Let us honor those workers who stood up to Amazon, especially Chris Smalls, described by Amazon’s chief counsel as “not smart, or articulate,” who led a walkout at the Amazon warehouse at Staten Island JFK8 at the beginning of the pandemic two years ago to protest unsafe working conditions. He was immediately fired. Amazon’s high-priced lawyers, however, were in for a surprise. Smalls unionized the first Amazon warehouse in the country. He, along with his co-founder Derrick Palmer, built their union worker by worker with little outside support and no affiliation with a national labour group, raising $120,000 on GoFundMe. Amazon spent more than $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year alone, according to federal filings.
We must not underestimate this victory. It is only by rebuilding unions and carrying out strikes that we will halt the downward spiral of the working class. No politician will do this for us. Neither of the two ruling parties will be our allies. The media will be hostile. The government, beholden to corporations and the rich, will use its resources, no matter which of the two ruling parties is in the White House, to crush worker movements. It will be a long, painful and lonely struggle.
You can tell what the oligarchs fear by what they seek to destroy—unions. Amazon, the country’s second largest employer after Walmart, pours staggering resources into blocking union organizing, like Walmart. According to court documents, it formed a reaction team involving 10 departments, including a security group staffed by military veterans, to counter the Staten Island organizing and had blueprints for breaking union activity worked out in its “Protest Response Playbook” and “Labor Activity Playbook.” The strike-breaking teams organized compulsory Maoist-type meetings, up to 20 a day, with workers where supervisors denigrated unions. It employed subterfuges making it hard to vote for a union. It put up anti-union posters in the bathrooms. It fired workers suspected of organizing. And it relied on the gutting of antitrust legislation and OSHA, as well as the emasculation of the National Labor Relations Board, which left workers largely defenseless, although the NLRB made a few decisions in favor of the union organizers.
“They called us a bunch of thugs,” Smalls told reporters after the 2,654 to 2,131 vote to form the union. “They tried to spread racist rumors. Tried to demonize our character, but it didn’t work.”
Amazon, like most large corporations, has no more commitment to worker’s rights than it does to the nation. It avoids taxes through a series of loopholes designed by their lobbyists in Washington and passed by Congress. The company dodged about $5.2 billion in corporate federal income taxes in 2021, even as it reported record profits of more than $35 billion. It paid only six percent of those profits in federal corporate income tax. Amazon posted income of more than $11 billion in 2018 but paid no federal taxes and received a federal tax refund of $129 million. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in the world, is worth over $180 billion. He, like Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, worth $277 billion, plays with space rockets as if they were toys and is finishing work on his $500 million yacht, the largest in the world.
Bezos owns the Washington Post. The billionaire bioscientist Patrick Soon-Shiong owns the Los Angeles Times. Hedge funds and other financial firms own half of the daily newspapers in the United States. Television is in the hands of roughly a half-dozen corporations who control 90% of what Americans watch. WarnerMedia, currently owned by AT&T, owns CNN and Time Warner. MSNBC is owned by Comcast, which is a subsidiary of General Electric, the 11th-largest defense contractor in the US. News Corp owns the Wall Street Journal and New York Post. The ruling oligarchs don’t care what we watch, as long as we remain entranced by the trivial, emotionally-driven spectacles they provide. None of these outlets challenge the interests of their owners, shareholders or advertisers, who orchestrate the assault on workers. The more powerful workers become, the more the media will be weaponized against them.
The first story I published in a major newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, was about the US corporation Gulf and Western’s crushing of labour organizing in its industrial free zone in La Romana in the Dominican Republic, a campaign that included the intimidation, beating, firing, and assassination of Dominican labour organizers. The story was originally accepted by the Outlook section of the Washington Post until Gulf and Western, which owned Paramount Pictures, threatened to pull its movie advertising from the newspaper. The Monitor, funded by the Christian Science Church, did not carry advertising. It was an early and important lesson on the severe constraints of the commercial press.
