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Is it Possible to Build a Union at Amazon?

03-Jun-2019A Worker

The worker prefers not to be named here, but the Editorial Board knows their identity.

Seattle, Washington, the original headquarters of Amazon, is the biggest company town in the US. I work in an Amazon warehouse just outside, where the built-for-the-rich city might as well be a hundred miles away. Our shifts are a series of orders disguised as smarmy pep talks, degrading comments from lower management, and sneaking friendly conversations between tall carts filled with packages bound for someone’s home by 8pm.

My coworkers work two jobs for the most part: as electricians, pharmacy assistants, drivers, janitors, and on top of that, as single moms. Most speak multiple languages, including English, but regardless are spoken to as if they are stupid.

One afternoon, my coworkers and I stayed late to help with a big delivery that needed to be sorted. (This means taking thousands of packages off a truck, scanning them, and sorting them onto carts to be delivered by drivers.) While we sweated and tripped over each other, arms criss-crossing to reach the packages before they were conveyed away, one of our managers stood behind us, arms crossed, and asked if we could go faster, while the other stared at the numbers flashing on the laptop screen.

One of my coworkers, Renee*, and her two daughters, are forced to live with Renee’s abusive ex-husband because the cost of moving and rent is just not doable on the $300 per week we make as seasonal associates. Renee tries every day to pick up extra hours in order to save up for a security deposit, but at least a couple days a week we are “VTOed”—sent home without pay because it’s a slow day. VTO is “Voluntary Time Off.” VTO is a revision of the MTO, “Mandatory Time Off” policy, which got Amazon some bad press. But VTO is hardly voluntary. If we refuse to accept VTO, we are warned that if we are caught standing around, we will be written up. But if there is no work to be done, what can we do? We are forced to accept it. But losing a shift on a wage of $300 per week means another week of coming in with bruises for Renee, or not enough money to afford a bedframe for her son Hani*, who currently sleeps on a mattress on the floor while her young kids tuck in on the sofa.

My coworkers are not okay with our wages or our treatment, but the idea of anything changing seems very far away. Yet, a few weeks ago we took a small step for ourselves. Feeling we could actually do something for Renee, we organized a multicultural holiday potluck in the breakroom. We had sombosas, ceviche, brisket, cupcakes, and most importantly, an illicit fundraiser. Between 40 workers, we raised over $700—enough for Renee’s security deposit on a room out of reach from her abusive ex. It wasn’t a union, but it was solidarity—grappling with injustice and investing in a future together. It was building relationships and power, and the possibility of change.

Organizing at Amazon

The challenges acting against organizing a union at Amazon warehouses are real. The Fulfillment Centers are too big; conversations are difficult to have. Back-breaking work means that most people try to move on to a better job as soon as they can. Seasonal work means that most don’t even have the choice. Even if one warehouse were to organize a union, Amazon has built-in redundancy between warehouses that makes no single location critical. More than anything, workers, not just at Amazon, but everywhere, have gotten used to bad conditions and the idea that nothing changes.

That’s why it is so inspiring to see that this year on Black Friday, thousands of Amazon workers in Spain, the UK, Poland, and Germany went on strike. These weren’t mass strikes, but the world took notice.

Following this, a group of workers in Minnesota, mainly Somali-American, forced Amazon’s executives to the negotiating table—the first time this has ever been accomplished. They held small protests about being overworked and not having adequate religious accommodations.

Even when Amazon offered them small concessions, they recognized that they were united and strong enough to make Amazon really listen to their needs. By escalating their tactics, they won a dedicated prayer space and lighter workloads during Ramadan.

Following that, workers in a New York warehouse announced their intentions to form a union. These actions weren’t just confined to Amazon and warehouses, but were part of a global revolt against working conditions at tech giants. Last fall, thousands of Google employees around the world walked out of their jobs in protest of Google’s policies on sexual harassment.

My coworkers and I recognize the injustice of earning barely enough to live on while we help make billions for the company, but now we need to convince each other that we can change this if we take collective action. Unfortunately, most of the people I work with would rather look for better jobs than fight to change the ones we have, because workplace struggle is almost unheard of, not just at Amazon, but in almost every jobsite in the US.

Building a union at Amazon would not only achieve better conditions for me and my coworkers, but would challenge the seeming futility and unending instability which have settled into working-class consciousness.

Nor will organizing a union at Amazon be sufficient. The decline of unions across the US over the last 40 years shows that the capitalist class—those making billions simply by owning majority shares of a company—has the power and the will to chip away at all that we fight for and win collectively.

The power of unions isn’t just in an individual workplace or one industry, but in the consciousness it raises in the working class—that we are perfectly capable of making democratic decisions that affect not only us as individuals, but society as a whole. If working people are to roll back the unfathomable inequality and environmental destruction created by capitalism, it will be worker power against the billionaire class.

To build this collective power, workers will need to start in breakrooms across the US, discussing what could be different and how, over homemade food. From there we can build warehouse committees and take action across facilities, cities, and even countries. The confidence we gain, the victories we win, the expectations we raise—those are the union we will build at Amazon.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of these workers.