Class Struggle Unionism: Lessons for Building a Winning Movement at Starbucks, Amazon, and Beyond

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The first half of 2022 has seen dramatic advances for the labor movement in the United States. Workers at more than 200 Starbucks stores in over 30 states have filed for union elections in a rapidly-growing movement that began in December of last year. Workers at 33 stores have already voted to unionize, many of them unanimously. 

An even more stunning victory for labor came last month when 8,000 Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York voted to form the first-ever union at an Amazon warehouse in the U.S. This represents a numerical equivalent to 200 Starbucks stores unionizing all at once

Amazon workers are putting forward bold demands, like a $30 per hour minimum wage, longer breaks, and an end to Amazon’s authoritarian worker tracking system. That these demands were central to an unprecedented breakthrough at Amazon shows the hunger for real change among workers today that goes far beyond what the political establishment and traditional union leaderships are prepared to meet.

Workers at multiple Starbucks stores have already gone on strike against union-busting tactics and poor store conditions. The Amazon Labor Union is pledging to organize Amazon warehouses everywhere. These explosive events are evidence of a historic opportunity to rebuild a fighting labor movement, raise bold demands, and win improvements to the living conditions of all workers. 

The recent wave of union organizing poses important questions: how do we go from winning victories at a minority of stores to building powerful unions that represent all workers at Amazon and Starbucks? How do we build the kind of union that can win the bold demands that workers are fighting for, like a $30/hour starting wage or free healthcare for all employees? And how do we begin to organize the millions of workers at other exploitative non-union companies like FedEx, McDonalds, and Walmart?

To answer these questions, workers need to look at the conditions that have built this year’s labor wave, and further back to the principles and tactics that built America’s labor movement in the first place.

A Social Powder Keg

While the stunning victories at Starbucks and Amazon may seem like they came out of nowhere, this fightback by workers has been a long time coming. The deepening crisis of capitalism over the last 15 years since the 2008 financial crisis has forced workers into a corner. Rents have skyrocketed and inflation has made everything more expensive, but workers’ wages have not kept up. 

Meanwhile, a few billionaires at the top have gotten ridiculously wealthy. During the pandemic, the world’s billionaires increased their wealth by over $5 trillion. Now the imperialist war playing out in Ukraine is accelerating this process, causing food and gas prices to spike while a few people get rich from wartime profiteering.

Workers are looking for a way out, but Democrats like Joe Biden have failed to provide one, going back on even the most basic of campaign promises. The Democratic Party has refused to act on basic demands like a $15/hour minimum wage or student debt relief, despite having a majority in Congress. Figures like AOC, who built their platforms on the promise of disrupting business-as-usual in Congress and winning real working-class demands, have largely fallen in line behind the Democratic Party establishment. 

Even most union leaders have not provided a fighting lead. For decades, many of them have tied themselves to the Democratic Party, hoping to win gains for workers by negotiating behind closed doors with corporate politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. During “Striketober” last year, workers repeatedly had to argue against their own union leadership to reject weak contracts and go on strike, including workers at John Deere and the carpenters in western Washington.

As working conditions have grown worse and wages have fallen severely behind inflation, 68% of Americans say that they approve of labor unions, the highest percentage since 1965. Yet barely 10% of Americans are actually members of unions, a historic low point.

This disparity can be overcome only by a change in strategy and the development of new leadership. We need a transformation of the labor movement on the basis of real class struggle methods, which can demonstrate to workers everywhere: when we fight, we can win – even against behemoths of American capitalism like Starbucks and Amazon! 

A History of Organizing the Unorganized

There are more than 9,000 Starbucks stores in the United States. There are at least 110 Amazon fulfillment centers, not to mention the vast network of smaller sortation, distribution, and delivery centers. To win wall-to-wall unions at these companies would be an achievement for working people unmatched since the organizing drives of the 1930s. 

The history of the labor movement, particularly of struggles to organize those workers not already unionized, gives us blueprints for how to win these struggles today. From the first May Day in 1886, to the organizing drives and massive strikes of the 1930s, to the public-sector unionization struggles of the 1970s, history has shown that it takes bold action, fighting leadership, and strong demands for workers to win big gains.

