brian bean: I want to get into your thoughts on perspective and strategy for organizing Amazon, but let’s start with some background. Can you talk about your organizing with Amazonians United, where it came from, how long you’ve been doing it and how you think it’s been going?
Zama: Amazonians United was built collectively, made up of the stories of workers from different walks in life, but to go in depth I’ll share my own. My parents are immigrants and I grew up with my Mexican community despite living in a rural white town. But I didn’t think much of politics until the 2006 marches that pushed back the attempts to criminalize immigrants. A year later I went off to college and got a union organizer summer internship where I was sent to organize the state employees of Missouri. I’ve been organizing since then, mostly in immigrant rights, deportation defense, some electoral stuff, and helping workers fight injustices in their workplace, both with and without a union.
Most of this organizing I’ve done through unions and nonprofits that paid me a salary to do it, but I got fed up with this career for social justice. The neverending work to provide services and build membership was consuming me, the nonprofit/union directors controlled the organizations we built, and the directors themselves were ultimately controlled by capitalists through their philanthropic foundations and the Democratic Party. Despite helping working-class people resolve issues and get organized, I was, and I felt separate from them. My politics, my principles, and my relationships with the people were being exploited. It felt good to help people, but my efforts felt futile. I could spend my entire life organizing against injustice and fighting for reforms, but when would we ever become free if our exploitation and oppression is reproduced by the capitalist economic system? So, I decided to quit the “organizer” career.
I drove for Lyft while figuring out what to do next. I reflected on my organizing: I’d helped others get organized with their peers to struggle against their bosses, but I had never organized with my peers to struggle against my bosses. How could I help people get organized, go on strike, build working-class power and win struggles against capitalists if I’d never done it myself?
As I reflected on these questions I started studying how capitalism came to be and what communists, socialists, and anarchists have done to build towards revolution. I learned how they built organizations of working-class struggle from within, and that these organizations were key to revolutionary struggles. I thought about this stuff as I drove passengers around, and soon found out that Amazon had a delivery station just five minutes from my apartment. What better place to make a living while building working-class organization that fights to improve conditions than within Bezos’ growing empire of exploitation? So I decided to get a job there in July 2017, about 4 years ago.
I figured that at such a miserable workplace there would be coworkers resisting exploitation somehow, so I kept an eye out for them. I didn’t have to wait long: on my first day I saw a coworker sit down and refuse to work until management brought her a fan. Throughout the months I saw many shouting matches between workers and managers. Some of these confrontations resulted in the worker getting what they wanted, but all of the resistance was individual. I didn’t see a collective resistance.
Management drives an individualizing culture of competition and most folks had only 1 or 2 coworkers they spoke with, so as I learned to do the work I made an effort to be social and cooperative with my coworkers. I started making friends by initiating random conversation, remembering names, sitting at different tables for break and other things like that. Soon, coworkers from different little crews knew my name and would fist bump me while walking by or come into my cell to start up a conversation. Communication, respect, mutual trust, and friendship are vital for building a collective sense–what better foundation to grow solidarity and build a union from?
Soon I started hanging out with coworkers outside of work and I’d get to know who they are, what they do, how their lives are. Most of my coworkers are Black and I’ve never lived in a Black community, so to me it was a whole other world. I was organizing against gentrification and the pigs in my neighborhood at that time, so they’d get to know my politics and what I’m about as well. We’d usually end up talking about issues at Amazon that piss us off, but it was difficult to move past complaining about them and towards doing something about them.
“Fuck Amazon” was the most common statement I’d hear. Most coworkers know Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world, we are the workers that make him his money, and we are obviously not rich. But that wasn’t enough cause for workers to spontaneously strike. Who is likely to do something and what they’re likely to do something about has to be discovered, so I started identifying coworkers with more potential for action and building deeper relationships with them over time. I did this while watching out for the ass-kissers and snitches because I definitely didn’t want to start building with or around them.
