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Why Amazon Labor Union Won In New York and RWDSU Lost in Alabama

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Amazon workers in Staten Island have delivered a stunning blow against the megacorporation with the victory of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a historic breakthrough for the U.S. working class that could well open the door to a new era of widespread unionization and workplace action. They’ve proven that Amazon can be beaten, something that many began to cynically conclude was impossible after the defeat of the first major Amazon unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama one year ago. 

Amazon won by an overwhelming 1000 votes in that election, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered a re-do of it given the public pressure and outcry over Amazon’s many legal violations. While the final result of the second election is not yet clear because of a large number of challenged ballots, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is down by 118 votes this time around – a much better result, but a likely loss.

Meanwhile, ALU in New York City won decisively by over 500 votes at the JFK8 facility of roughly the same size. What’s behind the different results? Some explain it by pointing to the higher number of workers in unions in New York and the fact that it’s a “blue state”. Alabama, however, has deep labor movement traditions of its own, particularly in the Birmingham area where the Amazon facility is located, and the highest percentage of unionized workers of any Southern state.  A closer look at the two campaigns shows that the real answer lies in the two fundamentally different organizing approaches taken by the two unions. RWDSU ran a fairly conventional staffer-driven campaign similar to ones we’ve commonly seen in recent years. Meanwhile, ALU ran a worker-led campaign centered on clear demands and militant shop floor organizing, breaking with the approach used by most unions today. 

By engaging in brutal and illegal union-busting tactics, Amazon behaves like all corporations do but backed by nearly limitless wealth and resources. This is ultimately the reason why Amazon won in Alabama, but it’s vital that the labor movement draw the right lessons of why ALU succeeded in building a campaign that could withstand Amazon’s assault when so many others have failed. 

RWDSU in Alabama: A Conventional Campaign With Little Worker Involvement

The first union drive in Alabama began in 2020 when a group of workers heroically began organizing against the Goliath of Amazon at the Bessemer warehouse and approached RWDSU. To their credit, RWDSU took it on when many other unions would have decided that it was impossible or too much work, and began organizing the “BAmazon” campaign. They were outside the gates of the facility around the clock with a mix of union staffers, RWDSU members from neighboring poultry plants, and Amazon workers. Through this they were able to collect union cards from the 30% of the workforce which is the legal minimum for being able to file for a union election, but they never moved much beyond the gates for the remainder of the campaign. The drive became increasingly driven by the RWDSU’s professional staffers, dozens of whom were eventually on the ground doing shifts at the gates and making tens of thousands of phone calls to workers. The RWDSU staff and leadership were the ones responsible for all major decision-making during the drive.

RWDSU also came to rely heavily on national media attention, celebrity endorsements, and statements from politicians. This sort of media campaign is positive and helps build the wider support in society which is important for winning a union. Unfortunately though, they neglected to build the kind of organizing committee of workers which was necessary for taking the fight directly into the warehouse on each shift to democratically discuss and decide on tactics and strategy. Instead they viewed the leading workers in the drive as an auxiliary force who could act as spokespeople for the union – spending hundreds of hours giving interviews, talking to politicians, and even testifying to Congress, time which could have been spent directly talking to and organizing their co-workers who would be the ones casting a vote. The fact they were not encouraged to build out a wider workers’ committee reflects a flawed conception of “worker leadership” which is prevalent among labor leaderships far beyond the RWDSU. All of this spelled disaster when faced with Amazon’s sophisticated union-busting tactics.

The RWDSU campaign also lacked strong and clear demands, relying instead on platitudes like “respect at work” and a “voice on the job.” Union-busting consultants seize on this kind of vague messaging to claim the union has no clear goals beyond collecting dues, while pointing to meaningless HR initiatives as alternatives to the union. Unfortunately, many conservative labor leaders also avoid making clear demands in hopes of winning an easy contract without much of a fight. In Alabama, some RWDSU organizers openly talked about avoiding making “promises the union can’t keep”, something commonly heard in other union drives as well.

