Amazing and Brewtiful: Amazon and Starbucks Workers On The Rise!

The Amazing Result

Amazon workers in the Staten Island fulfillment center-warehouse (JFK8) in New York (NY) state won the election to form a union on April 1, 2022, with an impressive margin. This is being hailed as a historic victory of the working class in the U.S. Christian Smalls, an African American, has been elected as the President of the newly formed Amazon Labor Union (ALU). Derrick Palmer, who is also African American and has worked in the warehouse for 6 years, will be the Vice-President. Out of the roughly 8,000 workers who were eligible to vote, 2,654 voted for the union and 2,131 voted against having a union to represent them. More than 50% of the workers in this warehouse are immigrants. They are from Liberia, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries, in addition there are workers from Pakistan, Lebanon, Eastern Europe, Malaysia, Philippines and Latin America. They do backbreaking jobs in the warehouse, many working 60 hours per week, and commuting long distances as rents are unaffordable in that area of New York.

Smalls, the 33 year old lead organizer was fired from his job in the Amazon warehouse in March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, after he led a walk out of the employees concerned about the poor working conditions and lack of protective measures. Amazon accused him of not following social distancing regulations, David Zapolsky, General Counsel at Amazon described Smalls at that time as "not smart or articulate", which has been interpreted by many as a racist slur.

Successful Grassroots Organizing

ALU is independent and not affiliated with any of the large national unions. The victory is groundbreaking as many big unions like Teamsters, Communication Workers of America, United Food and Commercial Workers have made attempts in the past to unionize Amazon workers without success. ALU was not flush with funds and did not have political connections like many of the major unions in the U.S. Justine Medina, one of the organizers in the union and a member of the Communist Party, said in an interview with In These Times... "It was a very grassroots, very working-class, salt-of-the-earth, Black-led union drive. That’s what scared the Amazon executives more than anything". Many organizers and workers included in their reading sessions the communist organizer William Z. Foster’s Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry to sharpen their understanding of bottom-up organizing approach. Amazon spent more than $4.3 million just on anti-union consultants nationwide last year, according to federal filings (NY Times). Smalls and his friend Palmer, the two main organizers along with other workers formed a workers committee, they raised 120,000 dollars through GoFundMe and set up tents outside the warehouse. With their friends and families they cooked West African, Caribbean and South American food for the workers, spoke to workers one on one, set up whatsapp groups and telegram chats. They also used TikTok videos to explain the benefits of having a union. The bus shelter across the warehouse was their de facto union hall, they distributed flyers and union literature there and inside the break room where the workers gathered for lunch. While Christian Smalls who was fired from his job worked outside, Derrick Palmer worked from inside the warehouse. The ALU was supported right from the start by communist parties like Workers World Party and other left organizations and some established unions.

Long March Ahead

Amazon has filed several objections to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about ALU's victory at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, NY. Their allegations include that the workers were intimidated by ALU to vote for the union and that the NLRB favored the ALU. This is laughable as the reality was that hundreds of anti union-messages and lectures were being imposed on the workers by consultants who were paid $ 3200 per hour by Amazon. ALU volunteers were called thugs, union literature was removed from break rooms, workers who were campaigning for the election were written up and reprimanded. The management called the police a few times to complain about the organizing workers. A polling firm with links to the democratic party, namely, Global Strategy Group developed anti-union material for Amazon. It has now apologized and has said it will not work with Amazon going forward.

While Amazon is doing its best to undermine the union and challenging its victory, more than 100 Amazon warehouses throughout the 50 states have already reached out to the ALU for help with organizing. There is hope of replicating the victory even among workers of giant retail corporations like Walmart, Target etc. On April 25, a second Amazon warehouse LDJ5 with 1500 workers in Staten Island, NY, right across from JFK8 warehouse, will have its election to vote for or reject union representation. The ALU demands include higher minimum wage,  longer paid breaks, paid sick leave, safer conditions, job security to prevent workers from being fired at will, shuttle service to workers many of whom spend more than 2 hour commuting to work. A New York Times investigation in 2021 found that the turnover rate for Amazon warehouse employees was 150% as they are unable to keep up with the exhausting schedules and quotas expected from them. Internal records from Amazon revealed that the rate of injuries for Amazon workers in fulfillment centers was twice the national average of other warehouse workers.

Winning the election has been the first step for the ALU but the "real fight" of negotiating a contract as the workers are calling it may take a while but they are prepared for the long haul. Large unions like the Teamsters have pledged their support. In the meantime the working class is rejoicing this stunning victory against the $ 1.59 trillion behemoth company.

Brewtiful Beginnings

Starbucks the largest coffeehouse chain in the world has a market capitalization of nearly 95 billion dollars. After McDonalds and Subway it is the 3rd largest restaurant chain in the world. It has more than 9000 coffee shops in the U.S. In December 2021, the Starbucks workers in a coffee shop in Buffalo, NY voted for Starbucks Workers United, an independent affiliated union of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to represent them. That was the spark that has in the last 4 months led to more than 20 coffee shops being unionized. There are currently more than 200 coffee shops in the country filing petitions for union elections. Workers have voiced concerns about inadequate staffing, lack of support during the Corona virus pandemic and have wanted better pay and health care benefits. Starbucks has hired powerful law firms and have launched an aggressive anti-union campaign. They have fired atleast 18 pro-union employees, they are bombarding their workers with anti-union texts and conducting meetings in stores. In addition they have been threatening to close the first unionized coffee shop in Buffalo, NY. However, the multimillion dollar anti-union campaign thus far has not been very successful. The largely young workers are getting support from other unions, left parties like Workers World Party, Party for  Socialism and Liberation, Democratic Socialists of America are showing their solidarity.

Step by Step with Unions

Gallup poll in 2021 found public approval of unions in the U.S. to be 65%. It was 80 % in the age group 18-34. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of workers ages 25-34 who are union members has increased from 8.8% to 9.4%. Many young people are leading the struggles in unions for justice against rapacious U.S. corporations. The first mineworkers' union in its preamble in 1864 had the following words-

Step by step the longest march

Can be won, can be won

Many stones can form an arch

Singly none, singly none.....

In 1920, Georgi Dimitrov the great revolutionary leader from Bulgaria, wrote that ".... the trade union struggle should be coordinated with the general political struggle of the proletariat ...and become a component of the entire class struggle of the proletariat." In the United States, this is not so imminent but the process, anyway, is hopeful.