The first Amazon union was always going to be a big fucking deal. But it’s hard to imagine how it could have been any sweeter than this one was. When it became official on Saturday morning that more than 8,000 workers in an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island had voted to unionize with the independent Amazon Labor Union, it meant that America’s most powerful non-union company has just been cracked open not by some deep- pocketed institutional force, but instead by a former employee, with no real experience or budget, who started organizing just because he saw that it needed to be done.
Before we plumb the analytical depths of the import of this for the future of the American working class, we must just say, to Amazon founder and mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos, recently returned to Earth from a short trip to space in a personal luxury rocket : Ha. Hahahaha.
From the perspective of labor power, Amazon warehouse employees are the most important kind of workers in America. By this I mean that whatever wages and working conditions these workers are able to win at this company will have ripple effects that change the lives of an enormous number of other workers across this country. Amazon is not just building warehouses; it is in the process of changing the service sector-dominated economy that has characterized America since the 90s into an on-demand online shopping-based economy in which Amazon itself becomes a sort of utility of the retail industry, enabled by a coast-to -coast network of warehouses staffed by low-paid workers with little power over their own destinies.
The last generation of low-wage American jobs was shaped by Walmart, a place that unions never managed to organize. The result of that failure by the labor movement has been tens of millions of Americans trapped for several decades in retail jobs that do not pay enough to live on, while the Walton family, which owns Walmart, became some of the richest people in the world . That is what happens when workers at a terribly consequential company are not able to unionize, and allow the executive and investor classes to monopolize all of the company’s power. Amazon is now transforming the American workplace just like Walmart did, and a failure to organize there would lead to an even more dramatic erosion of the idea that hard work in this country should provide a deliverable wage and economic mobility.
Happily, we can now say that Amazon is no longer a union-free company. Much of the credit for starting and carrying out the union drive at the Staten Island warehouse goes to Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker who the company fired after he led a walkout over safety concerns. We should all feel free to bask in glee at the fact that leaked memos in April 2020 showed Amazon’s general counsel saying that the company should “make [Smalls] the face of the entire union/organizing movement” because he was “not smart or articulate”. Now, Smalls and the dozens of volunteers who helped him and thousands of those who actually do the work at the warehouse have done what many highly paid consultants assured Amazon was impossible.
Imagine a pie smashing Jeff Bezos’ face, forever. Ha. Ha.
The Amazon Labor Union was a remarkably grassroots, worker-led effort not affiliated with any existing union. Meanwhile, in Bessemer, Alabama, the Retail Workers union has spent two years and many millions of dollars working to organize an Amazon warehouse there with the assistance of countless professional union organizers. The vote at that warehouse was counted at the same time as Staten Island’s, and the result is still up in the air due to hundreds of challenged ballots.
Much will be made of the differing approaches and differing results. But the real lesson from these campaigns is: try everything. Should big, existing unions organize Amazon workers? Yes. Should small, determined bands of Amazon workers launch organizing campaigns themselves? Yes. All of those people are part of the American labor movement – a movement that has only begun what will be a decades-long struggle to mold Amazon into a place where a warehouse job can sustain a middle-class lifestyle. A century ago, auto workers and steel workers and coalminers all undertook a similar union struggle, and created the greatest age of collective national prosperity that the world has ever seen. What is happening at Amazon is our generation’s turn in that class war.
In 2015, I was part of a (much smaller and less important, but also novel) successful union drive at a digital media company. Labor movement people asked us then, as they are going to ask these Amazon workers now: how did you do it? 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 most powerful thing unions in America have going for them is that they are indisputably good for working people. There is no one right way to unionize the 90% of our country’s workers who are not union members; the only thing to worry about is unionizing people more.
Winston Churchill was an imperialist scumbag, but he knew how to give inspiring quotes. It is time for the labor movement to channel his insistence, “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
We shall organize the warehouses, we shall organize the Uber drivers, we shall organize the big box stores, we shall organize the fast food restaurants. We won’t stop. Never ever. We shall organize everyone. If the Amazon workers can do it, so can you.