Last year, Mostafa Henaway spent a month as an “Associate” at Amazon’s fulfillment centre outside of Montreal. He wrote about his experience for The Breach, describing a gruelling and dangerous work environment—an inside look at a company hell-bent on lowering costs and working faster.

Henaway, a labour and migrant justice activist based in Montreal, has been studying Amazon’s business strategy and labour practices around the world as well as the historic union drive in New York. With the recent, stunning success of Amazon workers on Staten Island, we sat down with Mostafa for an update on organizing and labor conditions at the world’s largest online retailer.

Breach Publisher Dru Oja Jay caught up with Henaway by video conference earlier this week.  This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You spent a month and a bit working at Amazon, and you wrote about that for The Breach. It sounded like a very difficult place to organize a union. How did you react when you heard that JFK8—the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island—was not only successful in its union drive, but won in something of a landslide?

I was ecstatic. I was jubilant. I was sort of taken off my feet. I had thought a lot of the tactics that Amazon uses would be effective against any unionization campaign. To me, the fact that the organizers were able to get to the issues that workers really faced, and to make those central, was astounding. 

One thing that’s clearly coming out—and you see this as an Amazon worker, and in talking with other Amazon workers—is that there’s such a condescending attitude towards workers. For Amazon, either workers are idiots, or they can be bought off, or they’re easily replaced. That leaked memo about Chris Smalls where Amazon’s lawyer says he’s “not smart or articulate”—I think that’s Amazon’s view of its entire workforce. 

They were caught off guard. They think that no group of workers could actually pull this off there. There was a real arrogance that Amazon shows again and again, in different circumstances.

An Amazon worker in Germany delivers a package.

I get the sense that they’ve read every page of the anti-union playbook—they’ve spent millions of dollars to keep a union from happening. So how do you think they will adapt their strategy to counter this?

A lot of people are looking at what Walmart did. It will be interesting to see if they go that route. Walmart’s strategy is that if there’s a union, and it looks like they’re gonna win, they just close the Walmart, right? In the Quebec context, we saw that with Couche-Tard, which is a multinational convenience store chain. When Quebec unions tried to organize, they just started closing stores

So some people are saying this is what Amazon is going to do. But that sort of ignores what Amazon is and how it makes profit. They deliver the most amount of goods at the cheapest price at the fastest possible speed. That’s why everybody uses Amazon. Jeff Bezos said it: nobody wants to pay more and get slower delivery for less goods. 

So Amazon can’t close these fulfillment centers or delivery stations, because then you decrease the speed at which goods flow. And they’re really expensive, in terms of the amount of robotics, the amount of investment. 

With something like JFK8, it’s impossible to say, “let’s just move it to Alabama.” It has to be extremely close to New York, unless Amazon bought a ship or something, which, you know, I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility. There’s actually an Amazon patent for a giant, blimp-based warehouse that would float in the air.

New York has Amazon Prime same-day delivery, right? That means processing orders to get them from a sortation center, fulfillment center, and delivery station to the customer. Prime went from what was an intense two-day delivery, to one-day, to same-day. So they can’t close an Amazon facility like JFK8—they just can’t shut it down. 

In Germany, when workers went on strike, they temporarily moved operations to the border of Poland, and then moved them back.

But the contradictions have their own logic. The need for super-fast delivery gives workers power. You can move sweatshops abroad, you can move manufacturing abroad, but you can’t move a fulfillment center abroad. 

So will they try to appeal the vote, inflate the numbers as much as they can? That’s something we saw in Alberta—Amazon inflated the number of temporary workers in proportion to the full time employees. 

Another strategy—what we saw with Uber, and which would be illegal—is to create their own yellow union, or make some kind of sweetheart deal with a larger business union, that would limit the possibilities of strike or demands. Could Amazon look to one of the larger unions that were already interested in organizing? That’s a possibility, as a way to keep a real militant union out. 

I don’t think Amazon thought they were going to be in this place, but the strategy of pitting unions against each other is something they’ve done in Italy. So, if you look towards Europe, they have two playbooks: you move the facility, you move the orders to reduce the size of that facility [like Amazon did in Germany], or you make a sweetheart deal with one union like they did in Italy.

Another thing that seems to be coming out of the New York campaign—how it succeeded where so many unions had failed in the past to unionize Amazon workers—was that it didn’t have this big union brand behind it. It was a homegrown thing. And it was the people who had worked there who were the organizers. What are the lessons to be drawn there?

