Organizing Against Amazon Requires Strategizing Across Global Supply Chains

To build worker power at a mass scale that can challenge Jeff Bezos’s behemoth, worker militancy at Amazon has to be as global and as extensive as the supply chain itself.

Entrance to an Amazon warehouse in Bad Hersfeld, Germany. (Horacio Villalobos / Corbis via Getty Images)

In the wake of the election loss at Bessemer, Alabama, where workers voted 1,798 to 738 against joining a union, postmortems have unpacked a lot: Amazon’s brutal anti-union campaign, the broken state of US labor law, the strategic and tactical failures of the RWDSU campaign, and the what the loss implies for the state of the US labor movement more broadly. These are crucial explanations for the stinging defeat, but one lesson is clear: Amazon workers are up against one of the most voracious corporate giants in the world.

In order for future Amazon campaigns to win, our strategies have to exceed relying on unions running elections warehouse by warehouse. As the global economy develops around a sprawling logistics industry, the vital fight of the next few decades will be to organize workers not only on the shop floor, but across the global supply chain.

The Implications of Supply Chain Flexibility

Amazon’s breakneck expansion has been accompanied by increasing exposure of its brutal working conditions: over the years, workers have reported high injury rates, collapsing from heatstroke, unjust firings, and being treated like robots. Rates of worker speedup have been so demanding that workers report skipping bathroom breaks and peeing into bottles in order to keep their jobs. Thousands require second or third jobs and food stamps to survive.

But these deplorable conditions demonstrate more than one corporation’s evils. They reflect shifts in how capitalism seeks profit through the logistics sector.

Between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, cities across the United States experienced deindustrialization as good jobs in auto, aerospace, and other manufacturing left for other countries with lower costs. To replace vanishing manufacturing jobs, municipal officials from California to Ohio put their faith in the logistics industry, thinking it would bring jobs back to decaying neighborhoods and revitalize cities by facilitating both the global circulation and debt-fueled consumption of goods. Across the United States, cities began to compete to become logistics hubs, lowering taxes to invite big-box retailers to town.

This explosion of supply chains has been called the “logistics revolution”: a shift in the way that capitalism accumulates through expanding the volume and speed at which goods are produced, delivered, and consumed. In logistical models, retailers carry low inventories, squeeze costs and industry wages, cut out supply chain middlemen, and rapidly accelerate the pace of delivery work to achieve “just-in-time” delivery.

No company has shaped the logistics industry more than Amazon. The profits it makes are poured back into capturing a greater market share of the logistics industry, leading to the rapid expansion of its fulfillment center network. In the process, Amazon has reshaped how products are warehoused, packed, and shipped by making supply chains as flexible as possible in order to bring items closer to customers and enable faster deliveries.

Why does this matter for how Amazon workers organize? Supply chain flexibility requires planning the most efficient and low-cost route for millions of products to move from factories in countries like China to consumers’ doorsteps. To do so, Amazon plans warehouse locations and delivery routes so that it can circumvent locations where disruptions — from bad weather to work stoppages — occur.

A supply chain built with such redundancies means that running union elections one warehouse at a time, such as in the RWDSU campaign, may be an inadequate strategy, since Amazon can snake around and avoid disruptive or costly facilities. This means that models of shop floor organizing built from the golden age of industrial organizing, where stopping production in one factory had massive reverberations, have to be rethought for a different, logistical age where flexibility rules.

To build worker power at a mass scale that can challenge Jeff Bezos’s behemoth, worker militancy has to be as global and as extensive as the supply chain itself.

Organizing Regionally and Transnationally

So how might strategies shift, and how can we win? Amazon workers have already begun to show us the way.

Supply chains have choke points, if we know where to look. Take a look at a map of Amazon’s over five hundred facilities, and you will notice that they cluster around major metropolitan regions. Wealthier counties represent a higher share of Prime subscribers, so Amazon invests in warehouses where it can bring faster shipping speeds to its most frequent customers.

This means that it may be less effective for workers to strike at a warehouse in Montana or North Dakota. But if workers can build enough power across a strategic metro region such as New York City, Chicago, or Atlanta, they can shut down delivery across an entire area, rather than in one warehouse.

A map of Amazon facility locations across the United States. (Photo courtesy of Good Jobs First)

Already, Amazon workers have set an example for such a strategy. In Germany, Amazon workers have a legally recognized union. When workers go on strike, as they have several times since 2013, Amazon reroutes its deliveries around striking facilities through Poland, where Amazon leased the largest logistics facility in the country in order to undermine the bargaining power of workers in Germany.

Recognizing this, German workers started supporting Polish organizing efforts to form an independent union, leading to the establishment of Amazon Workers International (AWI). Today, AWI coordinates strike actions across Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland, and more.

