Karyn Pomerantz, 4-8-2021; Updated on 4-21-2021
Update on 4-21-2021, Behind Union Defeat at Amazon Bessemer – CounterPunch.org. See also comment.
As this is being published, Amazon announced that it won the vote on unionizing the plant in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers at the warehouse launched a union campaign last year to improve working conditions and pay. As of April 9, 7:00PM EDT, the initial count is 1,798 opposed to 738 in favor (out of approximately 6,000 voters). Amazon and the union intend to challenge the validity of some votes.
The workers’ efforts could still spark an international movement at other Amazon centers and in other industries that deliver unlivable wages, poor benefits, and unsafe working conditions. Workers at Walmart, Target, and fast-food restaurants may also be inspired to form unions, threatening the owners with a rebellious workforce and a loss in profit. A disproportionate number of workers in these industries is black, immigrant, female, and Latin. Their role as essential workers and their poverty create disproportionate exposures to Covid 19. Over 20,000 out of 1.3 million (2%) Amazon employees have contracted Covid 19 as of October 2020.
Placing the fight for economic security at the jobsite sharpens antiracist and class struggle beyond the legislative approach in the Fight for 15 campaign. Unions may not win every campaign or contract demand, but they provide a structure for workers to engage in many struggles, such as housing reforms, anti-war movements, and other activist mobilizations. It is important for all of us to support the Amazon workers in all ways possible.
This post will present the issues behind the Amazon organizing, its significance to the working class, the ways we can help, the current and historical role of black workers in the labor movement, and how an egalitarian society could deal with consumerism.
Amazon’s Economic Status and Working Conditions
Amazon, the second largest employer after Walmart, employs 1.3 million workers in its 300 fulfillment centers or warehouses around the world. According to Forbes, the company is worth $1.49 trillion, and Bezos, its founder and current executive director, made approximately $178 billion since 2019! (5 Big Numbers That Show Amazon’s Explosive Growth During The Coronavirus Pandemic (forbes.com))
Amazon boasts that it pays $15 an hour in Alabama, surpassing the minimum wage, and that it provides decent health and retirement benefits, and safe working environments. Yet workers throughout the Amazon universe complain about extensive surveillance, high productivity quotas, insufficient breaks during long working hours, and few opportunities to eat and use bathrooms. Changing these conditions would seriously damage Amazon’s profit and frighten other similar companies. A win for workers can inspire organizing in other companies that also rely on a large supply of labor to keep wages low.
Amazon’s global workforce is 45% women and 55% men with women occupying 29% of management positions. In the U.S., its workforce is 13.6% Asian, 26.5% black, 22.8% Latin, 1.5% Native American, and 32.1% white. Amazon reports parity in wages among men and women in the same positions but admits to disparities in management positions among women compared to men and workers of color compared to white employees (Our workforce data (aboutamazon.com). This unionizing fight provides an opportunity for unity among workers in different racial categories and countries. It exemplifies the demand, “workers of the world, unite!”
Amazon Workers Fights Back
Amazon organizers are standing up to a powerful corporation, following the leadership of militant black workers. They have revived the union movement and threaten the profits of major companies who respond with intimidation, media campaigns, and the legal system. Well known for its surveillance of workers’ productivity, Amazon also spies on workers organizing and supporting unions, firing those who pose a danger. It trains managers to recognize and oppose union organizing efforts, and spreads phony anti-union statements from employees who tweet “unions are thieves.”
While on the job harassment continues, Amazon also has the legal system to challenge the vote to unionize. Amazon and the union can question whether each vote is valid (submitted by a current employee) and whether voting followed established rules set by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This process can also tie up the results for months. (Disclosure: I was involved in an NLRB mediation for unionizing; it took so many years that I couldn’t tell who won). While the NLRB appears to protect workers, it is another arm of the ruling elite business class to deter labor rebellions. (The US Labor Board Isn’t Strong Enough To Protect Workers From Amazon. Some Union Organizers Want To Go Around It. (buzzfeednews.co). Even if unions are recognized, it can take months or years to secure a contract.
Union leadership is also responsible for the loss and a weak national labor movement. Top union executives earn huge salaries, closer to those of the companies they “fight.” The Oakland Socialist reports that there was little political education about unions at the plant. Many workers have no experience with unions and worried about losing their jobs as Amazon threatened. Few unions organized any actions to oppose the police murders and Covid inequities (Why Amazon Workers Voted Down a Union and What Can Be Done – Oakland Socialist). Counterpunch published this apt critique of the union leadership’s inactions in Behind Union Defeat at Amazon Bessemer – CounterPunch.org). In the past, some of the more radical unions mobilized members to fight racists who attacked black families integrating neighborhoods in Chicago and attendees at a Paul Robeson concert in Peekshill, NY.
