While the unionization of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed, it has struggled for attention in the hyperactive news cycles of recent days and weeks.
So please, let’s have a warm round of applause for the workers of warehouse JFK8.
They forced a real union election, sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board, fiercely resisted by Amazon. They started as a small cadre of workers with a lot of gripes, no budget, no organizing experience, and the constant threat of retaliation from a highly vindicative and litigious employer.
And they flat-out kicked ass. They convinced fifty-five percent of their co-workers — a landslide, apparently — that they needed to speak with one collective voice, if they ever want Amazon to hear them. They created a new union, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), completely from scratch.
Organized labor in this country has, as we know, been pummelled into submission. Forty years of right-wing hostility, aided and abetted by the Republican party, has drastically reduced the economic and political clout unions once enjoyed. Through sharp-elbowed tactics at the local, state, and federal levels, Republican administrations have systematically undermined collective bargaining and the right to organize, always for specious — not to mention predatory — reasons.
But what we’re seeing might just be the first glimmer of a labor resurgence, knock wood. It’s a real grassroots movement, independent of any organized initiatives. It’s emphatically not coming from Big Labor — that crippled but still powerful coalition under the AFL-CIO umbrella — but seems to be rising organically from the workers themselves.
This development has led to some soul-searching among the professional Big Labor organizers, the ones who have, for decades, been swimming against the brutally strong currents of anti-union activism. These organizers, to their credit, have watched with admiration the launch of a growing number of fledgling union movements, and they’ve wisely refrained from imposing their “experience” on the newbies. While Amazon JFK8 is getting the most media coverage, there are other examples of similar bottom-up unionizations, most notably in several Starbucks locations.
The unionization of JFK8 was driven by the real needs of real workers on a real warehouse floor — a workplace where sophisticated digital systems monitor their every move. So the movement isn’t just about wages and hours — though those are surely on the table — but also about workplace safety, worker health, job protection, and a host of other issues management will happily ignore until forced to acknowledge them.
The ALU deftly worked around the legion of high-priced corporate lawyers and labor consultants Amazon hires to keep the playing field well tilted. Starting with their own unique understanding of the processes, complexities, and social dynamics of Amazon’s highly diverse workforce, they reached out to their thousands of co-workers and listened to their stories.
They engaged individually with workers from a kaleidoscope of multi-cultural backgrounds. They learned to “speak the language” of the many informal subgroups within the warehouse, earning both their trust and, crucially, their signatures.
Which is how they were able to meet Amazon’s brute-force, take-no-prisoners tactics with a nimbleness and finesse that has taken the worlds of both labor and management quite by surprise.
Of course, Amazon has always known it doesn’t have to be this way. Amazon makes astronomical amounts of money, and even a minuscule percentage of its profits could have made its workers’ lives incomparably easier.
They could have been an exceptional employer. They could have shown loyalty to their workers, and received loyalty in return. Instead they chose to exploit. They adopted a dehumanizing worker model, in which interchangeable humans can be plugged into or out of any job, with only minimal respect or concern for the well-being of those humans.
The pandemic threw a big monkey wrench into this model. On one hand, demand for Amazon services exploded. On the other hand, workplace safety was suddenly a life-and-death matter.
Suddenly, people all over the country, in every sort of workplace, were deciding that the paltry wages and demeaning conditions they were putting up with weren’t worth the risk to their lives. Suddenly, the humans were unplugging, and replacement humans weren’t readily available.
This tightening of the job market has spelled opportunity for the labor movement. Unions have much more leverage when the marketplace won’t let management just fire and replace people on a whim.
And unions need all the leverage they can get. Of all the things we’ve lost sight of in the last few decades — of all the things we took for granted, and which somehow stopped being important — unions are near the top of the list.
The crushing of organized labor in recent decades has had a warping effect on our economy, our politics, our ethics, and, indeed, the basic social contract we live by. It has caused and aggravated grotesque inequalities, and served to ensure that the few remain firmly in control of the many.
It hasn’t always been this way. The union movement goes back more than a century and was once embedded in the fabric of American culture. The long history and colorful language of organized labor — of strikes, lockouts, strike-breakers, scabs, and Pinkertons — were once the stuff of legend. My mother and her friends grew up singing union songs — memorized from Pete Seeger records — around their campfires and on their campuses.
By then, collective bargaining had long since forced a whole range of outrageous ideas on corporate America — eight-hour days, forty-hour weeks, paid vacations, sick leave, and other crazy things that have gone vastly under-appreciated, both for the achievements they are, and for the blood that was shed to win them.
You could say unions invented the middle class. They held out the promise of a living wage — and the dignity that comes with it — to anyone willing to work. Not coincidentally, the nation prospered as a result.
Yes, the record of unions on racial and women’s issues has surely been as appalling as that of every other institution in American life. But the actions at JFK8, largely driven by minority workers, would seem to indicate significant progress on that front.
As institutions go, organized labor still has much to offer us as a society, but we can’t be naïve. The small victories at Amazon and Starbucks may yet turn out to be false hopes. Amazon’s lawyers may yet crush the ALU.
But this new grassroots, bottom-up approach can, at least theoretically, be extended to the Walmarts, Home Depots, and Googles of the world. Which, though they’d never admit it, would be to the benefit of those companies as well.
Because given the stakes, given the multitude of hazards in today’s global marketplace, a strong working relationship between management and labor is imperative for both.
For some reason, management never learns that lesson on its own. Unions always end up having to force it on them.