Amazon’s union busting at sorting centre in the US

By Chris Gray, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the US)

Following the historic union victory at the JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island, Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is gearing up for the next election at LDJ5, the 1,500 worker sort center across the street. Amazon workers from other facilities are standing at the front door of the warehouse talking to workers at all hours of the day, while workers inside the facility focus on conversations on the shop floor and in the breakrooms. There is momentum from the JFK8 victory, but fighting for a union will always be an uphill battle when taking on a mega corporation like Amazon and a multi-billionaire like Jeff Bezos.

It’s essential to apply the lessons from JFK8, organizing around clear demands, building a democratic worker-led committee, and clearly naming a boss like Jeff Bezos as the enemy. However, applying these lessons at LDJ5, a different facility, with different workplace conditions, workplace issues and with less time to prepare, poses unique challenges for the struggle at LDJ5. On top of this, Amazon has learned its own lessons from their defeat at JFK8, and is rolling out more sophisticated union busting tactics to try to undermine ALU’s efforts.

Socialist Alternative in New York has been out front helping get out the vote at LDJ5 and here’s some of the outrageous union busting lies we’ve heard Amazon tell.

Now Hiring: $2,000/day to bust unions at Amazon

Amazon claims the union is an outside “third party”, even though a union is nothing more than the workers themselves. However, this has not stopped Amazon from paying professional union busting consultants over $2,000 a day to dress up as concerned coworkers. They walk around the facility as awkwardly as live-action versions of the Steve Buscemi meme, approaching people saying “how do you do, fellow workers?” Their job is to introduce doubt and suspicion about the union on the shop floor.

It’s not surprising that Amazon is prepared to pay third party union-busting consultants more than they’re willing to pay their own workers, however, it’s still important to expose them at every turn. ALU has done an excellent job doing this, passing out “wanted” leaflets, emblazoned with the faces of the union-busters, to every worker at the facility. Being honest with workers that the company uses dirty tricks to oppose the union, and being willing to polarize around the union-busting agents themselves helps workers see through the anti-union propaganda, and builds their confidence to confront these union busters on the shop floor.

“Do your own research first” — A tried and true right-wing trope

While Amazon is still overtly attacking the union — suggesting the union will cause you to lose benefits and even that the union can fire you — they’re also relying on vague suggestions that the union is shady and encouraging workers to do their own research before voting yes. Of course, workers should do their own research, but as we all know, getting access to the truth online isn’t straightforward. A simple google search of “are unions good” can dredge up all sorts of anti-union articles. If Amazon truly supported workers doing “independent research”, they wouldn’t intimidate workers from talking to each other, and chase away union-members who show up to answer questions about their experience with the benefits of unions.

Amazon borrowed this “independent research” tactic from the right wing, who regularly use it to cast doubt over all sorts of issues where there is really no debate like very real dangers of COVID-19 and the existential threat of climate change. Unions are not always perfect, but there is no debate about whether or not unions have hurt the working class as a whole. Unions have been under attack for decades; have conditions improved for working class people? In fact, corporate wealth and billionaire profits have increased and in direct proportion with the decline of unions over the last few decades.

“Think about your co-workers” — Manipulative tactics

Like all union-busting corporations, Amazon is hosting regular closed-door meetings where they lie to, mislead, and intimidate workers into voting against their own self interests. These “captive audience” meetings at the workplace, where the union can’t defend itself, are inherently unfair, but effective. This is why ending captive audience meetings was one of the most important aspects of the PRO Act before it was abandoned by the Democratic Party, which is funded by corporate cash and uses the same consulting firms Amazon uses to bust unions.

At JFK8, pro-union workers confronted management’s lies in these meetings, showing a concrete example of the power that comes with a union before the union had even been won. Not surprisingly, the moment these anti-union meetings took on the character of genuine democratic discussions, Amazon stopped inviting pro-union workers to attend them.

These meetings are happening every shift at LDJ5, but Amazon is changing up its approach to them. First, Amazon cultivates unfounded fears about the union among workers whose lives are already in a precarious state (because of Amazon). Amazon claims certain benefits will be taken away, that workers will lose healthcare, or people will be fired by the union! Once workers are understandably scared, Amazon encourages these workers to speak at the captive audience meeting, which makes it much harder for pro-workers to intervene. We’ve heard reports of workers standing in front of the captive audience meetings crying about how a union would directly harm them and their families.

Amazon is on a constant mission to drive down wages, de-skill the work, cut benefits and hazard pay, and generally keep workers in a precarious situation and in a constant state of desperation and fear. It’s disgustingly cynical that these same bosses are excited to amplify these fears in order to protect their profits by keeping the union out.

“Wait to see the JFK8 contract”

Another union-busting strategy Amazon is using at LDJ5 is misleading workers to vote “no” until they see the results of the contract struggle at JFK8. Of course, every logistics worker in the country will be eagerly watching the results of the contract fight, but it would be a massive mistake to simply sit on the sidelines and see how things play out.

A strong contract at JFK8 is the best way to set up a strong contract at LDJ5. This is why LDJ5 workers need to vote “yes”, and then link up the two struggles, and expand the movement to other facilities. We need the maximum unity of workers across all facilities who need to see their fate as tied up with one another. It’s already clear Amazon will pull out all the stops to keep the union out, and if they are allowed to focus all its union-busting resources on one facility, they will have the advantage.

Other unions need to jump into the fight as quickly as possible, but it’s essential that they apply the essential lessons of the JFK8 victory. First and foremost, union drives need to be built around crystal clear demands that come from the workers themselves — like a $30/hour starting wage at Amazon. Second, the JFK8 campaign involved meticulous and relentless shop-floor organizing. Third, ALU made clear from the outset that the fight for a union would put them in direct conflict with Amazon. ALU did not shy away from calling out the extravagant wealth of Jeff Bezos and Amazon.

Unionize Amazon everywhere

ALU’s breakthrough victory at JFK8 has opened up the possibility to unionize Amazon, one of the fastest growing and most profitable corporations on the planet. Amazon employs over a million people and owns enough warehouse space to cover half of Manhattan. Sitting on top of it all is Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest billionaire who recently launched himself into space, just for fun, while millions died during the pandemic.

The only way Amazon can keep out the union is to intimidate, manipulate, confuse, and lie. They prefer paying third party union-busting consultants thousands of dollars a day than paying their workers a $30/hr minimum wage. They would rather maintain a burnout, 150% turnover rate than end the grueling Time Off Task system, provide reasonable breaks, or end mandatory overtime.

The union is nothing more than the organized expression of what Amazon workers want to change about their workplace, and it’s only as strong as the workers themselves. ALU has enshrined this into its own constitution, mandating that all elected officers, including the president, only make the average wage of an Amazon worker. The union’s interests are the workers’ interests.

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