Analysis. Workers celebrate a historic union victory at Amazon's Staten Island plant in New York. For the first time, employees of the Seattle giant (America's second largest private employer) will have their own representatives.

Amazon’s imperial advance faces its first resistance: a grassroots union

“Congratulations to @amazonlabor in Staten Island for their historic organizing victory. They took on one of the most powerful corporations in America, and showed that workers are sick and tired of being exploited while corporate profits soar,” wrote Bernie Sanders on Twitter, his message emphasizing the historical importance of the election that resulted in workers choosing to create the first Amazon union by 2,654 votes to 2,131.

This is an outcome that Jeff Bezos had tried to prevent by spending $4.3 million on consultants and relentless propaganda to push the oft-repeated message that at Amazon they don’t need “unions standing between us and our workers.” This notion was soundly rejected by the company’s workers, who broke through the barriers that the mega retailer had tried to put up.

The Amazon “fulfillment center” on Staten Island is called “JFK 8” and actually consists of three enormous warehouses (next to the adjacent IKEA warehouse). At this logistics complex, at the western end of New York’s least cosmopolitan and most working-class borough, 7,000 employees work for America’s second largest employer.

Here, workers arrive from every other borough in the city to work continuous shifts of 1,200 to 1,500 workers at a time, 24 hours a day. “On the ferry that connects the island to Manhattan,” Angelika Maldonado, a worker engaged in the struggle to organize an Amazon workers’ union, tells us, “you can recognize them by the badges around their necks and the clear bags” – which are used to speed up the checks that all workers going out of the facility are subjected to.

Speed and efficiency are gospel for the Seattle-based giant that today employs 1.1 million workers in the U.S. and approximately another 400,000 in the distribution warehouses that have sprouted up like mushrooms in many cities around the world. To ensure the increasingly ambitious timelines of near-instantaneous delivery for Prime customers, the company is a leader in robotic systems to automate warehousing and distribution operations as much as possible (in 2012, the company purchased robot manufacturer Kiva Systems and put 200,000 robots into operation in its centers). The plan is to eliminate the imperfection of the human element as much as possible through robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence – machines such as “carton wrap” packers that can pack 600-700 packages per hour with five times the efficiency of humans.

For the moment, however, workers are still a necessary part of the machinery, albeit seen as a weak link.

Last June, a report compiled by the strategic organizing center funded by a coalition of unions found an incidence of injuries among Amazon employees that was 80% higher than for the competitors, after leaked rumors of drivers being forced to relieve themselves in plastic bottles in order to meet delivery schedules.

“I’m a first-level packer,” Maldonado, a 27-year-old JFK 8 worker, tells us. “The department heads are always hovering around us – ‘come on, let’s meet the quota’ – then they disappear and we have to work our butts off.” Angelika, who has a four-year-old son and has worked at Amazon for two years, confirms that missing the efficiency quota that was set results in a warning. On the third warning, a worker is automatically fired.

There is no way to contest firings, precisely because the company is strictly against collective representation for its workers.

With its enormous workforce, Amazon is at the forefront not only in automation, but also in systemic precariousness.

Amazon’s centers, models of efficiency in fulfilling orders and “the expectations of modern consumers,” are also symbolic of the lumpenproletariat labor behind much of the digital supply chain, infused by the militant neoliberalism that prevails in Silicon Valley. Accordingly, the company became a prime target for union organizers, who received a boost from the pandemic period and the recognition of “essential work,” organizing struggles and labor disputes in many industries and businesses.

In January 2001, 400 Google workers announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union; a few months later, the first unionization of a Starbucks store in Buffalo was announced. And last year, the unionization effort at the Amazon center in Bessemer, Alabama (another 6,000-worker behemoth, 70 percent of them African-American) got a lot of attention.

In Staten Island, the mobilization began in 2020, when a surge of Covid contagions was reported at many Amazon facilities. In the face of management’s refusal to provide safety measures, an initial strike was organized, led by Chris Smalls, a JFK8 worker who was immediately fired. Smalls continued to try to organize his co-workers from the outside, setting up a booth to collect signatures in front of the plant, resulting in great irritation on the part of the company, which went so far as to have him arrested for setting foot in the company parking lot.

On the inside, however, the workers’ committee grew and managed to collect the necessary signatures (30%) to force a final vote this week.

“It wasn’t easy to get those signatures,” says Cassio Mendoza, 23, part of the committee. “There’s crazy turnover, 150 workers leave every week. There are all kinds here: young people, old people, former professors, ex-convicts, whites, mostly blacks and Hispanics. In any case, all of us are poor.” It’s a picture that pretty much all Amazon centers have in common, which are based on vast pools of “flexible” workers.

In Alabama, Amazon managed to defeat the effort to unionize by engaging in a ruthless counteroffensive based on mandatory “information sessions” to dissuade workers, text messages sent to employees and a general campaign of intimidation, including upgrading video surveillance systems to discourage discussions among workers.

The vote was ultimately two-thirds against forming the union, but the NLRB, a federal watchdog body, deemed the company’s tactics unlawful and ordered a second vote, which was held last week. This time, the initial count showed 993 “No” and 875 “Yes” votes, but with 400 challenged ballots that will need to be verified in the coming weeks.

As Mendoza confirms, at JFK8 the anti-union campaign was just as ruthless. “They forced us into those anti-union sessions, they put up enormous billboards everywhere to convince us that the union just wants our money – they hammered us with that.” “They did everything to sow fear and confusion among the workers,” Maldonado adds, “including cutting overtime for us, the organizers.”

The company tried everything, but it was not enough to prevent the workers’ victory, who, with their union, have managed to breach the Amazon fortress of efficiency for the first time.

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