“Amazon is the epoch-defining corporation of the moment in a way that Walmart was two decades ago,” said Howard W, an Amazon warehouse worker and organizer with Amazonians United, a grassroots movement of Amazon workers building shop-floor power. What can organizers at Amazon learn from the Walmart campaigns in the 2000s? And what can these two efforts teach us about organizing at scale? Unions haven’t successfully organized an employer with more than 10,000 workers in decades, so getting to scale is one of the most pressing challenges for the social justice movements.
To explore these questions, Howard was joined by Wade Rathke, who, as chief organizer of ACORN in the U.S. from 1970 – 2008, anchored a collaboration among ACORN, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) that aimed to organize Walmart. Since 1980, Rathke has also served as Head Organizer for Local 100 of the United Labor Union, which represents service workers in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Organizing Upgrade Executive Editor Alex Han facilitated the conversation, with participation from International Longshore and Warehouse Union Organizing Director Emeritus Peter Olney. The 90-minute conversation ranged from the philosophical to the granular. We’re bringing it to you in three parts. Part 1 focused on worker organizing, Part 2 on relations with existing unions. Here we look at building broader community campaigns.
Part 3: Engaging the community, building a movement
Alex: I’m actually really struck, Howard, in hearing you lay this out after Wade’s talking about his history and some of that Walmart work. I’m a little bit more struck in a deeper connection to the kind of community organizing that ACORN and a host of other organizations do, working in neighborhoods, working in different locations to build power sometimes in a symmetrical way, sometimes in an asymmetrical way. I’m just really struck by some of those parallels.
We have two employers that were the primary employer in a lot of places. I think of Amazon right now as the default employer like in my neighborhood, in Humboldt Park on the West Side of Chicago. Amazon is a default employer and they’re building a distribution facility about a mile from my house, which will strengthen that. So I just wanted to ask the two of you what you think are keys to building community support around Amazon workers, and how do we link some common interest there?
Wade: The community support was directly aligned to their ability to see their workers leading that fight. And without it, I mean, we just couldn’t make much happen.
We did geo-targeting that we learned from some folks at Gainesville at the University of Florida. We would guess where big box operators wanted to go, and every week we would have a researcher calling all the Planning Departments in those 21 counties to see if there was any activity on those corners so that we could then come up with a preemptive strike against their expansion. In that way, we were able to stop 32 straight stores from being built. Now sometimes they were putting them in wetlands and sometimes—I mean, you know, they were pretty greasy about the whole thing. They were in a hurry but so is Amazon in a hurry.
It was an open campaign compared to Amazonians United. As I said, we surfaced the leaders early. They were able then to be involved publicly in the site fights and in the public hearings with city councils, planning commissions and allies about why we needed them to put the arm on Walmart to give us more protection and authority in the workplace.
More locations, more opportunity
If Amazon keeps going the way it goes, in five years probably, 10 certainly, you’re going to have an Amazon location in virtually every community in the country of any size. To get that same-day delivery or next-day delivery, there are just going to be so many locations, and that could be a way to look at a different geographical plan.
Looking at geography allows you to get more density where you have active committees or people who are coming together, and to then build a bridge to real community support, which I think is very possible to move at this point. Amazon has not had good press the last couple of years. There’s a reason Bezos is trying to go to the moon, I think. At the point we were organizing Walmart, Walmart was public enemy number one on the corporate side, and they look good now compared to Amazon. Who would’ve believed that was possible? But yeah, I would try to narrow the focus in order to get more pressure on them. I think it’s hard for a fly to be noticed by the elephant.
Howard: We are aware of the need to also build strength geographically as well. As they try to build out this next-day delivery, same-day delivery promise, they have to locate in the major metropolitan areas, right? They cannot run away there. They have to then concentrate in that way, and their network becomes shaped by the ways that people live, because they are a retailer. So that’s the next horizon that we have to be looking at, and that we are looking at and figuring out how to work on. How do you build that strength on a metro scale to be working as Amazon workers, you know, in New York City or in Chicago and not just in DBK1 or DCH1, which are the codes for the warehouses.
The scale is difficult, and it is something that we think of a lot. What we’ve managed to do so far is very exciting. The power that we’ve been able to build, particularly in a company that a lot of people say is an impossible place to organize at, is very encouraging. But then every now and again you step back and you realize the true scale of Amazon and you think okay, this is a good start, and it’s going to have to pick up and it’s going to have to expand. We are going to need to find allies, we’re going to have to find ways to reach more people, to bring in more folks in order to transform this company that has such sway over so much of our lives.
How can people become the movement?
But there’s another thing that we think about, which is that in the epic struggle between labor and capital, the whole point is that one of the sides has the money and the other side has the people. One of the things that we think about is that if we’re going to make really big, epochal change in this world, not just for workers at Amazon, but for the whole working class, for working people in the U.S. and around the world, Amazon is a huge chunk of that. And right now, it is a chunk that has incredible power and incredible reach and incredible stature, right?
And I think that’s what makes it a particularly important place to make change. But if we’re going to make those sorts of big changes, we have to figure out how ordinary people and extraordinary people are going to make time in their lives and become that movement and become the organizers and pull themselves together. And that is something that drives us fundamentally: thinking of this as building a movement.
If you’d like to learn more about Amazonians United, check out their website at
amazoniansunited.org/. If you’re interested in joining the movement inside Amazon, you can submit an inquiry here: https://airtable.com/shr5Bq5sTeMweqJ7f.
This dialogue is a joint project of OrgUp and The Stansbury Forum.
Thanks to Peggy James for the transcription.