Fair Contracts, Decent Work and Other Social-democratic or Social-reformist Clichés: The Case of the Amazon Labour Union

Introduction

The relatively recent organizing of Amazon workers into the Amazon Labour Union (ALU) is presented by the social-democratic or reformist left as an astounding success. Certainly, the organization of Amazon workers into a formal union is noteworthy because of, on the one hand, the increasing importance of such “gig” workers in a society dominated by a class of employers and, on the other, the explicit anti-union tactics of such employers as Amazon.

It can also be said that workers can learn an important lesson when faced with the difficulty of organizing in the face of an explicit anti-union employer: the actual organizing of workers in a workplace by the same workers in that workplace constitutes an inside advantage when compared to organizing from the outside by professional union organizers. As Jordan House and Paul Gray note (from https://socialistproject.ca/2022/04/amazon-workers-form-a-union/):

One of the reasons why Amazon workers in Staten Island were so successful is because they formed an independent, grassroots organization to unionize their particular workplace. Other efforts have been led by already established unions, like the RWDSU in Bessemer, Ala., or the Teamsters in Nisku, Alta.

Union organizing is ultimately about relationships and trust. Organizers from within a workplace don’t have to develop relationships from scratch the same way organizers from outside an organization do. ALU organizers emphasized that they “didn’t come from somewhere else to organize JFK8; we literally work there.”

This stands in stark contrast to the campaigns in Alabama and Alberta. In the latter case, the secretary treasurer of the Teamsters Local 362 acknowledged that “we didn’t have anybody on the inside” in the Nisku facility.

Independent, grassroots unions are able to avoid some of the baggage of more established unions. While the ALU faced specific criticisms by Amazon and its union-avoidance consultants, these largely revolved around the ALU’s upstart status. As Amazon’s anti-ALU website states, “the ALU has no track record that you can use to judge whether their representation would be worth it to you or not.”

The ALU also developed tactics that are much more effective when workers on the inside are organizing. For example, ALU worker-organizers researched Amazon’s union-avoidance consultants by scouring Labor Department reports and warehouse lists of third-party vendors. Then, in one-on-one conversations with their co-workers, they shared their research on how these consultants, whose typical rate is $3,200 (US) per day, “get rich ‘convincing poor people to stay poor’.”

The stark contrast between what Amazon was willing to pay these consultants and worker salaries persuaded many to support the ALU. These workers also organized their co-workers to fearlessly challenge anti-union talking points at the captive audience meetings, which inspired other, more cautious co-workers to do the same.

Despite the odds, the ALU succeeded where some of North America’s largest and established private sector unions have failed. The ALU has proven that one of the most powerful anti-union companies in North America can be unionized. This doesn’t mean that the already established unions can’t beat Amazon, but as the ALU has made clear, inside workers have to take the lead. 

Idealization of Unionizing 

Despite the benefits of insider organizing, the authors do not provide any critical distancing concerning the ideology expressed by both those involved in the union-organizing drive and those who defend such unions uncritically. For example, on the ALU website ( https://www.amazonlaborunion.org/), we read the following: 

How do contract negotiations work?

Negotiations are led by the ALU Bargaining Committee, made up of workers from each shift and department. We need intelligent, strong-minded workers to step forward to help negotiate a fair contract for all workers. We do all of the work, we should have a say in our working conditions. [my emphasis]
Although it is understandable that a new union, which has faced major opposition from an anti-union employer, should emphasize winning a union-organizing drive, this does not justify the use of the ideological cliche of a “fair contract.” This misleads the workers into a false sense of what collective bargaining and collective agreements can and cannot achieve. 

Another example: this time from a liberal/social-democratic point of view. From The Atlantic   https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/04/amazon-labor-union/629550/      

The egalitarian potential of the labor movement, by contrast, is very real. Unions can unite workers across ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic barriers with a common interest in decent wages, safe working conditions, and protection from exploitation. Unions do not erase political disagreements among workers, but they model a world where those disagreements can be resolved in the name of the greater good. [my emphasis]

It is kind of difficult to achieve “decent wages”  and “protection from exploitation” when exploitation and oppression are necessary characteristics of working for an employer (see for example The Money Circuit of Capital, The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One  and The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).

Better wages are often possible when unionized, of course. Similarly, unionized workplaces provide safer working conditions, but safe working conditions when working for an employers is a will-o’-the-wisp (see the money circuit of capital above as well as such posts as Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Four: Is There Such a Thing as a Responsible Employer in Relation to the Health of Workers? or Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Seven: The National Day of Mourning in Canada and the Social Causes of Injury, Disease and Death  or Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Three: The Health and Safety of Workers and an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers Are at Loggerheads). 

In a recent debate on the Marxmail listserve (  https://groups.io/g/marxmail/topic/the_social_democratic_left/96265876?p=,,,20,0,0,0::recentpostdate/sticky,,,20,2,0,96265876,previd%3D1674045053168565529,nextid%3D1673790420258174809&previd=1674045053168565529&nextid=1673790420258174809 )with Marv Gandall, Gandall wrote the following: 

“You’re not suggesting that the Amazon and other fledgling unions try to organize and strike deals with their powerful employers outside of the legally sanctioned industrial relations regime, and that is is only the “reformists” (including on this list!) who are holding them back, are you? That does seem to be the practical implications of your abundant theorizing.”

I responded: 

Hardly. Gandall cannot draw logical conclusions since his premises are faulty.

The Amazon Union should not bullshit workers about the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement to be fair. It should explicitly try to have open discussions about the limitations of the collective-bargaining process and the limitations of collective agreements. It should try to have discussions about why almost all grievances against the collective agreement arise from the union side. It should foster its members to question why that is the case. It should refer to the management right clauses in many collective agreements and what the implications of that is for the lives of workers.

I must say: Gandall’s response is certainly what I would expect from social democrats—they fail to address whether collective bargaining only limits the power of management while also legitimating it—a double-edged sword (but social democrats only recognize one edge—the positive side of collective agreements) and what, if anything, is to be done about the undemocratic economic coercion and economic blackmail that characterizes the employer-employee relation.

Perhaps Gandall can enlighten us about what he and others would do about management rights? About the continued exploitation and oppression of even unionized workers? About using workers as means for purposes undefined by them? About the dictatorship at workers by employers despite the existence of “free collective bargaining” and collective agreements? And many, many other features of an exploitative and oppressive society—which social democrats deny, of course.

Of course, unionized workers may have other ideas—than union bureaucrats and their ideological representatives.

Conclusion

The need to defend workers’ immediate interests against vicious anti-union employers such as Amazon through rank-and-file organizing certainly should be defended. However, such organizing has fallen into the trap as bureuacratic unions–it has idealized the nature of the contract or collective agreement rather than presenting it as a necessary but temporary truce in the long-term class struggle against the class of employers.

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