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Socialists and the BAmazon Union

What was our response? What can we do better?

Sam Salour discusses the lack of a coordinated response from the Democratic Socialists of America to what could be the most significant union election in the South in decades.

Predominantly Black Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama continue to fight to form a union. Their struggle against one of the most powerful corporations on Earth has attracted support from across the country and around the world. On February 20, fifty actions took place across the U.S. in response to the call for a national day of solidarity issued by the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA). In the days since February 20, actor Danny Glover has visited Alabama in support of the workers. Amazon, on the other hand, has mounted a fierce campaign to discourage and dishearten the workers. The stakes are high, and capital is well aware that if the union triumphs in Alabama, that may pave the way for unionization efforts across the country. Wayne State University professor Michael Goldfield has said that this is the most important labor fight in the South since the late 1940s. Indeed, a victory for the BAmazon Union workers can usher in a new era of class struggle across the U.S.

But how have we, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the U.S., responded to this significant struggle? What can we do better?

The Birmingham chapter has been very active, and DSA members across Alabama have been joining the solidarity effort. A nationwide Slack channel was created on February 12 that provides the most recent updates on the struggle from members active in Alabama. The channel, however, has only about 170 members. Many DSA members joined the national day of solidarity across the country, and are supporting the struggle as individuals. My concern, however, is not with actions that individuals, select chapters, and bodies like the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) have taken but with the lack of collective action across DSA considered as a whole. Furthermore, I am concerned that some effort and energy, both on the part of individual leaders and rank and file members, is being lost because of problems with our organizational structure and mode of operation.

In private correspondence on February 26, national leaders told me that they asked chapters to support the February 20 day of action, and to stay connected with support efforts through the Slack channel. In private correspondence with leaders of my chapter, New York City DSA, on February 25, I was told that members of our Labor Branch Organizing Committee met with Birmingham DSA leaders to lend some support. Members of my chapter, however, have not yet received a single email about supporting the union drive, either from national or from chapter leadership.

In private correspondence with the DSLC on February 23, I was informed that the DSLC Steering Committee voted on February 14 to support the February 20 day of action called by SWA. Yet, it seems that there was no institutional mechanism to transform that vote into a national campaign and mobilization in support of the workers. As far as I know, members in my chapter were never informed of that vote, nor were we notified about the national day of action.

This stands in sharp contrast to the email sent by DSLC on February 28 encouraging members to join our national campaign for the PRO Act and a Green New Deal. In the email we read that:

In the first 100 days of the Biden administration, Democratic Socialists of America are launching a push to pass the PRO Act, which would strengthen unions, the power of the working class to organize on the job, and our collective capacity to win a just transition to a green economy for all in the years ahead.

I have nothing against this campaign, but a national campaign to support the Alabama workers would also strengthen unions, the power of the working class to organize on the job, and raise our collective capacity. What does this contrast reveal about our mode of operation? What do we learn from it? What does it say about our distance from the working class? About the racial composition of our organization?

I went to the rally at union square in New York City on February 20. It was well organized. We heard fiery speeches from washing supply workers who had been fired for organizing, from representatives of many organizations such as Workers World Party and Teamsters local 808, but DSA had no presence. Passersby were curious and I talked to about ten who wanted to know more and support the workers. Imagine how many people we could have talked to if we had hundreds of DSA members on the streets. Would this not have been a great opportunity to raise class consciousness?

This is an opportune moment to reflect on our organizational structure and priorities. Over the past month, I have received an email almost everyday about phone banking for our Tax the Rich Campaign in New York. For example, on February 28, we were told that:

our movement has to demonstrate that we are stronger than the status quo. We only do that when we hit the phones and the streets together.

In a February 23 email from Central Brooklyn DSA, we were encouraged to join a week of outreach for Phara Souffrant Forest, the Assembly member for the 57th District, in order to build her profile. After all, “we are going to need a movement of organizers. Real change comes from working people organizing together to make demands.” While I would appreciate some discussion before deciding on such campaigns, I do not have anything against our Tax the Rich Campaign or organizing for Souffrant Forest. However, faced with the absence of even a single email about the BAmazon union drive, I do wonder what they reveal about our priorities and our mode of organizing. Could we not have ‘hit the phones and streets together’ in support of the BAmazon workers?

