Above photo: From Say No to Amazon.
It seems eons ago, the youth-led climate strike of September 20, 2019 that brought four million people onto the streets worldwide. I was on the sidewalk outside Seattle City Hall, watching thousands of school-skippers march by. And then behind the teens came waves of exuberant people, no more than a decade or two older, their homemade signs held aloft: tech workers, including hundreds of Amazon workers who had stepped out of their comfortable cubicles and palatial glass towers to join the global walkout.
They had every right to step lightly. Just a day earlier, the budding Amazon Employees for Climate Justice had forced CEO Jeff Bezos into an extraordinary concession, pledging to move the company to 100 per cent renewable energy and net-zero carbon emissions. The tech workers were celebrating their power even though their numbers represented a minuscule fraction of the company’s fifty thousand Seattle workers. Imagine what power they would have if tech, logistics, and warehouse workers united and organized global majority unions at Amazon.
That’s daunting to conceive. Amazon is huge. It plays the central role in American capitalism’s distribution and logistics web and also in technology and its control of the internet through Amazon Web Services (AWS). Amazon’s worldwide employee head count is 1.2 million and growing every day. Its market valuation exceeds the national GDPs of more than 90 per cent of the world’s nations.
A Very Modern Challenge
In the last fifteen years, the company that began as an online bookseller has consolidated extraordinary monopolistic control over our daily lives, monetizing the activities of workers and consumers, honing surveillance systems inside and out of the workplace, driving economies, capturing governments around the world, and deploying vast resources to keep workers atomized, intimidated, permanently precarious, and disempowered.
The challenge of how to organize at a company so vast and apparently omnipotent, whose CEO is on the way to becoming the world’s first trillionaire, can seem utterly overwhelming, a futile exercise. And yet any credible working-class theory of taking on late-stage monopoly capitalism in today’s Gilded Age must answer the question of how to organize worker power at Amazon.
The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese and out by Pluto Press this year) doesn’t purport to provide a comprehensive road map for organizing. But in essays by the editors bookending seventeen curated articles from around the world, the book offers important insights into Amazon’s insidious nature, the challenges of organizing, and also some glimmers of organizing success at the local and national levels.
The nuggets of wisdom don’t announce themselves; in a number of the essays, you have to wade through data and scholastic verbiage to find what matters. Some show how Amazon consumer products like Ring and its complicity with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the military, and local police play a pivotal role in the modern police state; other sections, like those describing how the company monetizes “big data” and “user experience,” leave one hungry for more comprehensive description and analysis. Not surprisingly, the words and observations of Amazon workers, including several chapter authors, are the most clarifying and insightful.
Organizing against the dominant monopoly is not a new challenge. A century ago, our predecessors faced the new, disruptive mass manufacturing sector. Carnegie Steel, US Steel, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, and their ilk harnessed the latest in technologies to establish new scales of stealing value from workers’ labor, while employing the latest in psychology and coercive violence to keep workers divided and down.
It took more than a generation of failed organizing, most notably the 1919 steel strike, before workers honed the strategic smarts and organizational unity to overcome the chokehold of corporate control. Workers learned how to win, mostly through defeat. Communist Party leader William Z. Foster’s “Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry,” drawing from lessons of the failed strike and beyond, laid out fundamental lessons about organizing ideology and union form and structure: leadership identification, recruitment, propaganda, inoculation, escalation and disruption, multiracial unity. Foster’s monograph became a road map not just for the CIO’s industrial organizing successes of the 1930s, but for leading contemporary organizing struggles.
In auto, the 1930s sit-down strikers succeeded where their predecessors had failed, not just because of their increased militancy, but because they had developed a clear understanding of General Motors’ strengths and weaknesses, and from that built a strategy for exploiting production process choke points. Strikes at key factories allowed them to throttle production system-wide and force management to the bargaining table.