How Strikes Built the Labor Movement

The labor movement did not grow gradually over the course of decades. It was built out of sudden, great leaps forward, driven by militant action from rank-and-file workers who had no choice but to fight. 

In every case in history, periods of growth for the labor movement are preceded by huge clashes between workers and big business, where workers put forward bold demands and demonstrate their power on a mass scale by going on strike to win those demands. 

Strikes have already been an important catalyst for building the union movement at Starbucks and Amazon.

The Starbucks union effort got a shot in the arm in January, when workers in Buffalo went on a five-day strike that forced the company to concede on a major demand: COVID exposure pay for all Starbucks workers nationwide. Just weeks ago in Marysville, WA, Starbucks workers went on a three-day strike to protest terrible working conditions at their store. When they started the strike, these workers had not even begun signing union cards. Armed with clear demands and an energetic, fighting approach, they successfully shut down their store. By the third day of the strike, over 70% of workers had signed up for the union. The Amazon Labor Union also has its roots in a strike, when workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island walked out to protest unsafe working conditions at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

History shows us that strikes have always been at the heart of a successful strategy to organize unorganized workers on a mass scale.

The 1930s: From Depression to Strike Wave

The early 1930s was a low point for the union movement. In 1933, only three million American workers were members of a union. This was equivalent to about 10% of the population, strikingly similar to the situation today.

But within five years, union membership had nearly tripled to almost nine million, and workers had won major gains, including big wage increases, guaranteed overtime pay, and wall-to-wall unions at massive companies like General Motors.

Unemployment in the early 1930s was skyrocketing, and with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, workers were afraid for their jobs. The conservative leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the main organization of unions, had effectively abandoned the strike weapon, relying instead on political alliances with the Democratic Party and backroom negotiations with the bosses. The AFL leaders accepted no-strike pacts in entire industries in exchange for empty promises from bosses and politicians.

Furthermore, the AFL was only interested in organizing skilled “craft” workers, ignoring the millions of workers employed in new industries like car and steel production, who were facing rock-bottom wages and brutal working conditions, similar to workers at Walmart or Amazon today.

All this changed in 1934, when massive strikes erupted around the country. In particular, three strikes in 1934 pointed the way forward: the Teamsters truck drivers’ strike in Minneapolis, the longshore workers strike in San Francisco, and the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, OH. All three strikes involved sizable sections of the labor movement in those cities, who came to the aid of striking workers. All three strikes used mass rank-and-file action to shut down the profits of the bosses to win union recognition and contracts. And not coincidentally, all three strikes were led by socialists or Marxists.

These three strikes were a signal to workers around the country who were facing similar conditions: get organized and fight! The number of American workers on strike exploded, going from 180,000 in 1930 to 1.4 million in 1934. In 1937, that number was nearly 2 million. These strikes happened despite the conservative AFL leadership, despite the no-strike pacts, and despite the uncertainty of the Depression. It took strong, outspoken rank-and-file leadership to overcome these obstacles. Local leaders convinced workers to take a fighting approach, despite opposition from top labor leaders, who often tried to water down demands, prevent workers from going on strike, and direct energy into “safe” channels like the National Labor Board (the precursor to today’s NLRB) and the Democratic Party.

Striking workers did not make a distinction between fighting for a union and fighting for a union contract. Workers in the massive sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan, which successfully unionized General Motors with the newly-created United Auto Workers (UAW), put forward bold demands from the start, like a 30-hour work week, seniority rights, and an end to “speed-up” production in the factory. At the heart of their demands was immediate recognition of their union and an end to non-union labor. After a powerful five-week strike, workers in Flint won their core demands and forced General Motors to stop union busting. Through strike action, workers won recognition and a first contract at the same time.

With the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935, workers broke out of the conservative mold of the AFL, building new, more democratic, and more militant unions. Importantly, they organized industrial unions, meaning that all workers in a factory or workplace were in one union, irrespective of a worker’s job title or trade. Often new, independent unions like the UAW were necessary to create a breakthrough. Socialists and Communists played key roles in this organizing, especially insisting on fighting any division based on race or gender.  