Garments workers stage a protest rally against the world’s leading digital retailer Amazon demanding fair wages and union rights for all Amazon supply chain workers in Dhaka, on November 27, 2020.

Amazon has had, in absolute terms, just precipitous growth. If you look at the graph of revenues, it’s just a continuous acceleration. What do you see as the future for Amazon? And maybe you could talk a bit about Amazon’s role in the economy overall.

That’s the thing about Amazon’s growth—it doesn’t stop. We think of capitalists like Jeff Bezos just being in it for the quick buck. Financialized capitalism—so quarterly profits, stock buybacks, taking free money. What’s important to understand is that Amazon actually doesn’t operate in that framework. Every year in his letter to the shareholders, Bezos would point to the opposite—this idea of being patient. 

Amazon has always seen a long game, and not a short game. In his shareholder letters, Bezos basically said, “if you dominate the market, profits will come later.” So faster delivery and investing in growing market share and infrastructure offsets the ability to make profits, but keeps shareholders interested. The Amazon model goes against the grain of corporations around them; that’s why they’re willing to invest in these massive fulfillment centers—over 2,000 facilities worldwide. Amazon always anticipates what its competition will be down the road. 

If you look back to Amazon’s beginning, they sold books online, right? And Bezos and Amazon looked at, well, what if people don’t want to actually read physical books? What will the competition be? And they started Kindle; they created their own competition. 

So then they moved to fulfillment of other goods. And then, what if people don’t want to order online anymore? What if people want the experience of going back to the store? So now what you’re seeing in the US is Amazon brick and mortar shops, right? With no employees [and] using the same technology from the warehouse: you just walk in, you scan your phone, you pick whatever you want. There’s some artificial intelligence cameras that know what you picked up, attached to your phone, and then you leave and you get the bill. 

Amazon really is about enclosure—it encloses its own market.

During the pandemic, we had a supply chain crisis—not enough truckers, the ports were backlogged. They began a product company in China to build its own standardized containers. They realized there were complications for these large mega ships which can only go into the standard ports, and can’t go through certain canals. 

So Amazon began to build its own fleet of ships that are smaller and that can then utilize smaller inland ports in North America. So when everyone was backed up for a month or two trying to get the goods off of ships, Amazon had just a two or three days of delay. 

So then you have other logistics companies—other couriers—relying on and renting Amazon space to get their goods through. So Amazon is constantly controlling its own market, but then also marketizing that, renting that out. 

They did the same thing with Amazon Web Services—which we all know in terms of surveillance, is used by governments, the CIA, and ICE.

But Amazon Web Services actually started as an internal platform to manage the warehouses and the fulfillment. Then they realized they can just rent it out—they have made massive profits, which they invest in expanding into new markets and building infrastructure.

Amazon has airports. Amazon has its own air fleet. Amazon now has 260,000 drivers. It becomes the way in which the market actually operates—especially in places like North America, or Europe, where we actually don’t produce things. We buy goods from the Global South, and then we sell them. That’s what we do. 

So Amazon now is controlling how goods enter the market, and the distribution of those goods. 

They cry all the time, “We have like, only nine per cent of the retail market,” you know? “We’re not a monopoly, we’re not evil. Look at Walmart, look at Target.” But 50 per cent of all online sales are done by Amazon. So that market is growing and growing, and Amazon is controlling the infrastructure through which goods circulate. 

So if you look at the Canadian example, what Amazon does is essentially steals the data from its other third party logistics. Amazon doesn’t have the infrastructure to deliver outside of the major centres—to the north or whatever. But what they do is manipulate the US Postal Service and Canada Post, which are publicly subsidized, to get lower volume pricing, then generate their own profit. And then, when Amazon has enough data, they figure out a cheaper way to do it, and do it themselves and undercut the postal service. We saw this with last mile delivery. 

What’s really important is that it’s slowly becoming the world’s largest logistics company. Before, Walmart was the major retailer, and it would extract a price from suppliers in the Global South. It was a race to the bottom across the supply chain. But now Amazon controls the market of distribution. So even Walmart has to compete with Amazon, and suppliers that want to sell on Amazon now have to beg Amazon to sell at a particular price. 

That changes conditions for everyone. The Amazon effect is global. It’s the fifth largest corporation in the world. When they bought Whole Foods, that was the fifth largest grocer in the US. So what does that mean for farmers? For people who are growing bananas and coffee? Because Amazon then will control the prices, and the demand on how things are produced—at what cost and at what speed, right?

So how does union organizing fit into that? What do you think is the horizon the left should be looking at? And then how does immediate labor organizing play into that?

