Amazon Staten Island — A Victory for Rank-and-File Organizing

by Dave Stockton

April 1, 2022, witnessed one of the most striking victories for US Labor in quite a time. At the huge JFK8 Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York City, an official ballot for union recognition, conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, saw 2,654 workers voting in favor and 2,131 against. Just a month later, however, a damper was put on celebrations by the announcement on May 2 that a similar ballot at a second Staten Island warehouse, the LDJ5 sortation center, employing roughly 1,500 workers, had failed, with 618 workers voting no and 380 voting yes.

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) that organized the victory at JFK8 responded by tweeting: “The organizing will continue at this facility and beyond. The fight has just begun.” Indeed, Amazon has challenged the decision at the larger facility, a hearing that will take place in Phoenix on May 23.

Like most Amazon facilities, there is a huge turnover of staff at Staten Island – some 150% a year, in large part because of terrible conditions, crippling work norms, lack of breaks and high accident rates. These are truly the “dark satanic mills” of the 21st century.

The victory at JFK8 was won by a union, the ALU, that originated in the plant itself, independent of big federations like the AFL-CIO or Change to Win. The union was up against Jeff Bezos, America’s second richest man, worth around $200 bn. Against the Amazon Goliath, the ALU itself is a young David. It was formed in 2020 by Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker sacked for leading protests against the company’s appalling COVID-19 safety conditions, and a team of JFK8 workers drawn from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, as you would expect in New York.

These people, from what is being called Generation-U (for union), led the drive rather than “experienced” professional union organizers. They did it simply by “talking union” to their workmates and by phone-banking and using social media. But it should also be noted that locals (branches) of the big unions have rallied around the ALU, including UNITE HERE Local 100, Communications Workers Local 1102, Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 342, plus the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Hopefully, the success of rank-and-file organizing can spread to the more bureaucratic big unions, helping to democratize them and winning them to more militant direct action.

As was to be expected, Amazon is continuing to intimidate and victimize its workers.

Meanwhile, Starbucks Workers United – an organization affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, – recently won yet another election, making it 10 out of 11 wins for the union since its first success in Buffalo in December. In Buffalo, however, Starbucks workers were out on strike again in protest against an announcement by the company CEO Howard Schultz, net worth $4bn, that promised raises and benefit increases would not apply to locations that had already unionized or which are planning to unionize.

These developments come after the disappointment of a failed ballot at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, though a recount by the NLRB is presently taking place. Part of the reason for the ALU’s success in Staten Island and the failure in Bessemer is that there is a 27% unionization rate in New York compared with just 6% in Alabama.

NLRB rules are heavily weighted towards the employers and allow companies like Amazon and Starbucks to make their workers attend seminars run by anti-union consultants whilst barring access by union organizers, even to their works car parks, and having guards confiscate leaflets from workers who dare to take them. An Economic Policy Institute study in 2019 also found that in more than in 40% of union elections employers violated workers’ legal rights and in 20% illegally fired pro-union employees.

Marx, in Capital, pointed out that, compared with the sphere of circulation of commodities, the market, where everything seems to operate on the basis of equality, human rights and the rule of law, once the worker enters the sphere of production, the workplace, a veritable dictatorship of capital reigns.

It is a tremendously encouraging sign that workplaces designed to evade union organization, where managements spy on their workers and weed out “troublemakers” in a near totalitarian manner, are beginning to organize and fight back. Encouraging, too, is the potential of resistance coming from workers in the bigger union federations like the strike vote by 56,000 Los Angeles County members of Local 721 of the SEIU. The local is made up of mental health workers, social service providers, and nurses, some of the most exploited workers who suffered the horrific effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Only fighting trade unions, rooted amongst the workforces and with powerful local, national and international support, can overcome the low levels of labor organization, compared to most European countries or Canada, that have characterized the US since the 1980s.

Recent opinion polls show that almost 50% of non-union American workers say they want union representation; yet many states’ laws make it enormously difficult to win recognition and a union contract. A major change in the country’s virulently anti-union laws is essential if these workers are to have any chance of organizing.

A charter of labor rights, including union representation in every workplace, a union contract, to take strike action whenever workers vote for it, needs to be drawn up and all unions, great and small, pledged to fighting for it. An essential part of this charter must be a commitment to racial and gender justice in hiring.

But it is only class struggle on a scale as big, or bigger, as that seen in the 1930s, that can bring this about. What workers trying to unionize their prison-like workplaces need is militant solidarity from other workers and their surrounding communities that spreads nationally and internationally, especially in the case of great multinationals like Amazon.

But the workers in any workplace also need to retain full control over their organization and over the strikes they will need to cut the hours, raise the wages and improve the inhumane working conditions. A Staten Island tier one worker, stowing, picking, or packing items for shipping, earns only $18 an hour and a $2 an hour bonus (!) for working overnight from Thursday through to Saturday, 6 p.m. to 6:45 a.m. With rocketing food and fuel price rises, the need for a wages struggle is more and more necessary.

Plainly, any mass revival of union organizing needs a revival of class politics. In the great union drives and strikes of the 1930s, as well as millions of young workers, black workers and women workers who flooded into the unions, it was IWW, Socialist, Communist and Trotskyist militants who spearheaded struggles. Today’s socialists, starting from the 90,000 members of the DSA, but also the smaller revolutionary groups, should be turning away from supporting Democratic Party candidates and towards involvement in the class struggle in the workplaces and the communities. These in turn can become a huge recruiting ground for a new working class party.

It seems that even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, refused to come to the Staten Island warehouse to show her support and Senator Bernie Sanders only climbed on board after the battle had been won. How much less can be expected of “workers’ friend”, Joe Biden? What can you expect from a Democratic Party to which Amazon donated $10 million to Biden’s campaign in 2020?

Where workers’ candidates stand in elections, they should be answerable to and recallable by their electors on an independent socialist platform. Preferably, they should be activists with experience of trade unions or community struggles. A revival of organized labor can enormously benefit the building of a genuine workers’ party in America.