Today, Amazon represents that pinnacle challenge to union organizers and socialists. Are we in a 1919 moment, still a generation of failures away from breakthrough success? Or closer to 1935, approaching that tipping point of worker power?
Almost certainly the former. What’s evident from reading the essays in The Cost of Free Shipping is that rather than represent something entirely new, Amazon embodies the next iteration of monopoly capitalism, but presents a challenge a couple orders of magnitude greater than the mass production systems of the last century. As Kim Moody notes in the book, “Jeff Bezos and his crew of techies and quants simply did what robber barons have always done: raise, spend, and sometimes lose other people’s money, dodge taxes, swindle suppliers, and avoid unions.”
Disrupting the Production Process
The company also transplanted Walmart’s predatory pricing strategies from Main Street to the internet to drive out competitors, build scale, and gain monopoly control. As Jason Struna and Ellen Reese describe in the book, Amazon upgraded the century-and-a-half-old Taylorist system of scientific management methods with modern electronic surveillance to drive old-school speedups in the warehouses and throttle incipient organizing efforts.
But Amazon’s production process differs from its monopolistic forerunners in a fundamental way: redundancy is hardwired into its vast logistics and warehousing network. The prodigious throughput in General Motors’ production system drove corporate profits to astounding levels, but speed in a relatively linear, single-channel production process also proved to be the capitalists’ Achilles’ heel. As the sit-down strikers demonstrated, a single break in the chain, strategically located, could bring the whole operation to a crashing halt.
Capitalists took that lesson to heart over the years, building redundancy into production systems to undercut worker industrial action. Boeing, struck by Washington State machinists and engineers nine times since World War II, paid out billions to develop a second – nonunion, of course – production line in South Carolina beginning in 2009. The company could have met production needs at much lower construction and logistical cost by building out its existing Washington State assembly plants. But the cross-country assembly line wasn’t about efficiency; it was about disciplining the unruly union workers. There hasn’t been a strike at the Washington State factory since South Carolina started rolling out jets.
Amazon learned that lesson, from its inception incorporating supply chain redundancy that insulates the company from single-site or even single-country industrial actions. Too many Amazon warehouse job actions in recent years, while bravely fought by the workers, have been easily tamped down by the company.
There are some hopeful examples in Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese’s book. Jörn Boewe and Johannes Shulten describe how Polish workers resisted mandatory overtime that the company tried to impose in response to a strike four hundred miles away in a German warehouse. Notably, the German-Polish worker solidarity had been built through radical rank-and-file activists, not via established union institutional channels, according to the chapter authors.
But the thorough redundancy that Amazon has built into distribution systems is harder to replicate throughout the giant. Herein lie tremendous possibilities for building worker power.
Spencer Cox writes in the book about how, in March 2017, a large portion of the internet crashed for several hours as a result of a single keystroke error by an Amazon engineer, costing companies around the world hundreds of millions of dollars. Tech workers, Cox argues, “are uniquely positioned in today’s capitalist economy that depends on their labor to make industrial processes run. When they stop, so does everyone else.”
Tech executives know that, too, so for the first decades of the industry’s bloom, they’ve aggressively steered engineers, programmers, and designers away from class politics with lavish stock options, hip workplaces, and a meritocratic ideology, all supplemented with PR philanthropy and a heavy dose of corporate blandishments about progressive values and mission-driven work.
Those corporate strategies have worked so far to cloud class relations. But what I saw coming down the street in September 2019 gave me hope that the fog may be starting to dissipate.
If tech workers can overcome the tempting siren call of co-optation and embrace their shared interests with logistics and warehouse workers, then the possibilities of worker power are astonishing.
As Cox describes it,
“One could imagine strikes in key chokepoints that leverage the ability of engineers to shut down key aspects of the production process. Shutting down websites, access to the cloud, or monkeywrenching logistical systems can shut down not just the fulfillment logistics network, but the entire economy. Demands could link together the issues of warehouse, community organizations, and tech workers alike, using the structural power of tech workers to advance the interests of the working class as a whole.”
