A Union at Amazon?: Organize the Class, not the Shop

An Amazon worker in the United States reflects on the strategic point of the company in the global economy and the new social composition it has created. Looking at the limits of union campaigns in a high-turnover sector with a lack of solidarity, he argues for the creation of regional Worker and Tenant Leagues based on direct action and mutual aid. This article was first published by Notes from Below.

Submitted by R Totale on June 23, 2019

Amazon’s growth and strategic centrality to contemporary capital presents a unique opportunity for a resurgent labor militancy and a socialist political vision. After working at Amazon for nearly two years, it is abundantly clear that successful organizing will require class conscious militants leading their coworkers, neighbors and comrades into sustained struggle to bring dignity, respect, and better material conditions for the class as a whole. The methods used by our unions and current left movements - while best intentioned - are not capable of building this movement. Instead, we must ask ourselves what kind of organizational forms are capable of organizing the class, rather than the shop? How can we reimagine, and historically reflect upon, what unions can do to build a new wave of workplace militancy today?

Why Amazon?

Within the circuits of contemporary capital, Amazon is a strategic fulcrum. In an era marked by the concentration and centralization of capital into monopolies, Amazon is at the forefront, accumulating vast surplus value through its control over a growing spread of industries. Organizing a union at Amazon could allow workers to push forward radical demands that are not possible in less profitable industries. Unlike other major technology monopolies like Facebook, Google, and Apple, Amazon depends on extensive investment in fixed capital infrastructure to build its fulfillment network employing hundreds of thousands of workers to make money. Due to Amazon’s dependence on maintaining proximity to urban markets in order to deliver in shorter delivery times, Amazon jobs are not susceptible to offshoring, giving workers an opportunity to build power. Due to the greater interlinking between production and distribution through just-in-time supply chains, strikes at Amazon carry ripple effects across the economy, increasing the structural power of Amazon workers relative to other workers as a result of their position in the social division of labour. As a company that expropriates surplus value from the exploitation of skilled and deskilled workers alike, there is potential for uniting vast layers of the working class into a more unified movement through the articulation of shared demands. Finally, as a technology company, organizing a union at Amazon could get at the heart of thorny questions around automation and the social use of technology, leveraging demands that seek to leverage technological change to free people from work rather than further enslave them as appendages of the machine.

It is not just the strategic aspects of organizing a union at Amazon that are important. Amazon workers feel the full brunt of capital’s boot bearing down on their back. This is experienced in two interlocking ways, and can best be seen through ongoing workers’ inquiry into changes in the technical and social/spatial composition of the working class predominantly employed within Amazon fulfillment centers.

From the perspective of capital, retail and logistics work is central: money invested into commodity production is not realized until the sale of the item. Transportation time figures crucially in the cycle of capital accumulation: the lower the amount of time between the production and the sale of a commodity, the quicker capital can be realized into money in its cash form. Getting commodities to market faster and to customers earlier becomes a crucial area of capital investment, with the means of transportation and movement of goods increasingly organized along industrial lines to increase the rate of exploitation. Amazon, as a merchant capitalist, earns a portion of its profit from the investment of capital into the new organizational methods and technologies for the circulation and realization of commodities, thus lowering the circulation time relative to competitors and increasing market share.

Through the development of fulfillment centers, Amazon centralizes the labor of retail workers into the factory form, developing the standard for industrial retail. Where retail workers were once dispersed across a broad range of retail stores in a variety of warehouse, driving, and customer centric roles, Amazon is a centripetal force. By drawing workers into the factory form for the picking, packing, sorting, and delivery of commodities, Amazon management is extending tighter surveillance and control over the production process. This increases the rate of exploitation within the retail sector, with capitalists reaping substantial gains through augmenting the extraction of surplus value. By reorganizing retail into the factory form, Amazon takes what were once geographically dispersed workers and concentrates them into a smaller subset of workplaces. Outside of most major cities in growing logistics and light manufacturing clusters, Amazon is building a suite of fulfillment and sortation centers that can employ over 6,000 workers for most mid-size cities. In larger logistics clusters, such as the Inland Empire east of LA, the suburbs around Houston, northern Kentucky, suburban Chicago, and suburban New Jersey, this number can be far higher. Cumulatively, Amazon is now the second largest employer in the United States. This concentration of workers also drives the socialization of workers in new ways, opening avenues for shared experiences of exploitation and domination under the boot of capital.

