Photo: Getty

Amazon is set to bring thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars to New York City. This marks the most promising opportunity in history to actually unionize Amazon. But that will only work if our city’s most powerful unions don’t stab one another in the back. Some are already failing the test.

Even though Amazon has graciously announced that it is bestowing half of its second headquarters on our humble city, the project is not a done deal. The mayor and the governor are happy about it, but lots of other people who are not mayor or governor or major Long Island City property owner are not happy at all. They know that Amazon used a national competition in order to siphon the maximum amount of public funds by playing cities off one another; they know that Amazon is run by the richest man on earth and still destroys its workers mentally and physically; and they know that Amazon, a company existentially opposed to unions, is seeking to waltz into the strongest union town in America and tell the entire working class here to go fuck itself.

Yesterday, an Amazon executive told the New York City Council that the company would not remain neutral in any union campaigns its employees might undertake in New York. In other words, the company is so confident that it has our political and business leaders by the balls that they do not even feel it is necessary to lie about the fact that they will continue to practice union busting as a corporate philosophy. Everyone should understand that our governor Andrew Cuomo and our saintly progressive mayor Bill de Blasio—both of whom love to express their affinity for unions at any opportunity—could have made neutrality in union drives a condition for the enormous, multibillion-dollar incentive package that they gave Amazon in exchange for its decision to locate in Queens. They could have said that union busting is simply not compatible with a rich company asking for public handouts in a proud union city. They could have. But they didn’t.

This pathetic failure of political backbone means that it will be up to unions themselves to draw the line for Amazon in New York. Already, the Retail Workers union [RWDSU] has launched a campaign to unionize the workers in Amazon’s new warehouse on Staten Island; it is only a matter of time before other labor groups start planning to organize the Amazon tech workers that will soon begin flooding into Queens. Yesterday, the RWDSU, the Teamsters, and other groups protested Amazon’s City Council appearance. “Amazon wants to plant its flag in New York City,” on Teamsters leader declared. “That’s not gonna happen here.”

This is called solidarity. This is how the labor movement exercises power in the face of an enormously powerful corporation backed by all the best politicians and lobbyist that money can buy. If all of New York City’s strongest labor unions stick together, they can present a united front that is capable of challenging Amazon’s determined anti-union philosophy. Solidarity, properly exercised, can make New York City the place where Amazon is finally unionized. Solidarity can make this city the last stand of the zillionaire techno-dystopian anti-worker nightmare. Solidarity is everything now. And so, of course...

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“The confirmation that the company would not support any union bids came just about an hour after union members from the Building and Construction Trades Council and 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union rallied in support of Amazon.”

Yes: in this time when solidarity is everything, when organizing Amazon workers is one of the most important tasks for the entire American labor movement, two major union forces in New York City have decided to sell out to Amazon. The fact that the Building Trades supports the deal is to be expected—they are considered the right wing of organized labor, and routinely and openly place their own economic interests above all else—but the fact that 32BJ SEIU, one of the city’s strongest and most progressive and successful unions, is backing Amazon is absolutely crushing. They have struck a deal with Amazon to use union cleaners and security officers (who would not be Amazon employees) in their new headquarters. In exchange, they are backing a project run by the most powerful corporate anti-union force in America. They are throwing the concept of solidarity in the trash in order to get a handful of jobs for their own members. They are failing to present a unified front against the company’s well-documented labor abuses, and undermining the struggle by other unions to do something much bigger: unionize thousands and thousands of Amazon employees for the first time, ever, anywhere, which could transform the nature of work in America for decades to come.

I know that “selling out” is a pejorative term. But if it has any meaning, it means what is happening here. Some unions are selling out the entire labor movement to benefit themselves. Hector Figueroa, the leader of 32BJ, and a man who has done a lot of good things for poor working people, told me once, “We represent not just the people who are paying dues. We also represent the people who are not in the union who should also be having the kinds of benefits and wages that our members enjoy. And because we have a service economy, that is almost the entire labor market.” In this case, he has failed to live up to his own standard. 

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Amazon is rich. Amazon is powerful. Amazon has economic and political strength on its side. The only thing that working people have on their side is solidarity. If labor unions are incapable of exercising solidarity with one another in the face of Amazon, then Amazon will win, and the labor movement will lose. It’s that simple.

Don’t be on the wrong side of history.