The Guardian • Issue #1968

Teamsters vote on Amazon union initiative

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the largest unions in the United States, voted 24th June to approve a resolution titled “Building Worker Power at Amazon.” The resolution states 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.”

This comes after workers in a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse voted against forming a union in April this year. This was the first-ever attempt by Amazon employees to unionise in the United States.

The Amazon Project comes in response to the appalling working conditions of Amazon employees as well as Amazon’s persistent attempts to squash the union movement in the United States. Employees report unsafe working conditions, including a lack of social distancing, inadequate PPE, unrealistic time pressure on deliveries, inadequate breaks, and serious safety concerns. In 2019, the company reported 14,000 serious injuries, which works out to 7.7 for every 100 employees. No wonder Amnesty International has called Amazon’s practices a violation of international human rights law.

This is before one even gets to the issue of low pay. Even though Amazon is one of the few employers in the US that pays a $15 minimum wage, this would still not meet the cost of living for most Americans. A family of four cannot live on a $15/hr minimum wage in any US state. Advocates say that $15 ought to be the floor, but a “living wage” would need to be much higher.

All this while Amazon celebrated its most profitable year ever in 2020, with an eighty-four per cent increase in net profit to $386bil. That’s a figure that outstrips the GDP of most countries, including New Zealand, South Africa, and Israel. If Amazon were a country, it would be the 39th richest nation on Earth.

Amazon has a long and storied history of union busting. Since its foundation in 1994, not a single Amazon workplace has unionised. The Bessemer warehouse was the first attempt. Before the vote, Amazon intimidated and harassed workers into voting no through texts and social media, in addition to launching an anti-union website and forcing its employees to attend anti-union meetings at work.

They strongly urged their so-called “associates” not to give up their right to speak for themselves and not to let a union “take their money for nothing.” Joshua Brewer, an organiser with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) called the tactics “severe.” While they certainly ramped up their efforts this year, these tactics are nothing new. A few years back, footage leaked showing Amazon’s internal anti-union training videos.

“We are not anti-union,” the video states, “but we are not neutral either. We will boldly defend our direct relationship with associates […] we do not believe unions are in the best interests of our customers, shareholders or most importantly, our associates.”

One screencap from the video warns against the use of union “graffiti, clothing, flyers [and] visitors,” as well as the use of “union words” like “living wage, grievance, contract, [and] representation.” Laughable though this may seem at first, it belies Amazon’s true intentions. They are not about protecting their employees, but are fighting tooth and nail against any improvement in wages or conditions which might eat into their enormous profits.

This kind of anti-union rhetoric is why it is more important than ever in the United States that employees are educated on their rights at work and empowered to demand those rights through collective action. That’s what the Teamsters propose to do in the United States, and what unions in Australia are trying to do here.

In late 2020, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) joined forces with the Transport Workers Union (TWU) to form the Online Retail and Delivery Workers Alliance, which is fighting for safe and secure work for Amazon employees in Australia. They are fighting against unsafe and insecure work as well as for wage increases. The SDA website states that “it does not want to see a race to the bottom on poor working conditions and pay for Amazon workers in Australia, like it is in America.”

This distancing from the United States might be premature. While we have somewhat better infrastructure in place to protect labour rights, Amazon is trying its best to get around it. NSW State Secretary of the SDA Richard Olsen has stated that

“What’s abundantly clear is that Amazon and companies like it are attempting to normalise worker exploitation under the guise of innovation. In the last three months, five food delivery riders working in the gig economy have been killed on our roads. Those workers died without any rights and without workers compensation to take care of their families. We’re going to see the same carnage with Amazon’s new gig-style model ‘Amazon Flex’ unless the Federal Government urgently steps up and regulates this industry.”

Amazon Flex is a gig economy type system that allows workers to use their own vehicles to deliver Amazon packages. Of course, the danger is that the legal status of gig workers is still unclear and, until a court rules that they must be considered employees, they may not be entitled to the same federally mandated protections as other workers (for more information see Guardian #1964 ‘Fair Work Commission Rules Gig Workers are Employees’).

Labour unions are vital under capitalism. The system works by keeping jobs scarce enough that a portion of the working class will always be unemployed. Marx called this section of the working class “the reserve army of the unemployed.” The scarcity of jobs and the lack of an adequate social security net makes workers dependent and expendable. If an individual worker threatens to walk out, the company can easily replace them. But by banding together to bargain collectively as a union, workers are able to exert pressure on the bosses to force them to award greater pay and conditions. Unions also act as a safety net to ensure that these conditions cannot be revoked at the drop of a hat, in part by lobbying for government mandated minimum protections.

The Teamsters’ vote on Project Amazon is a historic victory for the US labour movement. There is a reason that Amazon has so fiercely resisted unionisation up until this point – they are genuinely afraid of the power of unionised workers. If a union can bring one of the largest corporations on earth to the table and force better conditions, it will set a precedent for workers across the United States – and beyond.

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