Amazon: There Has to be a Better Way – Part I

Amazon Community Organizing Labor Organizing Tech

Pearl River: Thanks to the Stansbury Forum, a website for labor organizers and activists, for asking me to do this long post for them on other ways of looking at organizing Amazon.  This is Part I of four Parts.

Amazon?  There Has to be a Better Way

Amazon, we have a problem!  Jeff Bezos may be going to the moon soon, but down here on terra firma unions are trying to organize and protect Amazon workers, and we seem to be the ones lost in space.  

This is an old problem, not a new one, but somehow, we continue to try the same things over and over again, no matter how poorly they are working.  This new problem may be Amazon, since they have now grown to more than one million workers and rising globally.  In the USA, Amazon is the second largest private sector employer behind Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart is a prime example of the old problem.  The old problem, simply put, is that unions have not successfully organized a single mass employer with more than 100,000 workers in the US in the last fifty years.  Or, 50,000 workers.  Or, 30,000 workers. Think about any of the tech conglomerates.  Think about any of the massive fast-food chains from McDonalds or Starbucks on down.  Think about the fact that all of the business successes of our generation have not been labor successes.

I’m not saying that our generation of labor organizers have been nothing but losers.  We have won some individual campaigns with some huge employers, but not many, and certainly not enough, as the union density in the private sector continues to plummet towards 5%.  

We have also had some significant successes.  The home care industry, for example, where density is estimated at more than 25% of the workforce and constitutes more than a half-million members in the giant Service Employees International Union alone.  We have also done well in the home daycare industry in many areas.

There are a host of reasons for our failures.  Labor law has steadily become more regressive, favoring employers in a quasi-legalistic environment that what is left of our political leverage seems unable to impact.  State legislators have continued to advance so-called right-to-work provisions for both public and private sector workers.  Courts at every level have eroded our strength.  Those are the facts, but not to make excuses, we have also stepped on our own feet, crippling our progress and opportunity with curious positions on jurisdiction, insufficient solidarity, inadequate democracy, strange political alliances, and uneven attention and resources devoted to new organizing, membership maintenance, and rank-and-file actions.

We have also continued to practice organizing models that are not designed to organize the emerging monopolies and mass employment enterprises of these times.  NLRA-based organizing models have fallen – or been pushed, depending on your perspective – to almost record lows in terms of number of elections filed.  When filed, for decades success has been in units with less than 50 workers, hardly a mass organization strategy.  Substituting leverage-based organizing models held promise, but depended on targets where a confluence of factors was present:  some level of unionization in key places in the industry; favorable local market conditions; and a reservoir of public and political strength to create additional pressure.  Where all the stars did not align in this universe, success was still rare and, when it occurred, often unsustainable.

What can we learn from our successes in industries like homecare?  We do well as union organizers when we can offset the workplace advantages of an employer by organizing a mobile workforce without a fixed workspace.  We do well when we can combine community organizing and labor organizing methodology that privileges home visits, leadership development, direct actions, political flexibility, campaign and research skills, as well as strong alliances.  Sadly, that’s a tendency, not a model, because it cannot be applied by rote, but must be adapted in every arena, with every industry, and for every individual company.  Nonetheless, this convergence strategy has much to recommend to unions and organizers, when we look at mass employers.

Part II:  The NLRB Won’t Be the Answer – August 30th