What happened to the guy who organised US Amazon workers?

16 June 2024
Joe Allen

Except for a handful of insiders in the Teamsters and the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), few of us were aware that negotiations were being held to affiliate the ALU with the truckers’ union, until the recent announcement. If anything, most of us stopped paying attention to the ALU, which two years ago had an important breakthrough in winning a union election at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment centre in Staten Island, New York. Soon afterwards, the ALU was inundated with calls from 50 Amazon workplaces across the country. A spark had been struck, but would it catch fire?

Disappointingly, the initial success was followed by a string of defeats, and ALU supporters began pushing for change. Some of us were aware that there was a “reform movement” in the ALU that was demanding a democratic structure and challenging the leadership of its president, Chris Smalls, who became an international celebrity. When Smalls incorporated the ALU in New York, it was more like a NGO rather than a recognisable union. The ALU was also similar to an NGO in that it was also heavily dependent on outside contributions, not from a dues base of a membership.

ALU is voting on affiliation with the Teamsters, and it is likely to pass, especially given that the reformers in the ALU were part of the negotiations with the Teamsters and have endorsed the agreement. The Teamsters also helped fix the vote by unilaterally announcing that the ALU had already affiliated, with a social and mainstream media blitz. I would guess that affiliation will pass overwhelmingly, since no one in the ALU has put forward a fundamentally different strategy for moving it forward, rather than affiliating with the Teamsters.

Smalls has proved to be so unpopular with the ALU membership that he announced last December that he would not be running for president. While ALU members are voting for affiliation with the Teamsters, the election of a new leadership this summer has been ordered by the courts. I don’t have a position on whether the ALU should affiliate or not, but I would be suspicious of Teamsters bearing gifts.

Talking to several people over the last week, I’ve been trying to get a handle on some of the motivations for ALU reformers embracing the Teamsters, and what they expect will change for them.

Myths about the Teamsters being a “powerful” union persist to this very day. This was well on display during last year’s UPS contract campaign, during which widespread media coverage amplified this image—including much of the US left, which repeated continually that we were on the eve of the biggest strike in modern US history. This, of course, did not occur, leading to the frustration and demoralisation of the hundreds of young radicals—many identified with the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA—who went out and got jobs on some of the worst shifts at UPS to be part of this transformative campaign.

Let’s be clear that the Teamster leadership of General President Sean O’Brien and General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman chose a social media campaign, despite their bloviating rhetoric. And, since the beginning of the year, UPS has ravaged its workforce by closing over 200 shifts and buildings across the country, with the union acting like little more than a bystander. Revealingly, during the UPS contract campaign, Yellow Freight, one of the oldest freight companies represented by the Teamsters, went bankrupt and 20,000 union jobs disappeared without a fight from the union.

The hollowness of the Teamsters at UPS and Yellow Freight was clearly revealed when Shawn Fain, the president of the UAW, called strikes at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis last fall. In sharp contrast to the bloviating from the Teamsters, the UAW actually struck at the auto companies formerly known as the Big Three. And while legitimate criticisms can be made of the conduct of the strikes and their final settlements, I think there is little doubt that real strikes are better than bloviating and empty posturing.

Some ALU reformers and supporters argue that for the ALU to succeed at Amazon it needs a “big gun” to back it up. While you can understand the allure of being affiliated to a larger union after a series of defeats, is this a solution to the existential crisis of ALU? Even recent history at Amazon doesn’t suggest this is a silver bullet solution. Way back in April 2021, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union affiliated with the mammoth UFCW, but lost two to one in a union election at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, despite having a successful record of organizing in the South.

Part of the motivation for the Teamsters in wanting the shell of the ALU, I can’t help but think, is to deepen their claim on Amazon while doing little work to earn it. The 2021 Teamster convention, the last one presided over by James P. Hoffa, passed a series of resolutions on Amazon, including creating an Amazon department and plans for a campaign directed at Amazon drivers across the country.

So far, all the Teamsters have to show for their paltry efforts is a contract at Battle Tested Strategies, a former Amazon contractor, in Palmdale, California, with a resulting recognition “strike” and “roving pickets” at Amazon facilities that few actual Amazon workers participated in. It appears that the Teamsters are using the media strategy that they deployed in the UPS contract campaign. But the larger point is that the illusive “big gun” is not ultimately about affiliating with a larger union, but collectively organising workers for militant action to wrest a contract from the employer.

Chris Smalls initially had an inkling of this. He dismissed affiliating with Teamsters soon after the victory on Staten Island, telling the Guardian: “If established unions had been effective, they would have unionized Amazon already. We have to think about 21st century-style unionizing.” He never elaborated on what he meant by this, but the Teamsters haven’t changed.

First published at Joe Allen on Medium.

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