Chris Hedges: Let Us Now Praise Amazon Unionists

We must not underestimate this victory. It is only by rebuilding unions and carrying out strikes that we will halt the downward spiral of the working class.

Chris Smalls on April 1, following Amazon Labor Union’s win. (Legoktm, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Chris Hedges

Let us honor those workers who stood up to Amazon, especially Chris Smalls, described by Amazon’s chief counsel as “not smart, or articulate,” who led a walkout at the Amazon warehouse at Staten Island JFK8 in New York at the beginning of the pandemic two years ago to protest unsafe working conditions. He was immediately fired.

Amazon’s high-priced lawyers, however, were in for a surprise. Smalls unionized the first Amazon warehouse in the country. He, along with his co-founder Derrick Palmer, built their union worker-by-worker with little outside support and no affiliation with a national labor group, raising $120,000 on GoFundMe. Amazon spent more than $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year alone, according to federal filings.

We must not underestimate this victory. It is only by rebuilding unions and carrying out strikes that we will halt the downward spiral of the working class. No politician will do this for us. Neither of the two ruling parties will be our allies. The media will be hostile. The government, beholden to corporations and the rich, will use its resources, no matter which of the two ruling parties is in the White House, to crush worker movements. It will be a long, painful and lonely struggle.

You can tell what the oligarchs fear by what they seek to destroy — unions. Amazon, the country’s second largest employer after Walmart, pours staggering resources into blocking union organizing, like Walmart. According to court documents, it formed a reaction team involving 10 departments, including a security group staffed by military veterans, to counter the Staten Island organizing and had blueprints for breaking union activity worked out in its “Protest Response Playbook” and “Labor Activity Playbook.”

The strike-breaking teams organized compulsory Maoist-type meetings, up to 20 a day, with workers where supervisors denigrated unions. It employed subterfuges making it hard to vote for a union. It put up anti-union posters in the bathrooms. It fired workers suspected of organizing. And it relied on the gutting of antitrust legislation and OSHA, as well as the emasculation of the National Labor Relations Board, which left workers largely defenseless, although the NLRB made a few decisions in favor of the union organizers.

“They called us a bunch of thugs,” Smalls told reporters after the 2,654 to 2,131 vote to form the union. “They tried to spread racist rumors. Tried to demonize our character, but it didn’t work.”

Amazon, like most large corporations, has no more commitment to worker’s rights than it does to the nation. It avoids taxes through a series of loopholes designed by their lobbyists in Washington and passed by Congress. The company dodged about $5.2 billion in corporate federal income taxes in 2021, even as it reported record profits of more than $35 billion. It paid only 6 percent of those profits in federal corporate income tax. Amazon posted income of more than $11 billion in 2018 but paid no federal taxes and received a federal tax refund of $129 million.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in the world, is worth over $180 billion. He, like Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, worth $277 billion, plays with space rockets as if they were toys and is finishing work on his $500 million yacht, the largest in the world.

Media Ownership

Jeff Bezos unveils blue moon space craft, May 9, 2019. (Dave Mosher, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Bezos owns The Washington Post. The billionaire bioscientist Patrick Soon-Shiong owns The Los Angeles Times. Hedge funds and other financial firms own half of the daily newspapers in the United States.

Television is in the hands of roughly a half-dozen corporations who control 90 percent of what Americans watch. WarnerMedia, currently owned by AT&T, owns CNN and Time Warner. MSNBC is owned by Comcast, which is a subsidiary of General Electric, the 11th-largest defense contractor in the U.S. News Corp owns The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post.

The ruling oligarchs don’t care what we watch, as long as we remain entranced by the trivial, emotionally-driven spectacles they provide. None of these outlets challenge the interests of their owners, shareholders or advertisers, who orchestrate the assault on workers. The more powerful workers become, the more the media will be weaponized against them.