In the United States, Amazonians United (AU) has built a solidarity union and workers movement organizing across North America to “end management’s domination in our workplaces.” Recently, Amazon shuttered DCH1, the Chicago warehouse that was the stronghold and birthplace of AU, where multiple actions have led to crucial worker victories. Amazonians United at DCH1 then turned their formation into Amazonians United Chicagoland, a formation that can grow new seeds in other delivery centers across the Chicago area.

Logistics workers can learn from these examples by thinking beyond unionizing site by site, and toward coordinating efforts to organize regionally and transnationally.

Building Power From Below

Beyond geographical strategy, Amazonians United’s model is powerful because rather than taking legal recognition as a precondition for organizing, they have sought to build militant minorities from the ground up. For them, nothing is a substitute for workers organizing their fellow workers. Several victories attest to their success: AU coworkers have fought for and won clean drinking water, paid time off, better COVID-19 safety protections, and the successful rehiring of wrongfully terminated workers, among other important victories.

These successes have not waited for union recognition. As one interview with an Amazon worker put it, AU has pursued a strategy through which “you become a union by fighting and not that you start a union in order to fight.” Amazonians United’s example suggests that the strategy of chasing union cards in hopes of winning a National Labor Relations Board election is ultimately limited if transforming and building power from below is not central to one’s organizing strategy.

Nobody appeals to the interests of workers more than a fellow worker. This should have been a basic starting point for the RWDSU’s campaign. But growing workers committees on the shop floor, rather than relying on paid union staff and outside supporters to make face-to-face contact with workers, takes a lot more time than RWDSU took with the Bessemer campaign. And it requires letting workers lead.

We already knew that Amazon would pursue a vicious anti-union campaign of misinformation, intimidation, and repression. It should not be a surprise that capital fights hard, fights dirty, and has the entire apparatus of labor law on their side. Against that edifice, building a campaign that is powerful enough to win at a mass scale will be a difficult, risky, and slow task.

In addition, we are working against decades-long neoliberalization; US workers today are more inclined to see themselves as individual entrepreneurial subjects than having collective interests as a class. Amid historic rates of unemployment, Amazon’s insistence that they provide good jobs at good wages was always going to be more appealing than the invitation to risk job safety in waging antagonism against the boss.

To transform workers’ stake in taking the risk of solidarity, you can’t just change their ideas. You have to change their experiences. This is why RWDSU’s campaign, which spent considerable effort on snazzy social media campaigns, webinars by highly respected academics, and endorsements from celebrities, ultimately appealed more to activists on the Left than to workers as a class.

Workers have to be shown, not told, that working-class power matters. Through the long, hard work of building trust, solidarity, and taking shared risks, workers can change the experiences of fellow workers to show that when they unite, they can win.

How We Can Win

While the union loss in Alabama is a setback, the courageous efforts of Bessemer workers can light a match. What we are up against means that we have to be organizing at a mass scale. If enough socialists got jobs at Amazon and expanded on the organizing networks that AU has grown, they could build a formidable challenge to capitalism in the twenty-first century.

To fight the biggest corporate behemoth of our time, what is needed is coordination and unity. Only networks of mass solidarity can beat the networks of the logistics industry. Across the supply chain, as Rand Wilson and Peter Olney argue, Amazon workers can strengthen their position by coordinating and organizing with the UPS drivers and truckers organized by the Teamsters, the longshore unions, and even the Chinese factory workers who make goods.

Workers in an Amazon warehouse. (Scott Lewis / Flickr)

Amazonians United has offered a potential model for thinking and building solidarities within and beyond the workplace. In addition to mobilizing workers on the shop floor, they connect worker issues to the cities and communities they are from.

In Chicago, when workers struck for four shifts, they also mobilized community caravans to blockade the delivery gates. When Amazon recently shifted work schedules to a crushing twelve-hour “megacycle,” AU placed mothers and caregivers at the center of their demands. Calling for Amazon to accommodate shifts for workers who are single parents with young children, AU’s solidarity fund prioritizes caretakers and mothers facing hardship.

A major lesson here is that the widespread precaritization of work sped by the logistics industry requires thinking about social reproduction as a central component of organizing. To link worker organizing beyond issues on the shop floor, AU organizers and the Awood Center are building tactics that ask: How might we organize childcare for parent workers? Center the struggles of immigrant communities? Build strategies that recognize that majority black and Latino workers at many Amazon warehouses are both disproportionately policed in their communities and concentrated in low wage work?

A union loss does not have to mean the end of organizing at Bessemer. And it is only one temporary setback in an ongoing movement within Amazon. Following AU’s lead, workers can rise up across the South and across the continent. They can build organizing committees by and for workers. They can continue to organize on the shop floor, build experiences of winning small campaigns in preparation for bigger fights, and get ready for the long road ahead.

Workers can fight, and they can win. If you work at, or are able to get a job at Amazon, and want to join the movement, reach out to the Amazonians United Solidarity Committee. As the committee writes: “This is a historic moment to advance the Left and the power of organized workers in one of the biggest companies in the world, and we want you to join us on the shop floor.” No fight is more important for socialists today.