The Guardian • Issue #2003

Amazon Labor Union bolsters against Bezos backlash

Amazon security watches worker protest. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue CC BY 2.0)

US Amazon workers and union organisers are hard at work on and off the clock fighting back against the multi-billion-dollar transnational corporation.

Earlier this April, their efforts culminated in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognising the formation of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU).

Former-warehouse worker, now-President of the union, Chris Smalls says that his motivation for organising is to secure better conditions for workers at the company.

“I don’t have a vendetta against Amazon, they have one against me,” says Smalls.

“My only intention has always been to make sure that everyone is taken care of and protected. I grew tired of seeing this company fail us. I grew tired of seeing good people come and go.”

Smalls and his fellow founding members Vice President Derrick Palmer, Jordan Flowers, and Gerald Bryson have led the ALU through unprecedented, and uncertain territory.

The fight began when the four founding members organised a walkout of the Staten Island JFK8 Warehouse to protest the company’s “criminally negligent” and “fatal COVID-19 policies.” As a result, they found themselves on the receiving end of Amazon’s wrath when all were fired following the action. The NLRB is suing Amazon because of these wrongful terminations.

Since this walkout and during the formation of the Amazon Labor Union, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos and his lapdogs have sought to break the union apart. At every turn, Smalls and the union have fought back, exposing the greedy agenda of the corporation.

“Amazon has spent millions on millions of dollars trying to stop the ALU,” says Smalls. “It would take only a fraction of that to pay every JFK8 worker US$30/hour. It is easy to see why this has not happened yet. Amazon has always put profit over people.”

The company has worked to manipulate the narrative and carry out a slander campaign against Smalls and those unionising.

“Whatever you have heard about me, I’m writing this so you will know the truth,” says Smalls.

“Not from the rumours Amazon spreads, but from me, firsthand. I encourage you to do your own research, just as Amazon tells you to.”

Amazon’s very deliberately fabricated counter-narrative would place Smalls at the centre of the challenge to their leadership.

In notes from a meeting between high-level Amazon executives that were leaked to Vice News, there was agreement that this strategy to put the spotlight on Smalls would discredit the move against their company.

“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote in notes shared widely within the company.

“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organiser’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety.

“Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising movement.”

This common technique that oppressive forces use to simplify radical and collective action is indicative of the company’s own fear following recent events. It is grasping at a way to destroy and delegitimise the spread of unionism among its warehouses.

Organising such a major and unprecedented milestone in the United States of America’s labour movement has meant that at some points, the organisers have had to pave the road as they go.

“We’ve done it all as an independent, democratic, worker-led union, with a shoestring budget of GoFundMe donations, an improvisational strategy, and a lot of heart, doing the hard work of learning and building our capacities as we advance in our campaign for worker power and dignity.

“We’ve organised a workplace of thousands of workers who reside across the five boroughs and the tri-state area, without affiliating with any established union. We’re proving the power of workers to launch, lead, grow, and win brand new labor unions in any industry.”

The significance of this work before and after the workers formed a legitimate union creates a new template and provides proof that wins like this can and will continue to happen as the contradictions of capitalist economies continue to drive workers to the brink.

Capitalists, like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and the entire Walton family do not and will never care about who they deem to be but cogs in their money-making machines. These shameful people who have built their “empires” on the backs of millions of workers will always seek to union bust and make an example of any workers who bite back and point out these contradictions.

“We’ve met fear with our faith in the cause,” says Smalls.

“We’ve dispelled confusion with our clear communication. We’ve overcome distrust with our solidarity and mutual aid. And we’ve dismantled futility thinking with our actions and accomplishments.”

It is scary when stepping into the unknown and the executives and investors are sure to make the workers like those at Amazon feel the weight of this uncertainty. Chris Smalls, Derrick Palmer, Jordan Flowers, Gerald Bryson and all those who have made this fight possible know this, but they know that this fear can be overcome through their collective strength.

While this isn’t the first attempt to organise Amazon workplaces, it’s the most clear-cut exemplar of what gains can be made.

“While we wish the best for our fellow Amazon workers still fighting to win union representation in Alabama, we also see in the contrast of our decisive win and their contested defeat a clear validation of our independent, worker-led organising approach. People said it couldn’t be done, especially at Amazon, but now everybody knows: anything is possible.”

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