Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
The recent historic Amazon Labor Union victory at Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island has both sparked hope and seized the collective imagination of labor activists, with organizers and theorists already anticipating the emergence of a new labor movement. While veteran organizers are correct in pointing out that this fight has only just begun, there is already much to learn from the union’s rank-and-file organizing—rooted in community-building—that underlies this initial victory.
Many visions for new models of collective bargaining have emerged among the different organizing efforts of Amazon workers. Stepping into this moment of hope, this piece will draw on the conceptual framework that Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta laid out in their recently published book, The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (2022). Elaborating on the themes of the book, we explore the ways that collective bargaining can evolve to meet the challenges of our new economy.
Traditional Organizing and Collective Bargaining
Many organizers, journalists, and scholars have written about the brave struggle of workers in the Amazon Bessemer facility and the tremendous victory of the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island. These two examples of worker organizing reveal the strengths of historically established approaches to bargaining. However, they also exemplify contemporary modes of worker organizing that are deeply rooted in our current moment.
The historic approach to collective bargaining, established in the National Labor Relations Act, provides workers with necessary mechanisms for exercising power in their workplaces. These mechanisms have been battered over time as corporate forces have worked to roll back labor rights. Analysts have, for decades, proclaimed the death of the labor movement and the outmodedness of this form of collective bargaining. The hard-fought victory of workers in Staten Island, however, reminded critics that collective bargaining remains one of the most important tools working people can wield to improve their living and working conditions.
But these workers’ decision to use this important tool was not driven by the narrow workplace orientation that has shaped much of the contemporary labor movement. The organizers at Staten Island were catalyzed into action alongside the explosive growth of the movement for Black Lives following the murder of George Floyd and pressurized by the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on people of color. These Black-led organizing efforts addressed the issues of all Amazon workers and challenged Amazon’s racist treatment of Black and Brown workers. They took on Amazon’s intense quota system reminiscent of the “pushing” system developed on plantations and the employment of primarily white police officers as security officers overseeing a predominantly Black workforce in Alabama. Their fights challenge corporate power, but they are not solely about corporate power. Their approach includes a more expansive orientation to “class struggle” that promises to strengthen the labor movement as a whole.
Yet both organizing drives face uphill battles: in Bessemer to win a majority in the workplace, and in Staten Island to land a first contract. These workers—and other Amazon workers who have not yet started the drive toward unionization—need stronger government intervention to level the incredibly imbalanced playing field in their fight against the mega-corporation.
It would help if the words of the Biden administration—“Amazon, here we come. Watch.”—were to manifest in real-world action. There are many tools that Biden’s Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could take to support collective bargaining among Amazon workers. Positive recent developments include the NLRB General Counsel’s push to eliminate captive audience meetings and findings that Amazon’s practices violated labor law. The Department of Labor and the NLRB could actively take on employee misclassification, enabling Amazon workers who are inaccurately classified as independent contractors to unionize and collectively bargain. This would strengthen the hand of unions working to organize truck drivers and distribution workers. Most importantly, the Biden Administration could mandate negotiations between Amazon workers and the company. The NLRB has already indicated their investment in utilizing 10(j) injunctions to challenge companies that create hostile conditions for unionization, and Amazon and Starbucks have started to appear in their roster of cases. This enforcement could extend into the NLRB mandating that Amazon bargain with an individual union or a coalition of unions, based on the company’s proven track record of creating a hostile environment for workers who are organizing.
Bargaining with the Ultimate Profiteer
As important as it is that workers continue to deploy the tool of traditional collective bargaining, many workers at Amazon cannot access this kind of collective bargaining because they are not directly employed by Amazon but are instead employees of temporary agencies or subcontractors. This reflects a broader pattern in contemporary workplaces, where the people who work for highly branded large corporations are not directly employed by them. This puts workers in a difficult position because twentieth-century bargaining presupposed that direct employees would be able to negotiate with their direct employers, and wrote the rules of bargaining with this in mind.
