The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has fired labor’s opening shots against the retail giant. Their organizing campaign at Staten Island warehouse JFK8 led to an electrifying victory in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote. Workers at the smaller LDJ5 warehouse held a similar vote shortly after that, but the ALU lost with 380 votes in favor and 618 votes against, with over a third of the workers not voting. One obstacle the union faced was the higher percentage of part-time employees at the smaller facility. Nonetheless, the ALU has a .500 batting average so far, which is impressive since it is trying to unionize through the NLRB, whose rules overwhelmingly favor management.
Jeff Bezos started Amazon to sell books on the internet. It evolved into a corporate behemoth that sells all kinds of consumer goods online and has even purchased brick-and-mortar stores like Whole Foods. None of this would have been possible without the labor of millions of workers over many years. In the US alone, 1.1 million workers are directly employed by the company, among them the hundreds of thousands who operate over a thousand warehouse distribution centers. If workers did not stock the warehouses, pack up orders, and deliver them to customers, the company would fail.
Like all businesses under capitalism, the harder Amazon forces its employees to work, and the less it pays in wages, the higher the profits. Karl Marx explained that workers who are not organized collectively to fight against the boss are simply raw material for exploitation. The conditions for Amazon workers are harsh, and it was inevitable that they would fight back.
The important role played by Chris Smalls
Like many other Amazon employees, Chris Smalls had had enough. In an interview with Socialist Revolution, he explained how workers were treated daily at the warehouses, which function like giant factories. When COVID started to spread in 2020, Amazon knew they could capitalize at a time when most people were staying home. To do this—and increase profits—they needed more output from their workers. If workers who tested positive for COVID were told to quarantine until they were no longer contagious, it could cut across production levels. Other COVID safety protocols could slow down production or otherwise add to the costs of running the operation. Chris Smalls objected to the lax safety protocols at his particular warehouse in Staten Island, and Amazon fired him.
After losing his job, Chris did not give up. He set up an activist organization called The Congress of Essential Workers. He continued to stay in touch with his former co-workers and their struggles. He also visited Bessemer, Alabama, to support the RWDSU’s effort to win a representation election for Amazon workers at that warehouse. After returning from Bessmer, he and some of the Amazon workers in Staten Island founded the ALU on April 20, 2021.
The drive to organize in Staten Island
After decades of attacks by the bosses, American workers are looking for ways to improve their conditions, reflected in growing support for labor unions. Gallup recently found that 68% of Americans support unions, the highest number since 1965. According to this poll, even 47% of self-identified Republicans support unions. The New York Times reported that even among college graduates, support for unions increased from 55% in the 1990s to around 70% today.
In this context, the Bessmer campaign unfolded, and the ALU was founded. Its organizers talked to their co-workers wherever they could, even organizing cookouts. Amazon spent millions of dollars fighting the union, but when management claimed that the ALU were outsiders, this fell on deaf ears. The workers at the warehouse knew who made up the ALU.
This led to victory at the larger Staten Island warehouse, where over 8,000 people are employed. And although the smaller LDJ5 facility, with around 1,500 workers, did not vote for the union, it is clear that a section of workers wants to fight back. The next step is to fight for a contract with improved wages and working conditions. This will not be easy, as JFK8 is just one of hundreds of Amazon sites, and the company is challenging the vote in an appeal to the NLRB.
How can Amazon be defeated?
Chris Smalls and the ALU are heroic and inspiring. However, battling a giant like Amazon takes real resources. Many workers want to fight back, but they understand the stakes are incredibly high. In a country where 64% of people live paycheck to paycheck, the threat of losing a job cannot be taken lightly. Workers will not struggle unless they have a serious chance to win.
The ALU’s fight is the fight of the entire working class. A victory against a company like Amazon would help all workers, including those at companies like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Target, Apple, etc. Likewise, a defeat would be a blow against the whole labor movement.
The working class cannot match the millions of dollars that companies like Amazon spend on anti-union campaigns. Management can organize “captive audience” meetings to intimidate workers and spread anti-union lies. Workers fighting to organize have no such power of compulsion over their co-workers. The capitalist state—and its appendages like the NLRB—is never a neutral arbiter in union struggles and will ultimately side with the class enemy.
But the situation is far from hopeless! The immense size of the working class, its concentration in big cities and workplaces, and its indispensable role in production and distribution are decisive advantages in the fight against Amazon and other corporate monsters. But these advantages can be brought to bear only on the basis of a high degree of class unity, solidarity, and militancy.
Many labor union officials and politicians came out to the Sunday, April 24 rally in Staten Island to support the ALU. But there has been precious little in terms of concrete action. The NYC Central Labor Council (CLC) organizes 300 union locals with 1.3 million members, yet they did not make any serious effort to mobilize them for the Staten Island rally. The union members who attended did so on their own initiative. The ALU’s struggle has captivated many workers and youth worldwide, but there have been no other solidarity rallies in New York City.
But imagine if the CLC had mobilized mass rallies to support the ALU in all five city boroughs! If they pledged their full support and backed it up with action, the result of the LDJ5 vote may have been different. Even if the vote had failed, such an outpouring of working-class solidarity could have given workers in other Amazon warehouses the confidence to join the battle and attempt to organize their own workplaces.
The ALU must use its “national microphone” to appeal to all Amazon workers and union members everywhere. They must also be willing to bypass the anti-labor straightjacket of traditional “labor relations.” They should explain that in their negotiations with Amazon, they will seek to cover all the workers at JFK8 and any workers in the company who join their union. Only through mass participation can they get the leverage needed to force concessions from Bezos and co. Furthermore, the ALU must make it clear to organized labor that it needs to back them up with real numbers and action—and that rank and file workers must hold their leaders accountable.
If ALU and the workers are to succeed, they can only trust their own forces and the working class as a whole. They must place no trust or illusions in the Democrats or the capitalist government. On Thursday, May 5, Chris Smalls and other labor organizers were invited to the White House. The government aims to keep all these activists within the parameters set by their legal system. Precisely due to these rules, the union tops have presided over a significant fall in the organized proportion of the labor force—from nearly 35% in the 1950s to less than 11% today—while unions have been forced to accept ever-deteriorating contracts.
What can we do now?
The ALU’s battle is the most recent episode in a long history of struggle and the herald of even more intense class confrontations yet to come. In preparation for the future, workers must learn the lessons of the past. Chief among these is that union struggles do not exist in a vacuum. The great labor victories of the 1930s and 40s would have been impossible without the involvement of class-conscious militants from organizations like the Communist Party and the Trotskyists. The training of such cadres is as vital today as it was back then.
More than words and small victories will be needed to defeat the Amazon Empire, as significant as such victories are. We must build a network of class-struggle fighters and organizers throughout the labor movement, so the unions can fight the bosses with revolutionary policies, the only ones that can lead to substantial victories. Alongside unions fighting for higher wages and better conditions, workers require their own party to fight for political power. To achieve ultimate victory over the bosses, the working class needs a Marxist leadership armed with a program for the socialist revolution. Anyone inspired by the ALU should consider joining the IMT to help us build this leadership.