A company as big as Amazon sets the standards for its sector, and all the competing companies are following its example. Everyone’s moving into e-commerce, which means larger warehouses, bigger distribution centers, this reconcentration of work. 

Amazon also drives the competition for lower prices. So that means lower wages, that means the use of disposable workers—jobs with high turnover. In Western capitalism, the social contract has been that if you work hard, you’ll be provided some kind of decent life and some sort of sense of social mobility and dignity. But what if no one’s willing to buy your labour anymore? What if the whole idea of work is, now you’re going to be turned into a machine and then just shot out the other end within three to five months?

And so it’s kind of an absurd idea to be subsidizing that model with incentives and other enticements

Logistics, right now, is in a race to the bottom. For unions, this sector is fundamental. And it’s not just warehousing. We saw, with the Freedom Convoy, this myth of what the trucking industry is. I think people didn’t really grasp how many people are in trucking—there are 300,000 truckers in Canada, and most of them are South Asian and low wage workers. And that’s because of the model Amazon has created—it’s all just-in-time delivery, and so on. 

It’s forcing the union movement to resolve issues they have been grappling with for the last 20-30 years. The restructuring of work—temp work, part time or contract work—and not being able to relate to immigrant communities and racialized workers. In the sector, you do confront all of those issues—it’s a fault line in our economy. 

I think the bottom up structure of the Amazon Labor Union points towards a grassroots model. But even in the absence of that in Canada, is there some kind of common front? After the Staten Island victory, every union is going to be chomping at the bit—we already see Teamsters sort of taking credit for this, though they were nowhere near it. But their international voted on making Amazon a priority. We see the SEIU, the UFCW, Unifor has a warehouse campaign and so on. It’s a big pie, so there has to be a common front. 

The resources are going in for the sake of building our collective capacity; this is not about one union getting members and gaining dues—this is about turning the tide.

Where is that discussion right now in the union movement? Is that the common view? Is there a debate?

There were some initial discussions, some at the international level with the Make Amazon Pay Coalition, and some of the stuff coming out of the US. But on the ground, the organizing priorities are the organizing priorities, and it’s dog eat dog, right? It’s like, “let’s raid—who’s going to get there first?” As opposed to having an entente—you know, one union takes on the delivery service partner, one union takes on the fulfillment centers? 

You see the companies  getting together to support each other. For example, Amazon backed Uber when it was trying to get a ballot measure passed in California to exempt app-based workers from labour regulations.

Chris Smalls protesting at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse after being fired.

So they have a common front and we should too?

Exactly, and especially these large platform companies—they have no desire to be regulated. And so we really need a large common front. And in terms of the horizon for the unions—at least for the established unions—is if that doesn’t get established, a lot of these efforts won’t go far. And Amazon’s going to be really smart to play units off of each other. It’s not rocket science. 

There’s also a sort of golden opportunity here. A lot of the logic of globalization and neoliberalism was that we’re all gig workers—everyone’s autonomous. There’s no industrial working class anymore. There are no large scale workplaces that bring lots of people together. 

That’s not true. You do have this reconcentration of labour—a place like JFK8 has 8,000 workers. It’s inside workplaces, but also geographically. In Montreal, for example, a lot of the logistics and warehouses and distribution centers are all in an area between Dorval airport and Decarie. It makes it easy to flyer. It makes it easy to connect to people because they are taking one bus. And there are thousands upon thousands of workers—non-unionized, low wages, grueling conditions, right? 

This is where we need to be, to reground and reorient ourselves.

One of the important lessons we can draw from the campaign was the use of former workers. Like Chris Smalls. On the left now, there’s all this media hype about Chris Smalls. What does Chris Smalls represent? He was a former worker, he worked there five years, tried to apply for a supervisory position something like 50 times. He organized the walkout, as small as it was, during the early days of the COVID pandemic, and then he was fired. 

In the union organizing model former workers can’t sign union cards, so organizers are kind of like, “let’s forget about that—we need committees and organizers of people inside the workplace.” But the Amazon way, which is also the Walmart way, is based on high turnover. So if you exert all of this energy building this relationship with individual workers, and then they’re gone, what’s the point? 

But Chris Smalls didn’t walk away. He went right back to Amazon’s door. And the use of former workers is essential in this moment, right? They can actually talk to workers, they still have relationships—they’re just no longer there. And that’s part of the model. 

