ALU Newsletter #11: This Is What Democracy Looks Like
2/4/2022 update from the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island
Let 2022 be the Year of the Union. After nine months of tireless volunteer worker organizing (which is very tiring, really) and two election petitions filed, the ALU received confirmation from the National Labor Relations Board last week that we’ve demonstrated sufficient interest to move forward with an election to represent the workers at the JFK8 Fulfillment Center. That means that over thirty percent of our current coworkers have already pledged support for the ALU in writing—and there are still so many more we haven’t yet reached, but we will!
It is now time—it is well past time—for worker democracy to become a reality at Amazon in the United States. But we must remain active and vigilant against every petty, cynical attempt by Amazon management to sabotage a fair election—which they fear and despise—and to undermine our worker rights to “full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of [our] own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of [our] employment,” as the National Labor Relations Act promises us. We’ve already charged Amazon with about twenty Unfair Labor Practices before the NLRB, won a national settlement, initiated several lawsuits, and we’re not even halfway to victory yet! Along the way, we’ve supported our coworkers with meals, financial aid, work advice, training, music, encouragement, camaraderie, a vision of justice, and a cause worth fighting for.
This is what democracy looks like: working people organizing together in solidarity and mutual aid, in defense against the abuses and usurpations of petty tyrants. Power to the people: this is the literal root of the word “democracy.”
Christian Smalls @Shut_downAmazonThrough all the highs and lows we prevailed and we did it our way! @amazonlabor https://t.co/FrMD6jUOUF
This election news may seem like déjà vu to many of you: NLRB representatives did also say we had the numbers when we filed our first election petition back in October, before they reversed course under intense Amazonian pressure and swiftly invalidated nearly half of our worker cards without a clear explanation or a chance at rebuttal. A major cause of that setback was the notorious employee turnover at Amazon, which meant that a large percentage of coworkers who signed up in the first six months of the campaign had been fired or quit by the time we filed. But we’ve been working hard to make up for those lost cards at an accelerated pace (even in organizing, Amazon forces us to make rate), and this time, the NLRB apparently confirmed our numbers with Amazon’s employee roster before issuing their determination.
We’ve decided to file our petitions warehouse-by-warehouse instead of all at once in Staten Island in order to limit Amazon’s opportunities to employ any more workforce shenanigans to undermine our petitions. And so just days after the NLRB approved our JFK8 petition, with thousands of authorization cards, we filed another petition with hundreds more cards signed by our coworkers at the LDJ5 Sort Center across the street from JFK8. The DYY6 and DYX2 warehouse election petitions will be coming soon!
We’ve got our eyes on the prize, and we certainly can’t be cited for any Time Off Task. In a couple of weeks, ALU representatives will attend a hearing with the NLRB and representatives from Amazon to hash out the election details for JFK8 (and probably face down a barrage of baseless objections from our adversary’s corporate lawyers). As soon as we reach an election agreement with the details and date of the election, and we get our hands on that employee roster that Amazon management jealously guards, we will be kicking into high gear on our Get Out The Vote campaign with all of our JFK8 coworkers. Then we’ll do the same thing for LDJ5, then for DYY6, DYX2, and for warehouses throughout the country.
The second Amazon union election in Bessemer, Alabama begins today, and the mail-in ballot period will run through March. Just as the RWDSU’s first effort helped inspire the launch of the ALU campaign last April, our campaign is inspiring Amazon workers across the country who are reaching out for guidance and support in how to begin organizing their warehouses. And just as the election victories of the workers organizing at Starbucks in Buffalo have ignited a nationwide movement with workers at more than fifty Starbucks stores already filing petitions for union elections in the span of a few months, our victories in Staten Island will help catalyze a worker power movement at Amazon that the bosses will not be able to stop.
Jeff Bezos, Earth’s Greatest Union-Buster, may be able to install his name on the auditorium of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C. with a paltry donation of roughly 1/100,000th of his net worth—less than one half of one percent of the cost of his new super-yacht, which he will force the city of Rotterdam to dismantle a historic bridge to sail out to sea—but that doesn’t matter to us now, because we have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the promised land. We fight with the certainty that we are on the right side of history, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and that we shall overcome.
