labor What Can Organizers at Amazon Learn From Walmart?
"Amazon is the epoch-defining corporation of the moment in the way that Walmart was two decades ago," said Howard W, an Amazon warehouse worker and organizer with Amazonians United, a grassroots movement of Amazon workers building shop-floor power. What can organizers at Amazon learn from the Walmart campaigns in the 2000s? And what can these two efforts teach us about organizing at scale? Unions haven’t successfully organized an employer with more than 10,000 workers in decades, so getting to scale is one of the most pressing challenges for the social justice movements.
To explore these questions, Howard was joined by Wade Rathke, who, as chief organizer of ACORN in the U.S. from 1970 – 2008, anchored a collaboration among ACORN, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) that aimed to organize Walmart. Since 1980, Rathke has also served as Head Organizer for Local 100 of the United Labor Union, which represents service workers in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Organizing Upgrade Executive Editor Alex Han facilitated the conversation, with participation from International Longshore and Warehouse Union Organizing Director Emeritus Peter Olney. The 90-minute dialogue ranged from the philosophical to the granular. We’re bringing it to you in three parts, beginning with a look at worker organizing. Part 2 focuses on relations with existing unions, and Part 3 on building broader community campaigns.
Note: This article was published in three parts simultaneously by Organizing Upgrade and Stansbury Forum on December 1, 3 and 6.
Part 1: One Shop at a Time
Alex: Wade, you worked on a project that approached organizing Walmart from a lot of different angles. Can you tell us a little about that?
Wade: We were trying to determine whether Walmart workers were willing to join a union and whether—just as importantly—they were willing to join a union that was very deliberately not going to file for an NLRB election, and made no promises of collective bargaining. We wanted to go directly to workers in the same way that ACORN would go directly to people in the community and ask them to join the organization to take action on the issues they saw in the community. We would go directly to Walmart workers and ask them if they wanted to take action on issues they saw in the workplace, whether that was hours, scheduling, wages, etc., etc., much in terms of shop-level action.
At that particular time—you’re talking about early 2005—4% of Walmart’s gross came from Florida, so it was one of the strongest states. We chose the I-4 corridor running between Orlando and Tampa-St. Pete, about 21 counties, a whole bunch of stores that they had already planted, but also a serious piece of expansion that they had proposed there. We built an organizing staff. ACORN already had an office in Orlando as well as in the Tampa area. One of my key associates and brothers was based in St. Petersburg so we knew people. We knew the turf. We were able to get established very quickly.
Obviously, we didn’t have a list of Walmart workers. We got the Florida voter list, and then we did a query to pull out all the addresses. At that time, it was populated with addresses and phone numbers, and we pulled out all the ones for families making less than $50,000. We did a simple robo-dialed prompt system where we called people who we thought were likely Walmart workers asking if they had worked for Walmart or had people in their family who worked for Walmart. There might be rights and benefits. If they were eligible, press 2, if they were interested, press 1. They’d press 1, give us their address and we’d come visit with them.
We had about 20 organizers so every night we would collect all the yesses, put people on the doors. The organizers in that piece of turf drove hundreds of miles sometimes to do three or four visits, and sometimes were lucky to actually complete any visit. For all of the union drives I’ve ever done, and there are many, we had the highest percentage of sign-ups on visits that we’d ever had, somewhere near 63% of the people who were Walmart workers who we actually got to visit would immediately sign up, and they were willing to join and pay dues. They signed up for the Walmart Workers Association. It was a membership card much like the ACORN membership card. They agreed to pay $10 US in dues per month, in an open-ended bank draft.
And that was surprising to me, how much interest and heat there was in the workforce about wanting to join this. And, once again, we were saying we’re not going to file for election. There is no collective bargaining. We’re not promising a damn thing other than you come together with your fellow workers. You can take action on the grievances and issues you have.
‘WE RUN THE PLACE’
Alex: Howard, can you tell us about the concept around Amazonians United, the kind of organizing that you’re doing, and what’s happened as a result of that organizing?
Howard: The concept behind Amazonians United is that building collective power on the shop floor is foundational to changing the circumstances of workers at Amazon. Our power in making Amazon run is the thing that is needed to make any big change. We realize that Amazon is known for its huge size but also its far reach, so to make the biggest and most fundamental changes in it, the work will have to be more complex and involve more people that are touched by Amazon in more ways. But without Amazon workers forming that base, a lot of the rest of that work probably won’t go anywhere because we have the strongest position, because we run the place.
