“Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle… this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”
Karl Marx, 1847
A wave of unionization in the United States is enthusing and inspiring workers all around the world. The first Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, is now represented by the independent Amazon Labor Union. Every week, dozens of Starbucks coffee shops are filling to join Starbucks Workers United. A first group of workers at an Apple Store signed their cards to join the Communication Workers of America. There have been 589 union applications to the National Labor Relations Board so far in 2022, double the number compared to the first four months of 2021.
These struggles to get organized are all part of the same process. The crisis of capitalism is crushing workers, and they are beginning to fight back. They increasingly understand that they can rely only on their own means.
The United States is the most powerful capitalist nation in the world. Socialism cannot ultimately achieve victory without the success of the American working class. The struggles we are seeing now are just the beginning of the awakening of this colossus that will change the course of history.
Not out of nowhere
American workers have suffered constant setbacks for decades. While productivity grew by 70 per cent between 1979 and 2019, wages only grew by 12 per cent during the same period. Not surprisingly, this coincides with a decline of the union movement. Union membership has fallen from 20.1 per cent in 1983 to a meager 10.5 per cent in 2018. Workers are more and more exploited, all the while the main organizations through which they defend themselves have declined.
The youth is bearing the brunt of the crisis. “Millennials” and “Gen Z” have known nothing of the golden age of capitalism. Precarious jobs are the norm. Houses are impossible to buy and rents are rising. The rate of unionization is lowest among young people: 9.4 per cent among 25-34 year-olds, and a meager 4.2 per cent among 16-24 year-olds.
COVID-19 struck a working class already squeezed like a lemon. Online sales exploded with the pandemic, putting Amazon workers under enormous pressure–employees having to urinate in bottles to keep up. Service workers suddenly became “heroes,” “essential workers”– but stayed at starvation wages and in worsening conditions. American workers are among the most stressed in the world: 57 per cent report being stressed on a daily basis, compared to a global average of 43 per cent.
Add to that the current inflation rate, which reached a whopping 8.5 per cent in the U.S., an all-time high in decades. Anyone who doesn’t get an 8.5 per cent pay raise is therefore experiencing a pay cut. And all the while, CEOs received record bonuses of $14.2 million in 2021!
This cocktail of declining wages, worsening conditions, inflation and rising inequality was bound to result in an explosion sooner or later.
Shift in consciousness
A shift in the consciousness of workers and young people in the United States has been apparent for some time. We have commented many times in recent years on the numerous polls showing the growing interest in socialism and communism in the US.
But a related phenomenon is the rise in unions’ popularity. Despite low union density, union approval is at 68 per cent, the highest level since the mid-1960s. Among 18-34 year-olds, the figure is 77 per cent.
Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm for recent unionization drives is also high. In the case of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), an immense 75 per cent of Americans agree that Amazon workers need a union. That number rises to 83 per cent among 18-34 year-olds, and even reaches 71 per cent among Donald Trump supporters! The enthusiasm reaches across all strata of the working class, beyond the usual partisan divide of American politics. It also shows that many Trump supporters could be drawn to class-based policies, if a real workers’ party existed in the U.S. to defend such policies.
The recent organizing drives demonstrate what Marxists have been saying for a long time. How many times have we heard that class-based politics is dead because “the working class has changed”, or worse, that it no longer exists? That yes, in Marx’s time there were factory workers, miners, but that today “it’s different”? Of course, it doesn’t take much insight to realize that the working class has changed a lot in 150 years. The service sector, retail and entertainment, in particular, has swelled in the last few decades.
But the same old dynamic of class struggle has been making its way into these sectors as well. Restaurant workers, retail workers, warehouse workers, tech workers, all sell their labor power for a wage, surplus value is made off their backs, and they begin to realize the need to defend themselves against their bosses’ greed. This is what we are seeing now. To quote Karl Marx, this is how workers move from a class “in itself” to a class “for itself”.
What is happening in the U.S. belies all the cynics who had abandoned the working class. Some people said that jobs in the fast food industry were impossible to unionize, for example. The statistics seem to prove the pessimists right, as the unionization rate in food services is only 1.2 per cent. As well, the major union federations seem to have abandoned these workers, seeking to organize mostly large workplaces—and in so doing, bring in large amounts of union dues.
And yet, the Starbucks Workers United campaign has the wind in its sails. More than 200 locations are in the process of a union vote since the first victory in Buffalo. All it took was one good example to get the ball rolling!
The struggle at Amazon is particularly emblematic of the 21st century version of class warfare. Here we have Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in human history, facing an independent union drive led by Chris Smalls, an ex-Amazon employee fired in 2020 for staging a walkout to protest the lack of protections against COVID-19. It had even been revealed that Amazon executives wanted Chris Smalls to become the face of Amazon’s unionization effort because they thought he was “not smart or articulate.” Their contempt backfired spectacularly.
Here, too, we were led to believe that unionizing Amazon was not possible. The Washington Post said last year, following the failed unionization drive at the warehouse in Bessemer:
Today’s workers might come by car from an hour away and aren’t so easy to reach. The very productivity that makes Amazon financially attractive to organize leaves little time for workers to pause and make friends with their co-workers, building social networks unions can leverage.
Those are structural disadvantages the union is apt to face at whichever Amazon facility it targets. So while the name of the town might be different in future organizing drives, the result might be much the same.
