When the news broke that the burgeoning Amazon Labor Union had made history by winning its union elections in Amazon’s sprawling JFK8 fulfillment center, labor experts were as jubilant as they were confused. How did this group of Staten Island warehouse workers who decided to form their own independent organization rather than try to join an established national union and ignored conventional wisdom about how a union campaign “should” be run? dealt with them? one of the richest, most powerful, most anti-working class corporations in the world… and won?
Ultimately, it was much easier than any rough analysis would suggest: It depended on the workers and the real, real solidarity that the organizing committee of the ALU built up among themselves and with their around 8,000 employees. “We allowed anyone in the building who wanted to organize to organize,” said Angelika Maldonado, chair of the ALU workers’ committee Jacobean Magazine. As she explained, committee members devoted every waking hour to organizing, listening, planning, fundraising, phone banking from Unite Here Local 100’s Manhattan office, squeezing one-on-one calls in 15-minute increments during their breaks, and breaking bread (and enjoy homemade soul food) with her colleagues in the parking lot in front of the building.
Committee members devoted every waking hour to organizing, listening, planning, fundraising, and phone banking.
The ALU had applied to the National Labor Relations Board for an election in October, but initially had to withdraw the petition for lack of signatures; After that, they redoubled their efforts to get where they needed to be. They countered Amazon’s dirty tactics with militancy, disrupting trapped audience meetings and making it very clear that they knew their rights. Christian Smalls, the new union’s president and one of its most effective organizers, also became its most visible spokesman; He was a constant, living presence at meetings and rallies. He was all over social media and eventually he was arrested for trespassing (along with two other workers) while delivering groceries to workers in the facility’s break room. Smalls has earned his reputation for fearlessness, and the struggle to form a union has become his personal crusade.
When he was fired from JFK8 in 2020 after leading a strike to protest the facility’s lack of Covid-19 safety measures, company executives berated him and denigrated his character and skills. In a leaked memo, Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky referred for Smalls as “not smart or articulate”; The company later described the ALU organizers as “bat‘, continues his racist rejection of both a movement built by black workers and the black man who is leading it.
Later, after her victory was assured and Amazon’s devastating miscalculations exposed, Smalls tweeted, “@amazon wanted me to be the face of the whole union effort against them…. let’s go! @JeffBezos @DavidZapolsky…” One can only imagine how good that felt for him – and for every other worker on the organizing committee and in the larger union.
Christian Smalls, the new union’s president and one of its most effective organizers, also became its most visible spokesman; He was a constant, living presence at meetings and rallies.
Considering Smalls’ accomplishments as a leader, one is reminded of another charismatic black working-class leader who used the power of solidarity to build enduring workers’ power on the Philadelphia waterfront. Ben Fletcherborn this month 132 years ago in a vibrant multiracial neighborhood in South Philadelphia, was a longshoreman and dedicated organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), nicknamed the Wobblies.
In the 1910s, Fletcher co-founded Local 8 of the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union, which ruled the docks for a decade and was an outspoken anti-racist, integrated union at a time when it was almost unknown within organized labor , not to mention the US in general. He traveled up and down the East Coast agitating workers and preaching the message of working-class unity, earning the respect of his peers and drawing the wrath of the U.S. government, which jailed him and hundreds of other Wobblies for treason during World War I. Today he is considered one of the forgotten radical heroes of the labor movement, but his legacy lives on in organizers like Smalls and his comrades in the ALU.
What drew Fletcher to the IWW was its status as a staunchly anti-capitalist industrial union that welcomed workers of all races and genders and pioneered the concept of the IWW solidarity unions. The difference between solidary trade unionism and its counterpart, shop-floor trade unionism, is hierarchical as well as political and strategic. While proponents of the latter seek to run their unions like, well, a top-down corporation that relies heavily on paid employees and political machinations to achieve its largely economic goals, while member involvement lags behind , solidarity trade unionists avoid entrenching hierarchies and a level playing field between the organizers and the organized.
While many of America’s major unions can rightly be accused of modeling the business union model, the IWW employs a worker-first strategy through which its affiliate organizers attempt to build unions.based to the direct strength of workers in the workplace, without regard to government or employer recognition” and typically eschew the NLRB-focused electoral process and contract negotiations that traditional unions consider essential.
The difference between solidary trade unionism and its counterpart, shop-floor trade unionism, is hierarchical as well as political and strategic.
The Wobbly approach continues to bear fruit in several industries (most recently Fast food and retail trade victories in the Pacific Northwest), but the solidarity union movement has grown larger than a union. There are countless examples throughout history of workers taking it upon themselves to organize for change, with or without the support of a formal union structure; Many of these efforts have been undertaken expressly by and for people of color, particularly black workers who have been excluded from white-majority unions or relegated to segregated union offices for decades.
As I write in my book: “Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor‘ the washerwomen of Jackson, Mississippi, formed the state’s first labor organization in 1866—just a year after emancipation—to demand higher prices for their labor. There was Dorothy Lee Bolden and her National Domestic Workers Union of America, who saw her organize 10,000 black women workers in Atlanta to get fair wages and professionalize domestic work. Now, Haymarket Pole collective in Portland, Oregon, distributes resources, education, and mutual aid to Black, Indigenous, and transgender sex workers. Workers who have been excluded from a flawed mainstream labor movement have nevertheless always found a way to fight – and in many cases a way to win.
The Amazon Labor Union falls firmly into this camp, and it may very well have been key to its resounding success. As an independent, egalitarian effort run entirely by workers (and ex-workers in the case of Smalls), the ALU didn’t have to swear by a specific set of rules or hold on to the opinions of others about what their strategy should be, but Cherry – Relevant Lessons draw from the Labor Party past to create their own very modern campaign. They have submitted an election to the NLRB and will hopefully get together soon to begin negotiations on their first contract (Smalls sent a letter to Amazon request meeting the first week of May), but the union itself organized horizontally, piecemeal, worker-to-worker, building relationships at the lunch table and in the parking lot.
“Here’s the basic thing: They have an actual, workers-led project — a Black and Brown-led, multiracial, multinational, multigender, multifunctional organizing team,” Justine Medina, member of the ALU organizing committee and co-chair of the New York Young Communist League, explained work notes. “This has been a truly collective effort led by some brilliant Amazon workers who have been pushed to organize by the pandemic and their living conditions.”
A century after Ben Fletcher and the Wobblies brought the solidarity labor movement to the Philly shore, the Amazon Labor Union has rebuilt it in a Staten Island warehouse — and the example they set today will hopefully inspire a whole new generation of Inspire workers to follow their example.
https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/amazon-workers-victory-puts-spotlight-particular-type-unionism-rcna22885 The Amazon workers’ victory highlights a particular type of labor movement