We’ve been organizing Amazonians United for about three years now. There are workers involved in Amazonians United that have been there longer than that, but we’ve been working as Amazonians United for about three years. In that time, Amazon has had a lot of press about its working conditions, its safety record, the intensity of the work, the inhumanity of a lot of the working conditions, and not a lot has changed. But when we in our warehouses have come together and done actions even as simple as a petition, and getting the super-majority of our coworkers to sign on to a list of demands, we’ve seen local management—which pretty consistently across the whole Amazon network is aloof, condescending, treats us like robots half the time and children the other half of the time—immediately sit up and, for the most part, rush to meet our demands, especially when they are demands that are within the warehouse. We’ve found it more difficult to make progress on bigger demands, like demands for a raise or demands for things that are really happening at a corporate level. Our work has been mostly warehouse by warehouse.
One of our very early victories that says a lot about Amazon was a fight for clean drinking water at the Chicago warehouse, where Amazon management had not been providing bottled water. They’d been providing those five-gallon bottled water fountains, but there was visible scum floating in the water. Workers had been demanding fresh water—this is in the middle of a hot summer, working intense shifts. Management had kept putting people off. “Oh, yeah, yeah, we’re working on it, we’re working on it, we’re working on it.”
And so then finally our folks started coming together and forming up as a crew, passed around a petition, got a super-majority of coworkers signed on, and confronted management with it at one of those standup meetings that started a shift. The manager became visibly scared, immediately got on the phone to his supervisor, immediately left to the store to get bottled water. Within the next week, clean water lines were being run throughout the warehouse and fresh water was being provided. In a lot of ways, it’s depressing that we had to fight for it, but it shows the power of workers to turn circumstances around in the warehouse very quickly in these cases.
The New York warehouse that’s organized into Amazonians United was actually the first warehouse where there was an acknowledged case of the coronavirus in Amazon’s network. And the reason it was the first acknowledged case of the coronavirus is not that Amazon came out and said it. Workers there were organized and when one person got the news that they had tested positive on a very thinly staffed afternoon shift, they told a couple of their coworkers as they were leaving. Those coworkers passed it around to the rest of the organized crew, and the night shift that was coming in a few hours later.
A few of our folks showed up early, stopped everyone from coming in, told them what had happened. This was back when we didn’t know how the virus was passed. There was an impromptu rally in the parking lot. Workers refused to go in until serious cleaning had been done. Amazon agreed to shut the place down for two days, do cleaning and pay everybody. And that then began Amazon’s actual serious response to COVID. I can tell you from working in the warehouse that there was a real switch that was thrown at some point, in that Amazon was very clearly pretending it was not a problem and then all of a sudden, they started really taking it seriously.
In Chicago, the crew actually walked out for several days, demanding a serious response to the coronavirus. And that was one of the times a worker organization has been paired with community support, because when workers were walking out and were picketing the workplace, community members organized a car caravan to come by and show support and also create a bit of a jam for all the delivery vans trying to get in and out.
When we start organizing, we build up our organizing committees, we take action, we start changing the narrative in our warehouse. I think a lot of folks in warehouses assume that the problems that we have are unique to us and that everybody else has it better. And that clearly Amazon, leading light of the modern economy, the whole thing couldn’t be run as poorly and be constantly broken and duck-taped together as our warehouse, right?
One of the things that we’re able to do as a network is meet each other as organizing committees and bring each other together as workers—not just as the organizers who are talking to each other a lot more, but as everybody who is in some way involved in the organizing in the warehouse. And they come and you can just talk shop.
We’re trying to figure out other things. We have a closed Facebook group for members of Amazonians United and people interested in Amazonians United who work at Amazon. We’re publishing newsletters, we’re trying to figure out ways that we can bring each other these stories in order to forge these connections.
Part of our work is building a meaningful community at work and a meaningful project for people to help them stick around. ‘Cause yeah, like the warehouses are very alienated places, a lot of them, right? People cycle through a lot. A lot of times the work is very isolated. People get ground down so much by the work that when you go on break everyone’s on their phone, talking to the people they really care about. In some cases, there is community there; in some cases, it takes people very intentionally being friendly, sharing food with each other, inviting people to cookouts and organizing potlucks and whatnot. Yeah, and building that community that then can be the basis for fighting for our lives.
Part 2: Acting Like a Union—With or Without One
Alex: Can you talk about the responses from Amazon and Walmart—not just how they responded to you on the issues, but whether they responded with efforts to blunt the organizing?
Howard: A lot of people working today don’t have an experience of being in a union, and even if they do, they don’t necessarily have an experience of taking collective action and changing their circumstances. And so I think that the biggest effect for Amazon workers of the work that we are doing is beginning to write new stories that we can tell each other.