From the perspective of the worker engaged in commodity production, Amazon is a persistent dehumanizing attack. In his book, On New Terrain, Kim Moody argues that it is the intensification of work through increases in the rate of exploitation that is the defining feature of contemporary work. Amazon fulfillment centers are at the forefront of this change. Workers must reach punishingly high rates, with each act measured for efficiency and quality. The impacts of this process on human bodies and minds is horrific: joint pain, carpal tunnel, blown backs, anxiety, and depression are all common aspects of the work. The systematic devaluing of human bodies extends beyond rate into the intensity of management surveillance, the mental pressure of achieving unattainable goals, cutting safety corners on a regular basis, sexism, ageism, racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance all regular day-to-day experiences of work. In hundreds of conversations with coworkers, a frequent refrain of why they hate Amazon is that they don’t feel like a human being, and feel like a cog in the machine.

While the rate of exploitation increases surplus value appropriated by the capitalist class, wages remain stagnant. Relative to other warehouse work, Amazon wages tend to be substantially less, instead promising workers benefit packages such as stock options or tuition help which often cannot be claimed until after 2 years of work. With natural turnover (people leaving) at 2% a week, and firing/discipline common for fulfillment workers, few ever realize these gains. Instead, social wealth gained through the intensification of work is being captured predominantly by Jeff Bezos - the richest man in modern history - as well as the managerial class and higher skilled workers within the working class.

Further, Amazon is at the center of the massive reorganization of urban life that demographers are calling the suburbanization of poverty. With corporate campuses (Amazon’s location in downtown Seattle was one of the first and a leader in this trend) and higher-paid members of the working class increasingly moving into urban centers, gentrification and the high price of housing are driving low-wage workers into the suburbs. Further, due to high rents and chain-based migration, immigrants increasingly move directly into suburban communities, skipping the urban core altogether. These communities are increasingly home to large amount of light industrial and warehouse work, with Amazon often a central employer in the region. Despite Democrats and Republicans alike offering expansive tax breaks for Amazon fulfillment centers, Amazon’s impact on local labor markets is marked by the downward trend of wages as Amazon lowers standards in the warehousing industry, and outcompetes many retail competitors that often have higher levels of union density.

This inversion of urban life operates to decompose the political composition of the working class through the loss of solidarity and communal relationships, as entire communities are displaced into new working class suburbs. The social composition of working class suburbs is marked by historical layers of demographic transition. The first layer are white flight communities. White flight is also heavily textured by class differences, with petit bourgeois and higher-earning workers living in completely different suburbs than members of the lower and middle layers. It is into the highly politicized ‘white working class’ suburbs that a new layer of working class people of color and immigrants are now calling home. These layers often mix like oil and water in social and community life, but in rental buildings and workplaces alike, these groups are increasingly living shared material experiences of exploitation and domination.

Many assume housing to be relatively cheap within the suburbs, but this is often not the case. Still connected to the urban land rents, suburban houses and apartment complexes are increasingly being purchased by private equity groups who are pursuing a suburban housing strategy to gouge workers through steep rent hikes. A common phenomena is the purchasing of larger suburban complexes within a neighborhood, putting up a fresh layer of paint, and doubling the rents. The market power of large complexes lifts the rent for other buildings, thus driving rents skyward while a handful of private equity firms are raking in billions. These buildings often have proxy landlords who refuse to invest or manage the property, leading to substantial building code violations, general building decay, and feelings of insecurity despite high rents.

Further, as studies on the suburbanization of poverty indicate, rapid demographic transition has not been met with rapid transitions in social services for the poor. Public transit, built on a radial model, is horrific for suburb-to-suburb commutes. What takes 15 minutes to drive takes 2 hours by bus, with poor service for those working overnight or weekend shifts, an experience far more common in just-in-time logistics industries than urban centers. Subsidized housing, charitable organizations, basic progressive labor standards, and policy victories won by Democrat-dominated cities rarely extend to the suburbs. These lack of basic services for the poor are compounded by criminally expensive child care, which further reproduces patriarchal social relations through the brunt of unpaid reproductive labor falling on women; underfunded urban services for things as basic as sewer, trash and water; and often poorer environmental standards due to colocation with polluting industrial and logistics centers.