The DSA National Political Committee (NPC) published a statement in February declaring their adoption of a resolution acknowledging “the pain experienced by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) members caused by a white supremacy culture”. Again, I do not have anything against such a resolution, but it stands in contrast with the silence on, and lack of mobilization for the most significant struggle that is being waged by Black workers. Why is it that in the February Dispatch, the February NPC newsletter, and the March Dispatch titled ‘build worker power, protect our planet’, there is not even a mention of the ongoing struggle in Alabama?

Chris Maisano suggests in Winter 2021 Socialist Forum that:

recent experience leads to the conclusion that wide-scale class formation will for the foreseeable future run largely, though not exclusively, through electoral politics.

I agree that the electoral arena is an important avenue of struggle for the process of class formation. Indeed, I cannot think of any major Marxist revolutionary who would disagree. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky all emphasized the importance of electoral politics. For example, Lenin chastised the Bolsheviks who did not want to dirty their hands by engaging with electoral politics. However, struggles from below are also great avenues for class formation, particularly when there are opportunities for nationwide solidarity actions, as arose on February 20. Our presence side by side with workers as they fight for justice raises class consciousness more, and speaks a thousand times louder than calling politicians for legislative reforms, as helpful as those reforms may be. These, I believe, are important considerations if we want to bridge the gap between socialist activists and intellectuals, and the working class.

Demonstrators gather at Union Square in New York City on February 20 to support the union campaign at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama

I went to Amazon-owned Whole Foods in Harlem to talk with some cashiers. None of them had heard about the union drive in Alabama. Simply making some noise, and informing these workers of what is happening is a step in the process of class formation and the growth of class consciousness: ‘Did you hear about what is happening in Alabama?’, ‘those DSA people were talking about it’, ‘apparently there is huge national support for the workers, ‘if they can do it why can’t we?’ Is this not the basis for the process of class formation? If we agree on the importance of struggles from below, then it is paramount to ask why we have been incapable of responding organizationally to such struggles. Furthermore, if we agree that our role is to intervene in practical struggles from below, then our strategy and tactics cannot be determined independently from the character of such struggles in a given situation. What do such considerations imply for our organization and mode of operation?

While electoral politics remains a significant area of struggle, we should have meetings to further discuss the purpose of such struggle. Is it an end in itself or a means to an end? Is the end the formation of an independent (labor) party? What would be the purpose of such a party? Would it be able to legislate socialism into existence, perhaps by writing an ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ bill? If, based on the experience of social democratic parties such as the British Labor Party, we agree that this is not a possibility, what implications do we draw for our strategy and tactics? How has our response, or lack of response to these questions impeded our ability to intervene in struggles from below?

I have focused on DSA because it is by far the largest socialist organization in the U.S. The socialist intellectuals who criticize DSA for its electoral bent also failed to respond, in any meaningful sense, to this significant struggle from below. When are we going to discard our academic shell, and invest our knowledge, energy, and resources into building the organizations of the working class?

It is not too late, we can still initiate a campaign and act as a unified national body in support of the BAmazon workers. An international day of action is being planned for March 20. Tempest is organizing a public meeting on Sunday, March 14, to discuss how we should relate to this ongoing struggle. It does not matter who is organizing whatever event, or whether we agree with the strategy of the union, what is crucial at this moment is to show support and solidarity with the workers. And if we believe that this effort is doomed to failure, we should remember that, as Rosa Luxemburg argued:

errors made by a truly revolutionary labor movement are historically infinitely more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best of all possible central committees.

Let us not spread our wings with the falling of the dusk!

Solidarity Forever!

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Sam Salour View All

Sam Salour is a writer and activist in New York City. He is a member of DSA and the Tempest Collective.