Liberals in the Democratic Party, such as Sanders and Warren, and even Biden have issued statements supporting Amazon workers. They are desperate to secure black membership in the Party, and to win southern support from Trump fans. The union campaign has huge implications for the welfare of low-wage earners and the national political scene.
Support for Amazon Workers
It is critical to support the Amazon workers during this campaign and future efforts to unionize. Only 10.8% of workers belong to unions. If union membership grows, we have a powerful force that can organize against inequality and racism.
How can we help?
We can organize pickets and demonstrations at Amazon worksites, including their Whole Food stores, as many workers and 50 organizations have done. Other Amazon worksites can stage walkouts as some did in 2020 to secure safer workplaces. In fact, Chicago Amazon workers staged a wildcat walkout during the voting at Bessemer. If the workers strike, we must join their picket lines, boycott Amazon, provide food, and contribute to the strike funds. Fellow union members can also join their lines, donate union money, and stage shutdowns. Imagine if all transportation workers stopped operations until Amazon surrenders.
Long-Term Organizing for Revolution and an Egalitarian Society
While workers’ organizations, especially unions, make it easier to plan and coordinate actions and campaigns and strikes for economic benefits, they are limited. Corporations have more money, lobbyists, and power. The government serves business; it can deploy the military and police to squelch strikes as it has done throughout US history. The courts and regulatory boards like the NLRB also serve the ruling class, and can appeal the vote or refuse to negotiate a contract even if the union wins. Just as importantly, companies can easily raise their prices and reduce their workforce to recoup any losses. They ultimately have the power that workers don’t possess.
Therefore, it is imperative that the working class organizes simultaneously for a revolution that abolishes capitalism. This will not be an overnight or 2-day delivery! Our goal is a communist society that produces goods and services we need, such as healthy food and housing, not unnecessary consumer goods so easily purchased at Amazon and other retailers. Who needs 100 brands of soap when millions have no safe water? Who needs two-hour delivery times when drivers pee into cups to avoid getting docked for breaks? Who needs success measured by the number of goods we buy? Imagine an equitable world where work serves our needs and fulfills our desire to contribute to a better world.
The Critical Role of Black Workers in the Labor Movement
Black workers at the Amazon Bessemer plant have taken the lead to organize the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). This section recounts and honors the contributions of black workers in the US labor movement, a movement that the Amazon struggle may re-ignite.
There are many lessons about multiracial organizing that we can use. The Adelante Worker Center in Birmingham states:
For generations, Black workers have risked their lives to spearhead worker rights efforts—fighting for their lives in the face of lynching, death threats, job loss, and most of all, white supremacy. Amazon’s workers’ partnership and unionizing with RWDSU is just an extension of the legacy of worker militancy” (Warehouse Workers Wage Historic Fight for Union Recognition at Amazon – The American Prospect).
This legacy of militancy includes the heroic efforts of southern members of the Communist Party (CP) in the 1930s to organize unions of sharecroppers and factory workers amid brutal repression from the companies and Klan. Police and Klan members abducted, beat, and murdered union leaders, especially communists. The CP forged multiracial associations for economic and racial justice and recruited people to unions and the Party (Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression by Robin D. G. Kelley).
The elites exploit all workers by paying them less than the value of what they produce (called exploitation), but they super-exploit black workers, paying black workers even less than white workers. This historical super-exploitation has transformed many black workers into militant leaders for economic and social justice that benefits whites, blacks, and workers of all genders and nationalities.
Black workers have revolted against their exploitation as free and enslaved labor since the founding of the US colonies. They joined with white indentured servants to burn down Jamestown in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675, and led 250 slave rebellions before the Civil War (History.com editors, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery-iv-slave-rebellions). While many people know about some of the major rebellions, most do not know about the role of black workers in the labor movement. In this article we celebrate their militancy and courage, and the controversies over union membership of black workers.
Labor history reveals the damage that excluding black workers caused to labor struggles of all workers. Bosses often used the un-unionized black workers as replacements (scabs) for striking workers, stoking more racist animosity and separatism. The supply of unpaid slave labor reduced the wages of white workers who viewed black workers, not the slave owners, as the problem. After the Civil War, many white workers continued to see freed black workers as competition rather than as allies against the landowners and industrialists. When white workers and organizers welcomed black men and women into the organized labor movement, they all benefited by winning union recognition, pay increases, and improvements in working conditions.
Below are some brief examples highlighting the leadership and participation of black men and women in the US labor movement, underscoring the strengths of multiracial solidarity and the defeats when unions opposed it.
