The Amazon Organizing Problem Here and There

ACORN International Amazon India Unions

Little Rock       In Delhi, I spent an hour or so talking to a veteran union leader and organizer, formerly a member of the executive in the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) talking about the effort to organize one of the many warehouses Amazon was running in East Delhi in Uttar Pradesh in the capital district.  He was acting as the senior labor adviser to an organizing effort. His time as an office bearer had been back in the day, when the biggest issues within the union might not be with the employer, but whether you were a traditional Marxist or a new wave Maoist.

We didn’t necessarily agree, but we both understood the problem well.  To my industry argument, he countered with a more traditional old school position.  If the drive could hit a critical mass among the 1500 workers sufficient to topple one warehouse, like magic, he thought it would spread to other plants across the country, and be unstoppable, like a prairie fire.  I was skeptical, but respectful.  I didn’t think that organizing really works like that, but who am I to say that it’s not possible in India to someone who has spent decades in the trenches.  If you believe in magic, then I wish you luck and will join you in hoping for the best.

I thought of this conversation as I sadly read the article in the New York Times about dissension in the leadership and organizing ranks within the Amazon Labor Union.  Having won a historic election on Staten Island, they have now endured two subsequent losses.  The company has delayed.  There’s no contract and negotiations are stalled.  The union is an independent.  The president was a fired rank-and-file worker, both stubborn and charismatic, who made organizing the plant his cause.  Because it was Amazon, he attracted staff and support on the drive.  Put all of this together, then add one month after another, and, frankly, there’s no secret here, it’s a recipe for internal conflict.  Some of the folks complain about Chris Smalls travel, others about the constitution, but the bottom line issues are about strategy and money.

Smalls says he has to travel to raise money, since there are no dues yet.  If everything were going well, no one would care and in fact everyone would thank him for bringing in the bacon.  On strategy, the dissidents, influenced by my longtime comrade and sister Jane McAleavy, who they had brought in for some training, were going with tried-and-truth organizing methodology: do the work in the vineyards, count the cards, build a committee, add one worker to another, don’t file without a majority, and if you don’t make it, walk away.

Smalls though, has felt the spirit and has seen the magic work.  He had first failed to make the showing of interest at 30%, having filed light, then buckled down after withdrawing without prejudice, refiled with enough support, and, miracles never cease, and they still do happen, won the election going away.  I thought he would lose.  I was wrong and happy to admit it.  That’s his truth now, just as it was for Kamal Kumar Niyoji from AITUC.  He wants to put it on the back of the workers, just like he carried it on his back in the first election.  Take chances.  Believe in the people.  File more elections.  Take more chances.  Keep it the news.  Make lightning strike again.  Time is money, and money is precious, so go for it.  He may be right, or he may be wrong, but I get it.  That’s his lived experience now, so how wrong can he be?  Afterall, he is the only one to beat Amazon in an election.

For two reasons, it was unusual to read that he had signed an agreement with Jane, who was an adviser and not a member of the union, not to travel or file short.  One that she inserted herself in such a way and asked for a written agreement, and the other that he ever agreed to sign.

Brilliant leaders like Smalls are a gift, but they are hard for some organizers to manage and keep in between the lines.  At the same time, organizing Amazon whether in India or America takes more than magic.  Let a thousand flowers bloom, but don’t let this blow up in internal conflict.  Save your anger and energy for the fight with the boss.  In the meantime, keep your disagreements, if any, out of the press.  Amazon sees blood in the water now, and that’s not good for anyone.  No magic to that.  Just plain old common sense.