This article appeared originally in The Nation.
More than 1 million US workers are employed at Amazon today—the majority at its vast network of more than 1,300 warehouses and logistics centers, with tens of thousands in tech centers around the country. That’s more workers than UPS and FedEx combined, more than the entire US auto manufacturing industry. Another 600,000 work internationally for the company.
Increasingly, Amazon plays the central role in capitalism’s distribution and logistics system, as well as in the tech sector through Amazon Web Service’s dominant role in cloud computing. The monopolistic behemoth fully intends to keep growing. Its hyper-exploitative model is percolating throughout the entire economy, even seeping into currently unionized workplaces. Few jobs are insulated from its influence.
Nearly 90 years ago, basic industry worker organizing was key to the revival of the labor movement. Today, Amazon workers occupy the same strategic position, standing at the front lines of the battle to determine whether working people have a fighting chance in the twenty-first century.
Organizing Amazon is labor’s pinnacle challenge: A project that is extraordinarily daunting—and yet equally obligatory to tackle. It will take years of work and tremendous resources.
Given that, you’d think that US labor leaders would be sounding alarms and throwing everything into the battle at Amazon, along with other major organizing sites of struggle like Starbucks and big retail. But no. Most labor leaders are imitating President Orlean in the movie Don’t Look Up, averting their eyes from the growing crisis and telling us all to ignore the steady drip, drip, drip decay of union membership—now down to 10.1 percent of the US workforce, the lowest on record—while sitting atop $35.8 billion in labor movement assets.
But the Amazon asteroid is on course to obliterate Planet Working Class, whether or not today’s AFL-CIO leaders care to admit it openly.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of organizers—disproportionately young and people of color, many with an explicitly socialist orientation—who are already hard at work trying to deflect the asteroid’s trajectory. Most prominently, Amazon workers at Staten Island’s JFK8 warehouse demonstrated both the possibilities—and current limitations—of institutionalizing worker power through union representation elections when they won their vote a year ago. Amazon workers have staged strikes in Southern California, the Chicago area, Georgia, and elsewhere, demanding—and in many cases winning—pay raises, more break time, and other work improvements. Workers increasingly recognize the need to organize internationally to match the company’s extensive distribution networks. Polish workers organized slowdowns to resist mandatory overtime that the company tried to impose in response to a strike 400 miles away in a German warehouse. Last fall, workers in 30 countries staged demonstrations and walkouts. Amazon workers in England struck this month.
These are, of course, very early experiments in meeting the challenge. It is far too soon to declare that an Amazon organizing model exists. However, common organizing principles are emerging from the experiences of frontline activists, at Amazon and other key organizing sites. These principles need to be applied on a growing scale, and with much more substantial support from the wider labor movement.
The first organizing principle centers the fight fundamentally around the question of power—a class struggle between workers who have basic demands for rights and material improvements, and their bosses, who are determined to squeeze profit out of every minute. This principle is a no-brainer to frontline warehouse workers I’ve talked to in the US and Canada, as they experience economic penury and the daily indignities of speedups, furloughs, and capricious supervisors.
“How is it that Amazon makes money? Who actually does the work of getting these packages to our customers? And why does Amazon pay managers two to three times as much as us?” are common questions that warehouse organizers ask new coworkers, according to Ted Miin, a delivery station worker and member of Amazonians United—Chicagoland, part of an independent national network of rank-and-file workers. Workers recognize that “the managers’ job is to make us work to make the company money. It’s to get 10 workers to do the work of 15,” he said.
With increasing frequency, Amazon workers are flexing their power through short-term walkouts. On a company-wide scale, these are tiny actions. But even with a few dozen or a hundred workers walking out for a shift, these strikes build worker confidence—and reveal the company’s vulnerability to disruption. Miin and several dozen other Chicagoland delivery center workers walked out in the middle of their shifts just before Christmas 2021, demanding more pay. By the end of the following month, Amazon gave $2 raises not just to workers at those two stations but also to workers at another 22 delivery stations around Chicago.
Workers at Amazon’s San Bernardino Air Hub in Southern California’s vast Inland Empire struck twice last year and won pay raises, access to water and cooling fans, and more heat breaks.
The mainstream media has focused a lot of attention on the handful of union representation elections at Amazon conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). For good reason, there’s healthy skepticism among Amazon organizers about the efficacy of building power through this route. To get to a ballot today, workers must navigate a minefield of brutal management harassment, threats, and firings; this is no democratic exercise in any common meaning of the term. Post-election, there is no shortage of boss tactics that divert worker energy into legalistic dead ends: Drawn-out hearings over contested ballots, interminable trials over unfair labor practices, and unproductive bargaining.