So it was a matter of bringing together coworkers willing to do what’s necessary to improve our working conditions—coworkers who might be interested in building community and organizing. Most coworkers weren’t actively seeking to build community, but I also learned that many felt alone.
A few coworkers started sharing food with each other and this evolved into a potluck community which really socialized our lunch break. Instead of people eating by themselves we’d put tables together and share food, conversation and laughter. I hosted gatherings and parties at my house where we had good times and got to know each other. Every conversation, every potluck, every ride, every kickback grew our network of relationships.
About a year and a half after I started working at Amazon, a handful of coworkers and I brought all of this together when we decided, “All right we’re going through too much bullshit at work, we have too many issues and we have to do more than just talk about them. Let’s meet up to figure out what we can do.” It’s been a process of building our union since then, even though we didn’t originally conceive of our first meeting as a meeting to form a union.
brian bean: That experience—four years of building militant rank-and-file organization—is important to think about in relation to what happened in Bessemer, Alabama. Over a month ago was the Amazon unionization vote in Bessemer. The whole country, and particularly the left, was very focused on it, and after the loss there was a wide variety of different perspectives and conclusions about what the Bessemer vote meant. They were often contradictory: some said it was an abysmal loss, some said it was a tremendous win even though they lost the vote. And a lot of the back and forth has not been from workers, but from staffers and left commentators.
So the question of strategy, of what it would take to organize Amazon, is important independent of the Bessemer case. It’s clear the American labor movement needs a revitalization, and that Amazon is strategically important. Based on your experience in Chicagoland, what do you think it will take to actually organize Amazon if not the staff organizer-driven, card check method that is currently predominant in the labor movement?
Zama: It’s going to take 1 or 2 Amazon workers per facility to take the initiative, put in the work, and endure the ups and downs of building solid organizing committees (OC) which engage in workplace struggle.
These workplace OCs are key because their task is to proactively build community at the workplace while initiating issue campaigns that many of their coworkers get behind. The OC members are the planners and leaders of direct, collective actions against their management, and these actions should involve as many coworkers as possible.
Workplace OCs are the foundation of our union because they are our union. They begin small, but they grow in number, in influence, and in ability to move coworkers into action. This process of growth is transformational for all the workers involved as well as for the social dynamics in the workplace. But it’s key that these organizing committees be and conceive of themselves as their own, independent, democratically run organization of workers. The OCs should not be controlled by or dependent on a nonprofit or business union’s professional organizing staff. OCs need to grow their own collective power, ideas and plans–this can only grow from the inside, from workers acting collectively. We need OCs at each facility that stand on their own and then come together with OC’s from other facilities in their cities, in their regions and eventually nationally and internationally. The growth of each OC, and the growth of the interconnectedness of the OC’s is the growth of our union of Amazon workers.
OCs can call themselves Amazonians United or they can call themselves another name. The name is just a name. The important thing is the existence and building of a dense network of relationships within the workplace based in solidarity, of unity, of communication filled with empathy and care for each other. And, of course, through this network there must be constant communication about the injustices local and corporate management are committing against us.
But it can’t just be good relations and talk. Collective action is necessary to do something about the injustices. OCs need to come up with plans for how to address injustices and, in the process of addressing them, create further unity, grow their organization, and build experience and leadership through struggle. Over time, these processes and struggles change our own and our coworker’s mindsets from the individualistic mindsets capitalism implants in us to a more collective mindset. And unity is built through addressing shit we’re all pissed about and overcoming the barriers that exist between different kinds of people, for example between Black and brown workers, between young and old workers, or between warehouse workers and drivers.
It takes a lot to build this at each workplace. It’s going to take time to grow the OCs at each site and to increase our interconnectedness across sites, but this organizing work is important and meaningful. It’s not a short, one-year thing. It takes a lot of time and commitment, it’s a multi-year thing. And so, it takes at least one or two people to initiate and bottom line the organizing at each facility. Folks who are going to put their mind, soul, and heart into building this kind of organization, being more social than they would normally be, and persevering through the many struggles that they encounter because of management or the funky social relations and drama that might come up. All sorts of things that just inevitably happen among large groups of people.
