It’s Not Enough to Win an Election, Now It Has to Do the Hard Work of Representing the Workers
President Joe Biden revealed a lot about the Amazon Labor Union’s threat to business as usual politics when he greeted the union’s president, Chris Smalls, at the White House this past spring. Biden called him “trouble.”
The union’s groundbreaking success April 1 in Staten Island, N.Y., becoming the first union to organize Amazon workers in the U.S., jeopardizes the status quo and prevailing model of business unionism that has dominated the political landscape since at least the 1950s.
And that’s part of the point.
Although the pressure on the union to conform to existing power structures has only intensified since organizing workers at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center three months ago, the independent labor union continues to chart its own path even while battling back against Amazon’s attempts to nullify its victory in court. Instead of buckling, however, the union is hoping established labor unions will be the ones who start operating more like them — militant and worker-led.
“That’s the idea — to kind of inspire [unions] to commit to the bottom up structure that we have here,” Connor Spence, Amazon Labor Union organizer and vice president of membership, told me in a phone interview. “We’ve shown that organizing workers internally is what wins union elections. It’s not a huge budget, it’s not having a ton of external organizers outside the building. It’s helping the workers inside to organize themselves.”
When the union held a pre-vote rally outside Amazon’s smaller LDJ5 sorting facility on Staten Island on April 24, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten declared organized labor “must” support the Amazon workers. “With you goes the labor movement,” Weingarten said, “with you goes workers’ rights, with you goes solidarity — with you goes everything.”
The Amazon Labor Union is experiencing significant growing pains as it attempts to solidify its successes and build for the future.
Sara Nelson, head of the American Association of Flight Attendants, invoked the spirit of Mother Jones — the labor movement icon who championed the United Mine Workers and other workers across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and saluted the “house of labor that Chris Smalls and the ALU are building right here in Staten Island.”
“I have to tell you,” Nelson said, “after 25 years of doing this work, praying like hell people would wake up to their power — this union is the answer my prayers.”
The Amazon Labor Union ultimately came up short in that subsequent election on Staten Island, and in addition to the aforementioned pressures, is now experiencing significant growing pains as it attempts to solidify its successes and build for the future.
Working Class Power
“The only way we’re going to get a good contact and with [Amazon] in a timely manner is putting pressure on them through collective action,” Spence continued. “That’s what we’re gonna build for; help the working class understand they have a lot of power if they’re willing to use it. You can put pressure on the company, you can engage in collective action in ways that are protected and win real victories by doing that. That’s the kind of mindset we have to bring back to workers in America.”
Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant, who donated $20,000 from her solidarity fund to the Amazon union following the JFK8 victory, urged Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — along with every “self-described” pro-union elected official in Congress” — to immediately introduce bills to beef up labor laws when big corporations like Amazon get giant subsidies.
“Put forward legislation right now in Congress to tax corporations like Starbucks and Amazon,” Sawant said on Staten Island. “We have a message to labor leadership throughout the nation as well — we need a labor leadership that is not in bed with union-busting establishment politicians. In fact, we need a new political party for working people. But in addition to that — we need a revival in the labor movement itself.”
Ileen DeVault is professor of Labor History at Cornell University’s Industrial and La bor Relations School in Ithaca, N.Y. The author of two books, “Sons and Daughters of Labor” and “United Apart: Gender and the Rise of Craft Unionism” told me it’s still too early to conclude what impact the Amazon union might have on the labor community at large.
Rough Road Ahead
“Part of the issue here is that ALU still has a very rough road ahead of them,” DeVault said. “Yes, they have a union — but now they’re going to have to negotiate a contract. They have to be able to enforce that contract. They’re about to learn despite their fantastic work at getting a union, there’s a lot more to being a union than just getting the vote to begin with — and that’s what they need to learn from existing unions. They’re going to need assistance from existing unions to keep them alive as they go through these next stages of being a union.”
Spence insists the Amazon Labor Union has “the playbook that works,” but that the union is also receptive to help.
“We’re always receptive to people who want to give us support, give us resources or donate their expertise or staff to help us out,” he added. “That help will facilitate the organizing we need to do that large-scale collective action. Those unions have ideas about how they can help as well. Solidarity action, obviously, we welcome them.”
The union’s attorney, Seth Goldstein, acknowledges that “institutionalism” and “transactional-ism” have weakened the labor movement in the past— but things have changed.
“That is not happening today,” Goldstein told me. “There is a vitality in the AFL-CIO.”
Professor DeVault sees the SEIU-backed Starbucks Workers United campaign, backed by the huge Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as a “really good example of how both sides need to learn from each other.”
- “SEIU is offering support to those workers who are organizing at Starbucks — but they’re really letting the workers do the work and figure out what they want by themselves,” she said. “If both sides do learn from each other what it means is we will become a country once again with a strong and vibrant labor movement. And that’s exciting; we haven’t had that for several decades now.”