“We don’t need the company to come out and say, ‘Yes, you’re the union,’” said Howard, an East Coast warehouse worker, and like Miin a member of Amazonians United. If the company concedes to an organized demand, it has in effect recognized workers’ power. “It’s two different questions,” Howard continued. “Workers recognizing their own union, and the company recognizing the union.” For now at least, many Amazon organizers prefer to focus on the former.
To underscore this point, Amazon workers cite the current experience at Starbucks, where the company’s union-busting lawyers have made a mockery of bargaining, walking out after just a few minutes of negotiations. No amount of high-minded petitioning by Starbucks Workers United to the new CEO to “do the right thing and respect workers’ rights” will change that. Right now, Starbucks workers, organized at about 3 percent of the company’s stores, simply don’t have enough power to force meaningful bargaining. The solution is more organizing and more disruptive and sustained strike action—not appeals to make the legal process work or adjustments in union bargaining tactics.
Nonetheless, I don’t sense a bright line among most Amazon organizers around the strategic question of pursuing NLRB elections. Representation elections can serve a power-building purpose, provided workers organize around them not with an expectation that success will lead promptly to bargaining, but as part of an escalating strategy that prepares workers for meaningful disruptive action. Elections can be, to use organizer and author Jane McAlevey’s term, important structure tests in union-building. Imagine, for instance, if the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizers at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, after winning their historic NLRB vote a year ago, had redoubled shop floor and break room organizing to build for a strike during the Thanksgiving-through-Christmas peak season. Such a strategy could have established a powerful strike hub at a major warehouse and inspired spinoff strike actions at other Amazon workplaces. Unfortunately, the JFK8 ALU leadership appears to have throttled back on the energetic workplace organizing that achieved their historic victory. That was a missed opportunity, and a year out from the election the company has JFK8 bargaining tangled up in myriad legal knots. But, fortunately for the workers, peak season comes around every 12 months; it’s not too late for JFK8 to lead a fall 2023 strike wave.
The second emerging principle is to organize fights around concrete demands, whether region-wide, worksite-centered, or department-specific. Today’s Amazon organizers have studied past campaigns that fell short, such as the election loss two years ago at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Organizers for RWDSU, the union in Bessemer, urged workers to join the union under the banners of respect and dignity and collective bargaining rights. There’s nothing wrong with those slogans, but concepts like respect and dignity are hard to sustain unity around because they “mean something different to everybody,” observed Braeden Pierce, an Amazon worker at the company’s huge KCVG air cargo center in northern Kentucky.
When they began organizing last fall, Pierce and his coworkers coalesced their campaign around three demands: $30 an hour minimum wage, 180 hours of paid time off, and union representation at all disciplinary meetings. “We chose these demands because they unify everybody from any kind of background,” Pierce said. “Everybody wants to be able to afford going to the grocery store, everybody wants to have time to take off. And nobody wants to be across a table from someone who has no idea what the job truly is…telling them that they’re doing their job incorrectly.”
Equally instructive is how the Kentucky workers developed those core demands: grassroots democracy. Over the course of several meetings last fall, the cargo center workers “took a lot of time to debate out what are the top three things that would affect the widest amount of our coworkers,” said Griffin Ritze, another KCVG union leader. They asked questions like, “How can we use demands to draw people into the campaign and fight for a clear program?” The three demands that the workers settled on are not the only issues they are agitating around. But the three are central to every organizing conversation.
There are plenty of organizers in the US union movement who would shy away from that approach. “They buy into the idea that ‘we don’t want to make promises we can’t keep,’” said Genevieve Morse, an organizer for Socialist Alternative, which is supporting the Kentucky workers. “But demands are not promises. They are a rallying point to bring people together.”
Other fights have focused on near-term achievable demands, like the Chicago delivery station workers’ wage victory and the San Bernardino workers’ strike to mitigate horrific working conditions.
Workers at the massive Otay Mesa warehouse in San Diego, just outside the US-Mexico border, organized to demand that Amazon provide free shuttle service for the hundreds of employees who cross the border daily from Mexico. Many were paying “raiteros” $3 to $5 for the two-mile trip from the border to the warehouse. More than 600 people signed a petition and a worker delegation marched on the boss. They won Amazon’s pledge of free transport from the border.
On the East Coast, workers at six warehouses coordinated mass petitions during peak season in 2021 with a list of demands including that the company allow people to carry their phones on the floor and provide extended time to appeal disciplines. They won on both issues.
