Lessons for Communists from the Amazon Unionization Struggle
Staten Island, New York is the scene of one of the most important victories for the proletariat in the past one hundred years. It is there that workers at the JFK8 warehouse have taken on and defeated the beast, Amazon, and won their union through grassroots struggle and organization. They received no help from the mainstream yellow unions, and have rejected political opportunists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stupidly raved about district boundaries as cause for her glaring lack of support, putting the lie yet again to her claim and DSA’s of being for the working class. The working class must be for itself, and must be a class for itself, meaning it must operate as a class as the bourgeoisie does, if it is to have any hope of snatching concessions and eventually seizing political power.
Unions are the primary struggle tools of the working class. The development of grassroots,worker-led and developed unions, is a good thing for the working class struggle, as they break from the yellow sellout unions and also test organizers in struggle. The President of ALU, Chris Smalls, comes directly from the shop floor, from which he was fired in a retaliatory fashion a year ago. He and his comrades have no formal union training in the ways of selling out, and this was a gain. The ALU is free to speak its mind and is beholden to no interests but those of the working class. This trend is a good one, and will undoubtedly continue, as the pragmatic and practical working class in the United States, particularly colonized proletarians, follow success, which ALU has now provided and demonstrated. This is why it is so important, they did what they said they would and provided a tangible result which has improved the lives of workers, and provided a model to follow. It was the conditions at the Amazon warehouses which ultimately led to the development and sharpening of this struggle, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic — Smalls was terminated from employment with Amazon for leading a demonstration outside the facility.
Communists need experience in the labor struggle on the shop floor. Particularly, with uniting workers around things of importance, and formulating lists of demands. An example of winnable demands that come from the masses comes from ALU:
1. Health and Safety: Amazon should immediately provide Associates who are injured at work with Paid Time Off for the remainder of the day.
Amazon often forces Associates to use their own PTO or UPT when they get injured, or will refer them to Workers Compensation, which is bureaucratic and confusing. Instead, Amazon should send workers home with pay so that they can properly heal.
2. Pay: Amazon should give a 7.5% inflation adjustment for all Tier 1–3 Associates.
We need an immediate wage raise to meet our expenses amid the rising cost of living.
3. Promotions: Amazon should expand Tier 2 to include all Critical Roles.
All PGs, Acting PAs, Water Spiders, Problem Solvers, Learning Ambassadors, and Amnesty/Robotics positions should be classified as Tier 2 and receive a $1.75/hour raise to account for the extra work, training, and skill required to perform these roles.
4. Overtime: Amazon should end the overtime cap on Part-Time and Flex Associates.
Amazon recently capped Part-Time and Flex Associates at 42 hours with no notice. We are calling on them to reverse this policy immediately.
5. Working Conditions: Amazon should reinstate 20-minute breaks.
Last October, Amazon abruptly cut our breaks by 5 minutes. We need that time back.
6. Transportation: Amazon should run a direct shuttle between the St. George Ferry terminal and Matrix Park.
The overcrowding on the S40 and S90 is dangerous and unsustainable. We don’t need more public buses, we need a private shuttle service for Amazon workers immediately.
7. Time: Amazon should count UPT in minutes instead of hours.
If workers are 7 minutes late to work, Amazon should take 7 minutes of UPT, not 1 hour.
8. Union-Busting: Amazon should allow ALU representatives into their anti-union “trainings” to explain our side.
Amazon will not allow ALU worker-organizers into their mandatory anti-union meetings. When ALU president Chris Smalls came onsite to give out food and answer questions, General Manager Felipe Santos had him and two of our coworkers arrested by the police.
The mass line method of organization and leadership requires three steps. First, going to the masses and collecting their ideas, second, taking the most advanced of their ideas and analyzing/concentrating them through the lens of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and then bringing them back to the masses/spreading them through demands, actions, etc. The Maoist/anti-revisionist movement in the imperialist metropole has the petite-bourgeois habit of engaging in ultra-left sectarianism which inhibits its ability to engage with, work in, and create organizations such as ALU. For example, RCP and WVO cadres working in Greensboro, North Carolina in the leadup to the 1979 Greensboro Massacre attempted to organize the textile mills. In lieu of working together as Communists for the benefit of the workers, and increasing workers’ interest in the Communist movement through principled and disciplined engagement, the rival cadres instead fought each other at the mills and at the gates, leading workers to think that both were lunatics unworthy of being followed. Meantime, the splintered fascist elements were uniting to deadly ends, as the world saw at the massacre. I recommend reading Kathleen Belew’s “Bringing the War Home” for more on this period. While unity for unity’s sake is erroneous, so too is sectarianism. For the benefit of the workers, tactical unity around concrete work is needed, as the workers demand it. This does not, of course, mean unity with documented and habitual enemies of workers, such AOC. With this being said, workers know who their enemies are, and leftists should get out of the habit of calling all who do not share their tendency as “enemies of the working class”, especially since the Left in the United States does not yet have its roots in the working class, but rather in the petite-bourgeois intelligentsia.
