Three Paths for Labor after AmazonBreaking News
tags: unions, labor, Amazon, working class history
Harmony Goldberg is the Director or Praxis at the Grassroots Power Project.
Erica Smiley is the executive director of Jobs With Justice.
The recent historic Amazon Labor Union victory at Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island has both sparked hope and seized the collective imagination of labor activists, with organizers and theorists already anticipating the emergence of a new labor movement. While veteran organizers are correct in pointing out that this fight has only just begun, there is already much to learn from the union’s rank-and-file organizing—rooted in community-building—that underlies this initial victory.
Many visions for new models of collective bargaining have emerged among the different organizing efforts of Amazon workers. Stepping into this moment of hope, this piece will draw on the conceptual framework that Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta laid out in their recently published book, The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (2022). Elaborating on the themes of the book, we explore the ways that collective bargaining can evolve to meet the challenges of our new economy.
Traditional Organizing and Collective Bargaining
Many organizers, journalists, and scholars have written about the brave struggle of workers in the Amazon Bessemer facility and the tremendous victory of the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island. These two examples of worker organizing reveal the strengths of historically established approaches to bargaining. However, they also exemplify contemporary modes of worker organizing that are deeply rooted in our current moment.
The historic approach to collective bargaining, established in the National Labor Relations Act, provides workers with necessary mechanisms for exercising power in their workplaces. These mechanisms have been battered over time as corporate forces have worked to roll back labor rights. Analysts have, for decades, proclaimed the death of the labor movement and the outmodedness of this form of collective bargaining. The hard-fought victory of workers in Staten Island, however, reminded critics that collective bargaining remains one of the most important tools working people can wield to improve their living and working conditions.
But these workers’ decision to use this important tool was not driven by the narrow workplace orientation that has shaped much of the contemporary labor movement. The organizers at Staten Island were catalyzed into action alongside the explosive growth of the movement for Black Lives following the murder of George Floyd and pressurized by the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on people of color. These Black-led organizing efforts addressed the issues of all Amazon workers and challenged Amazon’s racist treatment of Black and Brown workers. They took on Amazon’s intense quota system reminiscent of the “pushing” system developed on plantations and the employment of primarily white police officers as security officers overseeing a predominantly Black workforce in Alabama. Their fights challenge corporate power, but they are not solely about corporate power. Their approach includes a more expansive orientation to “class struggle” that promises to strengthen the labor movement as a whole.
Yet both organizing drives face uphill battles: in Bessemer to win a majority in the workplace, and in Staten Island to land a first contract. These workers—and other Amazon workers who have not yet started the drive toward unionization—need stronger government intervention to level the incredibly imbalanced playing field in their fight against the mega-corporation.
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