labor 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.
“… unions have not successfully organized a single mass employer with more than 100,000 workers in the US in the last fifty years.”
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 homecare 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. In many areas we have also done well in the home daycare industry.
“We have also continued to practice organizing models that are not designed to organize the emerging monopolies and mass employment enterprises of these times.”
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.
With 1.6 million workers, organizers know that a straight-up NLRB-based election strategy is a loser with Wal-Mart. To have any bargaining power on that model, unions would have to believe that they could win certification at a significant number of the 5000 locations the company operates in the US. Organizing 2000 of them at a pace of 20 victories per year, when we have won none in decades, would still take 100 years, and remember, that’s to represent 40% of their workers, not a majority. In the meantime, as generations of organizers and leaders lived, worked, and died, while moving up the ladder to 40% there would be decades where our bargaining power was limited, assuming the company bargained at all and didn’t close the locations as fast as we succeeded.
Amazon is a different beast
With 960,000 workers – and rising – and 110 fulfillment locations in the USA, Amazon is a different beast. Amazon claims the average workforce in these warehouses is around 1500, so roughly 165,000 workers. There are a lot of other folks working in their tech centers, on the road as drivers and delivery people, in their data farms, and more, but the centers have been the heart of the targeting discussion along with the drivers. As we saw in Bessemer, Alabama, an NLRB-based strategy is challenged here as well. The individual bargaining units would be larger than Wal-Mart’s store-based units, but that doesn’t make them easier. Organizing 40% there might mean collective units that totaled 60,000 workers. Theoretically not impossible, but definitely improbable. The number of NLRB elections over 1000 workers is now miniscule. Bargaining strength, even if successful, would be strained, especially without their drivers being organized, which would be an even higher degree of difficulty since they are not place-based in the way a physical location is. The additional Amazon lines of business are also challenging when organizers think about pressure points and leverage.
There might be other ways, as organizers found when confronting the challenges of homecare workers over the last fifty years and organizing Wal-Mart workers fifteen years ago by combining community and labor methodologies. Unfortunately, these models take time, patience, and persistence, which are often in short supply in these times of crises in the labor movement, but to organize mass industries or mass employers, we may have to go long.
“… being able to be a rock in the road to the company’s expansion could be key in building leverage”
The Teamsters, according to their Amazon project organizer, are eschewing an election strategy, which is a good move. They are proposing a mixed bag of tactics, including strikes and boycotts. A boycott seems a stretch with a lot of work for little gain that would be almost impossible to measure and easy for the company to deny. Strikes would have to be something other than what we have seen in the fast-food “narrative campaign” with few workers, but we are talking about the Teamsters, and they do know how to organize a strike. They think community support will be essential to win. They also think being able to be a rock in the road to the company’s expansion could be key in building leverage. On those two counts, I heartily agree and our experience with Wal-Mart fifteen years ago gives credence to that theory.
In 2005, I left the SEIU International board to run an organizing project directed at establishing whether we could successfully organize Wal-Mart workers on a number of fronts. This was a joint project involving ACORN, SEIU, AFL-CIO, and UFCW. SEIU was developing the Wal-Mart Watch effort based in Washington, DC, and our effort was the direct organizing component, while the Watch was the web and media side of the air war. The UFCW also began a parallel effort called Wake Up Wal-Mart centered on a bus tour that organized meetings and small rallies around the country, largely around UFCW locals.
Geographically, we focused on the Interstate-4 corridor in Florida running from roughly Orlando to Tampa – St. Petersburg, encompassing about twenty-one counties. At that time, 4% of the total revenue for Wal-Mart was coming out of that area.
“We were able to maximize action on individual and collective issues using their “open door” policy and “grievance” procedures and through direct action at the stores.”
Strategically, there were three legs to the stool: workers, store-siting in the footprint, and blocking international expansion.
First, would Wal-Mart workers join a union? We organized the Wal-Mart Workers Association to directly engage workers in the corridor, enroll them in the union, collect dues, and take direct collective action on the job. We had a team of about twenty organizers, split between labor and community work. We triggered the drive by accessing the Florida voter list and pulling all phone numbers for families making less than $50,000 per year. We used a robodialer (this was 2005!) with a two-pronged message, leading with the question of whether they, or anyone in their family, had worked for Wal-Mart, and did they know that there were rights and benefits they might not have realized. If yes, then what was their address, and we would follow-up. We would winnow out the bad calls, and the organizers would be on the doors the next day to do the visits.
We were clear that we were building a union, but that we would not file for an election, and we would win through action and campaigns, and not collective bargaining. Members joined on that basis. We signed up almost 65% of all completed visits, which was the best recruiting percentage I had ever tallied in any other union organizing drive. Wal-Mart workers wanted to organize and were ready to join the WWA on the basis presented. We surfaced the organizing committee publicly in a press conference at the point that we had committees in more than 30 stores with support ranging from 5 to 40%. We had close to 1000 members in about six months.
