ALU Newsletter #17: Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
5/26/2022—final update from an outgoing ALU organizer
It gives me no pleasure to announce the end of this newsletter and my resignation from the Amazon Labor Union. (Does it still count as a resignation, if a secret interim executive board decided to expel me two weeks ago and simply hasn’t told anybody yet? I think so.) Anyway, let’s call it a departure: I am departing the ALU with a troubled heart, at a troubled time.
It has been a while since I published the last ALU newsletter, and so much has happened that I wanted to write about. But again, so much has happened that I barely had time to write about it. Twice I nearly finished newsletters—with article links and everything—only to be swept up in the whirlwind of events until those newsletters became too outdated to publish.
So, the past two months, in brief:
After winning our first election at JFK8, we waged a spirited campaign at LDJ5 against a vastly redoubled Amazon strike force of corporate terrorism, and we showed all of our coworkers in the building the power and joy of solidarity.
We activated nearly four hundred union advocates in the election and built an incredible new team of worker organizers who are going to rock the labor movement for many years to come.
We forged stronger networks of coalition solidarity—with our union comrades in Teamsters Local 804 and Laborers Local 108, with activists in groups like Socialist Alternative and Left Voice, with fellow Amazon workers in Amazonians United, as well as with Amazon workers who traveled to Staten Island from across the country, who have continued to organize their coworkers back at their own warehouses.
We strategized with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about how we might make anything good happen in the U.S. Congress (a nearly impossible task, they assured us), and we hosted an awesome rally in Staten Island, with the whole NYC radical labor movement, featuring comrades like Sara Nelson of AFA-CWA and Evangeline Byars of TWU Local 100.
And as May began, we celebrated international labor solidarity, by marching, dancing, and making music in Manhattan, from Union Square to Washington Square to Foley Square.
Then the Empire began to strike back again. In short order, Amazon fired me and then my ALU comrade Tristan Lion, just as it also fired several vocal ALU supporters, including Alicia Johnson, James O’Donnell, and Gabby Rivera. Amazon even fired many senior managers at JFK8. More and more comrades at other Amazon warehouses, as well other companies such as Starbucks, became the targets of retaliatory firing.
I worked closely with my fired ALU comrades—with Tristan, Alicia, James, Gabby, Jackie, and others—to make sure we were all supported and ready to fight back, setting up GoFundMe pages for those who wanted them, promoting them on the website and Twitter, securing legal representation to file Unfair Labor Practice charges of retaliation, connecting them with reporters to tell their stories. Tristan and I raised $1,500 for our fired coworkers from our comrades in Teamsters Local 804. With the ALU organizing committee, we began to plan a coalition rally to demand an end to unjust firings and retaliation against organizers, and an immediate end to union busting and recognition of the ALU’s JFK8 election victory.
But something strange happened. Core members of the ALU organizing committee, particularly Chris Smalls, Connor Spence, Cassio Mendoza, Brett Daniels, and Angelika Maldonado, began to object to every act of solidarity work—often only after the fact—and then began to gather these into infractions of secret rules I never knew. It was perfectly Amazonian. I openly disagreed with some of the new and obscure diktats, I complied with some demands with contrition, and like a good organizer, I documented everything, just as I was doing in my ULP struggle against Amazon management over my retaliatory termination.
They opposed the GoFundMe pages for our fired coworkers, and they tried to ban my tweets about Amazon retaliation which promoted the fundraisers. They complained about the interview that Tristan and I conducted about Amazon’s retaliation on Democracy Now! and they insisted that all press requests for fired workers be submitted to a Slack channel to which nobody responded. They complained about our visit to the Teamsters meeting, and forbade any such visits in the future. They insisted that Tristan not wear ALU shirts to any events, and that I not post on my Twitter account for DYY6 at all. They locked me out of the ALU email account, to which I had only recently gained access and had been staying up long nights sorting through, reading many hundreds of unread emails and trying to organize, catalogue in spreadsheets, forward, and respond to them after months of neglect. They insisted that any union-related activity we wanted to participate in first be submitted to executive board oversight—and swift rejection. They complained bitterly about the first coalition rally meeting that the team organized, and finally they canceled the rally, not only on false pretenses but on incoherent ones.
At the same time, this small group accelerated a secret consolidation of power—albeit a minuscule amount of interim power over an uncertified and uncertain union. They began revising the constitution and bylaws in secret with new attorneys, and rebuffing any inquiries from other organizing committee members with aggressive appeals to “privileged information.” Chris began to speak of a “chain of command and code of conduct” which he planned to institute for all ALU organizers, on punishment of expulsion—and although this code, also hazily referred to as a contract, has yet to materialize, I was accused of violating it. Chris quietly rearranged the deck chairs on the interim executive board, expelling Madeline Wesley from the board as treasurer, shifting Connor down to fill in her place, demoting Derrick Smalls to chair of the JFK8 workers committee, bumping Angelika up to vice president, installing Michelle Valentin Nieves as secretary. At this same meeting, apparently, Chris also announced that I was expelled, and the interim board members agreed.
