Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Amazon workers who won a union their way are inspiring change in labour movements

Unlike traditional unions, the Amazon Labor Union relied almost entirely on current and former workers rather than professional organizers; for financing, it turned to GoFundMe; the word was spread in a break room and at low-key barbecues

By Noam Scheiber
Published: Apr 7, 2022

Amazon workers who won a union their way are inspiring change in labour movementsEmployees in line to vote on unionization, at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island, March 25, 2022. After the stunning victory at Amazon by a little-known independent union that didn’t exist 18 months ago, organized labor has begun to ask itself: Does the labor movement need to get more disorganized? (DeSean McClinton-Holland/The New York Times)

After the stunning victory at Amazon by a little-known independent union that didn’t exist 18 months ago, organized labor has begun to ask itself an increasingly pressing question: Does the labor movement need to get more disorganized?

Unlike traditional unions, the Amazon Labor Union relied almost entirely on current and former workers rather than professional organizers in its campaign at a warehouse on Staten Island in New York City. For financing, it turned to GoFundMe appeals rather than union coffers built from the dues of existing members. It spread the word in a break room and at low-key barbecues outside the warehouse.

In the end, the approach succeeded where far bigger, wealthier and more established unions have repeatedly fallen short.

“It’s sending a wake-up call to the rest of the labor movement,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “We have to be homegrown — we have to be driven by workers — to give ourselves the best chance.”

The success at Amazon comes on the heels of worker-driven initiatives in a variety of other industries. In 2018, rank-and-file public school teachers in states like West Virginia and Arizona used social media to plan a series of walkouts, setting in motion one of the largest labor actions in recent decades and forcing union leaders to embrace their tactics.

White-collar tech workers have organized protests at Google and Netflix over issues like sexual harassment and prejudice toward transgender people. At colleges like Grinnell and Dartmouth, workers have recently formed unions that are unaffiliated with existing labor groups.

And at Starbucks, where workers have voted to unionize 10 corporate-owned stores and filed for elections in roughly 150 more over the past six months, the campaign has largely expanded through worker-to-worker interactions over email, text and Zoom, even as it is being overseen by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

Nonunion Starbucks employees typically receive advice from their newly unionized counterparts, then meet with co-workers in their stores, distribute union cards, decide whether and when to file for an election and respond to media inquiries — responsibilities that professional union staff members often carry out in traditional campaigns.

“I can give my opinions — experience means something, but living it means more,” said Richard Bensinger, an organizer for Workers United, referring to the difference between organizing as an outsider and working at a company.

Some union officials have criticized the labor movement for being content to shrink gradually, like a wheezing media giant ill suited for the internet age, rather than experiment with new models and invest aggressively in recruitment. They have pointed to a decline in funding for an AFL-CIO department dedicated to organizing, although the federation’s president, Liz Shuler, has said organizing remains a priority and is funded through different mechanisms.

Other activists and scholars have complained that even when established unions do invest in organizing, some are too intent on controlling key decisions and use workers merely as props who recite union-crafted talking points.

In her book “No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age,” organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey wrote skeptically of two common approaches of established unions. One is “advocacy,” in which union officials try to hammer out deals with corporate executives or political power brokers to allow workers to unionize, but with little input from workers.

McAlevey also questioned an approach she called “mobilization,” in which the union takes on an employer primarily through the efforts of a professional staff, consultants and a cadre of activists rather than a large group of rank-and-file workers. “The staffers see themselves, not ordinary people, as the key agents of change,” she wrote.

Some union officials have argued that the Fight for $15 campaign, in which the service employees’ union has spent tens of millions of dollars seeking to raise wages and help fast-food workers unionize, and OUR Walmart, which had similar goals for Walmart employees, were effectively mobilization efforts run largely by professional operatives.

Critics typically acknowledge that the campaigns helped galvanize support for higher wages even if they fell short of unionizing workers. Defenders say the goal is to have an effect on a company- or industrywide scale rather than a few individual stores. They point to certain developments, like a pending California bill that would regulate fast-food wages and working conditions, as signs of progress.

In other cases, workers themselves have perceived the limitations of established unions and the advantages of going it alone. Joseph Fink, who works at an Amazon Fresh grocery store in Seattle with roughly 150 employees, said the workers there had reached out to a few unions when seeking to organize in the summer but decided that the unions’ focus on winning recognition through National Labor Relations Board elections would delay resolution of their complaints, which included sexual harassment and health and safety threats.

When the workers floated the idea of staging protests or walkouts as an alternative, union officials responded cautiously. “We received the response that if we were to speak up, assert our rights publicly, we’d be terminated,” Fink said. “It was a self-defeating narrative.”

The workers decided to form a union on their own without the formal blessing of the NLRB, a model known as a “solidarity union,” whose roots precede the modern labor movement.

For workers who seek NLRB certification, doing so independent of an established union also has advantages, such as confounding the talking points of employers and consultants, who often paint unions as “third parties” seeking to hoard workers’ dues.

At Amazon, the strategy was akin to sending a conventional army into battle against guerrillas: Organizers said the talking points had fallen flat once co-workers realized that the union consisted of fellow employees rather than outsiders.

“When a worker comes up to me, they look at me, then see I have a badge on and say, ‘You work here?’ They ask it in the most surprising way,” said Angelika Maldonado, an Amazon employee on Staten Island who heads the union’s workers committee. “‘I’m like, ‘Yeah, I work here.’ It makes us relatable from the beginning.”

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