The fact that it was led by former workers, and it was a homegrown brand, everyone was able to relate to it. If you look at some of the interviews, when someone on the inside would talk to another worker, it’s like, “Oh, if you can’t talk right now, then talk to Chris Smalls when you get out of the warehouse; he’ll be waiting for you at the bus stop.” They just tabled every day at a bus stop with a heat lamp, handing out food and having cookouts. 

Being public in that way was sort of audacious, but it worked to their advantage. Amazon was arrogant about it, but one of the lessons is that they built this consistent presence. Over time, you build relationships. 

The usual union approach is sort of this “organizing under a dictatorship” model, which is how a lot of unions treat a workplace. You have secret committees, and then mega lists, and you’re totally in the shadows until you’re ready. 

The idea is you don’t want people to get fired. But at Amazon people are just walking out the door. They’re not getting fired, they’re just leaving. So being public is efficient in this model, right? 

One thing that doesn’t get highlighted is that Amazon has a weird model. As an example, for giggles I applied again and I was hired, right? I leave the same day, I write a long, scathing article, and then I go on to the website, and then I can get another job. 

Because the way the algorithm works is that you can’t get a job if you’re fired, but if you resign voluntarily, the computer software doesn’t stop you from applying again. So in some ways there’s no one at the helm. 

Logistics activity on the Amazon site of Vélizy-Villacoublay in France.

I wanted to come back to another element, the idea that union culture in New York—I think somebody said, Chris Smalls’s mom is a union member, an indicator of a broader cultural familiarity with unions. Given that in your article you talk about how a lot of the workers in Montreal, for example, are recent immigrants from very different places, how much of a hurdle is that? The other question is, is that different in New York? Obviously there are lots of immigrants in New York, but is Amazon’s workforce similar there?

Yeah, you already had Amazon HQ2 [where New York City successfully wooed Amazon to build its second headquarters there, but faced a big pushback from residents] and a lot of the response was, “you can’t come into this place, we’re a union town.” There is that working class pride and culture in New York City. 

We talked on a small scale about common fronts. If you look at the resources that the Amazon Labor Union had to work with, that came from union locals. They got a lawyer from, the retail and department store workers union. They got office space from an office workers’ local, they got some resources from a food workers union local. So there was actually a mix of unions in the play. 

I think the immigrant question was important as well. A lot of the workers were African migrants, and so they began serving West African fried rice and one of them went to the neighbors and got a contract. Everything is translated into Spanish. And so that was a big divide they had to bridge. 

People have a sort of a timidness if this is their first job, or this is important until they get their status. That said, the reality of Amazon begins to seep in, and I think there’s less of that fear when people begin to see the reality—forced accommodation, they get injured, they don’t get the right promotion—all the tricks Amazon uses against people begin to play out.

When they first work there, people are like, “I’m working for this large global company, how can I not be happy?” But I think it makes people angry at a place like Amazon, because of all the bullshit. All the “we are family, we’re all in this together”—and no one’s in this together, right? 

But I think it means we need organizers grounded in the workplace, organizers who are from those communities. And making sure people feel like they’re protected against reprisals—that they’re not vulnerable—is a big challenge. 

In New York, it’s not just immigrants. There’s a large low-wage Black workforce as well. In Montreal, they’re mostly reliant on an immigrant labor force—with permanent residency, without permanent residency, or waiting. It’s a mixed bag, but that’s definitely more of a challenge here.

So in Montreal and Canada more broadly, there’s a lot more potential for precarity or people being scared of being deported, and so on.

It’s not so much about being deported as it is looking bad when you’re applying for a job, or “I’m gonna get kicked out because I’m active in the union.” But that’s not what’s gonna happen—so there’s some educational work needed to reassure people.

The other important thing is, I think we have a window of opportunity. The sort of labor market shortage that we’re in, the great resignation—a part of this is outside of Amazon’s control. It does give workers a sense of confidence. It’s not inherently politicizing, but if they don’t like a job, they just say no. They’ll get a similar job, or maybe even a better one the next day, right? 

So there’s less fear because when you’re in a bad job, you don’t think “this job is gonna get better”—it’s not going to get better. But you’re like, “I can go to Olymel, I’ll get $21; I’ll go to this warehouse, I’ll get this much.” 

I don’t think that window is going to be around much longer. I was listening to something by Larry Summers, neoclassical neoliberal, an architect of the Washington Consensus. He was claiming that it’s impossible not to see a recession in two years’ time. So the fact that we have this window where workers are feeling confidence on an individual level—we can use it. And if we don’t, we’ll lose it. It probably won’t open again.