Brief Examples of Segregated and Multiracial Unionizing in the US
White workers, such as the bricklayers, levee laborers, and the Eight Hour League in New Orleans, wanted black workers to strike with them but refused them entry into their organizations. When the black workers refused to strike, the unions lost.
In St. Louis, black and white strikers fought together to win their demand for a shorter workday. In Philadelphia, the multiracial bricklayers union lost their strike for shorter hours but galvanized more unionizing among black workers.
Advocates for unity, including Marxists from the First International, argued that white workers’ economic interests depended on including black workers in the fight for higher wages, jobs, and shorter hours. The Workingman’s Advocate published a statement in 1870 acknowledging that ”the success of the labor movement for years to come depends on the cooperation and success of the colored race. … Their interests are our interests; our interests are theirs.”
The Knights of Labor, 1869-1895
The Knights of Labor was the first mass union to welcome all workers regardless of color, religion, national origin, or political affiliation; women could join in 1881. It attracted hundreds of thousands of black and white workers from various trades in northern and southern states from 1869 to 1895. Some claimed a membership of 700,000 with 60,000 black members who comprised one-third to one-half of the southern locals. It adopted the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The Knights practiced solidarity exemplified by its integrated May Day and Labor Day demonstrations and social events; convention delegates refused to stay in segregated hotels. During its 1887 convention in Richmond, Virginia, it sponsored a picnic for members and residents which became the largest integrated event in Richmond. The Knights attracted black workers for many reasons. It offered leadership opportunities, workers’ cooperatives, and social events, and advocated for land reform. Writing about the Knights’ 1887 convention, Ida B. Wells highlighted its antiracist stand, “It was the first assembly of the sort in this town where color was not the criterion to recognition as ladies and gentlemen.”
Yet, the leadership of the Knights played an increasingly racist role as it distanced itself from the rank and file’s support of the campaign for the eight-hour day. During a massive union rally that included anarchist and socialist protestors in Chicago in 1886 at Haymarket Square, someone (assumed to be a cop) threw a bomb into the crowd, killing workers and police. Employers throughout the US attacked union members with firings, lockouts, and violence, including assassinations of union leaders, terror, and lynchings. The Knights’ leaders stood silent distancing themselves from the movement and smearing the workers as anarchists. In the end, the union that paved the way for black and white unity advocated for deportation of black residents! By the end, only 20,000 members remained, and the era of labor solidarity died.
The IWW, the Wobblies, 1905-1915
The International Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, boldly realized its two major principles: organizing all workers in a particular industry from western miners to eastern longshoremen, and uniting labor across all “races,” nationalities, and genders, especially black and white skilled and unskilled workers. It practiced equity within its locals by rotating leaders among black and white members every month and refusing to segregate any of its locals as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and many other unions did. It was the only union that refused to do so.
Radical socialists, communists, and anarchists, such as “Big Bill” Haywood, Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and Lucy Parsons, founded the IWW in 1905. Rejecting reliance on elections, the Wobblies engaged in class struggle, such as strikes, direct action, and militancy, to win its demands. Outside of the workplace, the IWW condemned lynching and other violent attacks on black workers, including their economic exploitation and racist ideas of inferiority. Recruited and welcomed into IWW unions, black workers strengthened the labor movement. With such true inclusion, the industrialists in the steel mills of Pittsburgh and on the docks of Philadelphia could not rely on black men to break strikes. Led by black Wobbly Benjamin Fletcher, the longshoremen in Philly won successive strikes to secure union recognition, collective bargaining, and higher wages. The Wobblies walked their talk, proclaiming “The IWW organizes without regard for color. … There is no color line in the furnace hells of the steel trust and there will be none in The One Big Union. White, black, or yellow, workers of the world must unite!” Even under state sanctioned apartheid in South Africa, the IWW united black and white railroad workers to strike in Johannesburg. The US government did not stand idly by as the Wobblies threatened major industries. After WWI, it launched its infamous Red Scare to round up and terrorize union activists, including the Wobblies. The IWW left a legacy of labor solidarity rarely experienced in the labor movement. Their commitment to racial justice earned them victories that extended well beyond dollars and cents.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925
In 1925, A. Philip Randolph, a socialist labor organizer and journalist, founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The 15,000 porters staffed the trains to serve the demands of their white passengers. On call constantly, they endured abuse, low pay, separation from their families, constant surveillance, intimidation, and threats of dismissal. Yet, the porter job also offered black workers better income than sharecropping and respect from their communities.
