USA: “We have the power” – Staten Island Amazon workers walkout

A protest by Amazon workers, in 2014, in Shakopee, Minnesota, over working conditions, (Photo: Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)

“And to Mr Bezos [plutocratic billionaire owner of Amazon] my message is simple. I don’t give a damn about your power. You think you’re powerful? We’re the ones that have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do? You’ll have no money. We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that… I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walk-outs, too… We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us.”

These are the magnificent words of fighting militant worker, Chris Smalls, who last Monday helped organise a walkout at an Amazon facility on Staten Island, New York. They are highly symptomatic of the gathering mood of opposition of the US workers – but not just them, the masses throughout the world – to the dictatorial boss class who wish with the US President Donald Trump to impose savage cuts on what they wrongly consider is a defenceless workforce in the teeth of mass layoffs. The reaction of Chris Smalls and the workers in this warehouse indicates the wave of opposition – a colossal brewing revolt particularly in the US, but in Britain and throughout the world – that is taking place and will grow exponentially in the next period

Two similar reports dealing with this issue appeared in the British press: one in the ‘liberal’ Guardian from which the explosive comments of this worker on ‘revolution’ are featured; and another from the open organ of finance capital, the Financial Times, in which they are missing. And this is not at all accidental. Even report s in the Financial Times can often ultimately find their way to workers in Britain and elsewhere. In this way they can both inspire workers in Amazon to emulate in Britain and in other countries in a wider industrial context, through our newspaper, the Socialist, to follow their example:  the motto “know thy enemy” is relevant here.

Indeed the gripping account of how these Amazon workers rose up against the punitive measures of the bosses is a powerful expression of the molecular change which is taking place in the American workers’ movement, which in turn indicates the coming mass revolt – particularly under the whip of ailing American capitalism and its most repulsive national representative, Donald Trump. Chris Smalls writes: “When I applied to work at Amazon, the job description was simple. It said you need to have a high-school diploma or a GED (general educational development) and you have to be able to lift 50lbs. That’s it. Now, because of Covid-19, we’re being told that Amazon workers are “the new Red Cross”. But we don’t want to be heroes. We are regular people. I don’t have a medical degree. I wasn’t trained to be a first responder. We shouldn’t be asked to risk our lives to come into work. But we are.”

We agree. These words will echo around millions of workers throughout the world: postal workers, lorry drivers, etc., and many others faced with a similar scandalous situation. Chris Smalls further comments: “And someone has to be held accountable for that, and that person is you,” referring to Jeff Bezos. Chris continues: “I have worked at Amazon for five years. Until I was fired last week from the Staten Island warehouse in New York City, I was a manager assistant who supervised a team of about 60-100 “pickers”, who pick items off the shelves and put them on conveyor belts to get sent out for shipment.”

But then at the beginning of March, before the first confirmed case of coronavirus at the facility people were getting sick: fatigue, light-headedness, vomiting. He, therefore, he told human resources: “Hey, something’s wrong here. We need to quarantine the building. I wanted us to be proactive, not reactive. Management disagreed and assured me they were ‘following CDC guidelines’.” How similar this is to countless workplaces in Britain, including even in hospitals, in which callous and insensitive management tries to use the same kind of methods and are met with resistance from some unions – but not all – and from workers?

Lack of protection

So is the description of the conditions that existed: “The lack of protections worried me. Inside the warehouse, there are gloves, but they are not the right kind. They are rubber instead of latex. There are also no masks. Hand sanitizer is scarce. There are limited cleaning supplies. People are walking around with their own personal hand sanitizer, but good luck finding one in a local grocery store. Because of those conditions, I didn’t feel safe, so I took paid time off to stay home and avoid getting sick. Eventually, though, I ran out of paid time off and I had to go back to work. Other colleagues don’t have that option. Many of my co-workers and friends at the Amazon facility have underlying health conditions. Some have asthma or lupus or diabetes. Others are older people, or pregnant. They haven’t gone to work in a month, so they haven’t been paid. They’re only doing that to save their lives: if they get the virus they could be dead. One of my friends, who has lupus, is living with his relatives so he doesn’t have to pay rent. Can you imagine if he couldn’t do that? He’d probably be homeless.”

Chris is only echoing here what millions of workers throughout the US and the world have experienced and still are today, including in Britain. Moreover his reference to the “homeless” – the likely fate of many American workers expelled from the factories –  is a chilling reminder of what the working class suffered in the 1930s ‘Great Depression’, which could be the fate of the American working class today if they do not fight in their millions. What this courageous worker shows is the likely outcome of the attacks of the greedy American capitalists and their narcissistic president, Trump, one of the most vicious anti-union presidents in US history. This was clearly illustrated in the searing ITV programme on Thursday 2 April: ‘Trump and the virus’. It outlined the horrific future for the growing army of the hungry homeless sleeping under bridges in New York and other cities of the US, as well as all the other indignities that flow from the spectacular decline of US capitalism.