What it’s going to take to organize a worker-controlled union at Amazon is for people who want to build this kind of union to commit and get to work. At the beginning the initiators tend to be radicalized people. However, the people I have the most hope in are fellow Amazon workers who get radicalized and become leaders through workplace struggle. With radicalized Amazon workers owning our union, happy to be building community, inspired to continue growing in solidarity with fellow workers, nothing will be able to stop us.
brian bean: What kind of collective struggle can build that sort of organizational power, experience, and collective leadership at Amazon in Chicago?
Zama: Sometimes I jump the gun and get too quickly into the need to engage in collective struggle while glossing over the need to build community. Before a group of people engage in collective struggle, there needs to be trust, communication, agreement, and discussion between them. Folks have to trust each other to a sufficient degree so that they know that they have each other’s backs. That’s necessary before creating any sort of plan that is going to potentially put them or their co-workers in some sort of danger. If that doesn’t exist, people probably won’t come through. Conditions are different at every facility, demographics and cultures vary widely, and people have all sorts of personalities, so building community with coworkers will look different at every place.
But you’ve got to take care that the community you build doesn’t get stuck being a friend group, like people that just come to party with you, because then it has the danger of becoming a clique. The “fighting for something” aspect provides the politicizing element, it creates the necessity for expanding the group and seeking the participation of other co-workers who are not already members of that community that’s been built up.
One of the ways to bring folks in is identifying issues that other coworkers might want to do something about because it’s pissing them off. Then figuring out a way for those coworkers to be involved in addressing it with you. We began with an issue over water, which was a convenient starting point in terms of how basic an issue it was. Management often pisses workers off and creates these kinds of opportunities because their focus is on increasing productivity, so they’re always doing something unfair, mismanaging something, playing favorites, exploiting hard workers, not thinking about us and how we feel. For those of us committed to building up our unions, our task is to identify those issues, those opportunities where we can build some sort of united challenge to Amazon.
brian bean: Could you explain the struggle around water example that you just mentioned briefly?
Zama: We didn’t have regular access to clean water at our delivery station. The five gallon water dispensers would be empty, dirty or without cups and the water fountain was either broken or the filter was on red. Sometimes management would get cups or refill the water dispenser when one of us asked, but sometimes they wouldn’t or they’d take too long. So six of us DCH1 delivery station workers met up at a Krispy Kreme and talked about the many issues we were dealing with, and water seemed to be the most basic one that we figured most of our co-workers would be willing to get behind. Also, a month prior to that meeting a co-worker had passed out from dehydration.
So we created a petition demanding that management provide us with clean, regular access to water and we specified certain locations where we needed water stations. Then we went around the break room for a few weeks, getting our coworkers to sign that petition. This was a good way to initiate conversations with co-workers about a change that we needed to have. It’s a substantially different conversation than the one that normally occurs without a petition because now it’s not just complaining, it’s doing something about it. The worker that has the petition in front of them has a decision to make: do I agree with this and am I going to put my name on it, potentially risking myself? Or am I not?
This creates interesting social dynamics. For example, I would go to a table because I know one particular coworker and I would ask them to sign the petition. I would explain it to them and they’d say “Yeah of course” and they’d sign. Then I would ask their friend sitting next to them and they would say, “No, that’s ok, I bring my own water” but their friend that just signed the petition would tell them, “Watchu mean no! Maybe you bring your own water but how about me?” And then they’d be like, “Ah, yeah you’re right, okay gimme that I’ll sign it.”
So that’s a process of building solidarity, it’s just one small step, one small example, but these kinds of things start building up something.
brian bean: Yeah, it changes and politicizes the normal discussion that happens in workplaces about annoyances and grievances. With that, how do you know when and how to scale up from that? How do you translate fights around getting water stations to paid time off and then to bigger things? How do you scale up collectively struggling with those budding relationships?
