On the very first day of the Young Democratic Socialists of Americans Winter Conference in Chicago — an event my comrades and I organized — we witnessed a massive win for the working class. The JFK8 Amazon Warehouse in Staten Island voted to form the very first Amazon Union in the U.S. This is a historic win for working people everywhere. Amazon went to great lengths to convince every single employee in the 8,000-person warehouse to vote no to forming a union. They plastered the warehouse with anti-union propaganda posters, fired two Black Amazon workers and organizers — Gerald Bryson, and Chris Smalls — and even had Smalls arrested for alleged trespassing on Amazon property. Some even in the organized labor movement were not sure that the Amazon Labor Union could win. With the disappointing defeat at the Bessemer Amazon Warehouse last year, there were feelings of uncertainty. The Huffington Post recently revealed that Amazon spent over 4.3 million dollars in union-busting efforts in Alabama. Nevertheless, Amazon workers in Staten Island took on one of the largest multinational corporations and the richest man in the world, and they won. There are several things University students can take from the Staten Island Amazon Warehouse success, including the power of the well-organized multi-racial working class.
There is no doubt in my mind that many students at the University dream of being the next Bezos or Musk. There is no doubt in my mind many students at the University dream of being pro-business politicians, like our very own Senator Mark Warner. Warner, of course, failed to endorse the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would have transformed the organized labor movement in this country. However, for working class students who are unsure what the future holds, let this be a lesson. While Staten Island may be hundreds of miles away, the struggle there proves that engaging in class struggles anywhere and everywhere — while difficult — can result in success. It is not individual activists or politicians that will lead us to a better world, it will be the well-organized masses. In no way was the victory in the warehouse easy or quick — and we still have a long way to go — as union density is at an all-time low in the U.S. But our power as workers lies in the fact that we produce the vast amount of wealth in this country and have the power to seize and control it.
Across the country, we are seeing workers realize their power. Over 100 Starbucks shops are getting organized and forming unions. Just recently, several Starbucks shops voted yes on unionization in Virginia. From Kenyon College to Dartmouth, students are participating in labor solidarity campaigns or are forming campus unions. We are at an unprecedented place in the organized labor movement. As the pandemic has taken the jobs, healthcare and lives of millions, the elites still have managed to line their pockets. The University reproduces elitism and recreates the tools of racialized capitalism. Over 60 percent of University students come from the top 20 percent and are then funneled into jobs at the FBI, Deloitte, Capitol One and more. This University can be deeply alienating for students that come from low-income and working class backgrounds. Even more so when we are taught and trained to further institutional and systemic issues like racialized capitalism. If you are one of these people, you may have thought at a given point in time how you could change the University. But, as you may have also noticed, anything transformative and monumental at the University has been pushed by students and workers. From the South Africa divestment campaign to securing a living wage, these victories were products of student and worker organizing.
Similarly, unions are also ways to address systemic inequalities. The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2017 that “working women in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men, compared with 78 cents on the dollar for non-union women as a share of nonunion men’s dollar.” The Center for American Progress found that “Black households with a union member have median wealth that is more than three times the median wealth of nonunion Black households.” Hispanic union households have a median wealth of five times that of non-union Hispanic households. Unions are about better benefits, working conditions and pay as well as sites for struggle for Black, Brown and women's liberation. Unions allow us to shift power from the capitalist class and put it into the hands of workers. Unions are able to improve material conditions for ourselves, our family and our community.
Students — when you enter the workplace after you graduate, join or form a union. Talk to your co-workers, talk about grievances that you all have with your working conditions and talk about what you need to form a union. Everyone deserves a living wage, better hours, healthcare and a feeling of dignity in the workplace. A well-organized and militant union can ensure you and your coworkers obtain this and more. On Grounds, we have a wall-to-wall union for workers called United Campus Workers — if you are a worker employed by the University, you should find out how to get involved today. It’s a great way to make your voice heard and protect your stances at work. The Democratic Socialists of America has a youth chapter on grounds called YDSA at U.Va. DSAs and YDSAs across the country have been instrumental in several big wins in the organized labor movement. I would not be a good co-chair of the national YDSA organization if I did not tell you to join YDSA today. The road to the people's liberation is long, but it does not have to be lonely. Organization is how workers defeat the ruling class and create a better world that we deserve.
Sarandon C.R. Elliott
Sarandon is a fourth year in the College of Arts and Sciences. They are also the co-chair of the National Coordinating Committee for YDSA and a dues-paying member of UCW-U.Va.