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First we take Staten Island: Lessons from the unionization of Amazon’s JFK8

We can take on the likes of Jeff Bezos and win—as a stepping stone to changing the world

LabourSocial Movements

Photo by Kalden Rangdrol Dhatsenpa/Canadian Dimension

The revolution is here.”
Christian Smalls, president and founder, Amazon Labor Union

What happened on Friday, April 1 at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment centre in Staten Island is already a defining moment for organized labour. Workers are no longer retreating; successes from Amazon to Starbucks shine a path forward not just for workers but for all those seeking radical change.

Following the news of the successful unionization campaign in New York City, Amazon workers from dozens of different warehouses across the United States began contacting the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), seeking to replicate the dramatic success in their own workplaces. The sense of jubilation is warranted—not just for the 8,300 workers at JFK8 but for all of us in these times.

The recent victory came during a period where defeats were compounded, particularly after failed union drives at Amazon facilities in both Bessemer, Alabama and Edmonton. Despite the sacrifices made during the pandemic by workers, most of the benefits have accrued to the billionaire class. In the wake of the COVID crisis, the world’s 2,365 billionaires enjoyed a $4 trillion boost to their wealth, increasing their fortunes by 54 percent during the first year of the pandemic.

Now, as workers face insecurity with their wages being outpaced by record inflation, living conditions are stagnating for ordinary people. Given these pressures, the successful grassroots union drive of the ALU is nothing short of a historic moment.

This is not solely because a small group of mostly racialized workers came together without significant resources to challenge and then defeat the world’s fifth-most valuable corporation, owned by the second-wealthiest person on the planet. The ALU defeated Amazon and Jeff Bezos through sheer commitment, will, and an approach to workplace organizing shirked by large business unions. Its organizing tactics and spirit of grassroots labour renewal, spearheaded by the most marginalized sectors of the working class, prove decisively where the energy and efforts of labour need to focus.

The bottom line is that the labour movement needs to build democratic, grassroots organizations among those left out of the traditional reaches of organized unionism. Immigrants, racialized workers, and women are at the heart of our future, and our notions of solidarity and movement building must be reflective of the diversity of the working class.

As Amazon’s global footprint reveals, its power over the economy is built on the labour of Black, immigrant and women workers. This reliance upon disposable and cheap labour is at the heart of its enormous wealth and power.

We are slowly turning the page on an era of union decline and retreat, not only thanks to the organizing work of the ALU, but concurrent organizing at Starbucks and by workers at some of Indigo’s more than 200 Canadian stores.

For labour, the victory seemed impossible. The defeat of Amazon union drives in Bessemer and Edmonton made the retail behemoth into a white whale for labour. The Edmonton Amazon drive, covered by Ricochet journalist and former company associate Ashlynn Chand, has shown Amazon’s consistent use of ‘carrot and stick’ to challenge the Teamsters International in their efforts to win over the hearts and minds of Amazon workers.

In Alberta, Amazon brought in employee relations ambassadors who would sit down with workers to talk about the benefits of working for Amazon and to gauge their opinions on unionization. The company spent a grand total of $4.3 million last year on anti-union consultants. These contractors aid Amazon to implement tactics such as inflating the numbers of workers to make it impossible for unions to have accurate lists and fair elections.

Union tactics and strategies need to adapt to the reality created by Amazon and other large employers. As in the case of the Bessemer and Edmonton campaigns, there was not a strong base of workers nor relationships cultivated on the inside. As Chand points out, there was simply no one to build from within, dooming their efforts to failure. This is particularly important as Amazon’s ‘carrots’ can inoculate a segment of its workers from supporting the union in the first place.

The victory at JFK8 must be viewed within its own particular context and dynamics, but there are crucial lessons we need to take away in order to build successful organizing campaigns beyond one facility, across all of Amazon, and even throughout the leviathan logistics sector—and turn the tide of labour retreat.

Members of Teamsters Locals 987 and 362 protest outside an Amazon fulfillment center in Alberta, on July 14, 2021, after meeting with Amazon workers across the country to discuss working conditions and union organizing. Photo courtesy Teamsters Canada.

Beyond Christian Smalls: The inclusion of former workers

Christian (Chris) Smalls has garnered the bulk of the attention in the wake of the victory at JFK8. Smalls is a former Amazon worker who was fired in 2020 for leading a protest about COVID safety. He quickly became a relentless advocate not just for Amazon employees but for all essential workers feeling the pressures of pandemic-era labour policy.