The first story I published in a major newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, was about the U.S. corporation Gulf and Western’s crushing of labor organizing in its industrial free zone in La Romana in the Dominican Republic, a campaign that included the intimidation, beating, firing and assassination of Dominican labor organizers. The story was originally accepted by the Outlook section of The Washington Post until Gulf and Western, which owned Paramount Pictures, threatened to pull its movie advertising from the newspaper. The Monitor, funded by The Christian Science Church, did not carry advertising. It was an early and important lesson on the severe constraints of the commercial press.

The New York Times had gutted an investigative piece a year earlier written by perhaps our greatest investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, who exposed the killing of some 500 unarmed civilians by the U.S. army in My Lai and the torture at Abu Ghraib, and Jeff Gerth about Gulf and Western. Hersh and Gerth documented how Gulf and Western carried out fraud, abuse, tax avoidance and had links with organized crime.

Charles Bluhdorn, the CEO of Gulf and Western, socialized with the publisher, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, which included invitations to preview soon-to-be-released Paramount movies in Bluhdorn’s home theater. Bluhdorn used his connections at the paper to discredit Hersh and Gerth, as well as to bombard the newspaper with accusatory letters and menacing phone calls.

He hired private investigators to dig up dirt on Hersh and Gerth. When the two reporters filed their 15,000-word expose, the business editor, John Lee, in Hersh’s words, and “his ass-kissing coterie of moronic editors,” perhaps fearful of being sued, neutered it. It was one thing, Hersh found, to go up against a public institution. It was something else to take on a major corporation. He would never again work regularly for a newspaper.

“The experience was frustrating and enervating,” Hersh writes in his memoir Reporter.

“Writing about corporate America had sapped my energy, disappointed the editors, and unnerved me. There would be no check on corporate America, I feared: Greed had won out. The ugly fight with Gulf and Western had rattled the publisher and the editors to the point that the editors who ran the business pages had been allowed to vitiate and undercut the good work Jeff and I had done. I could not but wonder if the editors there had been told about Bluhdorn’s personal connection to Punch. In any case, it was clear to me and Jeff that the courage the Times had shown in confronting the wrath of a president and an attorney general in the crisis over the Pentagon Papers in 1971 was nowhere to be seen when confronted by a gaggle of corporate con men…”

The United States had the most violent labor wars in the industrialized world, with hundreds of workers murdered by company goons and militias, thousands wounded and tens of thousands blacklisted.

Hammer-Head by Mr. Fish.

The fight for unions, and with them decent salaries, benefits, and job protection, was paid for by rivers of working-class blood and tremendous suffering. The formation of unions, as in the past, will entail a long and vicious class war. The security and surveillance apparatus, including Homeland Security and the FBI, will be deployed, along with private contractors and thugs hired by corporations, to monitor, infiltrate and destroy union organizing.

Gains Rolled Back  

Unions made possible, for a while, a middle-class salary for auto workers, bus drivers, electricians, and construction workers. But those gains were rolled back. If the minimum wage had kept pace with rising productivity, as The New York Times pointed out, workers would be earning at least $20 an hour.

The nascent organizing at Amazon, Starbucks, Uber, Lyft, John Deere, Kellogg, the Special Metals plant in Huntington, West Virginia, owned by Berkshire Hathaway; REI, the Northwest Carpenters Union, Kroger, teachers in Chicago, Sacramento, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona; fast food workers, hundreds of nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees are signs that workers are discovering that the only real power they have is as a collective, although a paltry 9 percent of the U.S. workforce is unionized. Fourteen hundred workers at a Kellogg’s plant in Omaha that makes Cheez-Its won a new contract with more than 15 percent wage increases over three years after they went on strike for nearly three months last fall.

The betrayal of the working class by the Democratic Party, especially during the Clinton administration, included trade deals that allowed exploited workers in Mexico or China to take the place of unionized workers at home. Anti-labor legislation was passed by bought-and-paid for politicians in the two ruling parties on behalf of big business. Deindustrialization and job insecurity morphed into the gig economy, where workers are reduced to living on subsistence wages with no benefits or job security, and few rights.

