“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. Here in Part 2 we turn to relations with existing unions. Part 3 will look at building broader community campaigns.
Part 2: Acting like a union—with or without one?
Alex: Can you talk about the responses from Amazon and Walmart—not just how they responded to you on the issues, but whether they responded with efforts to blunt the organizing?
Howard: A lot of people working today don’t have an experience of being in a union, and even if they do, they don’t necessarily have an experience of taking collective action and changing their circumstances. And so I think that the biggest effect for Amazon workers of the work that we are doing is beginning to write new stories that we can tell each other.
I know that when I started organizing at my warehouse, it was absolutely invaluable to have stories from New York and Chicago and Sacramento, so that as things came up in the warehouse, issues that people complained about, that people felt bad about but that people often felt hopeless about, I could say, ‘Hey, you know what, this really grinds my gears too. But you know, I heard about these folks at this other warehouse…’ and begin to get those stories circulating and people beginning to think, ‘Okay, we can do something. There’s something I can do besides either quit or try to by force of will pressure my boss to treat me better than everybody else.’ And I think that’s something that we’re building and we’re building and we’re building.
A lot of what we’ve done is these warehouse-by-warehouse fights, and there’s been a lot of them with a lot of victories, often very local victories. But one of our campaigns was actually for paid time off, which Amazon had been denying to all of its part-time workers. For a long time, all of its delivery station workers, who are the folks who load the vans, do the final sort, were all part-time workers. So, no healthcare. Just enough hours to not get healthcare, right? And their own policy said that folks in those situations should get paid time off, but they weren’t offering the paid time off.
Folks in Sacramento noticed that in a campaign to get a couple of their coworkers reinstated from an unjust firing—”Where’s our paid time off?” Up until that point, Amazon had been offering only the incredible benefit of unpaid time off, a certain number of hours that you were allowed to not come to work without getting paid but not getting fired.
Sacramento started that campaign. They had petitions and a button that everybody was wearing, and they marched on the boss. Chicago picked it up, then New York. Folks in other warehouses in the Philly area got wind of this and began pressuring their management about it. Pretty soon after that, Amazon came out and announced that it was going to extend paid time off to all of its part-time workers.
Management caught flat-footed
Alex: Wow. And so that was a decision that reverberated nationally?
Howard: Yeah. Thousands and thousands of workers were suddenly granted paid time off. And—how have we seen Amazon respond? They are still to this day, three years later, quick to meet demands that are brought on a local level, and I think managers are still regularly being caught completely flat-footed.
We look at how Amazon has responded to us and how Amazon responded to the RWDSU [Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union] drive in Bessemer, Alabama. Folks in the labor movement sometimes complain that it seems like the labor movement has become hidebound, sclerotic or sort of stuck in a rut. But I think if that’s the case, it’s probably the case that unionbusting has gotten hidebound and sclerotic and stuck in a rut. And I think that when Amazon heard that there was a union filing for an election, they called up the anti-union people and said, “Yes, we’d like one anti-union campaign, please, whatever it costs.” And they showed up and did it.
But when workers come together and assert their fundamental strength as the people who run the place, I don’t think they have anyone to call, and I think they still don’t really know what to do about that when they can’t run the third-party thing. They can’t point to all the cars that we’re paying for or whatever, ’cause we’re not.
We have seen some retaliation by them. Some of our folks that they’ve fingered I think as workplace leaders, they’ve interrogated them, they’ve pressured them. We’ve seen times when management has tried various things to divide folks in the warehouse. So far all of those times, through organizing and our solidarity with each other and then sometimes through using the unfair labor practice mechanism with the National Labor Relations Board, we’ve been able to resist it every time.
Wade: The truth is we never filed a single 8(a)1 or 8(a)3 [charge of violations of these sections of the National Labor Relations Act] throughout the whole campaign over three or four years because in fact, after all the months of them dealing directly with the workers, once they realized we weren’t filing for an election—I mean, it’s your point exactly about there’s one playbook they’re working with, just like there’s one traditional union playbook now.
So when they figured out we weren’t filing for an election, they would bend very quickly. We were able to win reinstatements, some wage differences, changes in schedules, largely because they got themselves caught in their own lies.
We knew they were doing the scheduling out of computers in Bentonville Arkansas, but they wanted to pretend that the local managers were. So when we’d have a schedule thing, we walked in with five, 10, 20 people and there’d be people on the outside as well, and they wouldn’t touch us. And it was easier for them to let us win because they still had us within a store. They knew they didn’t have an election coming. They wanted us to get tired or maybe they understood more about the institutional labor movement than I did, so they knew they could outwait us, as essentially and they did.