The divides within the working class are persistent. Networks of solidarity are largely isolated within the family or the ethnic immigrant networks and organized on an informal basis. Most workers depend on these networks of solidarity to live on oppressively small wages and to meet social needs. In practice, this looks like children living at home (at times in conditions that perpetuate oppressive relations inside the family of abuse - leave the house or speak up against an abusive parent and that means homelessness), dependence on churches and faith-based institutions that often lack an active political orientation, or overcrowding of multiple families into homes to make ends meet. These divides permeate into the workplace: cross-ethnic or multi-racial solidarity are rare, and sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobia common.

Despite these differences, workers are increasingly experiencing the boot of capital and the capitalist state directly on their necks. Dehumanization and the commodification of daily life is an everyday reality. So while the technical and social composition of the working class within these suburbs points towards militant collective action based on material conditions, the lack of trust, solidarity, and socialization within the class hinders the development of the class for itself as a political entity. Further, rather than transform working conditions at a single employer, workers are constantly on the move to slightly better or different work conditions. Choosing to leave rather than build power in a single workplace further weakens the power of the class, displacing the responsibility for better economic conditions on the individual seller of labor power. This precludes any movement towards building sustained solidarity, further weakening the development of a class for itself.

To conclude, it is clear from sustained inquiry that workers have a deep experiential understanding of capitalist oppression and domination, but often lack the political organization to leverage their collective power. While many recognize that we are stronger together and that there are more of us than of them, trust and solidarity is often organized along familial, friendship, religious, or ethnic lines, thus fragmenting the class. Second, most workers have not engaged in meaningful direct action in workplaces or tenant buildings, therefore remaining skeptical that collective action can solve any immediate problems.

The Failure of our Unions and the Left

Labor unions have largely failed to organize density within the private sector, with union density reaching a 70-year nadir. While criticism can be extensive and scathing for why business unions fail, I want to focus on strategies taken by most active organizing unions (Teamsters, UFCW, UH, UAW, and SEIU come most to mind) in organizing in the low-wage logistics and retail work on a shop-by-shop basis.

First, we must start with how workers largely experience unions. For most workers, unions are service-based institutions that exist to serve workers, rather than as institutions built by workers to meet their material needs through strategic collective action. Most unions lack a strong internal culture of organizing, which dampens not only the possibility of direct action, mutual aid, and solidarity at the workplace, but also fails to cultivate working-class members as a whole. Most importantly, unions are localized to shops or employers that have a contract, which, as a whole, is a minimal part of the labor market. Leave a union shop, and the union is no longer part of your life.

Alternative labor institutions like worker centers and tenant unions rarely offer more than bare minimum legal protection and workers’ rights enforcement, and are often so backlogged with even upholding basic labor standards that more progressive desires such as external organizing or worker education are near impossible. Without developing dues-based membership and active social participation, they, too, fall under a similar service-based model where unions do things for workers, rather than helping workers come together to solve their immediate problems through direct action and mutual aid. An internal democratic structure is often entirely missing, instead replaced by staff members funded through grants or sponsoring unions.

When it comes to organizing new workers, unions have been struggling to develop successful campaigns. Organizing in low-wage work means confronting what UFCW organizers term the “service workers’ lament”: that workers would rather change jobs rather than stay at a single job and do the long-term work of building power with coworkers. This poses a significant problem for organizers when attempting to build union power within these industries. UNITEHERE organizers, some of the most successful at organizing the unorganized, often argue a campaign’s success depends on pre-existing solidarity and friendship amongst co-workers. When these networks are most stable, workers are more willing to move into struggle together, largely because they trust each other. Through the use of active salting programs to identify leaders and map these social relationships, unions seek to actively rely on naturally existing networks of workers to then drive a union campaign forward. In conditions where pre-existing solidarity is weak due to a variety of factors such as size or turnover, the union struggles to build power. When organizing is based in a single shop, this turnover can prove fatal, requiring restarting campaigns with great frequency. To summarize, successful organizing often relies fundamentally on solidarity and trust as a basis for direct action, however these preconditions are rarely given, especially in industries with high turnover. Instead of recognizing the need to cultivate solidarity outside of immediate campaigns (usually when a shop is facing a contract), unions largely neglect ongoing solidarity-based organizing activity from their organizational mandate.

This has several consequences. The first is the ongoing dependence on staff to organize workers through staff drive mobilizing campaigns rather than workers organizing each other. While there are exceptions to this rule, staff-led organizing is increasingly common. It is the union that organizes workers rather than workers that organize a union.