The largest hub of Amazon workers in the middle of the country are located in the suburbs of Chicago. According to Warehouse Workers for Justice, a center that focuses on the struggles of workers in the logistics and distribution industry in that region, about 70 percent of warehouse workers in the region are hired through temporary staffing agencies, rather than hired directly. These workers don’t have the legal right to bargain directly with Amazon over their wages and working conditions, even though Amazon determines the conditions of their employment. Similarly, most Amazon drivers are employed by Delivery Service Partners, subcontractors who have exclusive contracts to deliver Amazon goods using branded methods, such as Amazon delivery trucks. Each contractor employs somewhere between 20 to 100 drivers, and these drivers are only legally permitted to bargain with their immediate employer. But while the delivery service partners are the direct employers of these Amazon delivery drivers, their ability to set wages and working conditions is effectively determined by the contracts Amazon provides. This shields Amazon from having to bargain with these workers. Power relations are stacked against both the workers and the contractors.
We could imagine a new approach to bargaining that enables workers indirectly employed by Amazon to bargain directly, since the mega-corporation is the ultimate determiner of their wages and working conditions. We call this approach “bargaining with the ultimate profiteer,” where—in addition to workers bargaining with their direct employers, as they are currently required to do by the National Labor Relations Act—they can also bargain with the mega-corporations that profit from and determine the conditions of their labor. To win in this approach, workers would presumably have to organize across direct employers—for example, organizing all the delivery drivers in a region, as any delivery service partner could be fired by Amazon at the drop of a hat. In this approach to bargaining, one could even imagine workers forming alliances with the contractors and temp agencies who employ them, since these small business owners are also squeezed by Amazon. If it were to gain traction, this approach would open new possibilities for building meaningful solidarity, not only between workers employed in the same arena of work but also between those across the corporation as a whole: warehouse workers, truck drivers, longshore workers, and manufacturing workers could all unite to bargain with their shared “ultimate profiteer.”
Garment workers in India have successfully organized using a “bargaining with the ultimate profiteer” approach, targeting the multinational brands that purchase the goods they produce. Anchored by Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), a women-led independent and majority Dalit trade union of textile workers, garment workers in India negotiated the Dindigul Agreement to Eliminate Gender Based Violence and Harassment, which includes a set of enforceable agreements with major fast-fashion brands: H&M, Eastman Exports (one of the largest garment producers in India), and more. Covering multiple factories and two spilling mills, this agreement enshrines protections for 5,000 garment workers and provides a model for industry wide change. It includes an innovative program known as “Safe Circles” with regular training for all workers, supervisors, and managers; a peer education program; and shop floor monitors to detect and report gender-based violence and harassment. Since Amazon recently expanded its empire to include its own clothing lines through brands such as Amazon Essentials, Goodthreads, and Daily Ritual, garment workers in India could push for Amazon to sign the Dindigul Agreement, enabling them to negotiate not only with their immediate employers, but also with Amazon directly.
We find another international source of inspiration in Italy, where Amazon workers won a collective bargaining agreement in 2021 that covered all Amazon employees in the country. Italian labor law has an important structural difference from that in the United States: it includes provisions for sectoral bargaining, through which all the workers employed in a given sector bargain together to set a floor of standards that apply across employers. This helps workers bargain for higher standards with their specific employers. The agreement signed between Amazon and a coalition of Italian labor unions included a commitment from Amazon to abide by the sectoral agreements which outlined minimum wages and benefits and the rules for bargaining with unions over standards such as work pace and safety. Notably, this agreement included subcontracted workers and independent contractors who are often excluded from the sectoral agreements, illustrating a coalitional approach that enabled all Italian workers who yield profits for Amazon to bargain with their “ultimate profiteer.”