I know that when I started organizing at my warehouse, it was absolutely invaluable to have stories from New York and Chicago and Sacramento, so that as things came up in the warehouse, issues that people complained about, that people felt bad about but that people often felt hopeless about, I could say, ‘Hey, you know what, this really grinds my gears too. But you know, I heard about these folks at this other warehouse…’ and begin to get those stories circulating and people beginning to think, ‘Okay, we can do something. There’s something I can do besides either quit or try to by force of will pressure my boss to treat me better than everybody else.’ And I think that’s something that we’re building and we’re building and we’re building.
A lot of what we’ve done is these warehouse-by-warehouse fights, and there’s been a lot of them with a lot of victories, often very local victories. But one of our campaigns was actually for paid time off, which Amazon had been denying to all of its part-time workers. For a long time, all of its delivery station workers, who are the folks who load the vans, do the final sort, were all part-time workers. So, no healthcare. Just enough hours to not get healthcare, right? And their own policy said that folks in those situations should get paid time off, but they weren’t offering the paid time off.
Folks in Sacramento noticed that in a campaign to get a couple of their coworkers reinstated from an unjust firing—”Where’s our paid time off?” Up until that point, Amazon had been offering only the incredible benefit of unpaid time off, a certain number of hours that you were allowed to not come to work without getting paid but not getting fired.
Sacramento started that campaign. They had petitions and a button that everybody was wearing, and they marched on the boss. Chicago picked it up, then New York. Folks in other warehouses in the Philly area got wind of this and began pressuring their management about it. Pretty soon after that, Amazon came out and announced that it was going to extend paid time off to all of its part-time workers.
MANAGEMENT CAUGHT FLAT-FOOTED
Alex: Wow. And so that was a decision that reverberated nationally?
Howard: Yeah. Thousands and thousands of workers were suddenly granted paid time off. And—how have we seen Amazon respond? They are still to this day, three years later, quick to meet demands that are brought on a local level, and I think managers are still regularly being caught completely flat-footed.
We look at how Amazon has responded to us and how Amazon responded to the RWDSU [Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union] drive in Bessemer, Alabama. Folks in the labor movement sometimes complain that it seems like the labor movement has become hidebound, sclerotic or sort of stuck in a rut. But I think if that’s the case, it’s probably the case that unionbusting has gotten hidebound and sclerotic and stuck in a rut. And I think that when Amazon heard that there was a union filing for an election, they called up the anti-union people and said, “Yes, we’d like one anti-union campaign, please, whatever it costs.” And they showed up and did it.
But when workers come together and assert their fundamental strength as the people who run the place, I don’t think they have anyone to call, and I think they still don’t really know what to do about that when they can’t run the third-party thing. They can’t point to all the cars that we’re paying for or whatever, ’cause we’re not.
We have seen some retaliation by them. Some of our folks that they’ve fingered I think as workplace leaders, they’ve interrogated them, they’ve pressured them. We’ve seen times when management has tried various things to divide folks in the warehouse. So far all of those times, through organizing and our solidarity with each other and then sometimes through using the unfair labor practice mechanism with the National Labor Relations Board, we’ve been able to resist it every time.
Wade: The truth is we never filed a single 8(a)1 or 8(a)3 [charge of violations of these sections of the National Labor Relations Act] throughout the whole campaign over three or four years because in fact, after all the months of them dealing directly with the workers, once they realized we weren’t filing for an election—I mean, it’s your point exactly about there’s one playbook they’re working with, just like there’s one traditional union playbook now.
So when they figured out we weren’t filing for an election, they would bend very quickly. We were able to win reinstatements, some wage differences, changes in schedules, largely because they got themselves caught in their own lies.
We knew they were doing the scheduling out of computers in Bentonville Arkansas, but they wanted to pretend that the local managers were. So when we’d have a schedule thing, we walked in with five, 10, 20 people and there’d be people on the outside as well, and they wouldn’t touch us. And it was easier for them to let us win because they still had us within a store. They knew they didn’t have an election coming. They wanted us to get tired or maybe they understood more about the institutional labor movement than I did, so they knew they could outwait us, as essentially and they did.
WHAT ROLE FOR EXISTING UNIONS?
Peter: There’s the question of these major working-class institutions that we still have like the Teamsters Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), who, in the case of the Teamsters, really do see Amazon as an existential threat. Every day their trucks from UPS are being blocked by Amazon trucks on every urban causeway in America. The question becomes how we envision a collaboration between our trade unions and some of their skills, their resources, and this kind of brilliant bottom-up organizing that the Amazonians United network is doing. I really think it’s a confluence of the two which is going to bring us home.
