Amazon workers rally on MLK holiday: “We are going to win!”

BY: Jacob Buckner| January 26, 2022
Amazon workers rally on MLK holiday: “We are going to win!”


The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) held a rally on January 17, Martin Luther King Day. Members from the Young Communist League and Communist Party joined the rally at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island to show solidarity and support the union cause. In the past months, Staten Island workers have been coming together and collecting signatures for a union vote. We drove an hour to the facility, which is isolated from the close-together buildings of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Here, we were met by a series of huge warehouses, where thousands of workers prepare and send out millions of packages to customers every day.

While waiting for the rally to begin, we decided to check out what we could of the facility. As we walked through the front doors, we saw security entrances surrounded by encouraging signs like “Give Back.” It looked more like a military base than a distribution center, with security guards, locked gates, and scanners throughout the inside of the building.  We went back outside and saw workers getting off the bus and quickly walking to the entrance of the facility. A worker named Antonio later said to me:

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.

For the last two years the pandemic has illuminated the need for union struggle. Coming to work has been a challenge because of the lack of protection at Amazon facilities. One worker, Tristan Dutchen, expressed this best when he said:

It’s been very hard [for workers] due to COVID 19. A lot of COVID cases have been skyrocketing for the past year and Amazon has not done anything to help protect workers. 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.

As I spoke to workers it became clear that the ALU is responding to the urgent conditions faced by workers at the facility. Amazon stated they’re invested in ensuring workers are protected, but they don’t provide proper equipment to keep workers safe. This while the company raked in $386 billion in revenue in 2021.

Derrick Palmer, Vice President of the ALU, spoke to me about the ALU getting its start after workers demanded better working conditions in January 2020. Palmer, along with the ALU president, Christian Smalls, appealed to Amazon for protective equipment:

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, I was given a final write up. Amazon quickly retaliated against us and that was the spark that really started this whole ALU movement.

The workers in Staten Island not only saw their mistreatment through continuous hours of labor and low wages, but the health risk of not having personal protective equipment.

These complaints came after numerous workers were injured at Amazons throughout the country. The injury rate at Amazon is 80% higher than in the overall warehouse industry. The Bessemer and Staten Island facilities have recently seen worker fatalities. In 2021 alone, six workers died while working at the Bessemer facility. Two of them died within hours from each other in November after being denied sick leave, one from a stroke. Co-workers who were close to the employees were told to continue working and not allowed to take time off to process their friend’s death. As of mid-May of 2020, eight Amazon workers were confirmed to have died of COVID-19, and more than 100 warehouses have confirmed cases, according to news reports. In addition Amazon eliminated unlimited unpaid time off at the end of April 2020 for their workers. And in December 2021, six Amazon workers died in the Illinois facility when the building collapsed while tornadoes tore through the area. Rather than heeding tornado warnings and sending the workers home, Amazon managers chose to endanger their lives.

At the rally, Amazon workers conveyed that these conditions have only furthered the resolve of the workers on Staten Island to fight for the union. They were also the impetus to organize protests like the MLK rally and other collective actions to highlight the importance of the labor struggle to win safe conditions for workers everywhere.

MLK’s radical legacy for labor rights

The rally was timed with a shift changeover, and while workers stayed and listened to the speeches, other workers leaving their shifts filed past on the snowy pavement. They filed into the crowded buses, rushing home to their families.

Amazon workers started the rally with testimonies of working at the Staten Island warehouse. They spoke of 8- to 10-hour days and feelings of deep frustration at how Amazon had treated them. To connect today’s struggle to the struggles that came before them, between speeches, ALU workers led the crowd in traditional songs from the Black struggle movement, such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Verses were added to draw attention to the Amazon Labor Union; one verse of the classic “We Shall Overcome” was triumphantly replaced with “The ALU will win.”

