April 9 was no happy day for organized labor — or for anyone in the global working class. The National Labor Relations Board announced the results of a union representation election at Amazon in Bessemer, Ala. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost the vote by a 2-1 margin.
But organizers had a forward-looking perspective. “I know the outcome is not what a lot of people wanted to hear,” said RWDSU organizer Michael “Big Mike” Foster, at a press conference April 9. “But I believe this is the foundation for something great . . . by no means is this the end.” (The Verge, April 10)
Foster was right.
The fight to unionize the second-biggest U.S. employer took a big step forward at the Teamsters’ (IBT) union convention last week. On June 24, the 1,600+ delegates, representing more than 500 locals, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a Special Resolution: “Building Worker Power at Amazon.”
In it the union charges: “Amazon exploits its employees, contractors and employees of contractors via: wage theft, fraudulent classification, intense production quotas, dehumanizing work environments, unsafe workplaces and production standards, low wages, high turnover, no voice on the job, lack of job security and outsourced jobs.” (teamster.org)
All these conditions motivated the union drive in Bessemer.
High turnover is an understatement. The rate is over 150% annually; after a few weeks many workers quit, even though the job pays double the federal minimum wage. Amazon has been willing to accept not having a steady, long-term workforce — it keeps worker demands in check, and it’s harder for unions to organize a transient labor pool. But now the company is losing employees so fast that Amazon worries about running out of exploitable workers. (Insider, June 15)
The resolution concludes: “Therefore be it resolved, the IBT Convention recognizes the existential threat of Amazon to our members and commits all levels of the union to unite with core platforms of member engagement, worker and community engagement, antitrust enforcement and policy reform, and global solidarity;
“Be it further resolved, the commitment to the Amazon Project requires a unified approach and regional partnerships with Local Unions, Joint Councils and the International to deal with Amazon’s geographic impact on our industries;
“Finally be it resolved, that building worker power at Amazon and helping those workers achieve a union contract is a top priority for the Teamsters Union, and the Union commits to fully fund and support the Amazon Project, to supply all resources necessary and to ultimately create a special Amazon Division to aid Amazon workers and defend and protect the standards in our industries from the existential threat that is Amazon.”
In August, 2020, the Teamsters appointed Randy Korgan, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 1932 in San Bernardino, Calif., as National Amazon Director. Rather than rely strictly on the NLRB election process, the IBT “aims to bring the company to the bargaining table by orchestrating strikes, boycotts, protests and other actions.” (New York Times, June 22) So if a majority of workers at a facility sign union authorization cards, the Teamsters might bypass the NLRB and call a strike to demand union recognition.
This is all tremendous news. In this classic “labor vs. capital” scenario, every member of the global working class has “skin in the game.”
Organizing on many fronts
In addition to the Teamsters’ initiative, serious efforts are underway by the independent Amazon Labor Union to organize the Staten Island, N.Y., facility. Worker anger has been high since Amazon fired Process Assistant Chris Smalls last year for organizing a walkout over lack of COVID safety. Large numbers of workers have signed cards authorizing the ALU to represent them.
In the aftermath of Bessemer, the Southern Workers Assembly has hosted four Southern Workers Schools and is organizing workers assemblies throughout the South to support worker self-organization at Amazon.
The RWDSU has filed a number of unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB; workers have testified to Amazon’s extreme union-busting tactics. If the NLRB nullifies the representation election — which it should — Bessemer workers may again have an opportunity to vote in the union.
Even before COVID, Amazon workers waged job actions to voice a range of concerns from working conditions to climate change to the right of Muslims to have time and space to pray. Amazonians United, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice and Whole Workers have engaged in workplace struggles.
Amazon unions in Italy, Germany, France and Spain have struck the company, and a union drive is underway in Poland — where Amazon shifted work from unionized facilities in Germany.
As momentum builds, any number of unions — such as the four U.S. Postal Service unions who face the same threat to their jobs as UPS Teamsters — may attempt to organize Amazon workers.
What is absolutely paramount is that all of these unions conduct themselves in solidarity with one another. Competition between unions to represent the same groups of workers must end here and now. Otherwise labor is playing to Amazon’s agenda: keeping workers divided and defeated.
The situation is much bigger than any “existential threat” to union jobs or a union standard of living — as real and ominous as that threat is. Organizing Amazon must be part of a worldwide revival of the class struggle against capitalist exploitation, linked to social justice movements of the most oppressed workers.
Building solidarity across oppressions and across borders and oceans is the way to win.