Amazon Labor Union rallies workers against corporate greed: ‘We will win!’
ALU

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.—The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) held a rally outside JFK8, the e-commerce giant’s fulfillment center here Jan. 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For several months, organizers have been collecting signatures for an upcoming union vote at the facility, where thousands of workers prepare and send out millions of packages to customers each day.

For the last two years, the pandemic has illuminated the need for a union at the warehouse. For workers, it has been a challenge to even come to work because of the lack of protection Amazon has provided. One employee, Tristan Dutchen, told the MLK rally:

“It’s been very hard [for workers] due to COVID-19. A lot of cases have been skyrocketing for the past year and Amazon has not done anything to help protect us. There were no building shutdowns, no sanitation, no cleaning of areas, people just getting sick every day. Amazon has not been doing its job and this is where us unionizing comes into play.”

The ALU is responding to the urgent conditions faced by workers at the facility. Amazon has said it invested in ensuring workers are protected, even while failing to provide proper equipment to keep them safe. And this is even as the company took in $386 billion in revenue in 2021.

Derrick Palmer, vice president of the ALU, spoke about how the organizing effort started after workers demanded better conditions in January 2020. Palmer, along with Christian Smalls, ALU president, both made appeals for protective equipment but were met with denials by the company.

“We went to management to see if they could at least provide us with that. And they said no we didn’t need it, so we felt that that wasn’t the correct answer, and we decided to have that protest. Shortly after the protest, Chris was fired. Another worker, Gerald, was fired as well, and I was given a final write up,” Palmer said. “Amazon quickly retaliated against us and that was the spark that really started this whole ALU movement.”

The mistreatment of workers in Staten Island came not only through continuous hours of labor and low wages but through the health risk of no personal protective equipment.

Many workers have said it’s difficult to travel between their home boroughs and the warehouse, reporting it heightens the risk of contracting COVID. As one worker said, “The buses are so crammed with people that even with social distancing, you’re gonna get it on a bus. Amazon knows that but they don’t do anything about the bus, even though we complain about it all the time. It’s one of the biggest things because so many workers commute from Brooklyn or the Bronx.”

These complaints come on top of reports of numerous worker injuries at Amazon facilities throughout the country. Warehouses in Bessemer, Ala., and Staten Island have both recently seen worker fatalities. In Bessemer, insult was added to injury when co-workers of one of the victims were unable to take time off to process their friend’s death.

The year 2021 also saw several COVID deaths among the company’s workforce and thousands of confirmed cases. In addition, Amazon eliminated unlimited unpaid time off at the end of April 2020 for their workers—just as the pandemic was unfolding.

Staten Island Amazon workers say these grievances, and more, have steeled their resolve to fight for a Union.

The MLK Day Rally and other collective actions are highlighting the importance of the struggle to win safe conditions. Smalls described the difficulties Amazon workers face on the job and their tough 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 thanks to workers’ labor.

“You have a company like Amazon that sets up and reaps the benefits off our backs, reaps the benefits off our neighborhoods,” Smalls told those gathered. “They use and abuse us, and they kick us right out to the curb.”

From the lack of PPE and proper COVID-19 protocol to the physical danger posed on the worksite, Amazon has shown it will push the limits on dangerous working conditions for their employees if it means greater profit. The ALU is aiming to change that.

“They want us to remain poor. That’s just how we see it.” Referring again to Bezos and the owning class, he said, “Let’s be honest, we don’t come from the same neighborhood they come from.”

Smalls also spoke about King’s legacy within the labor movement. King’s leadership, he said, provides inspiration to push forward for labor justice, but he also described seeing signs posted by the company throughout the warehouse celebrating MLK Day with quotes from the civil rights icon.

The question was asked: “Does Amazon support Dr. King’s ideas of justice and equality while thousands of workers are risking their lives to go into work?”

To acknowledge King for his role in the civil rights movement is essential, but he would never have wanted to be used as a tool for corporations to show off their supposed progressiveness. King was a fierce fighter for economic equality and spoke out against capitalism’s injustices. Corporations 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 on the job.

It is a facet of capitalism to co-opt some aspects of leaders’ revolutionary messages after they’re gone and take away the essence of their teachings that workers might learn from. The Russian revolutionary Lenin once wrote, “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes have visited relentless persecution on them and received their teaching with the most ruthless campaign of lies and slanders,” but then after their death attempt to “turn them into harmless icons…emasculating and vulgarizing the real essence of their revolutionary theories.”

This is what the corporate world and even right-wing politicians have done to King. The content of his message which was dangerous for capitalism is dulled and accepted by bourgeois forces to act as a consolation for the worker.

ALU President Chris Smalls

The ALU held its rally to honor King’s radical legacy and emphasize that its organizers are fighting for the liberation of workers and not for the interests of the company.

How much longer can individuals like Jeff Bezos continue to buy mansions while the average Amazon worker cannot afford amenities like food and child care? One worker in the crowd said, “Jeff Bezos, if you’re seeing this, you’re the richest man in the world and you should open up a childcare or daycare specifically for your Amazon workers!” Often Amazon workers find themselves unable to go to work because they don’t have child care.

Who is going to look out for the interests of that mother and countless others who have to choose between barely making a living and taking care of their children?

The efforts of ALU represent an essential turning point for the rights of workers at Amazon. The ALU demands not only safe working conditions, including preventative measures for combating COVID-19 but also a livable wage of $30-an-hour. As many workers conveyed, Amazon reaps billions of dollars while the average Amazon worker struggles to survive. It was really only a matter of time before workers started to get together and fight for their rights.

As Chris Smalls said, “I tell you now, we are not going anywhere. The ALU is here to stay! ALU is forever. We got workers all around the world, all around this country watching us, reaching out to us. They are waiting for us to succeed, I’m telling y’all right now, and we are going to win. Let me repeat that: We are going to win.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Jacob Buckner
Jacob Buckner

Jacob Buckner writes from New York.

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