"The Revolution is Here" -- Unpacking The Amazon Labor Union Win
How did a bunch of worker-organizers pull off what no other union has ever done?
Just a little more than three years ago, on February 14, 2019, Amazon, the giant online retail monopsony, shocked New York and the nation by abandoning its plan to build a second headquarters in New York City. The plan, which had been put together in secret negotiations managed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio and structured to avoid the usual public approval process, had promised to bring thousands of high-paying jobs to the city. In exchange, New York’s top leaders had promised $3 billion in massive public subsidies to the already-rich mega-corporation, which paid no federal taxes in 2018 despite $11.2 billion in profit.
But Amazon’s own heavy-handed lobbying for the plan ticked off the local communities that would be most affected in Long Island City, where the new corporate campus was to be situated and where Amazon execs were already starting to buy up local properties, driving up rents and fanning fears that already overburdened public services like transit would be overwhelmed. Amazon already had a gigantic warehouse in Staten Island, but HQ2 was going to a level beyond that—four to eight million square feet of new commercial space. The city’s vibrant progressive community, which had been on an upswing since the Occupy Wall Street movement created a new generation of committed and connected organizers, did the heaviest lifting against HQ2, going door to door across the affected neighborhoods. With groups like New York Communities for Change and DSA at their backs, Democratic politicians like US Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and State Senator Michael Gianaris put up strong opposition to Cuomo and de Blasio’s corporate giveaway.
Support for the deal came mainly from the white-collar half of the city’s so-called tech community, which hungers for more recognition and thought the Amazon deal would finally truly put them on the map. Afterwards, Julie Samuels, the longtime executive director of the Tech:NYC lobby group called the collapse a big loss and disappointment for the city, claiming that it would scare off other tech companies from expanding in NY (there’s been little sign of that), while Queens resident Rapi Castillo, co-founder of the city’s Progressive Hacknight, pushed back, tweeting “Are y’all at @TechNYC too corporate to even understand the plight of the working class?”
If Amazon hadn’t insisted on subsidies, servility and secrecy from all the cities it put through the HQ2 bidding war, if it had done more early and open community engagement, if it had offered to put up a few billion dollars of its own money to mitigate the effects of tens of thousands of new workers using public services in Western Queens, maybe the deal wouldn’t have collapsed. But Amazon refused to listen to local leaders like City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who told the company that New York was a pro-union town, and that “you cannot come to New York City and declare that you will crush the rights of workers to organize.” Alas, working in partnership with others and listening to their needs isn’t in the DNA of the company built by the world’s second richest man. (And it certainly wasn’t in the DNA of Governor “It has to be hit with a hammer” Cuomo.) Ultimately, a bunch of bullies got beaten by community organizing. “They would rather leave and go elsewhere than allow workers who make $18 an hour to organize a union,” Van Bramer reflected after the deal fell apart.
Now, an intrepid and incredibly hard-working band of Black, brown, white and immigrant worker-organizers, mostly young and until now mostly ignored, have managed to do the seemingly impossible. In just 11 months of daily organizing among their fellow warehouse workers, the nascent Amazon Labor Union built enough solidarity among the 8,000 employees of the massive JFK8 Amazon warehouse in Staten Island to win a resounding certification vote last Friday. As Chris Smalls, the union’s founding president said yesterday on CNBC, “The revolution is here. That’s what we just witnessed on Friday. We’re going to organize buildings all over the nation. In the last 72 hours we’ve been contacted by workers all over the world. They want to unionize and we’re going to absolutely help them.”
I mention the history of Amazon HQ2’s NYC collapse because I don’t think we can understand what just happened outside of that context. The ALU victory is historic. It is the first time in more than a hundred years that an independent union has won a worksite this large, according to labor historian Rich Yeselson. It’s the first time any of Amazon’s more than one million workers have chosen to unionize. And it may come to be seen as a turning point in organized labor’s fortunes, along with the spread of union votes at Starbucks stores and among new media outlets. After years of the “new” economy dividing and conquering American workers and aggressively using the law and union-busting consulting shops to stamp out employee activism (with the result that 1/3 of its labor force in Arizona gets government food assistance), something is shifting. For all we know, this will come to be seen as the Occupy moment of the Biden administration, when the two constituencies most in need of change and disappointed by the failures of the Biden Administration and the Pelosi-Schumer Congress, Blacks and young people, take matters into their own independent hands.