What role for existing unions?
Peter: There’s the question of these major working-class institutions that we still have like the Teamsters Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), who, in the case of the Teamsters, really do see Amazon as an existential threat. Every day their trucks from UPS are being blocked by Amazon trucks on every urban causeway in America. The question becomes how we envision a collaboration between our trade unions and some of their skills, their resources, and this kind of brilliant bottom-up organizing that the Amazonians United network is doing. I really think it’s a confluence of the two which is going to bring us home.
I am choosing to devote my energy and efforts towards supporting AU in their work because I think no matter what union gets involved, no union’s going to be successful without a strong base in the warehouses and the work that Howard and his people do. So I’m interested in Howard and Wade reflecting on that dynamic, because I know it’s a political tension too. Some of our AU folks are not particularly interested in connecting with what they call business unions, and I’m very respectful of that position and I believe in working with those folks and engaging in comradely discussion about how we go forward. But I’m really interested in both Wade, with his 40-something-plus years of experience dealing with these institutions but with his fundamental orientation, and Howard, too, because I know Howard is also challenged by the same question.
Wade: I don’t have a good story. I went to brother Hansen, Joe Hansen, the head of UFCW, and I said, “Look, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is a thousand people have signed up in a little over six months. The response has been great. There’s some level of organization in 32 stores, but we have gone as far as we can expanding the list and you have to decide. I think this could work if you were willing to make a commitment to get up to a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand members on this kind of strategy and to spend some money to do it.”
And his response was pretty much, “Wade, you’ve done a good job. Really interesting what you’ve done,” and that was the last time he signed a check for the campaign.
So the problem of jurisdiction and the problem of institutional union politics is very difficult to navigate.
I try to read between the lines of what the Teamsters’ organizing director is saying, and I’m not encouraged that they’re ready to do what really needs to be done, like reaching out to Amazonians United, finding out where your network is, identifying an area and really writing the checks and saying, “We’re here for 10, 15, 20 years.” I tried to see how small you could make the unit, what was the real fulfillment warehouse unit as opposed to the drivers, as opposed to—and even so, you’re talking about 100,00, 200,000 workers, and we haven’t organized in the labor movement any employer with even 10,000 workers since I’ve been an organizer for labor unions. I mean, I’m ashamed to say that, but it’s just true.
Now in the public sector, yes, home care, we’ve got some successes, but not with a private sector company like an Amazon or anybody else that’s come forward over the last number of years. And damned if we learn anything. But I agree, Peter, we’ve got to somehow, before unions bankrupt themselves, we’ve got to find somebody who’s willing to actually organize some people, and I just don’t know right today who that is.
Howard: It’s a complicated situation and there is a diversity of opinion within the Amazonians United network about how we should relate to the existing unions, what they have to offer, what we risk getting more involved with them. Wade, your experience with Walmart in Florida is something that is very heavily on our minds. And I think the easiest thing to point to when looking at the existing unions is oh, they’ve got staff, right? But there is a worry about becoming dependent upon somebody else’s money and somebody else’s resources. And there’s wanting to build not just something that is independent in a way that it can be really democratic and of, by, and for Amazon workers, but also something that is sustainable and not driven by the other concerns that whatever union that might want to throw their support behind us might have.
These are questions that we are all wrestling with and experimenting with as we speak, trying to figure out first and foremost what strength we can build, and who will join the struggle with us, but also what sort of allies can be brought into this work. You know, be they a labor movement, be they community institutions, be they whatever it might be. And I think for me, that’s something that I’ve found really intriguing and inspiring about reading your piece about this Florida campaign. There are such obvious parallels between Walmart in the early oughts, and Amazon now and trying to think through that question of—you know, we’re working on building up our power as workers, so what does it look like as workers to be reaching out and working with community institutions? What does it look like to be reaching out and working with labor unions? What does it look like to be building those linkages and not just with each of us pursuing our own little agendas, but how do we really become part of this organized fight that can become as organized as Amazon is?
A lot of people, when they look at Amazon and they see the size and they see the scope and they see the tentacles everywhere, they say it’s so huge it can never be done. But we also know that those tentacles mean there’s a lot of surface area. It means that there are a lot of people impacted and there are a lot of potential people who can come into this fight. Amazon is very well organized around this. How can we gather all of the people that are impacted by Amazon and get as organized as them in order to be able to bring some democracy to this economy, and be able to figure out how we want this institution to be running the world?
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.