A powerful vision, indeed.
Resistance Is Not Futile
Technology and the speed of global communications are core elements of Amazon’s financial success, but workers also can harness those advances to benefit the working class. New technology in the hands of workers doesn’t cancel out the disparity between capital and labor mobility, but it can blunt it. The millions of people who took to the streets in the walkouts of September 2019 attest to how technology can surmount obstacles of distance and language.
If there’s any positive organizing news coming out of the COVID-19 era, it’s that workers have been compelled by dire circumstances to adapt technology for solidarity and collective action. Some three thousand union members from seventy different countries just concluded a six-session “Strike School,” hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and led by labor organizer Jane McAlevey. With physical distance and language no longer posing insurmountable barriers, we can begin to imagine building a true global Amazon workers’ organizing committee.
In employing new technologies, organizers will have to work relentlessly to avoid the temptation of shortcuts. Instagram and Twitter are not substitutes for organizing work. One-on-one conversations, leadership identification and recruitment, democratic decision-making, political education and power analysis through discourse, and organizational structure-testing all remain fundamental ingredients to building successful mass industrial action and durable worker organization. The technological tools now available to workers can facilitate those organizing building blocks on a global scale.
Then there’s the question of how to challenge Amazon in the political arena. The Cost of Free Shipping offers chapters with starkly different advice.
Steve Lang and Filip Stabrowski recount how New York activists blocked Amazon’s 2018 bid to extract $3-billion in public subsidies in exchange for a second headquarters in the Big Apple. Grassroots activists held firm to the demand for no public subsidies, and three months after “awarding” New York their second HQ, Amazon abruptly pulled the plug. A year later, however, the company announced it would dramatically expand its footprint in New York City – with no subsidies – validating the movement charge that Amazon’s HQ-2 play was never about jobs but rather corporate extortion. Lang and Stabrowski conclude that “in dealing with an adversary of such size, power, and inflexibility as Amazon, it is vital that the opposition contain a kernel that is committed to no compromise and no negotiation.”
Katie Wilson recites the 2018 Seattle battle to tax Amazon and other major corporations to fund housing and social services. The city council passed a modest tax on top businesses, only to swiftly and ignominiously repeal it in the face of a brutal, overwhelming counterattack from Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce.
Wilson’s advice from that bruising battle is threefold: next time, “prevent or minimize” the antagonism of conservative union leaders, such as those in the building trades, by appealing to them at the beginning of the effort; run a stronger public relations campaign; and narrow the tax measure to affect fewer companies, thereby “cultivating more vocal business support.”
But in fact, Seattle history bears out a very different lesson. This past July, doubtless after Wilson submitted her essay, the Seattle movement won a new tax on Amazon – this one more than four times the size of the repealed 2018 version. How did this happen, after such an epic defeat?
The socialist-led Tax Amazon movement won not by toggling to the political center, moderating appeals, or refining its messaging, but by organizing a dogged, scrappy grassroots movement that issued bold demands, which they then backed up with a credible threat to take the matter to the ballot if the city council failed to act. (I was involved both as a volunteer in the Tax Amazon movement and as a community organizer for City Council member Kshama Sawant.)
The lessons in both New York and Seattle are the same: Amazon can be beaten in the political arena, not with better public relations and by accommodating the center, but with big demands that inspire working people to engage, and with movement power demonstrated through collective action.
Today’s Amazon activists, whether working in gleaming towers, laboring away in cavernous warehouses, driving panel vans through suburban neighborhoods, or defending communities against corporate extortion, are not going to tip over the giant tomorrow, or in any of the foreseeable tomorrows. But they also are demonstrating that resistance is not futile, and through struggle and experience are helping us all figure out how to build durable working-class power and effectively challenge capitalism. •
This article first published on the Jacobin website.
Jonathan Rosenblum is a Seattle-based union and community organizer, and the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017). He works as a community organizer for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. More about him can be found at jonathanrosenblum.org.