Workers at the JFK8 Amazon Fulfillment Center in Staten Island have dealt a stunning blow to the corporate giant by voting ‘Yes’ for the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), 2654 for and 2131 against. This decisive result proves once and for all that one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world can be defeated. Workers are fed up with the deplorable working conditions and wages that allowed Jeff Bezos to become the richest man in the world, launching himself into space in July last year just three months after the first major union drive in Bessemer, Alabama was defeated that April. Amazon’s greed and arrogance finally met a rude awakening.
ALU is now heading into the April 25 vote at the neighboring LDJ5 facility with a huge amount of momentum. We know from experience that Amazon will continue to play dirty and use everything at their disposal to throw up the results, gum up the legal process, and undermine the fight for a strong contract at JFK8 which begins immediately. The company announced their opening line of attack minutes after the election, in a statement accusing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of tipping the election in ALU’s favor, referencing complaints filed to the board alongside the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Amazon leads by a razor-tight margin in Bessemer, Alabama with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) behind by 188 votes. The final results in Alabama will be unclear for weeks given the hundreds of challenged ballots from both sides after the NLRB ruled that Amazon violated the election process in the first round last year.
This is no time to pull back: we need to keep up the pressure to stop Amazon from stealing the election, make sure every vote is counted in Alabama, and start building a worker-led movement to unionize Amazon everywhere. With victory in sight and millions looking toward Starbucks and Amazon workers in their fight for a union, Amazon workers everywhere should take discussions of these historic breakthroughs with their coworkers further by assembling organizing committees across every department in their workplaces to discuss concrete demands like a $30 hourly wage, ending mandatory overtime and abolishing the company’s intensive labor-tracking regime. ALU has a special responsibility to help broaden this fight by calling mass meetings of workers nationally to discuss the lessons of the campaign and help launch organizing efforts in more facilities.
Union-busting Beaten, Keep up the Pressure!
Amazon will stop at nothing to defend their profits and know that unions threaten them. The corporation paid anti-union consultants $4.3 million to undermine organizing in 2021, with many taking home $3,200 a day for their union-busting, more than seventeen-times what Amazon workers are paid daily.
Amazon held frequent mandatory anti-union ‘trainings’ in Staten Island and Bessemer to browbeat workers into opposing the union. In Staten Island, these captive-audience meetings were scheduled daily in the run-up to the election. Management attempted to close-off these meetings to workers that they identified as supporters of the union and removed them from the room when they pushed back on the company’s anti-union smears.
Increased scrutiny of this practice driven by the ongoing wave of Starbucks worker organizing is putting pressure on Biden’s NLRB to outlaw captive-audience meetings, but this is unlikely given that the Biden administration has abandoned any serious attempt to pass the more modest labor law reforms in the PRO act. In March the NLRB filed a federal injunction against Amazon to reinstate Gerald Bryson, a JFK8 worker who was fired for participating in the 2020 walkout led by ALU members. Bryson’s reinstatement raises the question of whether the NLRB will begin moving swiftly against employer retaliation after Starbucks fired the ‘Memphis 7’ workers for their pro-union activism.
The growing mass support for unions has pushed Biden’s NLRB to adopt a friendlier stance. NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has hinted that the board may invoke the ‘Joy Silk’ standard, forcing Amazon to recognize a union in the event of a close election if the company is found to have grossly violated labor law. However it’s unlikely that the board will side decisively with workers in Alabama unless RWDSU, ALU and the rest of the labor movement escalate pressure on the NLRB.
Amazon faces 55 Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULPs) from RWDSU and ALU in the NLRB for violating workers labor rights by surveilling, intimidating, disciplining, and firing workers for pro-union activity. One outright victory, and another close election may give the NLRB enough political cover to act decisively in the union’s favor.
Mass pressure is critical for pushing the NLRB to act in workers’ favor far more decisively than they have up until this point. And regardless of the NLRB’s policy, workers cannot risk tying themselves to a slow-churning legal process that relies on the courts to defend our rights in the heat of union campaigns at Amazon or the 150+ Starbucks shops that have filed for elections. While the NLRB under Biden has been significantly friendlier to unions than under Trump, hitching labor’s fortunes to the Democratic Party is a losing strategy given that the party is ultimately beholden to the same big business interests as the Republicans. A relatively tame NLRB one year can easily turn to vicious attacks in the next, even within the same administration if they deem it necessary to more forcefully defend the power and profits of Jeff Bezos and the rest of the billionaire class.
Workers in Staten Island have proven that Amazon is not all-powerful or impossible to defeat, but this is just the beginning. To stop Amazon from stealing the election in both New York and in Alabama we need rallies, walkouts, and coordinated days of action across multiple facilities and cities to defend this victory and draw tens of thousands into the fight for a strong contract. Even more critical in that fight for a contract, which will be resisted by Amazon at every turn, will be thoroughly democratic structures at JFK8 and LDJ5 that maximize rank-and-file participation and help develop genuine worker leaders on the shop floor. Chris Smalls’ individual role as a leader has been overblown in the media, which Smalls himself has rejected by emphasizing how this victory belongs to all the workers and shouldn’t distract workers from the real effort that’s needed to convince their coworkers to take an active part in organizing. Mass meetings of workers at these facilities should be called immediately to solidify the base of the union on the shop floor. The entire labor movement needs to throw everything it’s got into this fight, mobilize members to actions, and pledge to only endorse candidates who firmly commit to supporting workers and standing up to Amazon’s union-busting.
