Resistance Is Not Futile
Technology and the speed of global communications are core elements of Amazon’s financial success, but workers also can harness those advances to benefit the working class. New technology in the hands of workers doesn’t cancel out the disparity between capital and labor mobility, but it can blunt it. The millions of people who took to the streets in the walkouts of September 2019 attest to how technology can surmount obstacles of distance and language.
If there’s any positive organizing news coming out of the COVID-19 era, it’s that workers have been compelled by dire circumstances to adapt technology for solidarity and collective action. Some three thousand union members from seventy different countries just concluded a six-session “Strike School,” hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and led by labor organizer Jane McAlevey. With physical distance and language no longer posing insurmountable barriers, we can begin to imagine building a true global Amazon workers’ organizing committee.
In employing new technologies, organizers will have to work relentlessly to avoid the temptation of shortcuts. Instagram and Twitter are not substitutes for organizing work. One-on-one conversations, leadership identification and recruitment, democratic decision-making, political education and power analysis through discourse, and organizational structure-testing all remain fundamental ingredients to building successful mass industrial action and durable worker organization. The technological tools now available to workers can facilitate those organizing building blocks on a global scale.
Then there’s the question of how to challenge Amazon in the political arena. The Cost of Free Shipping offers chapters with starkly different advice.
Steve Lang and Filip Stabrowski recount how New York activists blocked Amazon’s 2018 bid to extract $3 billion in public subsidies in exchange for a second headquarters in the Big Apple. Grassroots activists held firm to the demand for no public subsidies, and three months after “awarding” New York their second HQ, Amazon abruptly pulled the plug. A year later, however, the company announced it would dramatically expand its footprint in New York City — with no subsidies — validating the movement charge that Amazon’s HQ-2 play was never about jobs but rather corporate extortion. Lang and Stabrowski conclude that “in dealing with an adversary of such size, power, and inflexibility as Amazon, it is vital that the opposition contain a kernel that is committed to no compromise and no negotiation.”
Katie Wilson recites the 2018 Seattle battle to tax Amazon and other major corporations to fund housing and social services. The city council passed a modest tax on top businesses, only to swiftly and ignominiously repeal it in the face of a brutal, overwhelming counterattack from Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce.
Wilson’s advice from that bruising battle is threefold: next time, “prevent or minimize” the antagonism of conservative union leaders, such as those in the building trades, by appealing to them at the beginning of the effort; run a stronger public relations campaign; and narrow the tax measure to affect fewer companies, thereby “cultivating more vocal business support.”
But in fact, Seattle history bears out a very different lesson. This past July, doubtless after Wilson submitted her essay, the Seattle movement won a new tax on Amazon — this one more than four times the size of the repealed 2018 version. How did this happen, after such an epic defeat?
The socialist-led Tax Amazon movement won not by toggling to the political center, moderating appeals, or refining its messaging, but by organizing a dogged, scrappy grassroots movement that issued bold demands, which they then backed up with a credible threat to take the matter to the ballot if the city council failed to act. (I was involved both as a volunteer in the Tax Amazon movement and as a community organizer for City Council member Kshama Sawant.)
The lessons in both New York and Seattle are the same: Amazon can be beaten in the political arena, not with better public relations and by accommodating the center, but with big demands that inspire working people to engage, and with movement power demonstrated through collective action.
Today’s Amazon activists, whether working in gleaming towers, laboring away in cavernous warehouses, driving panel vans through suburban neighborhoods, or defending communities against corporate extortion, are not going to tip over the giant tomorrow, or in any of the foreseeable tomorrows. But they also are demonstrating that resistance is not futile, and through struggle and experience are helping us all figure out how to build durable working-class power and effectively challenge capitalism.
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