Zama: We’re nowhere near done scaling up, so we’re in the process of figuring it out. After our initial meeting, the collection of signatures, and a couple planning meetings, we turned the water petition in. We did so in a manner in which many coworkers saw its delivery and our confrontation with management, which created a buzz. And when management brought us water from the grocery store within an hour, that created more buzz and it also had another effect: coworkers were coming up to us, the people that collected signatures or said something during the petition delivery, giving us props and saying “we need to do a petition about this, we need to do a petition about that.”
That led to our next meeting to talk about our next move. We had that meeting right after work, at a McDonalds at about 5am. More coworkers joined us at that next meeting, more issues came out and some of these issues were larger issues, like we need air conditioning, or time off, health insurance, an option for working full time, managers to stop screaming at us, a lower rate, an end to favoritism, etc.
At this post-water-victory meeting we were twelve people, twice as many as before, so we thought, “Ok, we have more capacity to act if everybody is on board and everybody plays a part in this thing.” So then we did a survey to determine the top three issues to see what most people were interested in doing something about. We created a petition with these three larger issues and we also escalated our action: instead of a petition delivery at the beginning of the shift, we took over the manager’s office during one of our breaks. That was a more confrontational action, and a little scarier. It required more coordination and involved more coworkers.
But it also had a bigger effect on the social dynamics between workers and management—after our management office takeover during break, when we saw our manager Frankie scared and nervously clicking his little ketchup bottle cap, we felt stronger and he seemed smaller, dweebier, insignificant. He said the issues were above his head, so that caused the site lead, the highest level manager at our delivery station, to get involved instead of just the lower managers.
In our experience, scaling up happens through the process of struggling, winning or losing, coming back together, reflecting, building a community of care with each other, and engaging in the next cycle of struggle. As long as things are escalating to the degree that it makes sense, the issues become larger, involvement widens, the OC grows and we gain experience. I imagine these connected, growing cycles of struggle as a spiral that widens as it moves up. For example, it was a significant step up between our water campaign in May 2019 and our paid time off (PTO) campaign in February 2020. But we didn’t just take a huge leap out of nowhere, we had organized a few issue campaigns and collective actions between water and PTO which meant we had a stronger OC and more experience and recognition amongst coworkers to wage what came to be an effective and victorious campaign.
brian bean: And the PTO campaign was in more than one city, right?
Zama: The PTO campaign was launched by Amazonians United Sacramento. They found out that we should all be getting PTO during their successful effort to get a fired coworker unfired. After finding out, they began a campaign for PTO, which involved a petition, “Amazonians United for PTO” buttons, and a walk out. Up to that point we in Chicago had not made buttons or organized a walkout. Once they walked out we realized they were fighting for all Amazon workers, including us, so at the beginning of 2020 we decided to initiate the PTO campaign at our workplace. This brought about a somewhat coordinated campaign between multiple sites; Sacramento, Chicago, and the recently emerged Amazonians United NYC, which also joined the campaign. We’re not a majority union at any of these sites, we’re not an “official” union, and Amazon hasn’t entered into negotiation sessions with us, but still, just a month after three Amazonians United chapters began organizing for PTO, Amazon announced that they were giving paid time off to all Amazon workers.
Then, less than two weeks after we won PTO we joined Amazonians United NYC in launching a petition for Coronavirus protections because Covid-19 was spreading at our workplaces and Amazon was endangering us by not taking it seriously. We were able to organize more quickly because of our previous joint campaign, and thousands of Amazon workers across the US and the world signed the petition. Soon afterwards we were organizing walkouts and safety strikes, our strongest collective actions thus far.
Our experience shows that the growth of our union will happen in the course of struggle, through organizing OC’s at each facility, connecting and coordinating. What we need now is for fellow workers at different Amazon sites to be building up their own Amazonians United and building up struggles at their particular facilities, with whatever is going on, so that we can continue connecting, growing and learning. Through connection and communication, common issues, common solutions, and common struggles are able to emerge. This then leads two or more groups of workers to work together on a common thing which takes us up to the next level.
