The first Amazon Union was always a bloody big deal. But it’s hard to imagine how it could have been cutie pie than this one was. When it was officially announced Saturday morning that more than 8,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island had voted to join the independent Amazon Labor Union, it meant America’s most powerful non-union corporation was just being broken up, not by a deep one institutional strength plugged in, but by a former employee with no real experience or budget who started organizing just because he saw it needed to be done.
Before we delve into the analytical depths of the implications of this fact for the future of America’s working class, we have only to say to Amazon founder and mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos, who recently returned from a short trip to America space in a personal luxury rocket: Ha. Hahahaha.
From a workforce perspective, Amazon warehouse workers are the most importantly kind of workers in America. By this I mean that whatever wages and working conditions these workers can achieve at this company will have far-reaching effects that will transform the lives of an enormous number of other workers in this country. Amazon doesn’t just build warehouses; It’s in the process of transforming the service-sector-dominated economy that has shaped America since the ’90s into an on-demand online shopping-based economy, with Amazon itself becoming a retail utility of sorts, made possible by a Coast -to -coastal network of warehouses staffed by low-paid workers who have little power over their own destiny.
The last generation of America’s low-wage jobs was shaped by Walmart, a place the unions could never organize. The result of this failure of the labor movement was that for several decades tens of millions of Americans were trapped in retail jobs that didn’t make enough to survive, while the Walton family, who own Walmart, became some of the wealthiest people in the world. This is what happens when workers at a company of terrible importance fail to organize, allowing the executive and investor classes to monopolize all power in the company. Amazon is now transforming the American workplace, just as Walmart did, and a failure to organize there would result in an even more dramatic erosion of the idea that hard work should provide a viable wage and economic mobility in this country.
Fortunately, we can now say that Amazon is no longer a non-union company. Much of the credit for starting and running the union drive in the Staten Island warehouse goes to Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker whom the company fired after waging a labor dispute over safety concerns. We should all bask in glee at the fact that it was leaked notes in April 2020, Amazon’s General Counsel indicated that the company “should do [Smalls] the face of the entire union/organizational movement” because he was “not smart or articulate”. Well, Smalls and the dozens of volunteers who helped He and thousands of those who actually do the work at the warehouse have done what many highly paid consultants have told Amazon to be impossible.
Imagine a cake smashing Jeff Bezo’s face forever. Ha. Ha.
The Amazon Labor Union was a remarkably grassroots, worker-led initiative that was not affiliated with any existing union. Meanwhile, in Bessemer, Alabama, the Retail Workers Union has spent two years and many millions of dollars organizing an Amazon warehouse there, with the support of countless professional union organizers. The vote at that warehouse was tallied at the same time as Staten Island’s, and the result is still up in the air due to hundreds of contested ballots.
Much will be said about the different approaches and different outcomes. But the real lesson from these campaigns is: try everything. Should Big Existing Unions Organize Amazon Workers? Yes. Should small, determined groups of Amazon workers start organizing campaigns themselves? Yes. All of these people are part of the American labor movement — a movement that’s just beginning what will be a decades-long struggle to make Amazon a place where a warehouse job can sustain a middle-class lifestyle. A century ago, auto workers, steel workers and coal miners all waged a similar union struggle, creating the greatest era of collective national prosperity the world has ever known. What is happening at Amazon is our generation’s turn in this class struggle.
In 2015 I was part of a (much smaller and less important, but also novel) successful union initiative at a digital media company. People from the labor movement asked us then, as they will now ask these Amazon workers: How did you do that? The honest answer then, as now, was: We tried. A union listened to us and helped us and we tried to organize and when people understood what a union could do they said yes. The strongest thing the unions in America have for them is that they are undeniably good for working people. There is no one right way to unionize the 90% of our country’s non-union workers; The only thing to worry about is unionizing people more.
Winston Churchill was an imperialist scumbag, but he knew how to make inspirational quotes. It is time for the labor movement to channel its insistence: “We will fight on the beaches, we will fight on the airfields, we will fight in the fields and on the roads, we will fight in the hills; We will never give up.”
We organize the warehouses, we organize the Uber drivers, we organize the big department stores, we organize the fast food restaurants. We will not stop. Never. We will organize everyone. If Amazon employees can do it, so can you.