‘We will win!’ – Popular world
STATEN ISLAND, NY – The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) held a rally outside JFK8, the e-commerce giant’s distribution center here on January 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For several months, organizers have been collecting signatures for an upcoming union vote at the factory, where thousands of workers prepare and send millions of packages to customers every day.
For two years, the pandemic has highlighted the need for a union at the warehouse. For workers, it has even been a challenge to come to work due to the lack of protection provided by Amazon. One employee, Tristan Dutchen, told the MLK rally:
“It was very hard [for workers] due to COVID-19. Many cases have skyrocketed over the past year and Amazon has done nothing to help protect us. There were no building closures, no sanitation, no clearing of areas, people were just getting sick every day. Amazon hasn’t done its job and that’s where our unionization comes in.”
ALU responds to the urgent conditions faced by settlement workers. Amazon said it has invested in ensuring workers are protected, even failing to provide the proper equipment to keep them safe. And this even as the company achieved a turnover of 386 billion dollars in 2021.
Derrick Palmer, ALU Vice President, explained how the organizing effort began after workers demanded better terms in January 2020. Palmer, along with ALU President Christian Smalls, all two made calls for protective equipment but were denied by the company.
“We went to management to see if they could at least provide that for us. And they said no, we didn’t need it, so we thought that wasn’t the right answer, and we decided to have this protest. Shortly after the protest, Chris was fired. Another worker, Gerald, was also fired and I was handed a final article,” Palmer said. “Amazon quickly fought back against us and that was the spark that really started this whole ALU movement.”
The mistreatment of Staten Island workers is not only due to continuous working hours and low wages, but also to the health risk of not having personal protective equipment.
Many workers said it was difficult to travel between their home borough and the warehouse, reporting that this increased the risk of contracting COVID. As one worker put it: “The buses are so packed with people that even with social distancing, you’re going to catch it on a bus. Amazon knows this, but they don’t do anything about the bus, even though we complain about it all the time. This is one of the most important things because so many workers commute from Brooklyn or the Bronx.
These complaints are in addition to reports of numerous injuries to workers at Amazon facilities across the country. Warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama, and Staten Island have both recently seen worker deaths. In Bessemer, insult was added to injury when the colleagues of one of the victims were unable to take time off to deal with the death of their friend.
2021 also saw several COVID deaths among the company’s workforce and thousands of confirmed cases. Additionally, Amazon eliminated unlimited unpaid time off at the end of April 2020 for its employees, just as the pandemic was unfolding.
Staten Island Amazon workers say these grievances, and more, have strengthened their resolve to fight for a union.
The MLK Day Rally and other collective actions highlight the importance of the struggle to win conditions of safety. Smalls described the difficulties Amazon workers face at work and their difficult economic conditions at home. He described the fact that Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and the worker are not the same, and that’s because Bezos and other executives accumulate their wealth through the labor of workers.
“You have a company like Amazon that comes in and reaps the benefits on our backs, reaps the benefits on our neighborhoods,” Smalls told those gathered. “They’re using and abusing us, and they’re throwing us straight to the curb.”
From the lack of PPE and proper COVID-19 protocol to the physical danger posed on the job site, Amazon has shown that it will push the boundaries of unsafe working conditions for its employees if it means greater profit. The ALU aims to change that.
“They want us to stay poor. That’s how we see it. Referring again to Bezos and the owning class, he said, “Let’s be honest, we’re not from the same neighborhood as them.”
Smalls also spoke about King’s legacy within the labor movement. King’s leadership, he said, is inspirational in advancing labor justice, but he also described seeing signs posted by the company throughout the warehouse celebrating MLK Day with civil rights icon quotes.
The question was asked, “Does Amazon support Dr. King’s ideas of justice and equality when thousands of workers are risking their lives to go to work?”
Recognizing King for his role in the civil rights movement is essential, but he would never have wanted to be used as a tool by corporations to show off their supposed progressiveness. King was a fierce fighter for economic equality and spoke out against the injustices of capitalism. Companies like Amazon co-opt King’s message of racial unity, while ignoring the economic component of his fight and punishing their workers with exploitation and atrocious working conditions.
It is a facet of capitalism to co-opt certain aspects of the revolutionary messages of the leaders after they are gone and to remove the essence of their teachings from which the workers could learn. The Russian revolutionary Lenin once wrote: “During the life of the great revolutionaries the oppressive classes persecuted them relentlessly and received their education with the most ruthless campaign of lies and slander”, but after their death they attempted to “transform them into harmless icons… emasculating and vulgarizing the true essence of their revolutionary theories.
That’s what the business world and even right-wing politicians did to King. The content of his message which was dangerous for capitalism is blunted and accepted by the bourgeois forces to serve as a consolation to the worker.
The ALU held its rally to honor King’s radical legacy and emphasize that its organizers are fighting for workers’ liberation, not corporate interests.
How much longer can individuals like Jeff Bezos continue to buy mansions when the average Amazon worker can’t afford amenities like food and childcare? A worker in the crowd said: ‘Jeff Bezos, if you see this you are the richest man in the world and you should open a daycare or daycare center especially for your Amazon workers!’ Often, Amazon workers find themselves unable to go to work because they don’t have childcare.
Who will look after the interests of this mother and countless others who have to choose between earning a living and caring for their children?
ALU’s efforts represent a critical turning point for Amazon workers’ rights. The ALU not only demands safe working conditions, including preventive measures to combat COVID-19, but also a living wage of $30 per hour. As many workers have said, Amazon is reaping billions of dollars while the average Amazon worker struggles to survive. It was really only a matter of time before workers started to come together and fight for their rights.
As Chris Smalls said, “I’m telling you now, we’re not going anywhere. ALU is here to stay! ALU is forever. We have workers all over the world, all over this country watching us, reaching out to us. They expect us to succeed, I tell you right now, and we will win. Let me say it again: we are going to win.