Can the ALU’s victory be replicated elsewhere? It depends. Reading through the various reports and analyses that have already come out (which I draw on and link to below), I think a lot of the ALU’s victory comes down to the fact that it was completely worker-led, not outsider-driven, and low-tech/high-touch. For all the money Democratic funders have poured into sophisticated data analytics and digital engagement tools, the tech the ALU organizers used was general purpose consumer products: a TikTok channel for sharing some spunky videos, a big Telegram group texting channel for sharing organizing information, some WhatsApp groups for immigrant workers in their native languages, a GoFundMe page for crowdfunding, and spreadsheets for phone-banking every one of the 6,000 warehouse workers eligible to vote in the election. The ALU had none of the bells-and-whistles of high-tech digital organizing. As far I know, no AI or Facebook geotargeting or “relational organizing” tool was used to win this campaign, just lots of real one-on-one relationship-building. [UPDATE: They did use NationBuilder to track the people they were talking to, so at least one tool actually designed for organizing got put to good use.]
The local conditions of JFK8 may have made it especially conducive for building community and connection in the face of Amazon’s anti-union efforts. It helped that New York City really is one of the last union towns in America, with at least 20% of its workforce belonging to a union. (Nearly 14% of New York’s workers in private industry are unionized, compared to just six percent in the private sector nationwide). Angelika Maldonado, the 27-year-old chair of ALU’s workers committee, told Eric Blanc of Jacobin Magazine that she had been working at JFK8 since 2018, but didn’t hear about the organizing going on inside the warehouse until this October. “To be honest, I was immediately all in. I’ve never been a part of a union before, but my mom has been a member of 1199SEIU [one of NY’s most powerful unions] for as long as I can remember,” she told him. “So when I heard Amazon could get a union, I knew from experience how much that would benefit all the families and all the people who worked there.”
Brima Sylla, a 55-year-old Liberian immigrant who helped lead the union’s effort to mobilize immigrant workers, who make up at least half of the warehouse’s workforce, told Blanc something similar. After seeing an ALU member kicked out of a mandatory union-busting indoctrination session for correcting the company’s claims and then talking with them, he realized, “’This is the right fight — I’m in, I don’t want to be a bystander’.” He added, “Living in New York, I know that unions are powerful tools to protect the interests of their members: look at subway workers in the MTA, firefighters from the FDNY, sanitation workers, and even the police in the NYPD.” Last summer, Connor Spence, another key worker-organizer, told Sean Ghazala of Plea for the Fifth that the workers he was speaking to were often receptive because, “This is New York, they are already pro-union and they've worked in jobs with unions, or they have family members who are in unions.”
New York’s bigger unions, like UNITE HERE and the United Food and Commercial Workers, gave tangible support like phone banks and organizers to the budding ALU effort, as this excellent pre-vote story by The City’s Josefa Velasquez shows. And the city’s more irregular activist community pitched in too. The city is home to a lot of Wobblies, even on Staten Island, where one lent a spare room in his home to Justine Medina, a “salt” who left her home in Harlem to come work full-time in the warehouse and help with organizing. Medina’s short piece in Labor Notes on “How We Did It” is a must-read, and it emphasizes how much the organizers learned from the history of early union organizing and then applied those lessons to building “an actual worker-led project—a Black- and Brown-led, multi-racial, multi-national, multi-gender, multi-ability organizing team.” (How Amazon’s vaunted management missed the fact that Medina had worked in the past for Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign and had organizing experience with the Young Communist League before they hired her is beyond me.)
It also helped that this warehouse is in a city with robust public transit (only 45% of NYC households own a car; only 27% of its 3.5 million workers commute to work by car). Being able to organize warehouse workers face-to-face at a nearby bus stop that many of them waited at as they came or left shifts was one of ALU’s key weapons, and they took full advantage, bringing in a propane space heater and providing free food and weed. In Bessemer, Alabama, where a similar unionization push has faltered, most of the workers commuted in and out by car and Amazon was able to get the city to reprogram a stoplight to make it harder for union organizers to speak to workers as they left the plant.
And finally, the fact that President Joe Biden has empowered a more activist National Labor Relations Board, and that board and Amazon came to a settlement in December protecting the ALU workers’ right to organize on site in non-work areas during their off-hours also meant that the nascent union could start showing up visibly in a place that Amazon has traditionally dominated. So if other workers at other Amazon warehouses start agitating, they will have at least some protection from company intimidation. But not everywhere in America is quite like New York. Regardless, the ALU’s victory is going to reverberate.
My friend Marianne Manilov, who has helped build networks of local worker-organizing at Walmarts around the country, and also helped Moms Demand Action grow their own network of gun violence survivor-activists, is joyful at what she sees happening in the wake of the ALU vote. She says, “Decentralized organizing, Occupy, BLM continues to grow and root, changing what’s possible. The strength of the circle like the folks in NY built—the love and friendship and trust on the ground combined with great organizing strategy will be boosted by technology. Community and connection are the roots of the tree, great technology to support the network will be the mycelium.” I share her optimism. As labor writer Dave Kamper wonders “Could this time be different?”
