How Did Amazon Workers Win a Union? Look Back 100 YearsBreaking News
tags: unions, labor history, Amazon, IWW, Wobblies, Ben Fletcher
When the news broke that the upstart Amazon Labor Union had made history by winning its union election at Amazon’s sprawling JFK8 fulfillment center, labor experts were as jubilant as they were puzzled. How had this group of Staten Island warehouse workers, who had decided to form their own independent organization instead of trying to join an established national union and ignored conventional wisdom about how a union drive “should” be run, gone toe-to-toe with one of the richest, most powerful, most anti-worker corporations in the world … and won?
Ultimately, it was far simpler than any heavy-handed analysis may make out: It all came down to the workers, and the real, genuine solidarity that the ALU’s organizing committee built among themselves and their roughly 8,000 co-workers. “What we did was allow anyone in the building who wanted to organize to organize,” Angelika Maldonado, chair of the ALU’s Workers Committee, told Jacobin Magazine. As she explained, the members of the committee devoted every waking hour to organizing, listening, strategizing, fundraising, phone banking out of Unite Here Local 100’s Manhattan office, squeezing one-on-one conversations into 15-minute increments during their break time, and breaking bread (and enjoying home-cooked soul food) with their co-workers in the parking lot outside the building.
The ALU filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board in October, but initially had to withdraw the petition because of a lack of signatures; after that, they redoubled their efforts to get where they needed to be. They countered Amazon’s dirty tactics with militancy, disrupting captive audience meetings and making it very clear that they knew their rights. Christian Smalls, the new union’s president and one of its most effective organizers, also became its most visible spokesperson; he was a constant, vibrant presence at meetings and rallies. He was all over social media and, at one point, was arrested for trespassing (alongside two other workers) while delivering food to workers in the facility’s break room. Smalls has earned his reputation for fearlessness, and the fight to unionize became his personal crusade.
When he was fired from JFK8 in 2020, after leading a walkout to protest a lack of Covid-19 safety measures at the facility, company executives smeared him and denigrated his character and abilities. In a leaked memo, Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky referred to Smalls as being “not smart, or articulate”; later, according to a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board, the company referred to ALU organizers as “thugs,” continuing its racist dismissal of both a movement built by workers of color and the Black man leading it.
Later, after their victory had been secured and Amazon’s devastating miscalculations were laid bare, Smalls tweeted, “@amazon wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts against them…. welp there you go! @JeffBezos @DavidZapolsky…” One can only imagine how good that felt for him — and for every other worker on the organizing committee and in the greater union.
In considering Smalls’ accomplishments as a leader, one is reminded of another charismatic, working-class Black labor leader, who harnessed the power of solidarity to build enduring worker power on the Philadelphia waterfront. Ben Fletcher, born 132 years ago this month in a vibrant multiracial neighborhood in South Philadelphia, was a dockworker and devoted organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), nicknamed the Wobblies.
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