AOC and the Squad have fallen short on this front, with AOC citing ‘security concerns’ and threats for not appearing at a rally organized by ALU last year only to attend the MET Gala weeks later, making no attempt to follow-up with ALU or promote their campaign. AOC has taken a defensive stance in response to criticism, but fails to acknowledge that not being “secretly in the tank for Amazon” is the bare minimum we can expect from politicians who claim to support unions. AOC, Bernie, and the Squad should take initiative in building the fight to unionize Amazon, using their positions as elected officials to wage a fight against the corporation’s union-busting and mobilize their supporters to aid the struggle. DSA backed elected representatives in particular should not only support but actively work to further develop organizing efforts with or without the blessing of the major unions or the Democratic establishment. In contrast, DSA and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant has rallied with Starbucks workers in Seattle at every step in their fight for a union, putting forward fighting demands and speaking against illusions in CEO Howard Schultz returning to the company to ‘do the right thing’ for workers. This unequivocal alliance with workers against the bosses has extended to the fight against Amazon: Amazon workers in Seattle played a key role alongside Kshama’s office and the broader movement to pass the historic Amazon Tax. Kshama was an outspoken supporter of the Bessemer union drive, and as a working-class representative who takes home a worker’s wage, donated $3,000 from her Solidarity Fund to directly support organizers in Bessemer.
Unionize Amazon Everywhere!
ALU shocked the labor movement by pulling off an independent campaign in the heart of one of the richest and most exploitative corporations in the world. Recognizing the weakness of RWDSU’s conventional business unionism in the first election in Alabama, ALU President Chris Smalls insisted on maintaining his group’s independence from the beginning.
Smalls correctly pointed to the failure of RWDSU’s approach in their first election which substituted a media strategy based on endorsements from celebrities and star politicians in place of a campaign driven by organizing committees in the workplace and centered on clear demands.
The majority of the leadership of today’s unions are the key obstacle to the rebuilding of a fighting labor movement. ALU should work with anyone who is genuinely interested in learning from their incredible victory, and they can play a major role in building networks of activists throughout the labor movement who are committed to both unionizing Amazon and transforming the existing unions by fighting for rank-and-file democracy and adopting the kinds of militant tactics and bold strategy that built the unions in the first place. A vital first step for this would be for ALU to call mass meetings of workers nationally to discuss the lessons of the campaign in order to help launch new organizing efforts off the ground, raising company-wide demands and providing resources and materials like flyers and more that workers can use in conversations with each other to help build for these meetings and mobilize people to them.
This victory is also a wake-up call for the leadership of the major unions, who have proven themselves largely incapable of organizing the unorganized: the working class is ready to move with or without you. The victory that ALU led as an independent union also undoubtedly contains important lessons about the need for more worker-driven campaigns centered on clear demands, which should be a key lesson drawn going forward. Major unions such as the Teamsters have enormous resources at their disposal, but urgently need to rethink their approach and resist setting aside new organizing efforts for the sake of winning contract battles and remain on the offensive especially in the logistics industry where Amazon is competing directly with one of the largest unionized workforces in the world at UPS. If the newly-elected O’Brien leadership is serious about rebuilding a fighting labor movement and organizing Amazon, they should start immediately and in such a way which breaks completely with the conservative business unionist approach of the old leadership they fought to replace. This can also build momentum for a strong fight against UPS, one of the country’s largest employers alongside Amazon, as negotiations begin next year.
One of the biggest problems with the approach of most labor leaders is the unwillingness to put forward clear and specific demands because it might mean “making promises we can’t deliver on.” ALU broke with this approach, an important reason for their success, but was at times inconsistent in what they were putting forward. At their tables, the group has leafleted for a $30 base wage, an end to ‘Time-off-Task’ labor tracking (TOT) and hour-long lunch breaks, but those demands were absent from the program of immediate demands published within a week of the election. Strong, clear demands are absolutely vital in any organizing effort from very early on in order to push back against anti-union propaganda, appeal to workers who are not sure about what a union can do for them, and keep workers focused on what they’re fighting for.
The decisive victory at JFK8 in Staten Island may well be a catalyst to organizing at Amazon, the logistics industry as a whole, and even well beyond. Combined with the ongoing struggle for a union at Starbucks, today’s victory could be a major turning point for the labor movement and lay the basis for a mass wave of unionization in the months and years ahead, but building on it will require drawing the right lessons from the struggle so far. The incredible courage of the JFK8 workers will be a continual source of inspiration to workers across the country and the world – let’s go all out to organize the unorganized and unionize Amazon everywhere!