Before the present crisis there have been a number of accounts and books which have described the slow and inglorious decline of US capitalism, which we have reviewed both in the Socialist and Socialism Today. One such graphic book is ‘The Unwinding’, reviewed in Socialism Today in October 2013. Another more recent book is ‘Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” by photojournalist Chris Arnade, which implicitly describes the growing revolt that has been long brewing and we now see unfolding before our eyes, particularly in his graphic photographs and words of the victims of American capitalism. We hope to review this in the next few weeks in one of our publications, so graphic is the picture that they describe of the social and economic decay of America over a protracted period of time.

Inhuman working environment

However, nothing can replace the simple explanations of workers about the conditions the inhuman and hellish working environment they face. “Another problem is that Amazon has imposed mandatory overtime to keep up with the demand of everyone ordering online. The result is that Amazon employees are going to work sick as dogs just so they can earn $2 per hour on top of their regular pay. Do you know what I call that? Blood money. Workers who want to make extra money are doing up to 60 hours of work a week and risking their lives. Some are working even if they are sick. When people are coughing and sneezing they say, oh, it’s just allergies. It’s a scary time to be in the warehouse right now.”

He concludes: “When I went back to work last Tuesday morning, I spoke to a team member who looked really ill. She told me she feared she had corona and had tried to get tested. I told her to go home and get some rest. Then, two hours later, we had a managers’ meeting. That’s when we were told we had a first confirmed sick employee. The crazy thing was, management told us not to tell the associates. They were being very secretive about it. I thought the secrecy was wrong, so as soon as I left the meeting I told as many people as I could about the situation. Shortly after that, I started emailing the New York state health department, the governor, the CDC…

“I did everything I could to close that warehouse down so that it could be properly sanitized but the government is too overwhelmed to act right now. That’s when I realized I would have to do something myself.  I believe they targeted me because the spotlight is on me. The thing is, it won’t work.  I decided to start spreading awareness among the workers in the building. I had meetings in the common areas and dozens of workers joined us to talk about their concerns. People were afraid. We went to the general manager’s office to demand that the building be closed down so it could be sanitized. We also said we wanted to be paid during the duration of that time. Another demand of ours was that people who can’t go to work because of underlying health conditions be paid. Why do they have to risk catching the virus to put food on the table? This company makes trillions of dollars. Still, our demands and concerns are falling on deaf ears. It’s crazy. They don’t care if we fall sick. Amazon thinks we are expendable.”

Then 50 to 60 workers decided to walk out and a number of them spoke to the press. Chris continued: “It was beautiful, but unfortunately I believe it cost me my job. On Saturday, a few days before the walkout, Amazon told me they wanted to put me on ‘medical quarantine’ because I had interacted with someone who was sick. It made no sense because they weren’t putting other people on quarantine. I believe they targeted me because the spotlight is on me. The thing is, it won’t work. I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walk-outs, too. We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us.”

But Amazon got more opposition than they bargained for: the New York attorney general called for an investigation over the “disgraceful firing of Chris Smalls.

Mega monopoly faces revolt

This mega monopoly that needs about 270,000 workers to turn up each day to keep its US operation running smoothly faces a huge revolt. Globally the company’s entire workforce totals 800,000. It cannot be excluded that massive national strikes of Amazon workers can take place as well as international link-ups amongst this potentially powerful force.

Above all, it indicates the growing revolt of the American working class, which can have a decisive effect on events in the US in the next period. This has been accelerated through Trump’s period in office. And yet scandalously it is not even excluded that he can creep back to power in November’s presidential election, so lamentable is the capitalist Democratic Party with the opposition provided by the former vice president Joe Biden. This might happen even if he is backed up by former President Obama, calculated to win the votes of African-Americans and to attract women by nominating a woman vice-presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren. On the other hand, some Democrats in desperation are beginning to canvass for New York state governor Andrew Cuomo to at least be on the ticket; he has at least proved to be articulate in opposition to Trump.

The whole situation however in the US is crying out for a mass workers party to be created, by breaking from the Democrats and creating a force that can politically harness the class anger of those workers like Chris Small and millions of others who are instinctively, through their own experience, implacably opposed to American capitalism and Trump, in the factories and workplaces but also in the political sphere as well.

The US working class could still be the anvil upon which the fate not just of the US but of the world can be hammered out. It has immense potential power but it has to be freed politically and organisationally from the conservative restraints of misnamed ‘friends of labour’. It is those like this Amazon worker and millions of others in fighting for powerful independent unions linked to the idea of a socialist democratic mass working-class party who can take power and refashion America and the world.


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