I expected to receive the news of my expulsion right away—in fact, I had been expecting it before the decision was made—but it did not come. To date, two weeks later, none of these board moves has been announced to the whole organizing committee, let alone the general membership—I could only definitively confirm some elements when Michelle announced to Twitter that she was the ALU secretary, and Angelika announced to Amazon shareholders that she was the ALU vice president. Nobody in this inner circle has been willing to confirm even these facts, although some have inadvertently revealed more than they might have wanted to.
I was surprised at how much time this commitment to secrecy managed to buy me. It turned out that one of the ALU projects I had built and maintained alone—the online shop—was an attractive union revenue generator that this group wished to quietly extricate from me before they kicked me out the door. My surmise was that this shop was the only thing forestalling my imminent expulsion, and so I kept my head down and waited for them to make their intentions explicit. And I began my final conversations with ALU comrades as a fellow member, before my second unceremonious expulsion from an Amazon job (this one unpaid) in as many weeks. I also contracted COVID-19 again, so I’ve spent the past week in quarantine in my bedroom.
I managed to have a lot of great conversations with ALU colleagues and allies during my two-week stay of execution. Incisive and generative talks about democracy, transparency, communication, trust, consensus, leadership, solidarity—in short, some of my favorite things to discuss. These talks were not always comfortable, given the circumstances, but they were enlightening, and often heartening. Although I find this ignominious exit frustrating, and this impulsive turn away from democracy troubling, I know that there are plenty of ALU comrades full of hope, commitment, creativity, and compassion who also oppose the current secrecy and antidemocratic subversion that has become the unfortunate modus operandi of the union. I still hold out hope that democracy will ultimately prevail over the reactionary impulses of a few overwhelmed organizers, and that the ALU will continue to serve as an inspiration to the working class and not as a cautionary tale. As a lifelong teacher and student, I always maintain faith in our human capacity to learn from our mistakes and to grow stronger from our failures.
I remember talking to Chris early in my time in the ALU about our mutual appreciation for the most ironic of the Amazon leadership principles, “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit,” which is painted on the walls of warehouses across the United States. “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” the principle explains. “Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.” Chris said that this had always been his favorite Amazon leadership principle. Before I even received an ALU t-shirt, I bought a long-sleeve shirt with this principle printed on it, and designed a flyer about it for the union. “We can all be leaders, when we unite together,” the flyer concluded. I have tried to stand up for this principle both at Amazon and within the ALU, and I have encouraged others to do so as well, even when doing so has been uncomfortable or exhausting. Effective union organizing needs many leaders. Democracy requires respectful debate. While consensus is essential, ethical compromise is not. It is easy to champion this principle against the absolute tyranny of Amazon management, but it is far more challenging to embrace a commitment to open and respectful discussion of disagreements while engaged with comrades in high-stakes organizing. I hope that the culture of the Amazon Labor Union will progress and improve in this regard.
Nevertheless, while writing this newsletter this evening, I’ve noticed that my access to the ALU Slack has been revoked, and that the entire website that I built for the ALU—on which the online shop operated—has been taken down, and so far replaced with nothing. So, while it still has not been announced to me, it appears that today was bound to be my last day as an ALU organizer, even if I weren’t already in the process of publishing my resignation. This is also perfectly Amazonian—I learned I was fired by Amazon after being locked out of A to Z.
There will be many trying days ahead for the Amazon Labor Union. ALU organizers will soon have to fly out to Phoenix just to fend off Amazon’s 25 legal objections to the JFK8 election, in the pitched battle for NLRB certification. Then comes a long contract campaign, on top of so much fundamental organizing work still to do. Meanwhile, Amazon will continue installing even more authoritarian quislings as managers, and imposing even more draconian workforce policies to oppress and terminate our coworkers, and retaliating even more ruthlessly against organizers and activists, and the infamous 150% annual workforce churn will be accelerated.
Amidst all of this, ALU organizers will have to learn, above all, how to communicate more effectively, organize more collaboratively, and build a functioning workplace democracy together that includes, unites, and empowers as many workers as possible. Future contract success will depend on the success of this democratic project, which is in itself a goal.
Clearly, on some critical level, I myself failed to effectively communicate and collaborate—or I would not find myself in my current predicament. I will continue to reflect on this experience as a learning opportunity for some time. I am proud to have contributed what I could to this democratic project in my eight months at Amazon, and I am sad that I cannot contribute more as an active ALU member. But I am not turning my back on this cause either. I will continue organizing and building solidarity in the working class, and I will continue to support my ALU comrades as best as I can, even the ones who made the misguided decision to secretly expel me. Ultimately, we will build a united force strong enough to overcome our capitalist overlords and their murderous and divisive plots and schemes. I will always believe in this.
Hasta la victoria siempre.