Amazon, the sprawling $800 billion monster eating the retail industry, is the most important union target in America. Now, Amazon is moving into New York City in force. The leverage has arrived. Stars are aligning. Here is how you change the world:
Why is Amazon so important to the future of organized labor? Not merely because it is one of the biggest companies in America; not merely because it is led by the richest man in the country; not merely because it is one of the most important tech companies, an area that it is critical for unions to break into; Amazon is uniquely important because its business model represents, to a large degree, the future of work in America. Organized labor must always, always, move in tandem with the US economy itself, lest workers be left behind. And no company is leading the changes to our economy more than Amazon. If unions cannot crack Amazon, it is bad news for tens of millions of working Americans at countless other companies that will be following in the wake of changes that Amazon has made.
Amazon’s primary change in American labor practices has been its cannibalization of the traditional retail industry. People used to work in stores; with the rise of online retailing led by Amazon, those jobs increasingly have moved into vast warehouses where orders are prepped, and into the delivery and logistics firms that deliver those orders. This is why Amazon warehouse employees are the most important workers in America—because they sit inside the most important company and represent the most important trend of the future of labor. They are, I’m sad to say, the vanguard of the economy.
It is not easy to unionize an Amazon warehouse. The jobs are tenuous, the company deploys the usual anti-union scare tactics, and besides, most of those employees are kept running around a warehouse every last minute of their shift until they’re utterly exhausted. So it is important for unions to choose the most promising target. In 2017, Amazon announced that it would be building its first ever “fulfillment center” in New York City, on Staten Island. There is no more pro-union city in America. This was the opportunity. For many months now, the Retail Workers union has been training and organizing Staten Islanders who may get jobs in that warehouse. Now they have publicly announced the union campaign. The warehouse began hiring people this summer. It will be open next year. Amazon has spent $100 million on it. When that warehouse opens for business, among its 2,200 workers are guaranteed to be quite a few who have already decided that they are there to unionize the place, here in a union town. There has never been a more likely candidate for a successful union drive in this company. And if it happens, it will be a foothold that Amazon cannot reverse, unless they want to throw away $100 million and a whole lot of political capital.
There’s more. Last month, Amazon selected Queens as a site for its “HQ2.” Twenty five thousand white collar Amazon employees will be working there soon. This fact has not been popular with quite a few politically conscious New Yorkers. It was accompanied by an egregious giveaway of public money to Amazon, and it was accomplished via a secret back room process in which power was jealously guarded by the mayor and governor. There is a substantial movement to try to roll back the deal altogether. But there are billions of dollars at stake, and lots of powerful forces that have a lot of money riding on HQ2 arriving here. Assuming that Amazon does end up with a massive white collar work force in Queens, guess what that means?
That means that there is now an opportunity to unionize both the blue collar and the white collar Amazon workers in a single city.
As you know if you follow much reporting, Amazon’s white collar and tech jobs are no picnic either. Even though the white collar workers are not breaking their bodies in a warehouse, they are subjected to seriously poor working conditions and an awful work-life balance. Tens of thousands of these workers will soon be in offices in Long Island City. The tech industry is no longer foreign land for worker organizing—witness the labor actions of Google employees in the past year. This shit is real now. And Amazon, which just rushed out to hire a new lobbying firm to try to tamp down the outrage over their move to NYC, is in a very delicate position. They must be on their very best corporate social responsibility behavior in order to maintain the political support that will allow them to move into this city in the first place. The mayor and governor, both self-proclaimed progressive champions, are now in the position of advocating on Amazon’s behalf against an angry base of community leaders, labor activists, and fellow (realer) progressives. Can you imagine what would happen if Amazon were to immediately engage in vicious union-busting? It would make it untenable for the mayor and governor—both recipients of staunch union support—to continue backing Amazon’s corrosive colonization of our city. In order to maintain the political relationships necessary to exist in New York City, Amazon must leave many of its traditional anti-union tools packed away in the toolbox. That is what you call an opportunity. The AFL-CIO and every relevant union in America should now be marshaling resources to help the RWDSU organize the Staten Island warehouse—and, at the same time, to launch an organizing drive for the white collar workers moving into Queens.
This is a chance to get a union inside Amazon across the entire spectrum of the company’s operations. This is big. This is the sort of thing that the future of organized labor depends on. This has to happen. There will not be a better opportunity, anywhere in America, ever. There is a whole city ready to help. At stake is the question of whether the jobs of tomorrow will work for humanity, or whether humanity will work for capital, as one man cackles from atop his $100 billion fortune.
Let’s all get to work.
Update: An Amazon spokesperson sent the following statement in response to this story: “Amazon respects its employees’ right to choose to join or not join a labor union. Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.”