I am choosing to devote my energy and efforts towards supporting AU in their work because I think no matter what union gets involved, no union’s going to be successful without a strong base in the warehouses and the work that Howard and his people do. So I’m interested in Howard and Wade reflecting on that dynamic, because I know it’s a political tension too. Some of our AU folks are not particularly interested in connecting with what they call business unions, and I’m very respectful of that position and I believe in working with those folks and engaging in comradely discussion about how we go forward. But I’m really interested in both Wade, with his 40-something-plus years of experience dealing with these institutions but with his fundamental orientation, and Howard, too, because I know Howard is also challenged by the same question.
Wade: I don’t have a good story. I went to brother Hansen, Joe Hansen, the head of UFCW, and I said, “Look, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is a thousand people have signed up in a little over six months. The response has been great. There’s some level of organization in 32 stores, but we have gone as far as we can expanding the list and you have to decide. I think this could work if you were willing to make a commitment to get up to a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand members on this kind of strategy and to spend some money to do it.”
And his response was pretty much, “Wade, you’ve done a good job. Really interesting what you’ve done,” and that was the last time he signed a check for the campaign.
So the problem of jurisdiction and the problem of institutional union politics is very difficult to navigate.
I try to read between the lines of what the Teamsters’ organizing director is saying, and I’m not encouraged that they’re ready to do what really needs to be done, like reaching out to Amazonians United, finding out where your network is, identifying an area and really writing the checks and saying, “We’re here for 10, 15, 20 years.” I tried to see how small you could make the unit, what was the real fulfillment warehouse unit as opposed to the drivers, as opposed to—and even so, you’re talking about 100,00, 200,000 workers, and we haven’t organized in the labor movement any employer with even 10,000 workers since I’ve been an organizer for labor unions. I mean, I’m ashamed to say that, but it’s just true.
Now in the public sector, yes, home care, we’ve got some successes, but not with a private sector company like an Amazon or anybody else that’s come forward over the last number of years. And damned if we learn anything. But I agree, Peter, we’ve got to somehow, before unions bankrupt themselves, we’ve got to find somebody who’s willing to actually organize some people, and I just don’t know right today who that is.
Howard: It’s a complicated situation and there is a diversity of opinion within the Amazonians United network about how we should relate to the existing unions, what they have to offer, what we risk getting more involved with them. Wade, your experience with Walmart in Florida is something that is very heavily on our minds. And I think the easiest thing to point to when looking at the existing unions is oh, they’ve got staff, right? But there is a worry about becoming dependent upon somebody else’s money and somebody else’s resources. And there’s wanting to build not just something that is independent in a way that it can be really democratic and of, by, and for Amazon workers, but also something that is sustainable and not driven by the other concerns that whatever union that might want to throw their support behind us might have.
These are questions that we are all wrestling with and experimenting with as we speak, trying to figure out first and foremost what strength we can build, and who will join the struggle with us, but also what sort of allies can be brought into this work. You know, be they a labor movement, be they community institutions, be they whatever it might be. And I think for me, that’s something that I’ve found really intriguing and inspiring about reading your piece about this Florida campaign. There are such obvious parallels between Walmart in the early oughts, and Amazon now and trying to think through that question of—you know, we’re working on building up our power as workers, so what does it look like as workers to be reaching out and working with community institutions? What does it look like to be reaching out and working with labor unions? What does it look like to be building those linkages and not just with each of us pursuing our own little agendas, but how do we really become part of this organized fight that can become as organized as Amazon is?
A lot of people, when they look at Amazon and they see the size and they see the scope and they see the tentacles everywhere, they say it’s so huge it can never be done. But we also know that those tentacles mean there’s a lot of surface area. It means that there are a lot of people impacted and there are a lot of potential people who can come into this fight. Amazon is very well organized around this. How can we gather all of the people that are impacted by Amazon and get as organized as them in order to be able to bring some democracy to this economy, and be able to figure out how we want this institution to be running the world?
Part 3: Engaging the Community, Building a Movement
Alex: I’m actually really struck, Howard, in hearing you lay this out after Wade’s talking about his history and some of that Walmart work. I’m a little bit more struck in a deeper connection to the kind of community organizing that ACORN and a host of other organizations do, working in neighborhoods, working in different locations to build power sometimes in a symmetrical way, sometimes in an asymmetrical way. I’m just really struck by some of those parallels.