Capitalists, as Karl Marx pointed out, have only two goals: Reduce the cost of labor, which means impoverishing and exploiting workers, and increase the rate of production, which often occurs through automation, such as Amazon’s ubiquitous squat orange robots carrying yellow racks across million-square-foot warehouse floors. When human beings interfere in these two capitalist objectives, they are sacrificed.

The financial distress afflicting workers, trapped in debt peonage and preyed upon by banks, credit card companies, student loan companies, privatized utilities, the gig economy, a for-profit healthcare system that has not prevented the U.S. from having roughly a sixth of all reported worldwide Covid-19 deaths — although we have less than a 12th of the world’s population — and employers who pay meager wages and do not provide benefits is getting steadily worse, especially with rising inflation. 

National Nurses United on April 13, 2020, protest lack of personal protective equipment at UCLA Medical Center. (Marcy Winograd, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. President Joe Biden, while lavishing $13.6 billion on Ukraine and expanding the military budget to $754 billion, has overseen the loss of extended unemployment benefits, rental assistance, forbearance for student loans, emergency checks, the moratorium on evictions and now the ending of the expansion of the child tax credit. He has refused to fulfill even his most tepid campaign promises, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and forgiving student loans. His Build Back Better bill has been gutted and may not be revived.  

Amazon workers, like many American workers, endure appalling work conditions. They are forced to work compulsory 12-hour shifts. They are denied bathroom breaks, often urinating into bottles. They endure stifling temperatures inside the warehouse in the summer. They must scan a new item every 11 seconds to hit their quota. The company knows immediately when they fall behind. Fail to meet the quota and you are fired.

Will Evans, in an investigative piece for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, found that “the company’s obsession with speed has turned its warehouses into injury mills.” Evans amassed internal injury reports from 23 of the company’s 110 “fulfillment centers” nationwide. “Taken together,” he writes, “the rate of serious injuries for those facilities was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry: 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers in 2018, compared with an industry average that year of 4.”

Those who are injured, Evans found, are “cast aside as damaged goods or sent back to jobs that injured them further.”

“The Amazon tenure of Parker Knight, a disabled veteran who worked at the Troutdale, Oregon, warehouse this year, shows the ruthless precision of Amazon’s system,” Evans writes. “Knight had been allowed to work shorter shifts after he sustained back and ankle injuries at the warehouse, but [proprietary software tracking program] ADAPT didn’t spare him. Knight was written up three times in May for missing his quota. The expectations were precise. He had to pick 385 small items or 350 medium items each hour. One week, he was hitting 98.45 percent of his expected rate, but that wasn’t good enough. That 1.55 percent speed shortfall earned him his final written warning — the last one before termination.”

The New York Times revealed last year that Amazon also regularly shortchanges new parents, patients dealing with medical crises and other vulnerable workers on leave.

“Workers across the country facing medical problems and other life crises have been fired when the attendance software mistakenly marked them as no-shows, according to former and current human resources staff members, some of whom would speak only anonymously for fear of retribution,” the newspaper reported.

“Doctors’ notes vanished into black holes in Amazon’s databases. Employees struggled to even reach their case managers, wading through automated phone trees that routed their calls to overwhelmed back-office staff in Costa Rica, India, and Las Vegas. And the whole leave system was run on a patchwork of programs that often didn’t speak to one another. Some workers who were ready to return found that the system was too backed up to process them, resulting in weeks or months of lost income. Higher-paid corporate employees, who had to navigate the same systems, found that arranging a routine leave could turn into a morass.”

The ruling class, through self-help gurus such as Oprah, “prosperity gospel” preachers and the entertainment industry, has effectively privatized hope. They peddle the fantasy that reality is never an impediment to what we desire. If we believe in ourselves, if we work hard, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, we can have anything we want.