I just want to go back to this bus stop, which you mentioned several times. I know in the Bessemer campaign down in Alabama, a big deal was made out of this one stoplight—because everybody was commuting in their individual cars, union organizers would flyer there. And Amazon actually lobbied the town to change the timing of the stoplight

Coming back to your direct experience in Montreal, what would be the common spaces where people have time to talk and build ties and so on?

So a lot of people tend to use cars, but for those who don’t, there’s only one bus that gets you from Lachine to Metro de la Savane, or from Laval to the metro station. Those buses don’t come very often, so it gives workers time to actually talk. Amazon promotes this idea of carpooling too, and that’s where you see a lot of venting—even in my own experience. I think also some virtual spaces are beginning to open up, with the younger worker cohort: Facebook groups, Telegram chat, and TikTok, which we saw in New York. 

And then if you look at some of the communities that are most intensively working in Amazon—the gurdwaras, because there’s a lot of people coming from India who are working there. Or some of the mosques or churches for a lot of the Syrian workers. 

Jane McAlevey’s argument is that we have to think outside of the workplace. And delivery drivers—I always think about this to myself—you always end up seeing one on the road, dropping off a package. You can’t have a long conversation, but you can definitely talk to them. And these guys are making peanuts and they have all the same pressure to do more, faster. 

It’s important to find spaces outside the workplace, because it is very strict. Like, you have one common lunch room. Maybe you go out for a smoke, but your break’s for 20 minutes and you’re so mind-numb, that by the time you get to break, you just want to collapse.

In New York, you had people from the Democratic Socialists of America, and other radical groups going to work strategically at JFK8. And so I’m just wondering how much of an effect that had? And do you see any groups or organizing networks in Canada that can play that role?

I definitely think it played a role. There were something like maybe a dozen salts [activists who get jobs at the workplace to secretly help an organizing drive]. And I think this “return to industry” idea is important. 

My own short lived experience working there also gave me profound insights that I could never get outside or by just trying to even talk to people. You see the world differently, right? It shouldn’t be downplayed—it’s a question of how we become grounded in the realities.

Maybe we don’t need to copy the Marxist parties that did it in the ‘70s, or what the Socialist Workers Party did in the US—the turn to industry to build the proletarian party. But I think it plays a role to get people grounded, push things forward and use those activist sensibilities in a certain way. I don’t think that it hurts, that it’s fake, or that it’s some kind of wrong sentiment. 

DSA salts also played a crucial role in setting up Amazonians United, and we’re seeing an important role for salts in the Starbucks organizing—it’s coming out more and more. 

I think in Canada, the problem is that we don’t have a, let’s say, an extra parliamentary broad left formation that’s seeing union organizing as a project. We look at DSA, and there are critiques and whatnot, and there’s different factions, but the idea that a whole section of it is saying, “we’re not just going to turn to the Democratic Party, we’re actually going to turn to these hard-to-organize workers, and we’re going to help build their organizations.” I think it’s impressive. 

We don’t have a left that, on a broad scale in Canada, is meeting to analyze our context and saying, “yeah, this is a priority.” I don’t see—on that scale—that kind of space for discussion or coordination. What we do see is attempts at grassroots union renewal—Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and many people working in public sector unions on staff

People here—we still have a large public sector, we can just become union staffers. The union movement here is not in a state of crisis as it is in the US, and staff positions and reforming existing unions takes up the energies of a lot of good activists. 

If you look at private union density in Canada, it’s 18 per cent. It’s not as bad as the US but it’s not something to write home about either. And so I know that debate and that discussion needs to happen at a bigger level. But you do have anarchists, as individuals, and some socialists, who are willing to be salts and go into the workplace. 

But I don’t think it’s on the strategic scale that you see in the US. Union organizers will beg at certain moments—“please come salt,” but it’s coming from the unions, it’s not coming from the left. 

Let’s say an organization put out a statement, “we need to turn to warehouse workers, we’re going to go in.”  I think one thing is there’s a hang up about going back to this 1970s style of organizing, and another is people feeling maybe a sense of comfort or ease or smugness about entering the already existing union structures. 

Being part of an organization that turns toward labour doesn’t mean giving up your entire life and doing that forever—it can be a strategic orientation to really understand the realities. Then you find ways to organize based on that knowledge. But that takes commitment to a bigger project. 

It’s not just about Amazon, it’s about commitment to a strategic orientation of how change is actually going to happen. There are small efforts to have those conversations, but for the amount of organizers and the amount of activists that are out there, there’s no large-scale space or broad formation that allows those discussions. There isn’t that scale of a debate, and I think that in that respect, they’re kind of ahead of us in the US.

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