Home > Uncategorized > The inspiring example of the Amazon workers – posted 4/10/2022

The inspiring example of the Amazon workers – posted 4/10/2022

Over the last 40 years, the American labor movement has been stomped. The percentage of American workers in unions has drastically declined, down to 10.3%, which is the lowest rate in decades. The decline is no accident and it is not primarily from self-inflicted wounds. Employers have turned union-busting into an art.

At the same time unions were being crushed, neither political party did anything to help. The Republicans are owned by the 1% bosses and their record is consistently anti-labor. Trump pretends to be a populist but he has always been anti-union. Unfortunately, the Democrats also have failed to respond. Defending labor has been a low priority for Democrats.

This background makes the organizing victory of the Amazon workers in New York all the more stunning. In a vote of 2654-2131, the Amazon Labor Union, the ALU, shocked the world and scored a victory that could inspire all underdogs.

For those unfamiliar with the labor movement or union organizing, I would offer that the deck has been stacked against labor for a very long time and organizing success has been like snow in April. It happens but you won’t see it too often. To be successful now is very hard.

I can speak from some personal experience. Earlier in my life, I spent nine years trying to organize unorganized workers. For seven years, I worked at Mass General Hospital in Boston trying to organize the service workers. Management deployed strategies very similar to those used against the Amazon workers. It is a well-trod path.

First, management hires a union-busting law firm. They figure a plan for creating fear and intimidation. Typically this involves firing union activists. They play on existing divisions to try and divide and conquer. They use captive audience meetings to badmouth the union. Whether or not unfair labor practices are alleged by union activists, no outside entity effectively interferes with the anti-union practices. Workers learn they have little protection.

The Amazon workers in New York relied on a highly creative, personalized strategy. The organizers were workers in the company. They did not rely on any organized union. They created an independent union, getting initial funding from a GoFundMe. Derrick Palmer, the Vice-President of organizing for the ALU, described how they succeeded:

“At the end of the day, having workers organize workers, I feel like that was really the game-changer because I don’t think Amazon ever expected that to happen.”

Amazon had argued that the union was a third party from outside. Considering that the organizers worked in the shop, that approach backfired. Through publicly available information, the ALU showed that Amazon was paying each anti-union consultant $3200 per day to turn workers against the union. Amazon spent $4.3 million on the union-busting firm not even counting the legal work.

It was actually the many union busters who were walking around the warehouse talking to workers who were the outsiders.

The ALU camped out near the warehouse to meet with workers and answer questions. They used social media videos, organized in break rooms off work time, held regular barbecues near the warehouse and held phone banks. When management held captive audience meetings, the pro-union workers interrupted and talked back, showing no fear.

As the election drew near, the ALU passed out union shirts and workers started wearing them in the warehouse. The ALU also passed out lanyards. These acts showed workers the strength of union support all over the warehouse and helped to break down fear.

Meanwhile, Amazon insulted the union organizers calling them “thugs” and they called Christian Smalls, co-founder of the ALU “not smart or articulate”. Smalls was a former supervisor at Amazon. Amazon fired him in Spring 2020 when he led a walkout over inadequate COVID-19 safety measures by the company.

Many of the classic reasons workers form unions were at play with Amazon. There is a lack of job security. The turnover rate is very high and workers are terminated for many reasons. The pace of work is brutal and Amazon relentlessly clocks expectations. The investigative journalist Will Evans has found that “the company’s obsession with speed has turned its warehouses into injury mills”.

Supposedly “essential workers” are not well-compensated even though in 2021 Amazon reported record profits of more than $35 billion. Since the pandemic Amazon’s profits have absolutely skyrocketed but there is no willingness to share the wealth. There is an unsurpassed level of greed here. Remember: in 2018 it was Bernie Sanders who shamed Amazon into paying a $15 an hour minimum wage. Shamelessness defines Amazon.

The Amazon workers must now get management to the bargaining table to negotiate a contract. This may be very difficult because it is a safe bet Amazon bosses would hate such a precedent.

The positive examples of the Amazon workers as well as the recent victories at multiple Starbucks locations show the effectiveness of the worker-to-worker organizing strategy. To reverse labor’s decline, the union movement must pour resources into organizing the unorganized. Walmart, Target, McDonald’s, Burger King, Uber, Lyft, Kroger and many others are all fair game.

While President Biden has laudably voiced support for the Amazon workers, there is a problem with the Democratic Party’s follow through. If workers are not getting the PRO Act aimed to help organizing or the labor provisions of Build Back Better, it is fair to ask: what are the Democrats delivering? It appears to be mostly talk.

To kickstart a renewed labor movement, more pro-worker legislation is needed to give union organizing a chance. The long-time employer game plan of intimidation, firing and unfair labor practices needs to be stopped.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. jlewandohotmailcom
    April 11, 2022 at 12:45 am

    Yes to everything you write about organizing! The “Great Resignation” has created an opportunity for workers to start reclaiming their power. A friend of mine was instrumental in organizing adjunct professors at one of the U Mass campuses. I’ll send this to her and recommend your blog.

    • April 11, 2022 at 12:51 am

      Thanks Jean. I have a background in organizing. I am a 60’s person.

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