Fundamentally, this indicates a lack of confidence in workers to actually fight for and win bold demands like specific higher wages, more paid time off, and more. By not speaking directly to workers’ material interests, the union left the door wide open for Amazon to make an economic case. The company constantly emphasized how their starting wage of $15 was higher than any other comparable job in the area while whipping up fear and uncertainty that workers might lose what they already had in an eventual contract. Amazon also took aim at union dues, arguing that they would eat into paychecks. Instead of going on the offensive and politically motivating the importance of dues in building a strong union that would fight for dramatically higher wages, RWDSU’s material took a solely defensive approach that emphasized that paying dues was totally voluntary under Alabama law. 

RWDSU ultimately lost to Amazon by an overwhelming 1798-738, but closed the gap significantly during the second election where they are currently down 993-875, pending resolution of several hundred challenged ballots. 

RWDSU did make some significant changes to their organizing approach the second time around. They put far less emphasis on celebrity and politician endorsements and more on those from workers, as can be seen on their Instagram page. They did house visits, which they rejected last time but are an important tool for talking to workers who are hard to reach through other means, although these were done with an army of dozens of staffers from multiple different unions and not primarily by workers themselves. What was still missing this time around was the most important thing: a strong worker-led organizing committee and a campaign centered on clear demands.

ALU in New York City: Worker-Led With Clear Demands

A victory in the first Alabama drive last year had the potential to unleash a tidal wave of organizing in Amazon facilities around the country. The defeat delayed that process, but it wouldn’t be long before Amazon workers in New York City began organizing in the face of the terrible working conditions at Amazon, Jeff Bezos’ obscene wealth and pleasure trips to space, and skyrocketing inflation. 

The ALU was born just weeks after the first defeat in Alabama. Recognizing the weaknesses of the RWDSU campaign and the approach of most major unions that it was representative of, the ALU consciously established itself as a new union that would be led by workers themselves. Starting off with a small group of workers including interim-President Chris Smalls, who was fired in March 2020 for organizing a walkout for better COVID safety protocols at JFK8, the ALU eventually grew to an organizing committee that made all the decisions of the campaign. This consisted of at least 20 core workers and several dozen more who were actively involved. Like in Alabama, it was Black and brown workers who initiated the campaign and were at the forefront every step of the way. 

In virtually all union drives, one of the main arguments that union-busters for a company rely on is that the union is a “third party” more interested in collecting dues to pay for the salaries of union staff than in achieving real gains for workers. This can stick given the prevalence of paid union staffers in drives like the one in Alabama who are the ones responsible for making most decisions. Amazon tried to roll out the same playbook to smear ALU, but this time their lies died on the vine: every worker approached about joining the union found themselves talking to another co-worker. In many cases, union supporters confronted managers directly in the anti-union meetings, offering workers a concrete example of what a union can do.

ALU easily gained the trust of workers because its activists spoke to the exact hardships they faced. What’s more, they demonstrated that fighting for the union was worth the ultimate sacrifice of their time and energy, as union organizers spent their days off in the breakroom, at bus-stops, and making phone calls to co-workers. They also paid special attention to organizing among immigrant workers who make up a huge part of the JFK8 workforce. 

All told, ALU spent just $120,000 on their year-long campaign, a small fraction of what RWDSU spent on staffer pay alone. It’s enormously significant that ALU’s constitution includes a clause mandating that elected leadership take only the average wage of a worker given the fact that most union staff and leaders make significantly more money than the workers they represent. Socialist Alternative’s Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant does the same as an elected representative, taking home just $40,000 a year and giving the rest of her $147,000 salary to labor and social movements.

Having union staff is not at all a universally bad thing. In fact, in the case of Amazon it will likely be necessary in order to spread the union victories beyond Staten Island. What is crucial though is that union staff does not become a substitute for the workers themselves. They should ideally come from the ranks of the workers and should be democratically accountable to the structures of the union. 

