Every unionist should mark down 1 April 2022 as an historic day. Amazon warehouse workers at JFK8 in Staten Island, New York, voted 55 per cent in favour of union recognition at their 8,000-worker strong warehouse. It has been decades since workers have won contested recognition at such a significant facility for one of the United States’ leading corporations.
This victory does not stand alone. Voting has commenced at a second Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, the smaller 1500-worker LDJ5 facility, with the vote being counted on May 2nd. Meanwhile, Starbucks workers have won union recognition votes at thirty stores across the United States. It is a sign that, in North America at least, early spring has returned for the labour movement. These victories has echoed through the world, and have implications for the movement in Australia.
Essential workers in both countries share the common trauma of having no choice but to place themselves in danger by working through the pandemic. The Amazon Labor Union itself was born out of a series worker-safety stoppages at the JFK8 warehouse in March 2020. During that same year, essential workers in Australia from warehousing, contact centres, laundries and manufacturing also took matters into their own hands and walked out to protect their own safety.
There is also the shared experience of the physical dangers of climate breakdown. In December 2021, six Amazon workers were killed when their Illinois warehouse was struck by a tornado. It is alleged that warehouse management made them stay at work. For Australian workers, the 2019/2020 bushfires and the early 2022 floods have bookended the pandemic.
In an important sense, the pandemic and global warming are experienced as part of a single, totalising breakdown of normalcy. Life is broken and everyone knows it. At the same time, the strength of the neoliberal capitalist chokehold on the working-classes is weakening. With the Global Financial Crisis, capital lost the power to offer a better future to workers. The new offer was ongoing stagnation: you keep what you’ve got and we’ll make sure no one steals it from you. With the onset of the pandemic and the heightened frequency of climate disasters, capital has lost the power to offer any future at all.
Now if there is any sort of future to be had, it is workers who must write it.
Fortunately, to quote Trotsky, ‘molecular processes in the masses are healing the psychological wounds of [neoliberal] defeat’. Levels of worker militancy in Australia, while remaining historically anemic, are once again cycling upwards. For December 2021 quarter, the ABS reported that working days lost to industrial action had reached nine-year highs. This antipodean echo of Striketober in the United States highlights a growing appetite on the part of workers to organise.
It is vital that leaders and militants within the Australian trade union movement learn from and adapt that which is applicable from the Amazon Labor Union win to the specifically Australian industrial context.
First, we must go beyond the form of the victory. Much has been written of the Amazon Labor Union being a new and independent union and its innovative organising tactics from when it filed for its recognition election to how it used social media. While these factors indeed mattered to the eventual result, we must go deeper to the source of this display of worker power.
Justine Medina is a member of the ALU organising committee and a rank-and-file packer at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse. In a short article on the Labor Notes website, Medina writes ‘we had a worker-led movement’:
the hard work, every day: workers talking to workers. Not just media games, but solidarity, daily analysis, and adjusting as needed. It’s working as a collective, learning together, and teaching each other. Get back to fighting form. That’s how we won.
These workers beat the Amazon monolith by engaging in a process of democratic, worker-led problem-solving. They harnessed the productive power of democracy to overcome the fierce opposition of one of the world’s largest corporations.
The ALU’s campaigning innovations came from a conscious application of radical and core industrial organising principles to their context. Medina and her comrades paid particular attention to William Z Foster’s 1936 classic Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry. The kernel of Foster’s work is the importance of democratic, worker-led problem solving to any successful organising campaign. Forster wrote that the ‘movement must be highly self-critical’ for it is in this ‘constant re-examination of the organization methods’ that the ‘necessary adjustment’ can be ‘made in tactics to fit the different situations.’
Worker-led problem solving drives the democratic creativity and cooperation necessary to rebuild worker power at a mass scale.
The mere existence of such activity is a threat to capital’s rule as it stands as a challenge to both the authority and effectiveness of managerial prerogative. It is in the very process of active worker-led problem solving, however, that the accumulated crises of capital can finally be resolved—from technological stagnation, global warming, and the pandemic. Change happens when workers claim their collective power.
The most urgent task of our times, therefore, is to foster direct, collective worker-led problem solving. This democratic contrast to managerial prerogative is core to building workplace power. It is alsoas applicable to the internal organisation of unions. Unions without worker leadership are merely empty monuments to an imagined social democratic past.
What matters, therefore, is not the union as form but as process for workers as a class to grow their capacity to run the world. What might this look practically?
Too often, union leaders like myself have let our leadership degenerate into an exercise of managerial prerogative when we have a special responsibility to use our democratically elected positions to model socialist management. In this regard, I have no special claim to moral superiority.
Instead, we should encourage a culture of criticism and involve rank-and-file leaders and union staff in making the strategy and operations of a union fairer and more effective. The working class as it exists is younger and more diverse than Australian union leadership as a whole. Too often, this means workers are the objects of deliberation rather than subjects engaging in deliberation.
Socialist management means shifting away from the culture of one leader or one group of leaders from deciding for everyone else to doing the hard work of finding a way to involve thousands of workers in decision-making and ongoing collective education.
Cooperatives as the third leg of the labour movement should also not be forgotten. At their best they can be practical examples of a world beyond managerial prerogative. Cooperatives such as CoPower play an educational and support role—helping to raise expectations about how the world should be run without seeking to be a substitute for the primary task of building workplace power.
Above all, the goal is to build a platform where workers collectively have the confidence to take on big corporations, from Amazon to Woolworths.
Union leaders like myself must accept the positive challenge of independent worker leadership embodied by the ALU. The period of defeat is over. Workers can organise, workers can fight, workers can win.