Take Heart, and Take Risks
Nobody predicted this—we sure didn’t. What Amazon workers in New York pulled off was supposed to be impossible.
An independent union relying almost entirely on volunteer organizers beat one of the world’s biggest and most fiercely anti-union companies.
They did it with an eclectic mix of classic methods and throwing out the rulebook. Instead of organizing an underground campaign, they put up a recruitment tent right outside the warehouse.
A Starbucks organizing wave, too, looked unlikely—yet here we are. For all of us who thought we knew better, the victories should spark humility and hope.
THIS MAGIC MOMENT
Now we’re getting the sense that maybe lots of things could work now that wouldn’t have worked before.
Is it the labor “shortage” that’s making our leverage visible and stiffening our backbone? Is it long-simmering outrage at the pandemic, where workers died while their billionaire bosses took pleasure cruises on superyachts and into space?
Maybe it’s what you get when you add up the ripple effects of the George Floyd uprising, the Bernie campaign, the climate crisis, and the rising cost of living.
Whatever it is—there’s an opening. It won’t last forever and we shouldn’t let it slip. Now’s the time to push our unions to be bold in their organizing and their demands; to take risks and loosen the grip of tradition.
UNVARNISHED AND LEGIT
Union-busters like to call the union an outsider, a “third party.” That line fell flat at Amazon on Staten Island, because the rank-and-file character of the campaign was staring you in the face.
Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls emphasizes the impact of a consistent presence. You might walk past the ALU tent every day for two months without even saying hi, but you saw that your co-workers were dedicated and legit. And on the inevitable day when management screwed you over, you’d come out and sign a card.
For ALU worker-organizer Michelle Valentin Nieves, the key was friendship—a culture of solidarity forged in the stresses of peak-season work. Sara Mughal of Starbucks Workers United (SWU) writes almost the same thing in an article for our May issue (look for it online soon).
To revive a large-scale labor movement, we’ll need thousands more workplace organizers like these, who have the gumption to take on corporate giants and have fun doing it—including by dreaming up tactics that make professional organizers groan.
One Starbucks worker is doing union outreach on Tindr. ALU handed out free weed, something Amazon is now trying to make hay of.
In my own organizing experience, the most popular flyers were never the polished ones the union produced, but the typed-out rants one worker would print off.
Workers have to be in the driver’s seat. When they are, the organizing wave can spread quick.
As breathtaking as these wins are, it’s going to be tough to get a first contract at Starbucks or Amazon.
But hey, nobody thought they’d get this far. And if more Amazon warehouses organized now, in geographic clusters, that might change the calculus. There’s a window of opportunity.
I can’t imagine a more exciting time for a Labor Notes Conference. Where but in Chicago this June 17-19 could you find yourself exchanging ideas with SWU and ALU activists as well as Amazon workers who have been organizing shop floor walkouts, teachers and farmworkers fresh off of winning strikes, veteran transit union reform activists, and journalists who are spreading organizing skills through their rank and file? Let’s strategize together.
Register by May 1 for a big discount.