The union drive at BHM1, Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, is inspiring Amazon workers nationwide. Maybe you work at Amazon and are thinking “How can I get in on this? We need a union in my facility too!”
Most of your coworkers haven’t been in a union, nor will they really know what a union is. Because of the propaganda from bosses, some will have only heard the lies that unions just take your money or that they hurt businesses that then “have” to move.
It’s important to know what you’re building and to be comfortable making it plain to other workers. At base, a union is no more than workers at a single workplace organizing together against the power of the boss. A union gives workers the ability to collectively fight where individually they have little power.
Amazon views all its warehouse employees as replaceable. They enforce a breakneck pace at work with the understanding that many people will not make quotas or will quit. Why? Amazon makes more money off you the more actions you make in an hour.
As a worker at Amazon, what power do you have to make sure managers follow Amazon’s own rules? Managers can easily find enough “time off task” to discipline any worker at any time. If you speak up alone, they’ll find a reason to fire you, it’s not hard. Now imagine if all the Pickers on a shift went to a manager together to complain about a misapplied rule. In order to get everyone back to work and the facility restarted, the bosses have a choice to make. Widen that idea out to the whole facility and you start to grasp the power of an organized workplace.
To unify all the workers in any one Amazon facility means communicating with people from many different backgrounds. Getting the buy-in that’s needed to organize actions on the job requires more than just good ideas. You need to listen to and involve others. In a word, you need to establish a true democratic tradition, where everyone’s voice is listened to — the opposite of how Amazon is run.
The First Steps
The strength of a union of Amazon workers is based on the strength of the organizing inside the facility. So before you can have a union, you have to start building that teamwork and solidarity. Start by bringing together an informal organizing committee. Look for strong, pro-union workers in every department and on every shift. Each lead should start to map out their department and shift: who is a strong supporter? Who isn’t excited either way? Who is anti-union and likely to rat you out to management?
For the initial period, secrecy is essential. Amazon is on the lookout for any hints of union organizing and, even though it’s illegal, will find a way to fire you if they think you’re actively trying to form a union. You know those cameras they have all around the facility, including in the parking lots? They’re watching carefully and will gear up if they catch a whiff of a union.
Amazon wants to avoid workers unionizing at all costs. They’ll hire union-busting consultants, ship in anti-union workers from other areas, and spend millions countering any organizing you do. We have to be ready to counter their lies. Sometimes they claim that a union will result in lower wages or worse benefits — if that were true, wouldn’t Amazon welcome in a union with open arms? We’ve also heard that Amazon will have to close their warehouse if there’s a union — but how then would they do Prime deliveries without warehouses near every major city? If they can’t do it, they’ll lose customers to other services.
At some point, you’ll start working with a national union — this is good! They have huge resources and can assign organizers to work full time on the campaign — organizers who crucially can’t be fired by Amazon. However, the union staffers can’t build or replace the internal organizing in the facility that you’ve already started. A union is a team and there’s a need for multiple roles to be filled.
A union with staffers and lawyers is important to help you through the complicated process of getting officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This usually requires collecting signed union cards from a majority of employees at the warehouse, and then setting up an NLRB election, which can be in person or mail-in. Once the cards are turned into the NLRB, the union drive is public, which means Amazon will go whole hog on its union-busting tactics. The public attention, however, makes it harder for Amazon to force out leading activists as that would be correctly seen as an “unfair labor practice” and Amazon will likely avoid it because it can backfire on management and push more workers to the union.
You Have to Act Like a Union to Become a Union
A union is about solidarity and the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” So workers are only as strong as they can ensure that every worker is treated fairly. Even before you win a contract, it’s vital to start acting like a union and defending your coworkers.
Here’s an example: Let’s say “Shay” is a picker. She has been having health troubles that mean she needs to use the restroom regularly. The nearest bathroom is a five-minute walk away and sometimes there’s a line. The manager comes up to her and wants to discipline her for too much time off task. This is where she needs support. If all the workers in the area stop working to pay attention and then refuse to return to work until the warning is rescinded, it puts pressure back on the manager. If the manager pig-headedly pushes forward with the warning, they have to answer why nobody in their section is working. If they withdraw the warning workers now know they can fight back together.
Many Amazon workers will be scared to stick their necks out — we need our jobs! It’s important to emphasize that the more workers we have involved in any action or organizing drive, the safer and stronger we are. To organize a union at your facility, you need to constantly repeat the idea that “alone, I can’t make the management back down, but WE can together,” and involve as many people as possible.
Once the drive is public, another important source of support for workers is community solidarity. Don’t be shy! Tell all your friends and family what you’re doing. Ask them to help organize community actions in support. The more eyes on Amazon’s actions there are, the less likely they are to go after workers.
But that’s not all. You can organize to oppose unnecessary speed-ups using a tactic called “work to rule.” This means that all together as a section — this doesn’t have an effect unless a majority of workers in a department are doing it together — you slow down the pace of your work to the minimum required by the job, or slower.
Most of the time, Amazon has all the power over us. They tell us when we can and can’t work, they tell us what we can and can’t say on the job. We only have the power to stop working. But if we stop at the same time, collectively, this will completely stop Amazon’s whole operation. With this approach, we have power at Amazon! And with this approach, we can win union recognition, better wages, and livable working conditions for all!