And, just like Amazon doesn’t contain itself to the US, we workers shouldn’t contain our struggles by the borders of our countries. Throughout these years we’ve been building relationships with our fellow workers in Europe. In fact, Amazonians United Chicagoland members were in Spain for the convening of Amazon Workers International in March 2020, where we discussed the growing pandemic and common demands. Building those kinds of networks internationally is important because many issues, such as the pandemic, affect all Amazon workers, and so we should all be figuring out how to respond collectively.
brian bean: I think that’s a brilliant description of the dynamics of building rank-and-file organization from below, through struggles, slowly expanding, building those relationships, building experience. That touches on my next question about organization, but before that, I wanted to ask something else. You say Amazonians United is at one site in Chicago, right? What’s the presence like here?
Zama: Amazon recently shut down DCH1, our main base and where we got started, so we’re actually at several facilities in the Chicagoland area now, building up that community and organization at each facility and interconnecting. Workers at DIL3, the Gage Park facility, already organized a walkout demanding accommodations to the inhumane schedule Amazon forced us into, so despite being dispersed we are multiplying and growing stronger. We are now a Chicagoland union rather than just a single site union, our task now is to deepen and grow.
brian bean: My last question is more about the big picture. I’ve noticed that one of the things you haven’t talked about is the PRO Act. The PRO Act is something that a lot of the left is focusing on, and sometimes is presented as the silver bullet that’s going to be the thing that’s going to allow us to kick start the labor movement. And I’m sure it would be a good thing, but what do you think about it and the focus by some on the left on winning the PRO Act? How does that relate to the long relationship-focused, struggle-oriented kind of organizing from below that you’ve described building?
Zama: The PRO Act is just the latest reform for the left to chase. It’d be good if it passed, but, just like EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), it won’t. If workers in several cities, union and nonunion, were striking, disrupting production, inspiring each other into fighting for what’s ours in industry after industry, then maybe capitalists would feel compelled to allow their politicians to accept a reform like the PRO Act. But that’s not happening right now and business unions certainly aren’t going to make that happen.
Why? Because the great majority of unions in the US are business unions whose bureaucratic leadership is completely detached from the working class and subservient to capital. They funnel worker money and activist energy into the Democratic Party. Business unions lack internal democracy, lack member involvement, and seek cooperation with management. They lack the necessary will, politics, skill, creativity, and imagination to build working-class power. Workers within business unions must continue organizing with their fellow members to transform them into institutions of class struggle, but turning these massive ships is too slow. Working within them is not enough.
If we want to reform labor law or change society in any significant way, leftists themselves need to get to work and build and exercise working-class power among unorganized workers, independent of the business unions. It’s not about mobilizing activists to call their senators, it’s about building relationships and independent politicizing organizations of struggle with working-class people. We can’t be waiting for business unions or nonprofits to build working class power–we need to do it ourselves, shoulder to shoulder with our fellow workers.
Communists in the 1930s were working in auto, steel, and other industries, forming relationships, building trust, creating community, confronting bosses and organizing together with their coworkers for years before the great strike waves. Communists were there to create plans with their coworkers, kick off strikes, coordinate food supply, spread tactics, provide legal defense, bring in community support, and do everything necessary to guide the workers’ struggle towards victory.
When more radicals root themselves in the working class to live their politics on the job and focus on organizing in their workplace, we’ll actually be able to build up independent working-class power and our ability to disrupt production and the flows of profit to capitalists. That is what resulted in the labor laws that exist in the United States, right? It wasn’t just people calling their senators. It was capitalists’ desire for labor peace. We need less lobbying, less electoral shit, more mutually transformative fusion between the left and the working class.
We need to build working-class power to be able to make any significant change in society, and we need to stop pouring so much energy into policy reform or the kind of stuff that just gets sucked into the Democratic party. Aren’t folks tired of that?