Articles and analyses have gone beyond Smalls to unearth the other elements of the organizing effort he spearheaded, but what he represents is not simply a charismatic leader and agitator. A big part of his power and influence comes from the fact he is a former worker.

The role of former or ex-workers in the successful unionization of JFK8 cannot be overstated. Smalls had been working inside Amazon for five years, and was able to connect with colleagues including Derrick Palmer and Anjelika Maldonado. Both continued working inside JFK8 and would come to play key roles inside the fulfillment centre during the union drive.

Amazon has a very high front-line turnover rate estimated at 150 percent due to gruelling work conditions and quotas faced by its workers. At the same time, the company employs approximately one million people in the United States alone. According to NBC News, this means one out of every 169 Americans either has worked or currently works for Amazon.

As organizers, how do we justify the immense amount of effort it takes to build trust and relationships with workers if, as a result of their forced precarity, they will no longer be at a job in three or five months? Our models need to be inclusive of former workers as a key part of our organizing.

As opposed to focusing on professional organizers from the outside, a source of former workers from companies that produce high turnover, like Amazon, is key to mobilizing support inside of workplaces. Former employees can speak in public without fear of reprisal; they understand the issues and dynamics inside a workplace; and they can effectively do outreach, mobilize, and talk to workers.

Indeed, high turnover is not necessarily a disadvantage to our organizing if we see the thousands of workers turned out by companies like Amazon as the foundation of a new base for movements.

Fighting in public, going against the grain

The second big lesson from the ALU campaign has to do with public campaigns rather than secret ones. Being public allows for new organizing strategies to be used by workers and organizers who are typically bound by secret campaigns. This helps build confidence among workers that their anger and frustrations are legitimate and can not be silenced.

For those who are not familiar with union organizing, strategy and tactics, the public approach used by the ALU went completely against the long-standing code and tradition of union organizing. Typically, unions adopt a strategy of secretly building a core organizing committee and various cells to talk to workers and sign them up. Once unions feel they have enough strength, they go public.

Justine, a worker and a salt at JFK8, describes the thinking:

There is one thing we did that I think is pretty unique. We treated this like you would treat an electoral campaign. There were anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 workers, depending on how many were hired at the time. That’s why we were public about it from the beginning. There’s no way to do one-on-ones with thousands as a rag-tag, scrappy team, especially at the very beginning when it was [only] Derrick Palmer and Chris [Smalls].

The logic was effective. By going public from the outset, members were able to undermine Amazon’s management strategies. The company’s utilization of captive audience meetings and other forms of intimidation could only be effective if workers didn’t have the ability to confront such tactics openly. If there is no public opposition by workers because a union drive is secret, it gives the perception that managers always have power over workers. Being vocal inside the workplace was effective to confront the anti-union strategies undertaken by Amazon.

As ALU leader Angelika Maldonado described the shop floor confrontations:

We did things like going into union-busting captive audience meetings even when we weren’t invited. We spoke up for everyone and we told the facts. We combated what the union-busters were saying, letting everybody know that they were telling lies.

The ALU demonstrated not only that workers were unafraid but that they had power inside the workplace. Similar tactics were used by Amazonians United, a rank and file solidarity union made up of Amazon workers from across the US, which is not based upon union certification but on finding ways of building local power and solidarity to effect change in local Amazon facilities.

Amazonians United used stand-up meetings⁠—compulsory staff meetings at the beginning of every shift⁠—to bring forward demands in unison with other workers on the shift. These tactics were effective in Chicago where workers came together to fight for access to clean drinking water.

The effective organizing tactics by ALU and Amazonians United exposed one of the company’s key weaknesses by providing room for workers to gather and express themselves in a collective fashion. Amazon’s half-hearted inclusion of workers’ voices (such as through the creation of toothless health and safety committees or ‘affinity groups’) was never designed to give workers real control over decision making, but to create the illusion of agency to stop unionization efforts in their tracks. By exposing this strategy and and turning it on its head, organizers were able to approach workers directly and build confidence, crucially helping them undermine the employer’s power within the workplace.

As the ALU’s success has demonstrated, going public not only inside the workplace but also outside of it has to be a takeaway for the labour movement writ large. The work of the ALU began with leaders setting up shop every day for over 10 months outside JFK8. This simple act of building a consistent presence allowed for the building of relationships and gaining contacts, but it also afforded a physical space where workers could meet, socialize, and discuss workplace issues together.