We have two employers that were the primary employer in a lot of places. I think of Amazon right now as the default employer like in my neighborhood, in Humboldt Park on the West Side of Chicago. Amazon is a default employer and they’re building a distribution facility about a mile from my house, which will strengthen that. So I just wanted to ask the two of you what you think are keys to building community support around Amazon workers, and how do we link some common interest there?
Wade: The community support was directly aligned to their ability to see their workers leading that fight. And without it, I mean, we just couldn’t make much happen.
We did geo-targeting that we learned from some folks at Gainesville at the University of Florida. We would guess where big box operators wanted to go, and every week we would have a researcher calling all the Planning Departments in those 21 counties to see if there was any activity on those corners so that we could then come up with a preemptive strike against their expansion. In that way, we were able to stop 32 straight stores from being built. Now sometimes they were putting them in wetlands and sometimes—I mean, you know, they were pretty greasy about the whole thing. They were in a hurry but so is Amazon in a hurry.
It was an open campaign compared to Amazonians United. As I said, we surfaced the leaders early. They were able then to be involved publicly in the site fights and in the public hearings with city councils, planning commissions and allies about why we needed them to put the arm on Walmart to give us more protection and authority in the workplace.
MORE LOCATIONS, MORE OPPORTUNITY
If Amazon keeps going the way it goes, in five years probably, 10 certainly, you’re going to have an Amazon location in virtually every community in the country of any size. To get that same-day delivery or next-day delivery, there are just going to be so many locations, and that could be a way to look at a different geographical plan.
Looking at geography allows you to get more density where you have active committees or people who are coming together, and to then build a bridge to real community support, which I think is very possible to move at this point. Amazon has not had good press the last couple of years. There’s a reason Bezos is trying to go to the moon, I think. At the point we were organizing Walmart, Walmart was public enemy number one on the corporate side, and they look good now compared to Amazon. Who would’ve believed that was possible? But yeah, I would try to narrow the focus in order to get more pressure on them. I think it’s hard for a fly to be noticed by the elephant.
Howard: We are aware of the need to also build strength geographically as well. As they try to build out this next-day delivery, same-day delivery promise, they have to locate in the major metropolitan areas, right? They cannot run away there. They have to then concentrate in that way, and their network becomes shaped by the ways that people live, because they are a retailer. So that’s the next horizon that we have to be looking at, and that we are looking at and figuring out how to work on. How do you build that strength on a metro scale to be working as Amazon workers, you know, in New York City or in Chicago and not just in DBK1 or DCH1, which are the codes for the warehouses.
The scale is difficult, and it is something that we think of a lot. What we’ve managed to do so far is very exciting. The power that we’ve been able to build, particularly in a company that a lot of people say is an impossible place to organize at, is very encouraging. But then every now and again you step back and you realize the true scale of Amazon and you think okay, this is a good start, and it’s going to have to pick up and it’s going to have to expand. We are going to need to find allies, we’re going to have to find ways to reach more people, to bring in more folks in order to transform this company that has such sway over so much of our lives.
HOW CAN PEOPLE BECOME THE MOVEMENT?
But there’s another thing that we think about, which is that in the epic struggle between labor and capital, the whole point is that one of the sides has the money and the other side has the people. One of the things that we think about is that if we’re going to make really big, epochal change in this world, not just for workers at Amazon, but for the whole working class, for working people in the U.S. and around the world, Amazon is a huge chunk of that. And right now, it is a chunk that has incredible power and incredible reach and incredible stature, right?
And I think that’s what makes it a particularly important place to make change. But if we’re going to make those sorts of big changes, we have to figure out how ordinary people and extraordinary people are going to make time in their lives and become that movement and become the organizers and pull themselves together. And that is something that drives us fundamentally: thinking of this as building a movement.
If you’d like to learn more about Amazonians United, check out their website at
amazoniansunited.org/. If you’re interested in joining the movement inside Amazon, you can submit an inquiry here: https://airtable.com/shr5Bq5sTeMweqJ7f.
This dialogue is a joint project of OrgUp and The Stansbury Forum.
Alex Han is the new executive editor of Organizing Upgrade. He has organized with unions, in the community, and in progressive politics for two decades. As a vice president of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, he helped tens of thousands of home-based healthcare and childcare workers unionize. He helped found United Working Families, an independent political organization that has elected movement leaders to city, county, and state offices. In 2020 he served on the national political team for the Bernie Sanders campaign. He has also worked with labor and community organizations around the country as part of the Bargaining for the Common Good network.
Thanks to Peggy James for the transcription.