The New York Times had gutted an investigative piece a year earlier written by perhaps our greatest investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, who exposed the killing of some 500 unarmed civilians by the U.S. army in My Lai and the torture at Abu Ghraib, and Jeff Gerth about Gulf and Western. Hersh and Gerth documented how Gulf and Western carried out fraud, abuse, tax avoidance and had links with organized crime. Charles Bluhdorn, the CEO of Gulf and Western, socialized with the publisher, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, which included invitations to preview soon-to-be-released Paramount movies in Bluhdorn’s home theater. Bluhdorn used his connections at the paper to discredit Hersh and Gerth, as well as to bombard the newspaper with accusatory letters and menacing phone calls. He hired private investigators to dig up dirt on Hersh and Gerth. When the two reporters filed their 15,000-word expose, the business editor, John Lee, in Hersh’s words, and “his ass-kissing coterie of moronic editors,” perhaps fearful of being sued, neutered it. It was one thing, Hersh found, to go up against a public institution. It was something else to take on a major corporation. He would never again work regularly for a newspaper.
“The experience was frustrating and enervating,” Hersh writes in his memoir “Reporter.” “Writing about corporate America had sapped my energy, disappointed the editors, and unnerved me. There would be no check on corporate America, I feared: Greed had won out. The ugly fight with Gulf and Western had rattled the publisher and the editors to the point that the editors who ran the business pages had been allowed to vitiate and undercut the good work Jeff and I had done. I could not but wonder if the editors there had been told about Bluhdorn’s personal connection to Punch. In any case, it was clear to me and Jeff that the courage the Times had shown in confronting the wrath of a president and an attorney general in the crisis over the Pentagon Papers in 1971 was nowhere to be seen when confronted by a gaggle of corporate con men…”
The United States had the most violent labour wars in the industrialized world, with hundreds of workers murdered by company goons and militias, thousands wounded and tens of thousands blacklisted. The fight for unions, and with them decent salaries, benefits, and job protection, was paid for by rivers of working-class blood and tremendous suffering. The formation of unions, as in the past, will entail a long and vicious class war. The security and surveillance apparatus, including Homeland Security and the FBI, will be deployed, along with private contractors and thugs hired by corporations, to monitor, infiltrate and destroy union organizing.
Unions made possible, for a while, a middle-class salary for auto workers, bus drivers, electricians, and construction workers. But those gains were rolled back. If the minimum wage had kept pace with rising productivity, as the New York Times pointed out, workers would be earning at least $20 an hour.
The nascent organizing at Amazon, Starbucks, Uber, Lyft, John Deere, Kellogg, the Special Metals plant in Huntington, West Virginia, owned by Berkshire Hathaway; REI, the Northwest Carpenters Union, Kroger, teachers in Chicago, Sacramento, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona; fast food workers, hundreds of nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees are signs that workers are discovering that the only real power they have is as a collective, although a paltry nine percent of the US workforce is unionized. Fourteen hundred workers at a Kellogg’s plant in Omaha that makes Cheez-Its won a new contract with more than 15 percent wage increases over three years after they went on strike for nearly three months last fall.
The betrayal of the working class by the Democratic Party, especially during the Clinton administration, included trade deals that allowed exploited workers in Mexico or China to take the place of unionized workers at home. Anti-labour legislation was passed by bought-and-paid for politicians in the two ruling parties on behalf of big business. Deindustrialization and job insecurity morphed into the gig economy, where workers are reduced to living on subsistence wages with no benefits or job security, and few rights.
Capitalists, as Karl Marx pointed out, have only two goals: Reduce the cost of labour, which means impoverishing and exploiting workers, and increase the rate of production, which often occurs through automation, such as Amazon’s ubiquitous squat orange robots carrying yellow racks across million-square-foot warehouse floors. When human beings interfere in these two capitalist objectives, they are sacrificed.
The financial distress afflicting workers, trapped in debt peonage and preyed upon by banks, credit card companies, student loan companies, privatized utilities, the gig economy, a for-profit healthcare system that has not prevented the US from having roughly a sixth of all reported worldwide COVID-19 deaths—although we have less than a twelfth of the world’s population—and employers who pay meager wages and do not provide benefits is getting steadily worse, especially with rising inflation.
Biden, while lavishing $13.6 billion on Ukraine and expanding the military budget to $754 billion, has overseen the loss of extended unemployment benefits, rental assistance, forbearance for student loans, emergency checks, the moratorium on evictions and now the ending of the expansion of the child tax credit. He has refused to fulfill even his most tepid campaign promises, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and forgiving student loans. His Build Back Better bill has been gutted and may not be revived.
Amazon workers, like many American workers, endure appalling work conditions. They are forced to work compulsory 12-hour shifts. They are denied bathroom breaks, often urinating into bottles. They endure stifling temperatures inside the warehouse in the summer. They must scan a new item every 11 seconds to hit their quota. The company knows immediately when they fall behind. Fail to meet the quota and you are fired.