Chris Smalls (foreground) and Amazon Labor Union supporters hold a rally outside of the company’s DYX2 Staten Island location. Photo by Hiram Alejandro Durán/The City.

My own experiences inside Amazon and with Dollorama workers highlighted many of the same lessons about public organizing. At the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montréal, organizers during the pandemic would table and outreach every week in front of the metro where the bulk of Dollarama’s 1,000 warehouse workers waited for the train each day. Organizers tabled with juice, masks, and flyers and engaged with workers to talk to them about their issues. This consistency allowed us to build trust and establish networks through which we invited new workers to meetings.

While it is often viewed as time-consuming, tabling can create new avenues for outreach and establish genuine connection with workers. But such tactics cannot be used if campaigns remain secret; the capacity to create such outreach strategies can build momentum if they are seen as part of a long-term approach to building trust and relationships, not as a one-off activity.

At JFK8, tabling and daily outreach helped to support the organizing committee and leaders on the inside. Organizers won over workers systematically, department by department and shift by shift. While Amazon attempted to discredit it as a third-party campaign, the ALU’s union drive was transparently a worker-led, bottom-up campaign that utilized the resources and support of different union locals.

The (re)turn to industry

The radical left, communists, socialists, and anarchists have been present in organizing efforts with the ALU, as well as Amazonians United and the Starbucks organizing drive. While for many people within different left movements, particularly in Canada, integration into union structures by becoming staffers was a way of creating an organic link to a broader base of workers and the radical left, this strategy has its limits due to union bureaucracy, priorities, and their base.

The role of salts inside JFK8 and other new union organizing at Starbucks shows the importance not of inserting ourselves into the bureaucratic structures but within the base itself—inside the workplace as organizers.

There is a new determination by younger organizers to go back to the strategies of the “turn to industry” as salts inside workplaces. This tactic supports efforts to build workplace power inside Amazon as well as other difficult non-unionized workplaces, and it has gained importance in the political work of a growing number of radical currents.

According to labour researcher Nantina Vgontzas, this assessment has “motivated organizing efforts by a number of leftist groups, from anarchists in Poland to the growing numbers of socialists in the US. Their wager is as follows: if Amazon warehouse workers can activate these ‘chokepoints,’ and if they can coordinate with workers in trucks, ports, and other distribution hubs, they can disrupt the circulation of goods in the wider economy.”

Inside JFK8 there were dozens of activists working as salts and representing a wide spectrum of left-wing organizations from the Democratic Socialists of America, to communists, as well as anarchist groups. They played a meaningful role by wielding their experience to support the efforts of the rank and file leadership, offering up their unique activist skills and commitment to form a union.

Beyond Amazon

What happened at JFK8 will have ripple effects not just for employers, but more acutely, for the left and trade unions in the US and beyond. What ALU has accomplished has also presented unions with a real crisis. Larger international labour organizations continue to debate about and grapple with the level of resources needed to organize fiercely anti-union corporations such as Amazon and Starbucks. Larger trade unions are therefore under pressure to justify to their membership the huge funds needed for professional organizers, lawyers, and staff to carry out campaigns.

Thus, even if unions have a mandate to organize within major anti-union corporations, the resources needed to wage these campaigns are weighed against the anti-union strategies of such corporations. The ALU organized a major campaign on the salary of between one or two organizers. It was fundamentally grassroots, democratic, and worker-led—with the support of radical left political formations.

The ALU’s victory points to the patience and consistency needed to secure future successes. Indeed, there was no magic bullet; their triumph was made possible by a blend of strategies and attitudes we should take forward with us, not just in organizing other Amazon warehouses, but in all organizing and political work.

There can be no substitute for being grounded within workplaces and communities. The bigger question we are confronted with is not what Amazon will do, but what we will do. Do we push for such orientations within the labour movement, or is it too bound in its logic to break away?

The changing nature of the working class in terms of race, ethnicity and gender can not be seen as a burden but as a source of power. With it we can take on the likes of Jeff Bezos and win—as a stepping stone to changing the world. We should no longer act in fear but with collective confidence.

Mostafa Henaway is a Ph.D. Candidate at Concordia University in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. He is also a long-time organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montréal.


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