A second is that union staff attempt to develop power for their membership through alternative means than direct action on the shop floor or cultivating an orientation to internal cultural and social organization. In her conceptual approach to understanding labor strategy, Jane McAlevey typifies these approaches as ‘mobilization’ based approaches. These strategies vary, but a common tendency is the need to gain the sympathy of various powerful elites or external stakeholders to then put pressure on the target company. A consequence is a constant external focus on ‘messaging’ that resonates sympathetically with a general public or elite group of stakeholders. This method requires hand-selecting ‘worker leaders’ who can fit the political messaging of the union strategists, using these voices to build some level of sympathy amongst liberals of poor conditions by appealing to liberal interests, and use this sympathy to pass legislation forward or pressure companies to lift conditions or refuse entry of a bad employer into an area with higher union density. This ‘shortcut’ method, while arguably ‘raising’ conditions, ultimately limits the power of workers by failing to build real solidarity amongst the class based in empathy, failing to help workers recognize their power through direct action, and failing to cultivate militant leadership. In other terms, it fails workers in making the ‘leap’ from a class in itself to a class for itself.

When it comes to organizing a campaign around Amazon, these methods are predictable, but doomed to fail. Given the high levels of turnover, organizing a representative organizing committee is long work, and requires sustained direct action and solidarity. However, with such high turnover, any attempt to organize workers on the shop basis alone would prove fatal. A strategy that leverages workers’ stories to bash the company’s image, in conjunction with minimally-backed campaign strategies to lift conditions for Amazon workers through policy or extract concessions from the company, is the best this style of campaign could hope for.

Pushing Whole Worker Organizing

The question then poses itself: what kind of union may be necessary to start organizing the class, rather than the shop, in working class suburbs? We would put forth the idea of regional Worker and Tenant Leagues or Associations: dues-based membership organizations that attempt to build worker and tenant power into a single organization on a regional basis. These organizations would have to work on two main axes: 1) Direct action against the capitalist class in areas where exploitation and domination are daily felt; and 2) Developing community through mutual aid and cultural/social forms. These ideas are currently being articulated through the leadership of the ‘base-building’ tendency in the left, although there is significant historical precedent. The base-building tendency is currently being best articulated through left tendencies within socialist political formations in the United States, and is based on the idea that a mass workers’ movement must be built through forming worker-led counter-institutions capable of directly confronting capitalists where the ruling class appropriates and accumulates social wealth.

The first would be the development of direct political fights aimed at the capitalist class. Rather than electoral strategies driven by effective messaging and strategic union heads, new unions must be based in direct action that builds working class experience, develops new militants, and makes clear the axes of oppression. Two key areas for developing these fights are in areas where workers experience oppression and exploitation on a day-to-day basis. Two axes are particularly important here: workplaces and rental complexes. Both workplaces and rental complexes are sites where workers from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds already congregate. Workplaces and rental complexes already drive the socialization of the working class; however, unity among members is precluded unless they are engaged in a strategic fight where all members have self-interest in collective struggle. Trump-supporting white folks are neighbors and coworkers with undocumented immigrants, migrants from East Asia and Africa, and folks of color. To combat high rents and low wages, unity must be built across these groups. Overcoming the strong social and cultural differences currently segmenting and dividing the working class will only emerge through struggle against these common sources of oppression. Workplaces and rental complexes, as entities that drive the socialization of the class while also being spaces where victories lead to economic gains for the class and the organization, are essential spaces for building power.

Struggle must be the forge of unity: seeing self-interest in fighting a shared oppressor requires overcoming bigotry, for solidarity is necessary for the trust to enter into struggle with others. Any organizing will have to, following the communist organizer William Z Foster, walk on ‘two legs’: recognizing the specific grievances of workers along difference, but also seeking to aggressively foster unity, understanding, compassion and forgiveness as grounds for building a political class for itself. These campaigns against landlords and employers should be based in direct action. Here, organizing techniques and skills should be taught to all who are interested, whereby workers can then carry skills learned in struggle with them as they move from workplace to workplace and rental building to building, cultivating an organizing spirit across the diverse spaces of exploitation through which workers move. Cultivating leaders and a spirit around building workplace power could develop into successful campaigns in smaller shops, and into longer-term minority unionism in large shops such as Amazon where any form of recognition will be fought for tooth and nail. Regional organizing then builds power amongst the class as a whole, rather than a shop alone. It is only once the working class starts composing itself into a political class for itself that the working class will develop its own leaders capable of leading an onslaught against capital.