Will Evans, in an investigative piece for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, found that “the company’s obsession with speed has turned its warehouses into injury mills.” Evans amassed internal injury reports from 23 of the company’s 110 “fulfillment centers” nationwide. “Taken together,” he writes, “the rate of serious injuries for those facilities was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry: 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers in 2018, compared with an industry average that year of 4.”
Those who are injured, Evans found, are “cast aside as damaged goods or sent back to jobs that injured them further.”
NEW: Amazon workers suffer 4X rate of musculoskeletal injuries than peers.@Amazon's 2 choices to ship fast: spend some of that obscene $1.7 trillion value to improve conditions or break worker bodies so they can hoard every penny.— Athena Coalition (@athenaforall) March 23, 2022
They choose violence.https://t.co/t3iVB0pgyB pic.twitter.com/7EhQdFCzss
“The Amazon tenure of Parker Knight, a disabled veteran who worked at the Troutdale, Oregon, warehouse this year, shows the ruthless precision of Amazon’s system,” Evans writes. “Knight had been allowed to work shorter shifts after he sustained back and ankle injuries at the warehouse, but [proprietary software tracking program] ADAPT didn’t spare him. Knight was written up three times in May for missing his quota. The expectations were precise. He had to pick 385 small items or 350 medium items each hour. One week, he was hitting 98.45% of his expected rate, but that wasn’t good enough. That 1.55% speed shortfall earned him his final written warning—the last one before termination.”
The New York Times revealed last year that Amazon also regularly shortchanges new parents, patients dealing with medical crises and other vulnerable workers on leave.
“Workers across the country facing medical problems and other life crises have been fired when the attendance software mistakenly marked them as no-shows, according to former and current human resources staff members, some of whom would speak only anonymously for fear of retribution,” the newspaper reported. “Doctors’ notes vanished into black holes in Amazon’s databases. Employees struggled to even reach their case managers, wading through automated phone trees that routed their calls to overwhelmed back-office staff in Costa Rica, India, and Las Vegas. And the whole leave system was run on a patchwork of programs that often didn’t speak to one another. Some workers who were ready to return found that the system was too backed up to process them, resulting in weeks or months of lost income. Higher-paid corporate employees, who had to navigate the same systems, found that arranging a routine leave could turn into a morass.”
The ruling class, through self-help gurus such as Oprah, “prosperity gospel” preachers and the entertainment industry, has effectively privatized hope. They peddle the fantasy that reality is never an impediment to what we desire. If we believe in ourselves, if we work hard, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, we can have anything we want. The privatization of hope is pernicious and self-defeating. When we fail to achieve our goals, when our dreams are unattainable, we are taught it is not due to economic, social, or political injustice, but faults within us. History has demonstrated that the only power citizens have is through the collective, without that collective we are shorn like sheep. This is a truth the ruling class spends a lot of time obscuring.
Any advance we make in social, political, and economic justice immediately comes under assault by the ruling class. The ruling class chips away at the gains we make, which is what happened following the rise of mass movements in the 1930s and later in the 1960s. The oligarchs seek to snuff out what the political scientist Samuel Huntington cynically called “the excess of democracy.” The sociologist Max Weber, for this reason, called politics a vocation. Social change cannot be achieved simply by voting. It requires a constant, ceaseless effort. It is an endless striving for a new political order, one that demands lifelong dedication, organizing to keep the rapacious excesses of power in check and personal sacrifice. This eternal vigilance is the key to success.
Amazon’s vast machinery, as I write, is no doubt plotting to destroy the union in Staten Island. It cannot allow it to be a successful example. It has 109 “fulfillment centers” it is determined to keep nonunionized. But, if we do not become complacent, if we continue to organize and resist, if we link our arms with our unionized allies across the country, if we are able to strike we—and they—have a chance.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a New York Times best-selling author, a professor in the college degree program offered to New Jersey state prisoners by Rutgers University, and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has written 12 books, including the New York Times best-seller “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (2012), which he co-authored with the cartoonist Joe Sacco. His other books include “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt,” (2015) “Death of the Liberal Class” (2010), “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” (2008) and the best-selling “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008). His latest book is “America: The Farewell Tour” (2018). His book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and has sold over 400,000 copies. He writes a weekly column for the website ScheerPost.
This article originally appeared on ScheerPost.com.