In its annual 10-K report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Amazon outlined what it saw as major competitors to its enterprise. In a paragraph that can only be read in the voice of a Bond villain, our dear friends at Amazon report that their current and potential competitors include — among others — e-commerce services, grocery stores, electronics companies, web search engines, web hosting platforms and “publishers, producers, and distributors of physical, digital, and interactive media of all types and all distribution channels.” While they stop short of outright declaring war on humanity, this is nonetheless indicative of Amazon’s size, scope and power.
With the number two spot on the Fortune 500, a market cap of almost $2 trillion and upwards of a million employees (both directly employed and contracted), the behemoth that is Amazon’s empire is hard to wrap one’s head around. It dominates entire industries, spends millions on lobbying and eclipses the GDPs of 90% of the world’s nations. Amazon is the embodiment of a new era of capitalism with resources centralized in a few megacorporations and firms whose global influence make the Dutch East India Company look quaint in comparison. With a snap of its fingers, Amazon made entire city and state governments grovel for a chance at hosting its new headquarters. Politicians courted Jeff Bezos with billions in tax incentives, lavish events, promotional videos narrated by Bezos’ favorite actors and in the case of Kansas City’s Sly James, 5-star reviews of one thousand Amazon products.
In addition to its main headquarters in Seattle, Amazon is reshaping America’s geographic landscape, establishing a network of warehouses, logistics centers, server centers and other facilities that many, such as labor journalist Alex Press, have likened to a modern-day version of company towns. Amazon’s massive fulfillment centers are often best described in terms of football fields and employ thousands per facility. According to Amazon itself, almost 10 million people apply each year, a figure made somewhat less surprising considering the company’s legendary turnover rate of 150% annually. The labor pools of entire towns are often exhausted resulting in workers being bussed in to make up the deficit. The unsuccessful union drive at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., back in April drew national attention to the cruel realities of life within the Amazon colossus. Mandatory overtime, strict productivity quotas and nonstop worker surveillance were just some of the dystopian conditions that Amazon workers go through. Workers that dare to organize risk being fired, prosecuted and barraged with the full range of corporate union-busting tactics, up to and including heat maps that track employee behavior to anticipate unionization efforts.
You may now find yourself wondering: What is to be done? How can the seemingly ever-growing might of Amazon be challenged? The answer: worker power and some good ol’ fashioned labor organizing. Just a few weeks ago, one of the most important elections in recent times occurred when the 1.3 million-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters held a leadership election for its president and other top offices. The Teamsters United slate won in a landslide victory over Teamster Power, defeating the “establishment” slate seen as the successor to the Jimmy Hoffa dynasty. Teamsters United, led by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman, was backed by the militant rank-and-file group Teamsters for a Democratic Union and ran on a bold platform focusing on defending contracts, organizing core industries and a willingness to use the “strike weapon.”
The result of the Teamsters election will likely have huge consequences in the years to come. With more than a million members in primarily the shipping, warehouse, and logistics sectors, a newly invigorated International Brotherhood of Teamsters would be at the forefront of American labor’s struggle against Amazon, and we won’t have to wait long to see if they are up to the challenge. The National Master United Parcel Service Agreement, bargained between the Teamsters and UPS, covers more than 300,000 Teamsters at the company and is set to expire in 2023. Previous negotiations with UPS in the past two decades have seen Teamster leadership push through deals (often against popular demand) that many members have criticized as concessionary, allowing for the erosion of wages, lackluster benefits and establishment of a two-tiered employment system that undermines compensation and job security. In a major split from the approach of previous union leaders, Teamsters United’s Sean O’Brien has emphasized his willingness to call a strike at UPS if necessary to win a favorable contract. With hundreds of thousands of Teamsters at UPS, it is hard to overstate just how big of a deal a strike would be. The last time it happened in 1997 saw almost 200,000 workers on the picket line and stood as “labor’s biggest victory in decades.” A big win with the UPS agreement would stand as a shining example of the power of collective bargaining and galvanize rank-and-file Teamsters, a historically crucial factor in unionizing workers at industrial titans like Amazon.
New leadership and a victory against UPS would be a boon for the union as it takes on Amazon’s sprawling logistics empire. The Teamsters passed a unanimous resolution at their conference in June committing to organize Amazon “coast to coast,” and incoming president Sean O’Brien has said that Amazon “should have been a target 10 years ago.” To take on the giant, he sees a difficult but winnable struggle that will likely require “cross-union support,” community partnerships across the country, legislative campaigns, and going back to the previous point, securing good contracts in existing industries that demonstrate to Amazon workers what a union is and what it could mean for them. On top of their existing union drives at several Amazon facilities in Canada, the Teamsters have already begun a campaign of reaching out to Amazon workers across the US, taking advantage of the proximity with which Teamsters at other companies often work with Amazon employees.
So what does the future hold? The loss at Bessemer was disappointing. The American legal system continues to be unabashedly hostile to unionized labor. Despite that, challenging Amazon is necessary and possible. The Teamsters’ efforts join existing organizing by Amazonians United and activists across the country, from Staten Island to Chicago to California. The result of the Teamsters election as well as a recent uptick in strikes are signs of a resurgence in American worker militancy across the country. Now more than ever, there is reason to feel hope for a better tomorrow, but you will have to fight for it. Fight for yourself. Fight for your loved ones. Fight for someone you don’t even know. Fight for the inalienable right to a life of dignity and happiness.
Justin Yuan is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.