The ALU also was successful because of its tenacity in the face of repression. Note that this does not mean stupid “militancy” for militancy’s sake, but rather continuing to come back and building the base through struggle and building of bonds between workers in their off time as well as on the shop floor. Barbecues were common, with Smalls being a regular fixture, delivering food and making connections to fellow workers. The propaganda produced by the union was straightforward, not covered in stilted ideological language or Marxese, and provided tips on how to organize. This propaganda is educational, and persuasive, and Communists should take this to heart in making our own, especially for organizing purposes. If your propaganda is not being responded to or producing gains in terms of engagement, then it’s bad propaganda and needs to be popularized/transitioned into a thoroughly mass style, otherwise you’re simply wasting paper.
Finally, we should heed the admonitions of the old Comintern during its beneficial period. In Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of their Work, we are advised:
To achieve this the communists must take part in all the elementary struggles and movements of the working class and must fight for the workers’ cause in every conflict with the capitalists over hours, wages, working conditions, etc. In doing this the communists must become intimately involved in the concrete questions of working-class life; they must help the workers untangle these questions, call their attention to the most important abuses and help them formulate the demands directed at the capitalists precisely and practically; attempt to develop among the workers the sense of solidarity, awaken their consciousness to the common interests and the common cause of all workers of the country as a united working class constituting a section of the world army of the proletariat.
Only through such absolutely necessary day-to-day work, through continual self-sacrificing participation in all struggles of the proletariat, can the “Communist Party” develop into a communist party. Only thus will it distinguish itself from the obsolete socialist parties, which are merely propaganda and recruiting parties, whose activity consists only of collecting members, speechifying about reforms and exploiting parliamentary impossibilities. The purposeful and self-sacrificing participation of the entire party membership in the school of the daily struggles and conflicts of the exploited with the exploiters is the indispensable precondition not only for the conquest of power, but, to an even greater extent, for exercising the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only the leadership of the working masses in constant small-scale battles against the encroachments of capital will enable the communist parties to become vanguards of the working class-vanguards which in fact systematically learn to lead the proletariat and acquire the capacity for the consciously prepared ouster of the bourgeoisie.
24. Particularly in strikes, lockouts and other mass dismissals of workers, the communists must be mobilized in force to take part in the movement of the workers.
It is the greatest error for communists to invoke the communist program and the final armed revolutionary struggle as an excuse to passively look down on or even to oppose the present struggles of the workers for small improvements in their working conditions. No matter how small and modest the demands for which the workers are ready to fight the capitalists today, this must never be a reason for communists to abstain from the struggle. To be sure, in our agitational work we communists should not show ourselves to be blind instigators of stupid strikes and other reckless actions; rather, the communists everywhere must earn the reputation among the struggling workers as their ablest comrades in struggle.
25. In the trade-union movement, communist cells and fractions are in practice often quite at a loss when confronted with the simplest questions of the day. It is easy but fruitless to preach just the general principles of communism, only to fall into the negative stance of vulgar syndicalism when faced with concrete questions. This merely plays into the hands of the yellow Amsterdam leadership.
Instead, communists should determine their revolutionary position in accordance with the objective content of each question that arises. For example, instead of being content to oppose every wage agreement in theory and in principle, communists should above all fight directly against the actual content of the wage agreements advocated by the Amsterdam leaders. Since every shackle on the militancy of the proletariat is to be condemned and vigorously combatted, and it is well known that the aim of the capitalists and their Amsterdam accomplices is to use every wage agreement to tie the struggling workers’ hands, it is therefore obviously the duty of communists to expose this aim before the workers. But as a rule communists can best achieve this by advancing wage proposals which do not constitute a shackle on the workers.
This lesson remains. For Communists to build up and engage with organizations like ALU, we must develop principled engagement with each other, strengthen our discipline, and be really ready to serve the people in a wholehearted fashion, with the interests of the class, not a particular sect, in mind.