Crucially, workers in this period fought not just for workplace demands, but for their unions to be democratic and rank-and-file led. Workers fought to limit the salaries of union officials to the average wage of union members. They fought for the right to directly elect their own leaders. And they fought to revive the strike as a key weapon of the union movement.

The 1970s: Organizing the Public Sector

In the 1970s, workers and the labor movement were facing yet another crisis. Like today, inflation was rampant, in some years rising as high as 14%. So even when workers received wage increases, they were in reality taking a pay cut.

Beginning in the 1970s, the ruling class also turned to the policies of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, at its root, was an attempt by the capitalists to claw back the gains that workers had made in previous decades. Among other things, neoliberalism called for shifting production to cheap labor markets overseas and cutting public services.

Workers fought back, especially in the public sector, where most workers never had a union or legal bargaining rights. In 1970, there were nearly 6,000 strikes involving 3 million workers. This included the Great Postal Strike of 1970, in which 200,000 postal workers went on an illegal eight-day strike. Time magazine called it “the strike that stunned the country.” After just eight days, postal workers won a 14% wage increase and, for the first time, the right to collectively bargain over wages, benefits, and working conditions. 

The postal workers’ strike was part of a wave of strikes waged by public sector workers, including teachers and nurses, along with major walkouts in the trucking industry and parts of the private sector. These strikes had their roots in rising inflation, but also in the social movements of the previous decade, like the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. The well-known strike by Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, which became the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., represents an important bridge between the social movements of the 1960s and the public sector strike wave of the 1970s.

This strike wave led to a huge spike in public sector unionization, at a time when private sector unionization was entering sharp decline. Public sector union density went from less than 27% in 1969 to more than 40% in 1976.

“All Workers to the Unions – All Unions to the Struggle!”

It is imperative that union members, and all working people, understand the significance of the unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon. Like in the 1930s and the 1970s, we have a historic opportunity to rebuild a fighting labor movement and show workers a real way forward, in contrast to Joe Biden and the corporate Democrats.

The unionization campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon are displaying many of the same features that marked previous strike waves and ushered in explosions in union membership. The Amazon Labor Union won by applying important lessons from previous struggles, like organizing around clear, bold demands. ALU’s constitution even includes a provision requiring that union leaders make no more than the average wage of a union member. Starbucks workers in Buffalo, NY; Ithaca, NY; Phoenix, AZ; Denver, CO; Olympia, WA; Marysville, WA; and Seattle, WA have gone on strike, although so far these strikes have mostly been isolated from each other and uncoordinated.

Some unions have taken action to support these struggles. The new reform leadership of the Teamsters led by Sean O’Brien met with lead ALU organizers about organizing Amazon warehouses around the country, though it remains to be seen exactly what the collaboration between these two forces looks like. Some union locals have passed resolutions to donate to the Starbucks workers’ organizing fund or to build for coordinated days of action, like the Rally & March called by Starbucks workers in Seattle on April 23.

Unfortunately, most unions have not acted with the urgency and scale that the Starbucks and Amazon struggles demand. Unions and socialist organizations must make organizing at Starbucks and Amazon a key priority. 

There are concrete things that unionized workers can do to immediately support these efforts. If you are a union member, put forward a resolution in your union to donate generously to organizing funds, support rallies called by Starbucks and Amazon workers, and mobilize the full weight of union membership to support picket lines whenever these workers go on strike. 

Unions and working people must be prepared to support strikes by Starbucks and Amazon workers in every way. For example, food distribution truck drivers organized with the Teamsters could refuse to deliver to striking Starbucks stores. If there were a strike at Amazon, unionized UPS and USPS workers could “refuse to cross the picket lines” by refusing to deliver the 33% of Amazon packages that are routed through them. Grocery workers organized with UFCW could refuse to stock shelves with Starbucks products. Amazon’s entire operation often travels over a few lanes of entrance roads. These roads could be picketed by well-coordinated protests, organized by the labor movement in solidarity with striking workers.

It will take united, militant action to win. It will take strikes, bold demands, and a democratically accountable union leadership that will lead the fight. At key points, rank-and-file leadership will have to argue firmly against the conservatism of the union bureaucracy and the existing union leadership.

As the fighting Teamsters said in 1934: “All workers to the unions – all unions to the struggle!”