What Amazon Labor Union Means for Workers Everywhere

…it is the workers, and no one else, who can achieve such a victory…

On Friday, April 1, 2022, working folk at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island upended the illusion that the mighty Amazon corporation was untouchable. Chris Smalls, Maddie Wesley, Karen Ponce, Derrick Palmer, Connor Spence, Brett Daniels, Julian-Mitchell-Israel, and so many other worker-organizers have showed us all that the great god of one-day delivery does, in fact, bleed.

Chris Smalls is now hailed as a brilliant labor organizer, and rightly so, but just a few years ago he had no experience at all. It was his time as an Amazon picker that radicalized him, leading to the decision to organize. He was fired in 2020 for leading a walkout demanding improved COVID-19 safety precautions, only to return as the face and voice of the first organized Amazon workers.

Smalls’ story is inspiring because it is a clear demonstration that all of us can and must learn to organize, and no special background or advantages are needed to do it. Smalls shows us that the only way to learn to organize is to do it, with all the risk of failure and inevitable opposition. What is necessary for worker power is agitation, education, and solidarity.

The Amazon Labor Union is also an exemplary model for representative union structure and effective organizing tactics. Amazon’s monumental union-busting campaign, costing over $4 million, was unable to defeat a few hundred volunteer worker-organizers with about $120,000 from a GoFundMe. How was it possible?

In 11 months of daily, on-the-ground, person-to-person organizing, the ALU built up communication and solidarity between the 8,000 workers at JFK8. It took just under one year for Smalls and his fellow workers to accomplish this gargantuan feat, but within three days they had been contacted by workers around the globe. Smalls makes it clear that this is only the beginning: Amazon warehouses across the nation are on his list.

But the ALU’s real triumph at JFK8 was showing the international working class that it is the workers, and no one else, who can achieve such a victory. Not only do we not need “professionals” and “white shirts” to lead us step-by-step, but they simply can’t.

“No one is coming to save us,” as the saying goes, because no one else can. Indeed, nothing like this has been accomplished in the last century of North American labor history– maybe not ever. It isn’t just inspiring rhetoric when Smalls declares, “The revolution is here!” We are witnessing something different from what has come before.

No business union has yet been able to take on Amazon and its heinous, supervillain-levels of union-busting. Yet in a short time, a small, independent, rank-and-file union, democratically organized by everyday workers, has struck a bigger blow against global capital than any mainstream business union has ever managed. Truly, it was the union vote heard round the world– and so it has millions of workers around the world asking: what’s next?

While numerous business union leaders hail Chris Smalls’ approach as a “new” model for the labor movement, there is nothing new about it at all– which is no insult to the ALU. Justine Medina, a salt who jumped in to lend her experience and moved to work in the warehouse, made it perfectly clear in a short piece called “How We Did It”:

We studied the history of how the first major unions were built. We learned from the Industrial Workers of the World, and even more from the building of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. We read William Z. Foster’s Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry (a must-read, seriously). https://labornotes.org/2022/04/amazon-workers-staten-island-clinch-historic-victory

What ALU’s approach gives is not a reinvention of the industrial wheel but proof-positive that the wheel still works– and that workers can stop it from turning at any time, if only we organize ourselves.

Truly awe-inspiring and vital, the ALU victory in Staten Island is nowhere near enough. What it is– what it must be– is a model to be implemented and customized across the world economy. The triumph of the independent, militant union of regular workers democratically organizing directly on the job must be repeated in every warehouse, delivery route, storefront, shop, and office building.

And not just the ones owned by Amazon.

Workers in Northeast Ohio have a fresh outline before us for how to take our economic freedom back from the bosses and the rich. Combining this “grassroots” approach with the final goal of building up the One Big Union of all workers puts us squarely in the tradition of our forebears.

Less than a century ago, our working class ancestors had the ruling class from Cleveland to Akron and beyond up scrambling to suppress workers’ power. Nor did our militancy disappear, though it suffered a kind of death along with the area’s steel industry. We see it re-emerging now, however reactionary much of our population remains.

Working people are like a great flock of phoenixes: our militancy never stays dead for long, even if the wait feels eternal. The key is for workers to avoid the mistakes of the past, applying our renewed vigor to effective channels, and these are not the channels that the ruling class advocates we use.

Instead, workers must organize locally and internationally along truly democratic, equitable lines fueled by direct action and class solidarity. Only with the combined might of a working class, organized internationally across industries, can we end this absurd, cruel system of wage slavery.

The historic ALU victory at JFK8 is a road marker for the working class not just here but everywhere. What it demands is to be repeated, again and again, at every workplace across the world.

The ALU has proved beyond all doubt that this is possible anywhere and everywhere, even right here in the class struggle desert of Northeast Ohio. By embracing our historic destiny to put human life above profit and greed, we will brick-by-brick build the new world within the ashes of the old. To echo Big Bill Haywood: it’s up to each and every one of us to help this work along.

Step by step the longest march
Can be won, can be won.
Many stones can form an arch,
Singly none, singly none.
And by union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill,
Singly none, singly none.

(Pete Seeger)

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