In stark contrast to RWDSU, ALU had strong demands that made crystal clear what they were fighting for: a $30/hr starting wage, two weeks paid time off, two half-hour breaks with an hour for lunch, and an end to “time off task”. These demands were featured prominently in campaign material in the final weeks of the campaign. In addition, the fact that JFK8 workers led every aspect of the campaign allowed ALU to rapidly respond to Amazon’s various union-busting tactics. ALU was able to respond to Amazon’s anti-union propaganda in almost real time – something that would not have been possible in a setting where union leaders and staffers develop messaging miles away from the shopfloor. 

Crucial to ALU’s material was that they consistently spoke in the language of class struggle, naming the enemy clearly and unapologetically. They highlighted the direct link between the immense wealth of Jeff Bezos and the conditions of the workers, that Amazon will always fight against the union tooth and nail, and how anything workers win comes at the expense of Amazon and vice versa. 

This understanding of the relationship between bosses and workers is essential for developing the right tactics and strategy to win, but too often unions will rely on naively appealing to the morality or good sense of executives. This is most notably present today in the messaging of the national Starbucks Workers United campaign, which alongside ALU is setting the stage for a new wave of unionization across the working class. 

ALU’s organizing methods rightfully feel unique and fresh in today’s context, but in many ways they represent a return to the best traditions of the labor movement, and in particular those of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) in the 1930s and 40s. Formed during Depression-era conditions and a low-point in struggle under the conserative leadership of the unions at the time, rank-and-file workers in the CIO took matters into their own hands and brought tens of millions of American workers into unions in the span of a decade through a wave of sit-down strikes organized from the bottom-up. Activists in ALU looked to the CIO for inspiration and read material from the era like the Communist Party’s pamphlet Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry written by William Z Foster.

Unionize Amazon Everywhere

ALU has pointed the way forward for the 1.1 million Amazon workers in the United States, and now the task is to unionize Amazon everywhere. The fact that the second RWDSU campaign took place and voted at the same time as ALU offers an invaluable case study of what kind of tactics and strategy are needed to win. It also conclusively shows that the reason large-scale union victories like the one on Staten Island are so rare these days is not simply because corporations are too powerful, or that unions are just too hard to form, or that workers “aren’t ready yet” and don’t understand the need for them. Rather, it’s because the majority of today’s labor leaders engineer union campaigns that don’t take a class struggle approach and don’t give workers a reason to believe or participate in them. Socialists and activists in the labor movement should not give such leaders a free pass and must point to what’s needed.

ALU’s independence from the existing unions was without question a key reason behind why it took such a strong organizing approach, and its victory will increase the attractiveness of forming a new union for the many workers looking to get organized. That will make sense in many workplaces, but ultimately the exact form of organization is less important than its content, and today’s unions can and must be transformed as part of rebuilding a fighting labor movement. The example of ALU can inspire workers to do just that, building on the recent wave of rank-and-file challenges to today’s union leadership from the wildcat West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 to last year’s ‘Striketober’ actions that saw workers vote down weak contract tentative agreements and force their leadership into reluctantly taking strike action. 

The existing unions have enormous resources at their disposal which must be mobilized immediately in coordination with ALU to maximize the historic victory at JFK8. The Teamsters have launched their effort to organize at Amazon with a first facility going public in Pennsylvania. This is a great step, however the key takeaway from ALU’s success in NYC and RWDSU’s second defeat in Alabama is that defeating a massive corporation like Amazon is not simply a question of resources, staff, or political connections. It will be crucial that the successful methods of the Amazon workers on Staten Island are enthusiastically replicated by those unions in order to unionize Amazon, and rebuild a fighting labor movement for both organized and unorganized workers. The Teamsters should be working alongside ALU in this process.

As ALU gears up to vote at a second Amazon facility, neighboring LDJ5, Socialist Alternative has been proud to be out and lend our support every day on Staten Island. We send our unconditional solidarity to all Amazon workers gearing up to take on the mega-corporation nationwide and around the world and are committed to doing all we can to help unionize Amazon everywhere.

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