—Bonus link 1: Longtime American Prospect labor/politics writer Harold Meyerson’s take, which emphasizes how much of the rising labor ferment is led by young people. (As always.)
—Two more: So far just 40 House Democrats and 12 Senate Democrats have publicly expressed their support for the ALU’s victory, according to More Perfect Union’s tracker. That’s pitiful, or to be expected. In 2020, organized labor gave $54.6 million to Democrats in Congress and just $7.6 million to Republicans. But there are only 26 House members who got more than 20% of all the money they raised in 2020 from labor PACs (and one is a Republican, David McKinley of WV). Just 97 House members in all got more than 10% of their money from labor. Of those, one out of five have congratulated the ALU. Senators are even less dependent on labor PAC money, with only Rhode Island’s Jack Reed getting more than 6% of his money over the last six years from them. (I’m thankful to Doug Weber, a senior researcher at OpenSecrets, for running these numbers for me.)
—Amazon has created an internal messaging app for employees that will automatically flag and prevent them from sending messages using words like “union,” “grievance,” “pay raise,” and “compensation,” Ken Klippenstein reports for The Intercept. Other banned words include: “ethics,” “unfair,” “slave,” “master,” “freedom,” “diversity,” “injustice,” and “fairness.” Even phrases like “This is concerning” are blocked.
The Connector is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Odds and Ends
—While many red states are passing bills restricting how teachers can discuss racism or sexism, banning critical race theory and attacking the 1619 Project, a broad coalition in Indiana has succeeded in defeating the movement, Giselle Rhoden reports for CNN. Spurred by one senator who had urged that teachers remain neutral when teaching about Nazism, a diverse group of parents, teachers, business and community leaders mobilized quickly to go on the offensive. Teachers, in particular, fought for the value of teaching the truth to children, and business leaders expressed concerns about how the proposed law could hurt the state’s economy.
—Reddit brought back Place, a 1000-by-1000 pixel editable webpage, for April Fool’s Day, and as Taylor Lorenz explains brilliantly in the Washington Post, not only did participation in the online collaborative page explode, the changing images on the open canvas showed that the only way to carve out and hold space on the page was by being part of a big coordinated Internet community. She writes, “Massive subreddits like r/trees and r/ukraine began orchestrating their campaigns early, collectively filling the space with a large marijuana leaf and Ukrainian flag respectively. Users from r/starwars re-created an entire movie poster. The trans community placed a massive trans flag on screen. The final result is a giant, pixelated collage of images and words.” Here’s a 24-hour time-lapse video showing how the page evolved.
—Twitter has invited Elon Musk onto its board, and Anil Dash explains why this is a horrific decision: “I’m trying to imagine any other context where a publicly traded company had seen a customer use their product to break federal law, and to try to destroy the lives of innocent people, and then added that person to their board.” He adds, “The chilling effect on journalism on Twitter will be severe. Musk is known to directly target his critics, including swatting one of his earliest vocal critics. Twitter will not ban him as a board member the next time he attacks a journalist.” Musk’s company Tesla also has a terrible record on how it has treated workers of color.
—The Integrity Institute, a group of researchers including former Facebook staffers, released a new study of the most widely viewed posts on the site, finding the vast majority failed basic tested aimed at spotting spammy or unreliable sources.
—Facebook/Meta has been paying Targeted Victory, a top Republican consulting firm, to turn the public against its competitor TikTok, Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell report for The Washington Post. Some of the negative stories spread by the firm turned out to be false, like a supposed “Slap a Teacher TikTok Challenge.” In addition, many of these negative stories were actually first spawned and spread on Facebook.
—Not to be outdone in the race to the lobbying bottom, Global Strategy Group, a political consulting and polling firm close to the Democratic party, worked with Amazon on its anti-union push at the Staten Island warehouse, Annie Palmer reported for CNBC.
—NY Congressman Ritchie Torres recently wrote an oped in the Daily News arguing that crypto-currencies could help people in poor communities like the one he represents save money on bank transfers, but as a member of the House Committee on Financial Services one wonders why he doesn’t instead push for new banking rules simply requiring that existing financial intermediaries lower their fees. Oh wait, I know why.
—Speaking of crypto, we already knew that NYC Mayor Eric Adams was a fan of crypto-currencies, but what is he doing at this recent party lightly bopping his head to the music while standing next to Cara Delevingne, a model and actress who is (sorry Mom) perhaps best known for selling a non-fungible token of her vagina?