Randolph and colleagues wished to join the American Federation of Labor, the AFL, to join, but the AFL refused because of its disdain for the black working class. The Brotherhood reached a point where working conditions became so unacceptable that it rallied for its demands and eventually voted 60,000 to 17 to strike. It demanded increased wages, preparation time pay, an end to tipping (which lowered wages), union recognition, and fewer hours. The black bourgeoisie railed against the planned strike citing the virtues of the Company in providing jobs for black men. The Pullman Company used vigilante terror and anti-communism to disparage Randolph’s leadership even though Randolph opposed communism. The Company bribed black newspapers by buying ads if the editors denounced the union. It also threatened the union with replacing them with Asian immigrants.
The Brotherhood responded with national educational campaigns. Half of the porter workforce joined the union with critical support from wives who provided social welfare to their families. Eventually, Randolph called off the strike fearing that the workers would lose. Communists, such as Cyril Briggs, condemned his refusal to strike and his attempts to join a hotel workers union noted for its embrace of Jim Crow rhetoric and practices. In the end, racism from the white led labor movement, attacks by black elites, and anti-communism inside and outside the union led to the demise of the Brotherhood.
The Depression and the CIO, 1930s
The major national union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), proved complicit in maintaining racist labor practices and excluding non-whites from its craft unions. It appealed to white racism to continue its leadership of the labor movement.
The Great Depression of the 1930s increased the miserable economic conditions of the working class. Black women and men suffered disproportionately severe economic deprivation during the Great Depression with high unemployment rates and low wages. Employers also increased the exploitation of whites also by hiring them at lower wages typically paid to black workers. FDR’s New Deal reforms excluded black and brown families from many benefits provided to white families. New Deal policies established lower wages for black workers, encouraged their displacement, and reinforced ideas of black inferiority.
Led by Communist Party organizers, workers fought back. They formed Unemployed Councils with multiracial membership and leadership to demand higher relief payments; black families received less money here as well. The Councils staged marches on state capitals and Washington, DC, and hunger strikes. Communist leaders in the South heroically formed the Southern Tenant Sharecroppers Union to demand land, compensation, and even community gardens. The communist led Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) organized unions of black and white employees in the mines, mills, factories, and on the docks both inside and outside the AFL. The AFL and bosses attacked appealing to white members’ white superiority. However, black and white unity remained firm in TUUL organizations. The AFL went so far as to successfully buy the loyalty of the NAACP and black churches with financial support (sound familiar?). The Ford Motor Company also counted conservative black ministers as collaborators against unions and communists.
Organizers confronted white racism and black sell-outs with educational campaigns and the formation of organizations committed to a multiracial labor movement. In 1936, eight prominent industrial unions formed the Committee on Industrial Organizing (the CIO), and 250 pro-union black leaders founded the National Negro Congress (NNC); black union membership jumped from 100,000 before 1936 to 500,000 in 1940. The CIO and NNC kickstarted an era of militant strikes in auto (Flint Sit-down), steel, mining, maritime, and railroads. With communist leadership, inclusion of all workers, black leadership, and militancy, unions became accessible to everyone regardless of “race,” and other barriers.
Post WWII Organizing
Labor organizers held different views on supporting the US in WWII. Communists supported the war effort as the means to protect the Soviet Union from the Nazis while many black organizations used this time to struggle for more jobs in the defense industry. However, these differences paled in comparison to the damage created by the expulsion of communists from the CIO by the CIO. Without the militant leadership and multiracial membership of the industrial unions, their strength diminished through lost membership and racism. In the south, CIO chapters held segregated meetings in halls with segregated bathrooms. Yet, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) refused to surrender to racism. It struck without caving in to the companies’ attempts to divide them on “race,” and refused contracts with any companies that did not have an anti-discrimination clause. During the major civil rights era, the Union protected black families in neighborhoods where they were attacked and marched in antiracist demonstrations.
Black auto workers organized independent black unions, such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union and the League of Revolutionary Workers to oppose the racism in the unions and the auto plants. Service workers, such as hospital employees, also organized. Led by black women, the hospital union, 1199, successfully fought for recognition and economic reforms. Women developed as leaders in farmworkers’, teachers’, and health care unions. Recognizing the extra exploitation of women workers, especially black women, the electrical workers union wrote:
For in their factories, the public acceptance of women’s equality would mean the loss of a huge source of labor they could segregate and exploit for extra profits, and as a means to hold down the wages of all workers. … Negro women … suffer the exploitation of women working under discriminatory rates of pay because of their sex.
However, without the leadership of communist organizers, union membership declined over the postwar years. There are many lessons to learn from this brief history. Primarily, we need unity, militancy, courage, and dedication to the working class as a whole to improve working and living conditions. The current and future Amazon organizing campaigns offer the opportunity to continue this heritage.
(Examples from Organized Labor and the Black Worker by Philip S. Foner).