When San Bernardino air cargo managers suspended (as a step toward firing) strike leader Sara Fee last fall, workers wore “Where’s Sara?” stickers throughout the facility for three days until the bosses brought her back. Actions such as these are not going to bring the company to its knees, but they are vital building blocks for worker confidence and fighting experience. “When it’s you versus Amazon, you know who has the power. But when we work together, there’s nothing better to protect you,” Fee said.
The third organizing principle is that the work must be systematic and rigorous. The election losses in Bessemer and last year in Albany, N.Y., illustrate what happens in the face of an all-out union-busting campaign when workers don’t have strong, trained, and representative organizing committees of rank-and-file leaders, able to lead workers to overcome the brutal boss campaign. RWDSU organizers in Bessemer failed to build a representative organizing committee capable of mobilizing the “yes” vote. Union staff hoped that big name endorsements from progressive luminaries like Bernie Sanders and Nina Turner would make up for the lack of a strong internal committee. They were dead wrong. In Albany, organizers were counting on a momentum boost from the JFK8 victory six months earlier to make up for shortcomings in the internal union committee. They, too, were wrong.
Key practices for successful long-term organizing include mapping workplaces—shifts, jobs, ethnic and social relationships—identifying and recruiting natural leaders and training activists on the daily organizing work. And given the high turnover in many warehouses, organizing can never let up. Fee and her San Bernardino colleagues make sure they have conversations with every new hire.
The KCVG workers, who recently affiliated with Amazon Labor Union and are pushing for a representation election, provide workers with two hours of training before they are sent out to sign up union members in the workplace and at the “battle tables” that members have set up just outside the workplace—so named because managers continually approach them to harass and intimidate.
“The first day we passed out leaflets, they tried to bust that up and we had to assert our rights,” recalled Ritze. “And every step of the way, they’ve tried to intimidate us and push us back and we’ve stood our ground and been able to back that up. So there have been times where management has had to announce in all-hands meetings that ‘Hey, actually in fact you are allowed to distribute material. You just have to be on your breaks and break areas.’ I think people just see that, yeah, there’s a seriousness and a professionalism about the campaign.”
Such methodical work may not be headline-grabbing material—but it is key to the long-term success of organizing. “Month by month there are new organizing committees, there are new actions, there’s more workers who are starting to work on building organization,” said Howard, the east coast Amazonians United organizer. “And if that continues, then eventually we’ll win. The majority of Amazon workers want a union. They want power. The question for them is, do they believe that it’s possible? Amazon is so clearly a behemoth that it is hard to imagine that we—as just a handful of workers among over a million—could have the power to start making change at this company.
“The big task for the labor movement right now and for us at Amazon is to be building those stories, building that confidence, building up the hope and belief that workers have, that they can make a change in their own lives by coming together and building a fighting organization,” he said.
It’s not coincidental that most of these budding efforts are germinating in independent organizations outside the AFL-CIO, like ALU and Amazonians United. The AFL-CIO and traditional unions are used to campaigning on discrete timelines—the next election, the next contract expiration. Their leaders should be—but are not—prepared to commit the vast majority of their resources for, say, at least the next decade to organize workers at Amazon and other mammoth employers. For anyone concerned about decent standards of living for all workers in the future, that needs to be recognized as labor’s central task.
Other organizations are stepping into this political vacuum to help workers at Amazon and other workplaces—groups like Labor Notes, which trains thousands of rank-and-file workers every year on struggle-based unionism; the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a joint project of the United Electrical workers union and Democratic Socialists of America; and internationally, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Organizing for Power workshops, which have trained more than 27,000 workers from 130 countries.
Add to that list Workers Strike Back, the new political movement launched by Seattle’s socialist city council member, Kshama Sawant. Workers Strike Back has pushed to elevate the KCVG worker organizing nationally. Last month Workers Strike Back activists organized tabling and rallies in a dozen US cities. Sawant and her Socialist Alternative organization hosted three KCVG workers at a rally outside Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.
That’s just a start. In the coming years, the struggle needs to be expanded exponentially. It won’t be good enough for other union activists simply to cheer on workers at Amazon, Starbucks, and elsewhere, showing up at rallies and donating to solidarity funds. They must enter the battle themselves, too, prepared to use their collective labor, consumer, and social power to demand that Amazon workers get justice. The disruptive strategies that Amazon workers are honing through practical experience need to be expanded greatly, both within the company and beyond. That will take all unions, not just those at Amazon.
Does that sound ambitious? It certainly is. But if the labor slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” still has real meaning, then the entire labor movement must be mobilized into the epic economic and political struggle needed to turn the Amazon asteroid away from smashing all of us.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum is a union and community organizer based in Seattle. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement and a member of the National Writers Union.