“$10 billion and zero sense.” These words, printed in 284 font, spanned a fake six foot check which draped two folding tables in the parking lot of Amazon’s KCVG air hub. The check, which represented Amazon’s most recent quarterly profits, was made out to “Our Billionaire Executives and Union Busters.”
Activists with the Amazon Labor Union – KCVG, who have spent the last 10 months collecting cards for a union election, asked their coworkers to vote on where they thought the profits should go (the clear winner was a $30/hour starting wage).
The check was first displayed on November 7, and over the following several days, union activists were subjected to a barrage of badge challenges and demands from management to take down their table. The workers stood their ground, asserting their legal rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
Just five days later, 11 KCVG workers were delivered “final written warnings” from the facility’s top brass. Union activists had tabled in the facility’s parking lot for months without issue and these final writtens seemed to come out of nowhere. But this was just management’s warning shot. What has followed in the weeks since has been an all-out assault on the union campaign.
Defeating Amazon’s union-busting machine will require these worker activists to be crystal clear about what they’re up against, steadfast in their commitment to fighting for their coworkers, and highly organized.
Amazon’s Union Busting Ramps Up
While the whiplash-inducing speed of Amazon’s new anti-union offensive may appear to have come out of nowhere, it’s very clear what triggered this new phase in their campaign. The union effort has developed in both breadth and depth. There are more union activists across the various shifts and schedules, and the activists’ commitment to fighting for $30/hour, translation, free on-site childcare, and so much more has deepened.
Amazon is not blind to this momentum, and they are doing whatever they have to do to head it off.
Legally, Amazon has covered its back by repeating that workers have the choice to join a union if they want. But what choice is it really, if the company sets all the rules for how that choice is made?
Here’s what Amazon’s offensive has looked like in just the last five weeks at KCVG:
- They deployed a team of millionaire anti-union lawyers to Kentucky, dressed up as managers in high-vis vests and work boots
- Issued threats of termination to 11 union activists
- Plastered the workplace in anti-union posters and TV screens
- Sent out mass texts and emails to all KCVG employees urging them not to sign union cards
- Hosted more than a dozen anti-union meetings every day where they tell workers they can lose their benefits if they vote for the union
- Brought in managers from across the country to patrol the facility, holding one-on-one anti-union conversations with workers
- And before this ramping up, they hired 2,000 workers to try and flood the bargaining unit, hoping to prevent the union from reaching the 30% threshold of union cards needed for an election.
Meanwhile, Amazon has erected barrier after barrier to prevent union activists from talking to their coworkers. Activists are not allowed to be on site unless they are actively working, but according to the NLRA they’re also not allowed to pass out union literature on shift. They’re harassed for setting up tables in the parking lot. They can’t be in the break rooms or the cafeteria outside their 15 or 30-minute break times, and if they talk about the union during their break, management accuses them of creating a hostile environment.
Amazon has covered the whole facility in a thick, exhausting campaign to crush workers’ struggle for higher wages and better working conditions. And yet, with the help of their million-dollar PR strategists, will attempt to convince workers that it’s actually the union that’s created all the tension.
Amazon Is Just Like The Other Guys
While Amazon’s campaign is certainly shocking to see up close, they are in many ways executing a rinse-and-repeat strategy that major corporations have used for decades to crush union campaigns.
Marty Levitt, a career union-buster turned union advocate, detailed the industry’s strategy in his bombshell book, Confessions of a Union Buster.
He writes: “Union busting operates as a system of tactics designed to enforce behavior through manipulation, fear, insecurity, insolation, and in the end, the promise of a return to normal life.”
A cursory glance at Levitt’s “17 Elements of the Union-Busting System” and union activists will be shocked by how familiar it sounds. Frame the union as a third party; divide workers against each other; use trusted managers to drive the campaign forward; and bombard workers with texts, emails, meetings, posters, and one-on-ones. And once the election comes around – if the union gets that far – insist that voting “No” is the only way to get back to normal.
What makes Amazon’s anti-union campaign different is the sheer scale of the company’s resources which are just shy of infinite.
How Can Workers Beat Amazon
There is no question that it is in every single workers’ best interest to have a union at their workplace. Unionized workers make, on average, 18% more than non-union workers. Unionized workers have nearly 27% more vacation time. 14% more union workers have paid sick leave than non-union workers. Union workplaces are safer, with 34% fewer OSHA violations.
Companies hate unions precisely because these gains eat into their profits, and collective action in the workplace threatens their power.
This simple truth is the best asset that union activists have, and ensuring that every coworker understands this truth requires a high degree of determination and organization. The most urgent task for union activists at KCVG is to guarantee that there’s at least one dedicated, well-respected, and convincing union activist on every single shift in every single department. Getting to this point will require that strong structures are built that can withstand Amazon’s blows.
Any worker organization needs structure, not just material issues to agitate around, not just charismatic leaders, not just public support. It needs an organizing committee comprising the organic leaders in each work area who have the strategic understanding, organizing skill, and the personal relationships to move a majority of workers into action. It doesn’t matter how deeply felt the workplace issues are or how righteous the fight is. If a tight organizing structure is not built, workers will lose 100% of contested fights.
If activists at KCVG can convince thousands of their coworkers that forming a union will only make their life better, there’ll be nothing Amazon’s elite lawyers and union-busting consultants can do to stop them.