After we first went public, there were reportedly 100 Wal-Mart operatives from Bentonville sent into the Florida stores to counter our efforts. They had individual and captive audience meetings for six to eight weeks. One of our leaders literally had a one-on-one meeting with a Wal-Mart labor relations guy every shift for over 50 days. After they could not find a card signing effort or any sense of a pending filing, Bentonville pulled them away. We were able to maximize action on individual and collective issues using their “open door” policy and “grievance” procedures and through direct action at the stores. We won some wage increases, reinstatements, and a slew of schedule changes, because the company was forced to empower local managers to counter our claims that scheduling was done by Bentonville, Arkansas computers. They fired no one, and we never filed an 8(a)(3) charge (National Labor Relations Act charge alleging discriminatory discharge). We pushed, and they bent.
The second leg of the stool was building a community-based organization in order to block Wal-Mart from building new supercenters. To engage that fight, we built WARN, Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now, as a broad coalition of unions, community and civil rights organizations (including ACORN chapters obviously), environmental groups, and civic associations in instances where they would be impacted by traffic and property values from new stores. In addition to the community organizing team, we supported this work with research reports that debunked the wages claimed by Wal-Mart in Florida (we were able to identify Wal-Mart workers from the way state unemployment data was sorted) and advance site location work. We found several experts at the University of Florida in Gainesville who specialized in developing algorithms to help stores determine future locations. They agreed to train our researchers, so once skilled adequately, we were able to determine in our target area where Wal-Mart – or generally any big box operation – would be likely to site a store for expansion. Another one of our team would reach out to every planning and zoning department in the footprint on a weekly basis to determine if there was any activity around these sites from purchases to applications.
We were able to nip some efforts in the bud. Others we had to fight from proposal to council hearings and in one case, in Sarasota Springs, through a direct ballot local initiative. We were able to bring police into the alliance because of traffic and safety concerns. We were able to bring property owner associations into the alliance in some cases on value issues. We blocked some permits on company efforts to build in wetlands and environmentally prohibited areas. During the life of the project within our footprint we blocked 32 straight Wal-Mart superstore expansion efforts. Using a community base and alliances, we were able to develop leverage we hoped would aid the organizing efforts.
Lastly, Wal-Mart had widely publicized that its huge growth in the future would be achieved by expanding in India, as it had done in China. Enlisting the support of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center and to a lesser degree UNI Global Union, the international global federation, we quickly determined that any expansion in India would require amending the rules on foreign direct investment, which despite neoliberal revision in the country would still require modification because multi-brand retail was still restricted. We then organized the India FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) Watch Campaign, a coalition effort of unions, traders, hawkers, and others to oppose any changes in FDI for retail. It’s a long story in itself, but we were successful in blocking any changes for a decade, as ACORN continued to support the effort even after the unions had withdrawn support from the rest of the campaign. We had made promises, and they were meant to be kept. Even now, Wal-Mart has not been able to expand significantly in India and for them, or their competitors to do so, is very difficult since we were able to win significant concessions in the Parliament that the company still sees has prohibitive.
In this hybrid community-labor model applied to Wal-Mart, we established several things. Workers wanted a union and would join and pay dues, without any promise or prospect of an election or a collective bargaining agreement. We could stop expansion of Wal-Mart locally and internationally to build leverage on the company to support the workers organizing.
Nonetheless in the real politic of American labor organizing by 2008, SEIU and UFCW were involved in political and jurisdictional disagreements and part of the price of their trying to keep their alternative federation alive in Change to Win was their withdrawal from the project, forcing us to lay off most of the organizing staff. We were already at a juncture where we needed more lists to keep building and a deeper commitment, so this was crippling. We were able to keep some of the work alive for almost a year after that based on outside funding raised for the campaign. The work in India was taken over by ACORN International and absorbed as part of our Delhi office of ACORN India and continues to this day.
What does this say about other efforts to organize mass employers, like Amazon? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot.
When I met with Joe Hansen, then the president of UFCW, to give him a report on the work, I told him the good news was that we had succeeded on all of our main objectives, but the bad news is that for this model to work it would require a significant and long-term multi-year investment to get to 200,000 or more members, where the union would have enough power within the company to force de facto recognition and detente. It could take ten or twenty years, but it would work. He appreciated the point but wasn’t ready to go there.
A similar challenge faces any effort to organize Wal-Mart, or Amazon, or any mass employer. Organizers can fashion the strategies and tactics for almost any target. Workers will respond, if and when asked to act on their issues. Companies always have vulnerabilities that can be exploited.
Nonetheless without deep commitment – and pockets – to stay in it to win it, and the chance to adapt the organizing to what works and is most effective in the action and reaction of organization and workers to company response and so and so on, no plan will work no matter how good or well executed. Without that kind of commitment, it’s just dare to struggle without daring to win. Workers from time to time in different formations will be able to push Amazon and the others back in some battles, but won’t be able to win the war without putting all the pieces together and having the time and resources to engage the companies for as long as it takes.