During his speech, Smalls described the difficult conditions on the job and economic conditions at home. He stated that it is the workers’ labor that made Jeff Bezos wealthy: “You have a company like Amazon that sets up shop that reaps the benefits off our backs, that reaps the benefits off our neighborhoods, they use and abuse us, and they kick us right out to the curb.” Whether it’s the lack of PPE and proper COVID protocols, or the physical danger posed at the work site, the evidence has shown that Amazon will always choose dangerous working conditions for their employees if it means greater profit. The ALU is aiming to change these harmful conditions. As Smalls said to us:

They want us to remain poor. That’s just how we see it. We come out here, you see how your coworkers are, they get on the bus, get into their coworker’s car because they’re carpooling, drive back to their neighborhood, work. Let’s be honest, we don’t come from the same neighborhood they come from.

This is an important point to note on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Smalls gave an electric speech celebrating Dr. King’s legacy within the labor movement. He said we must be inspired by Dr. King’s leadership to push forward for labor justice. Smalls described the ironic experience of seeing signs with quotes by King scattered throughout the warehouse in celebration of the national holiday. We must question a company that purportedly supports Dr. King’s ideas of justice and equality while thousands of workers risk their lives to go to work. We must not celebrate him as a tool of corporate progress and forwardness, but as the fierce labor organizer and fervent anti-capitalist he was.

We cannot allow capitalist companies like Amazon to co-opt Dr. King’s radical message of racial and economic unity, while the company punishes their workers through economic subjugation and atrocious working conditions. It is a facet of capitalism to co-opt our leaders’ revolutionary messages and take away the contemporary essence of their teachings for workers to learn from. We remember what Vladimir Lenin taught us concerning our past revolutionary figures:

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. After their death attempts are made to turn them into harmless icons, canonize them, and surround their names with a certain halo for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping them, while at the same time emasculating and vulgarizing the real essence of their revolutionary theories and blunting their revolutionary edge.

This is exactly how the state, ruling class, and media treated Dr. King during his years of leadership and after his assassination. At this rally we were reminded of Dr. King’s radical legacy.

The fight of unions today

As capitalist economic crises occur more frequently, the contradictions between the Amazon and the workers will become more illuminated. How much longer can individuals like Jeff Bezos continue to buy mansions, while the average Amazon worker cannot afford necessities like food and child care? One worker in the crowd said it best: “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. Because a lot of Amazon workers will call out due to the fact that 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 ALU effort represents an essential turning point for the rights of workers at Amazon. They demand not only safe working conditions, including preventative measures for combating COVID, but also a livable wage of $30 an hour. This is the amount a worker deserves for their essential labor in the production process. It is only a matter of time before unions start to form and demand the rights for workers that they deserve.

We recognize the growing roles of unions throughout the country. Unions not only provide a teaching ground for workers to fight for their rights, but they participate in the greater struggle against capitalist exploitation. It is not a coincidence that the union movement is growing, as seen in the recent success of the Starbucks unions in Buffalo and Boston, and the rising efforts at organizing fast-food workers in New York. As the conditions for workers become more hostile, and as the need for Amazon to rectify labor shortages becomes stronger, we will see an even greater rise in unions. It is the deteriorating conditions inherent to capitalism that will bring about the urgent need for workers to respond.

We must also look at history to understand how this struggle will progress. We’ve seen through past labor movements that the deteriorating conditions of capitalism can only go on for so long until eventually workers fight back. As Chris Smalls states:

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.

We will continue to show solidarity with the ALU and fight alongside Amazon employees to achieve the justice they deserve.

After two hours, the protestors marched to the front door of the warehouse, and police began to show up and station themselves outside the building. Most of the organizers weren’t surprised and remarked that it meant we were doing something right.

The Communist Party and Amazon Labor Union plans on continuing the next steps in this essential struggle. We are going to mobilize for more rallies, write articles on the struggle, provide the Communist Party building as an organizing space, coordinate panels and actions on the PRO Act, and call and knock on the doors of workers to get yes votes once the election is scheduled. We will also look to salt within other workplaces, providing CP members the opportunity to organize workers into unions.

Throughout the unionization drive, Amazon has shown that they are afraid of unions. They fear that one day, workers will have agency over their working conditions, that employees will not have to sacrifice going to the bathroom in exchange for saving time, and that mistreatment will be replaced by a livable wage and safe working conditions. The union struggle by the workers and the intense suppression by the company has proven these fears. With each day that passes, the ALU gets stronger and more confident in its inevitable victory. The ALU will continue to challenge Amazon until the struggle is won.

Images by author.



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