Thursday, April 28, 2022

Why did the ALU's campaign for worker rights resonate with Amazon workers?

Amazon workers took a page in history to write their own story by voting to join the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York. This fulfillment center (JFK8) will be the first unionized Amazon work site in the country. Out of the nearly 6,000 workers there, 2,654 voted for joining the ALU while 2,131 voted against.  ALUs victory is extraordinary considering that up until now, Amazon successfully defeated every single attempted union drive in a US facility. 

But the ALU is not your typical labor union. They’re different.  For one, this is a racially and ethnically diverse group of workers drawn from many of the city’s working-class communities of Blacks, Latinos, African-Americans, Africans, Dominicans, Puerto-Ricans, to name a few.  

Second, the ALU is an independent union, meaning they did this without being affiliated with any of the major labor unions.  But more importantly, as an independent union, the Amazon Labor Union is led by workers - conceived, built and made up of Amazon workers. The leaders, organizers and staff who make up the ALU are the very same workers who put in work to ensure our packages are delivered.  To meet productivity targets and metrics at this mammoth 855,000 square-foot facility, these workers push through physically demanding ten-hour shifts with 30 minutes for lunch and another 30 minutes for breaks, just to make ends meet. 

When the corona pandemic struck, workers were already fighting with Amazon management over these issues as well as their concerns around worker injuries and safety.  Covid made matters more difficult for workers who were not only confronted with Amazon’s lack of response to their health but now their tough working conditions, just got worse.  JFK8 workers, led by Chris Smalls, began to self-organize and confront Amazon with protest demonstrations highlighting Amazon’s failure to protect their workers.   The New York Times published their investigation of the JFK8 worksite a year later outlining the worker issues there such as high rates of worker turnover, and unfair worker terminations.   
But by this time, Smalls, Derrick Palmer, and many Amazon workers had already seen enough of Amazon’s actions and inactions. As the newly formed Amazon Labor Union, they were now looking at ways to transform and democratize their Amazon workplace. They recognized that as a certified union, they can force Amazon to address their workplace and safety issues with the protections afforded them via collective bargaining.  

But they had to convince more than enough of their fellow Amazon workers to fight Amazon’s heavily financed anti-union campaign .  The ALU’s principled commitment to workers was palpable, enabling allies to provide them with office space, legal and logistical support.  They reached thousands online with a GoFundMe page along with a popular social media campaign that uses several platforms to spread their union message online.   

Smalls and ALU organizers set up shop at the bus stop where nearly 10,000 workers travel to and
from work at the massive complex containing two Amazon facilities. Here at the bus stop, Smalls and ALU organizers met with workers coming and going, showing sensitivity to their immediate needs.  Workers were provided with tee-shirts, homemade food for breakfast and lunch, and with a propane tank at the bus stop to fight the low, frigid temperatures.  ALU organizers took advantage of the opportunity with workers to have conversations, but more importantly, to build relationships.   They took time to educate workers about the benefits of being a union member and how their interests would be prioritized in a union. It was at these gatherings where the Amazon workers gained an understanding by learning about how their common interests can be addressed through the power of collective bargaining.  

Through these organizing opportunities, ALU organizers were building relationships and the trust of their fellow workers.  Bear in mind, the ALU is staffed with current and former Amazon workers who were familiar with the tough working conditions and, also share their common concerns.  In their individual roles as workers they have that institutional knowledge about Amazon considering their roles and experience as managers, supervisors, etc. 

Their standing and influence with fellow workers, helped to enable relationship building through empathy and trust. Their constant visibility on the work floor allowed buy- in and consensus amongst the workers.  As a result, the ALU organizers built a campaign from the ground up that resonated and galvanized workers around; working conditions, wages and job security, health and safety as well as Amazon’s anti-union policies. 

ALU’s win is described as a historic moment primarily due to the enormous odds in defeating a powerful corporate entity such as Amazon. However, this moment is best described as one that was built by the JFK8 Amazon workers.  A moment guided by a vision that was forged together as an independent union, then led by workers to create a new reality for themselves, and their families. A moment where workers found their voice, recognizing their collective power to not only practice their right of self-determination but organized to fully engage in a democratic process – a participatory democratic process to transform their workplace.

The Amazon Labor Union arrived at this moment through the hard work of organizing as well as educating their fellow workers.  Their legacy to workers will be measured by how they wage battle against the powerful forces of cooptation from elected politicians and major labor unions on one side, with Amazon standing on the other side. 
Meanwhile, history can repeat itself for a second time as another union vote took place on April 25th at a nearby Amazon warehouse (LDJ5) located in the same sprawling complex with JFK8.

Photo credits: Pamela Drew

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1 comment:

  1. The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power