For this kind of bargaining to work in the United States, strong government intervention would be necessary. Turning back to the example of subcontracted delivery workers, the National Labor Relations Board would need to step in and designate Amazon as a “joint employer” of the delivery workers who are directly employed by Delivery Service Partners and the warehouse workers who are directly employed by temporary staffing agencies. That is, the NLRB would need to assert that these workers are effectively Amazon employees, even if their paychecks say something else. This would make Amazon responsible for any retaliation against workers who attempted to organize. Absent this kind of intervention by the NLRB, workers have turned to local and state governments to raise standards for workers employed in these fissured ways, an approach which we will call “community-driven bargaining.”
A large proportion of imports to the United States move through California’s Inland Empire, which is home to a massive network of warehouses and distribution centers. Amazon maintains a huge presence in the region: almost every warehouse worker in the area will, at some point in their career, work at an Amazon facility. High turnover rates and intense power imbalances make it difficult for warehouse workers to build power in specific workplaces. To try to remedy this issue, the Warehouse Worker Resource Center (WWRC)—a workers’ center based in the region—has invested in organizing warehouse workers as a sector, rather than organizing workers by workplace. Because contemporary labor law is focused on supporting bargaining between workers and their specific employers, their approach requires a “community-driven bargaining” approach.
Community-driven bargaining considers that workers exist and interact with the economy outside of the workplace. Though union contracts are indeed helpful, workers also must be able to negotiate economic relationships far beyond the reach of their places of work. Community-driven bargaining understands this. It often manifests through governmental intervention which has been driven by worker and community organizing, either through legislation-mandating standards or through procurement-based strategies in which governmental bodies leverage contracts to mandate standards and protections. But community bargaining is not only about setting standards and mandating protections. It is also necessarily about building structures that put working people in positions to engage in ongoing negotiations with the corporations that shape their workplaces and their communities. For example, democratically elected councils of workers could be responsible for the enforcement of established standards. This could, in the longer run, empower workers to work alongside governing institutions to exercise ongoing power in their workplaces.
We can see the seeds of this community-driven bargaining approach in WWRC’s work. With the support of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), they recently won the passage of the Warehouse Worker Protection Act (Assembly Bill 701). This bill prohibits quotas that require warehouse workers to skip breaks or work in risky environments, a protection that will primarily benefit Amazon workers who face draconian surveillance measures that push workers to perform at unsustainable rates. It provides protections against retaliation for workers who report violations and may also require companies to publicly disclose their quotas. Future iterations of this legislative approach could include provisions to establish the kind of worker-led enforcement council that would reflect a more powerful community bargaining approach.
One example of a community-driven approach to bargaining is the Awood Center of Minnesota, which emerged as a neighborhood-based organization focused on the struggles of Somali workers in the Twin Cities. Awood takes on issues that go beyond a narrow approach to workplace issues and has organized walkouts to demand the right to prayer breaks for Muslim workers and Somali-speaking managers. While they are not aiming to unionize workers at Amazon, they have built enough power to repeatedly bring Amazon to the table to negotiate their demands. The shopfloor actions of these workers, in combination with recent efforts to legislate higher standards in Minnesota’s warehouses, will be an important site to track the future development of community-driven bargaining.
There are also other means by which communities could bargain with Amazon over issues outside the workplace. For example, Amazon Prime members, the company’s top tier consumers, who share worker values and live in Amazon’s most profitable geographic markets, could organize. Together with Amazon workers, they could demand the right to collectively regulate the behavior of the company in that area, including how they treat workers and the community. This is a large and untapped source of power. Consumers, alongside workers, could negotiate with corporations in their counties and states.
Community-driven bargaining would require the creation of new government bodies and a move toward more active regulation, with the goal of empowering working people in the process. Through community-driven bargaining strategies, Amazon workers could leverage their power vis-a-vis the government to strengthen their hand in establishing bargaining relationships. Whether this manifests as standards-setting legislation that embeds worker-driven enforcement, procurement contracts that mandate corporations to establish worker committees, or worker-led standards boards in regions where Amazon facilities are heavily concentrated, building worker power should be an animating vision driving government regulation of the company.