The Amazon Labor Union has proven all the pessimists and skeptics wrong. As a result, more than 50 warehouses have contacted the ALU since the Staten Island victory!
These great events are having repercussions beyond the borders of the United States. A Calgary Starbucks is currently trying to join the United Steelworkers. Members of Unifor have distributed leaflets to organize Amazon warehouses in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, explicitly referencing the Staten Island victory. Canada is currently lagging behind the radicalization to the left of the American working class. But make no mistake: inflation and wage erosion, rising rents and inequality are making their way here too. And the working class will get on the move here also, sooner or later.
It is not just the very fact of unionization at Amazon, Starbucks and the like that is of interest to Marxists. More than that, it is the manner in which these results are achieved that should be assimilated by labor activists.
Amazon workers suffered defeat last year in Bessemer, Alabama. But the organizing drive did not include any concrete demands. Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that hundreds of workers were skeptical.
The same dynamic seems to have been replicated in the Amazon organizing drive in Alberta last year by Teamsters Local 362. Workers reported that union organizers were hard to find to answer their questions, and the local’s vice-president even said, “We’re not here to get your $30. We’re here to help improve the workplace, see if we can negotiate higher wage increases… We can’t guarantee them anything.” In terms of inspiration, we’ve seen better!
The Staten Island campaign contrasted drastically with this approach. The ALU openly put forward bold demands: a wage of, precisely, $30 an hour, and two paid 30-minute breaks and a paid lunch hour. So the campaign offered the promise of tangible results, rather than simply focusing on getting a union. Contrary to a common misconception, demanding small, “reasonable” changes is not more realistic. On the contrary : workers will not take the risk and spend time and effort on a fight for small, meaningless changes. But they’ll fight for bold demands that are worth their while.
What also sets the ALU campaign apart is its grassroots nature. Union president Chris Smalls, the former worker fired for previous attempts to organize, camped out near Staten Island’s JFK8 warehouse for 10 months. He and Derrick Palmer, a warehouse employee, gave all their time to talk to workers, got them involved and answered their questions. The campaign was funded via a GoFundme that raised $120,000, compared to the $4 million Amazon put towards fighting the ALU. An article from The City does a good job of explaining how the two leaders built the movement:
While Smalls spends the bulk of his days outside of JFK8 or at the bus stop, Palmer continues to work inside the four-story building, talking to workers and stationing himself in the breakroom during his free time to gauge support when he’s not working in the packing department…
Both men, and a handful of other organizers, have spent recent weeks hitting the phones, making calls to every JFK8 worker who is eligible to vote in the upcoming union election — roughly 8,300 employees.
Some of the workers reached by phone have asked to meet the organizers in person to discuss the unionization effort. For those workers who have questions, they typically center around union dues and how they work, Smalls said.
“Once we answer their questions, they’re easy to flip because they understand that Amazon is giving them false information.”
Workers did not simply accept Amazon’s anti-union tactics. At mandatory anti-union meetings, workers interrupted consultants to debunk their lying arguments. Workers even collected information about the consultants, and distributed flyers that identified them with photos so that workers would not talk to them! The workers refused to be pushed around, and countered each blow with creative methods that caught the employer and its highly paid anti-union agents off guard.
Smalls himself says their campaign was very different from the usual union campaigns: “They [the traditional unions] like to organize differently than what we’re doing. We’re more out there. You’re not going to find another union president that camps out for 10 months.”
Too often, union drives are conducted in a bureaucratic manner, without involving the rank-and-file and without confronting the employer’s dirty tactics head on. It almost makes it seem as if union leaders don’t trust workers. And as we have seen, they often focus on just the unionization in itself, without linking it to actual demands that can inspire the workers.
What the ALU campaign shows is that the labor movement desperately needs to revive the methods of workers’ democracy. In strikes, in pickets, in campaigns within the labor movement, there needs to be maximum space for workers to take things in their own hands. The ALU drive shows what can be accomplished when you involve the rank-and-file and let workers bring their creativity to bear, and when you aren’t scared of making bold demands.
“The revolution is here”
Such were the words of Chris Smalls following the ALU victory. We fully share the enthusiasm of these activists who have accomplished what many people thought was impossible. The leaders of the major unions have much to learn from the methods of struggle used in this first victory at Amazon.
With the teachers’ strikes in 2018 and 2019, the largest mass movement in US history in May-June 2020, and the rise of strikes last fall (“Striketober”), the impressive wave of unionization is a continuation of the return of the American working class. Similar events will occur in Quebec and Canada as well.
It will not be a straight line, but the very experience of the capitalist system will push workers into struggle. Inflation, which is not about to go away, will make it ever more difficult for hundreds of thousands of workers to pay their bills.
Needless to say, the bosses won’t just let workers organize and fight without resistance. Class struggles of epic proportions are brewing. We are only at the beginning of a process that will lead more and more people to the conclusion that capitalism itself must go, and give way to a socialist society where workers are in charge, instead of a minority of the rich.
We’ll leave the last word to an article in the American magazine Newsweek, which comes to the same conclusion as the Marxists:
“Wages, the price of buying a house or rent, food costs and the battle for leverage between employers and the fate of smaller businesses against oligopolies will be the defining issues. The class politics that have long dominated Europe are now here with a vengeance, and they will stick around until they are addressed.
Under his headstone in Hampstead Heath, Karl Marx should be smiling.”