shift schedules and dangerous ergonomic conditions. Sustaining their long-term employment in a high turnover environment is a challenge for the whole movement. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. The turnover at Ford's Highland Park, Michigan assembly in 1913 was over 300 percent! Yet unions supported by the socialist left and other allies, were able to build power and organize the auto industry at the pinnacle of its industrial prominence. 

Amazon workers can achieve collective bargaining and win good jobs if unions provide sufficient resources and employ a comprehensive strategy. It's an imperative for workers in competing industries and for meaningful accountability in the communities Amazon exploits. Building a strategic and powerful campaign will require a lot of humility and openness to experimentation. Recent developments have refined our vision of labor engaged in a deep and enduring collaboration with the left for successful workplace organization. Indeed, such collaboration is required to build a vibrant labor movement among Amazon workers; a key component to "make another Amazon possible."

Peter Olney
Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 50 years in Massachusetts and California. He worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years, he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California.

Rand Wilson
Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than forty years, most recently as an organizer and chief of staff for SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. In 2016 he helped to co-found Labor for Bernie and was elected as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He is an elected member of Somerville's Ward 6 Democratic Committee. Wilson is board chair for the ICA Group and the Fund for Jobs Worth Owning. He also serves as a trustee for the Somerville Job Creation and Retention Trust.

Joomla! Debug Console

Session

Profile Information

Memory Usage

Database Queries