Bargaining for the Common Good
Bargaining for the common good is the third framework we envision to expand the scope of collective bargaining. In this approach to bargaining, workers refuse to follow the established pattern of negotiating with their employers only over their wages and working conditions. Instead, unions take the broader needs of working-class communities into account and bring these issues to the bargaining table. For example, right now teachers are bargaining to meet the needs of students and their families; public sector workers, to make sure that community members can access government programs; and EPA staffers, to protect against attacks on climate science. Bargaining for the Common Good transcends the limits of traditional union contract negotiations, turning them into sites of struggle over issues beyond the workplace.
This framework has yet to be tested at Amazon, as there are not yet contracts between Amazon workers and the corporation. But we can certainly imagine that, if workers were able to win a traditional union contract, they could then build power to bargain over the many ways that Amazon impacts our economy and society. Drawing inspiration from the work of the Athena Coalition, unionized Amazon workers could negotiate over both the use of surveillance technologies at work and the anti-democratic impacts of Amazon data surveillance technology in our broader society.
Taking a note from the community labor coalitions that have emerged in the regions with the highest concentrations of distribution centers, such as San Bernardino, California and Joliet, Illinois, we could easily imagine warehouse workers or delivery workers bargaining to reduce the ways that the company strains community infrastructure and worsens pollution. Amazon workers could negotiate for the expanded use of e-trucks, against the company’s dominance as a monopoly in e-commerce, for the expansion of same-day delivery to redlined Black and Brown communities, and more. It is especially critical that all workers’ organizations that do get a seat at the bargaining table with Amazon maintain support for Black and Brown Amazon workers and take on Amazon’s racist exploitation of workers and communities of color. Racial justice is central to “bargaining for the common good.”
This expanded approach to bargaining is not the established pattern in the U.S. labor movement, but today’s workers’ movement can agitate to make different choices and re-initiate a tradition of expansive solidarity, knowing that we need each other if we are going to fundamentally change the way that Amazon does business.
Reimagining Bargaining, Reimagining Worker Organizing
Amazon workers have demonstrated a tremendous level of vitality and creativity in developing new models for organizing in their effort to crack the code and win. Their work reveals the ways that collective bargaining could be reshaped to enable workers to take on a corporate adversary with an unprecedented level of reach and power.
Indeed, for workers to win against Amazon in any meaningful way, bargaining must be defended, reshaped, and expanded. And winning at Amazon would, in turn, reshape bargaining. This reshaping requires the development of new legal frameworks and active government intervention to counterbalance the mega-corporation’s unchecked power.
Much gratitude to Sam Nelson, Jobs with Justice organizer, for sharing his knowledge of the universe of Amazon worker organizing towards the development of this piece.
Harmony Goldberg is the Director or Praxis at the Grassroots Power Project. She has been providing political education and strategic facilitation for social movements in the United States for more than twenty-five years. She cut her teeth in California’s youth and student movement in the 1990s, where she helped to found and lead SOUL, the School Of Unity and Liberation. Then, she worked closely with the domestic workers movement and other low-wage workers organizations as the workers center movement was coming into its own. Harmony completed her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where her research focused on the promising forms of worker’s struggle and class politics that were emergent in domestic worker organizing in New York City. At GPP, Harmony works closely with People’s Action and Communications Workers of America, and she leads the development of strategic education programs.
Erica Smiley is the executive director of Jobs With Justice. A long-time organizer and movement leader, Smiley has been spearheading strategic organizing and policy interventions for Jobs With Justice for nearly fifteen years, serving in numerous leadership capacities including campaigns director and as senior field organizer for the southern region. Smiley co-authored The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the 21st Century with Sarita Gupta. As one of the few queer black women leaders in the labor movement, Smiley has helped to seed numerous initiatives that position and prioritize the demands and voices of vulnerable working people in socio-economic and political decisions that directly and indirectly impact their individual lives, families, and communities. As a seasoned organizer she has been a vocal advocate for mobilizing our movements to be aligned around a common agenda for working families.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.