It really shouldn’t be this hard in a supposed democracy—with a government agency established explicitly for the sake of “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining”— for workers to win the right just to hold an election, so that we can have an opportunity to vote our support for our labor union. But as a pair of political scientists from Princeton and Northwestern pointed out in an instantly famous study in 2014—and defended against critics in Jeff Bezos’s newspaper two years later—the United States is an undemocratic aristocracy where “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
The National Labor Relations Act was founded on the recognition of the crippling inequality between workers “who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract” and bosses who routinely deny “the right of employees to organize,” and was explicitly aimed at “restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” That obviously did not happen, and the law, which never offered such great labor protections to begin with, was repeatedly undermined by business interests in Congress (most notably through the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947), by the Supreme Court (as in Janus v. AFSCME in 2018), by presidents (most infamously when Ronald Reagan fired, blacklisted, and decertified the union of striking air traffic controllers in 1981) and by plainly corrupt, politically-appointed leaders of the NLRB itself (like Donald Trump’s appointee, NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb, a longtime anti-union crusader who served as one of Reagan’s litigators against the air traffic controllers).
Companies like Amazon routinely violate the NLRA knowing that the deck is stacked against workers who must file charges with the NLRB and spend significant time, effort, and resources—sometimes over many years—to see cases through to resolution, only for the company to face, at worst, a slap on the wrist, if it faces any punishment at all. The law is such a poor protection for workers that even institutions with aggressively anti-union management like The New York Times regularly repeat the common refrain that “Labor Law Is Broken.” The owners of the Times would know, because they helped break it.
There are reasons for optimism, though. Joe Biden, who has repeatedly said “I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history,” swiftly fired Peter Robb just minutes after he was sworn in as president, as Robb had made it clear that he would not resign from the agency he had dedicated himself to sabotaging. In quick succession, the new president nominated Jennifer Abruzzo, a former NLRB deputy general counsel who had resigned in the mass staff exodus under Robb and was serving as a union lawyer for the Communication Workers of America (CWA), to replace the recalcitrant Robb as general counsel (2/17/21), then he came out publicly in support of the Bessemer union election which Amazon aggressively (and illegally) opposed and undermined (2/28/21), then the House of Representatives passed a sweeping expansion of the NLRA called the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act (3/9/21), Congress passed a stimulus bill which included $86 billion to bail out failing union pension funds (3/10/21), the Department of Labor reversed two rules established under Biden’s predecessor which had limited federal protections for millions of workers (3/11/21), and the NLRB withdrew a proposed rule that would have denied college student workers legal protection to unionize (3/12/21).
After a party-line Senate confirmation in July, Jennifer Abruzzo started turning the NLRB in a whole new direction, beginning in August with a memo outlining over a dozen areas of NLRB policy she intended to reform, followed by several memos in September “seeking all available remedies to fully address unlawful conduct,” detailing a range of stronger remedies for workers that NLRB regional directors should pursue, and declaring college athletes to be employees, followed by another memo in November extending protections for immigrant workers. In January, the NLRB and Department of Labor issued a memo announcing a collaboration on investigations, especially into employer retaliation against workers and false classification of employees as independent contractors (two crimes that Amazon bosses love to commit). And just a few days ago, Abruzzo issued another memo directing staff lawyers to seek more federal court injunctions sooner to prevent employers from interfering with union organizing before they have a chance to significantly undermine union campaigns.
Meanwhile, on the ground, workers have been organizing with a level of enthusiasm, boldness, creativity, and solidarity that hasn’t been seen in the United States in decades, as #Striketober became #Strikesgiving, and then carried right on into the new year: “the year we see the beginnings of a new American labor movement.” We already see it: it has already begun. While the NLRA’s protections remain weak in the face of the enormity and audacity of corporate power, and the PRO Act has almost no chance to pass in the presently divided Senate millionaires’ club, we as worker-organizers are at least no longer swimming so furiously against the current of federal power. The (very narrow) aperture that this (hardly revolutionary) political administration has opened for workers will not be overlooked or underappreciated. We will claw and crawl and finally march our way right through it, and continue on beyond the barriers of corporate power that have confined us.
This is also what democracy looks like, for better or worse: ordinary people trapped within oppressive structures throw themselves against a wall over and over again for years, until the slightest cracks appear and the faintest rays of light shine through—and then we wedge our fingers into the cracks with all our might and fury and hope until we break the wall apart.
“Tear down this wall.”
Help Support Our Organizers In Need
If you believe in the justice of the ALU cause and the importance of mutual aid, perhaps you can contribute some funds to our worker organizers who have faced hardship and retaliation by Amazon management for their fearless organizing and still continue to struggle:
Any contributions at all are greatly appreciated! Thank you for your support and solidarity!
Until Next Week!
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