How Does North NJ DSA and DSA Support Union Organizing?
2022 has been a prime time for union organizing. On April 1st, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island succeeded in unionizing with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) by a margin of more than 500 votes. Immediately following the victory, workers at over 100 other facilities have reached out to Chris Smalls, President of ALU, to ask about organizing their own workplaces. This historic victory follows months of growing labor militancy from Starbucks workers unionizing their stores to strikes in the fields of education and healthcare.
The growing labor movement can be traced to the eroding conditions workers suffered from during Covid-19. “Declines in the standard of living for the working class and skyrocketing inequality have been accentuated during the pandemic,” says Jorge M., a member of North New Jersey DSA and a labor organizer. Forced to work in unsafe conditions within a system of threadbare social safety nets, workers who were symbolically hailed as essential were treated as disposable. Meanwhile, CEO pay soared by nearly 19% during the first year of the pandemic. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s networth has ballooned to $176.9 billion.
During the ALU’s union drive, Amazon hired an army of union busters to dissuade workers from joining. They used tactics such as holding captive audience meetings, interrogating workers on the activities of the union, and targeting union supporters with racist messaging, referring to them as “thugs.” These tactics backfired as employees of the heavily diverse JFK8 warehouse rejected anti-union messaging and blatant attacks against their co-workers. One reason why these attacks were successfully resisted is because of the worker-to-worker organizing that was the central strategy of the ALU. The energy and agitation came from workers themselves and not an outside organization. “No one can organize workers better than the workers… they are prepared to point out the contradictions of the quick growth of massive companies and the lack of resources for the labor which made that possible” says Jorge.
A common theme in ALU’s organizing is the emphasis on community building: Smalls, who was fired two years ago (from Amazon for organizing), and other organizers provided support to workers. They gave out food, t-shirts, and engaged people on the issues of low pay, extreme hours, and absurdly high turnover. “When you get hired at Amazon, they don’t expect you to last more than a year,” said Angelika Maldonado, speaking on a panel with other organizers.
This corporate culture of burning through employees creates insecurity and makes it near impossible to build trust with one’s coworkers. It is even more remarkable that the ALU succeeded in a company known for treating employees as expendable. “Amazon is a behemoth of a corporate giant, and despite that the labor union won! There was a lot of creativity in organizers’ strategy, which included cookouts, handing out materials at the bus stop, and tons and tons of one-on-ones,” said Jake E., another labor organizer from North New Jersey.
Another remarkable fact about the ALU is how it was a movement of rank-and-file workers. The ethos of ALU deviates from the common, bureaucratic structure of larger, more established unions where often there is a disconnect between leadership and membership. “This was a truly grounds-up movement and network of people,” says Allie H., a union organizer and chapter member. “They built everything from within the warehouse by people at the warehouse who were consistently holding actions and following-up with people directly.” The ALU is gearing up for a vote at LDJ5, a smaller warehouse on Staten Island demanding the same things as JFK8: a $30 an hour minimum wage, paid breaks, better medical leave, and additional paid time off.
The co-optation of a grassroots labor movement especially at an early stage remains a serious threat. In nearby Bayonne, the International Brotherhood of Trade Unions, a dubious organization, has since withdrawn filing for an election. As organizers we must identify and stand with the actions driven by people power, not opportunists.
Questions have been raised about what larger unions in related industries, such as the Teamsters, can do to help support and grow ALU. Amazon is also currently threatening to challenge the National Labor Relations Board on the JFK8 decision. The vote for a union is just the first victory in what will be a protracted battle.
“We are here to meet the moment and centralize attention…this is an opportunity for DSA to come together in a national, unified project” says Jake E. The national campaign to unionize Starbucks, for instance, has supported workers at hundreds of stores across the country, including three in New Jersey. Allie believes that building power from the bottom-up, as Starbucks and Amazon workers have successfully done, can be used as a model to unother workplaces. Solidarity from existing unions will also be crucial in supporting workers who are organizing their workplaces for the first time.
Amazon is a behemoth of a corporate giant, and despite that the labor union won! There was a lot of creativity in organizers’ strategy, which included cookouts, handing out materials at the bus stop, and tons and tons of one-on-ones.
There’s a lot you can do as a DSA member!” says Allie, “Some things any chapter can be involved in is hosting fundraisers, providing striking support, and showing up at the picket line.” “Recruiting salts (workers with the explicit intention to support unionization efforts) to work in the facility will be crucial- we do not have to be on the sidelines, we can be in there and make connections,” says Jorge. Jake, a member of the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, created during the pandemic as a response to lack of workplace safety protections, encourages anyone interested in organizing their workplace or supporting other labor work to get involved. Our chapter is also hosting a fundraiser to send union members to Labor Notes, a conference which connects workers and advocates on taking power back in the workplace.
Labor organizing is more than just a hot new trend sweeping the nation: it is the continuation and result of decades of struggle by workers fed up with exploitation under capitalism. Employers have done all they can to crush workers movements through-out history, but workers have proven that they can win in even the most David and Goliath of circumstances. As socialists, workers, and political actors, we must take advantage of this wave and bring forward the tide which will lift all boats. By joining the North New Jersey chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, you can be part of an organization helping to rebuild the labor movement.