A second axis would be based in driving the socialization of the working class through cultural, social activity and mutual aid; in other words, the socialization of the working class by building true solidarity. The idea of ‘whole worker’ organizing is receiving a resurgence with the works of Jane McAlevey and other left unionists. Whole worker organizing has largely meant the development of strategic political campaigns in spaces of production and reproduction. However, Mike Davis’ historical and theoretical analysis on class formation in Old Gods, New Enigmas points towards the vast cultural and social public sphere created by left institutions. He argues that the cultural and social sphere within socialist communities “became embodied in well-organized counter-cultures that projected the solidarities of the workplace and neighborhood into all aspects of recreation, education and culture.”

Shockingly missing from today’s socialist movement (but certainly a central part of the strategies of the right), these must be reprioritized today. These range from philosophy reading groups, outdoors clubs, poetry groups, choruses, sporting teams, botanical societies and the like. We can imagine plays put on by workers that reflect their everyday lives, botanical gardens that reclaim suburban space for beauty, yoga and meditation groups the help bring mindfulness and calm, and hiking clubs that bring the outdoors to those who rarely experience it. While workers are already doing these things, they are often doing them within the confines of capitalist-run institutions, where these desires are commodified for the accumulation of profit, and where a political ideology is limited to consumer choice. We must help leaders develop and organize these groups democratically, and value them as politically important work. Organizing clubs helps inculcate leaders, facilitates greater organizational capacity, and allows for experimentation in new ways of building collectives. As Davis argues, these institutions, democratically-run, have formed the basis of working-class unity, providing a space for new cultural and social forms to emerge, shaping the public sphere based in the ideas and energies of the working class. It also meets workers where they already are within their current lives. There is a real desire to further the socialization already in progress through workplaces, and to build real community based in sharing interpersonal space. As organizations get bigger, the chance to find and develop meaningful friendships and relationships increases (which is joyful!), while also allowing folks to learn to be together, develop empathy, and recognize shared interest despite interpersonal differences.

Additionally, forms of mutual aid to meet needs not currently met by employers or the state could be essential to building unity, working class organization, and institutional legitimacy. Ensuring food at meetings through communal kitchens, producing spaces for addressing mental health through group dialogue, meeting real education needs through English lessons and basic computer literacy, and political education to help workers analyze their own experiences are some examples that can be volunteer-driven and member-run. More ambitiously, and certainly most important, are the organization of child-care circles, helping working mothers self-organize childcare. The burden of childcare punishes the working class as a whole; developing tools to further socialize reproductive labor opens up more time to be together, and to be actively engaged in strategic and organizing work. Organizing programming that seeks to build across social difference is particularly important, including cross-cultural exchanges that builds trust across currently siloed ethnic-based groups, ages, and genders.

Both mutual aid and cultural organizations are based in producing community, and via community, solidarity and trust. While this will not be a panacea for current atomization and alienation within the working class, being together and engaging in meaningful work while also having fun together is healing. Importantly, the organizations we seek to build must bring joy.They must fulfill our need to be in common, and extend and expand our capacities through our being in common. A socialist movement must be based in love and care, and can’t be based in ongoing struggle alone.

In a more pragmatic sense, these organizational forms are mutually reinforcing. The lived experience of a workers’ association that builds true community makes the union part of everyday life. It brings real value to workers, and helps meet current emotional and material needs. Dues-based membership of such an association becomes a willing contribution, rather than a resentful deduction. However, mutual aid and social/cultural work alone is insufficient, and, ultimately, unsustainable without extracting real material gains for the working class. Mutual aid work must be bolstered through economic power. Through organizing at workplaces and in rental complexes, workers are able to reappropriate material wealth from the capitalist class, therefore increasing funding in the institutions they build.

Solidarity-based unionism based in direct action, mutual aid and community-building should be seen as a particular strategy given current material conditions currently marked by high levels of atomization and division within the working class, and the full domination of our cultural, social and economic institutions by the capitalist class. These institutions can be a launching ground for more robust industrial organizing strategies that seek to leverage multiple points of structural power to help realize worker demands.

Building a union at Amazon can’t be done on the shop alone. A union at Amazon will be the product of organizing the class, down to the neighborhood level, and engaging the full person in their political, social, and cultural life. Our fights must be fueled by the will to be in common - to ultimately work less to be together more - and to fully augment our capacities as living, collective beings. Let’s build organizations that put this reality at the heart of our efforts. For this reason, we could imagine the slogan: Be Together. Fight the Power.



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