The privatization of hope is pernicious and self-defeating. When we fail to achieve our goals, when our dreams are unattainable, we are taught it is not due to economic, social, or political injustice, but faults within us. History has demonstrated that the only power citizens have is through the collective, without that collective we are shorn like sheep. This is a truth the ruling class spends a lot of time obscuring.

“The ruling class, through self-help gurus such as Oprah, ‘prosperity gospel’ preachers and the entertainment industry, has effectively privatized hope.”

Any advance we make in social, political, and economic justice immediately comes under assault by the ruling class. The ruling class chips away at the gains we make, which is what happened following the rise of mass movements in the 1930s and later in the 1960s.

The oligarchs seek to snuff out what the political scientist Samuel Huntington cynically called “the excess of democracy.” The sociologist Max Weber, for this reason, called politics a vocation. Social change cannot be achieved simply by voting. It requires a constant, ceaseless effort. It is an endless striving for a new political order, one that demands lifelong dedication, organizing to keep the rapacious excesses of power in check and personal sacrifice. This eternal vigilance is the key to success. 

Amazon’s vast machinery, as I write, is no doubt plotting to destroy the union in Staten Island. It cannot allow it to be a successful example. It has 109 “fulfillment centers” it is determined to keep nonunionized. But, if we do not become complacent, if we continue to organize and resist, if we link our arms with our unionized allies across the country, if we are able to strike we  — and they —  have a chance.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.

Author’s Note to Readers: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waiver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at so I can continue to post my Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, The Chris Hedges Report.

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular columnClick here to sign up for email alerts.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

15 comments for “Chris Hedges: Let Us Now Praise Amazon Unionists

  1. Alan Ross
    April 10, 2022 at 14:21

    We need a general strike to really terrify the already frightened parasites. No system based on the worst in mankind, such as the evil of greed like we have now: get all you can and give as little as you can, can succeed for long. The writing is on the wall and it is only a matter of time. The only uncertainty left is: How much suffering will it take before a dying profit system is finally put to rest?

  2. Boba Lazarevi?
    April 10, 2022 at 14:15

    I respect Chris Hedges very much, but him being a socialist is his weak spot. If he just stepped out of this mindset he wouldn’t be this naive about unions.

    Unionism may start with good intentions, but ultimately all unions end up working in the interest of themselves and not the workers. Particularly not the good workers. Union is a political machine that inevitably gets oiled from the outside.

  3. Jennifer
    April 7, 2022 at 19:26

    “ They peddle the fantasy that reality is never an impediment to what we desire. “ absolutely brilliant and true. We have internalized the abuser’s version of reality and blame ourselves for our station in life without analyzing the economic structure. Most people are so institutionalized and successfully indoctrinated to this that they side with and defend the elites, seeing them as somehow having earned their vast and obscene wealth.

  4. Donna B Bubb
    April 7, 2022 at 12:15

    Workers are the backbone of corporations that wouldn’t even exist without them, deserving democratic workers rights to a topnotch
    share in the wealth not the current slave-labor treatment they are/have been getting for way too long. Time for workers throughout
    the nation, including field workers, teachers, nurses, to unionize for their democratic, worker rights. Slave labor has got to go.

  5. April 7, 2022 at 09:16

    Unions are a vital component, even cornerstone, of financial/life success for the uneducated, low-skilled, common mass market employee. I read of corporations making record profits on a daily basis (some “covid” exceptions noted), while the low-wage blue-collars struggle to eat properly. Although I am very pro-business, businesses who hold their employees in such contempt as to make a shady business of starving them should suffer for that. Corporate CEO’s make staggering sums of money and the workers who are the soul of the company live such ragged lives.

    Compassion goes a long way. Nations are built on a peoples’ adherence to qualities that are marked as noble. If we fail to live noble lives and make noble decisions, especially as leaders, then we slowly chop away the legs of our nation. We become the new robber barons, corporate pigs swallowing up every single morsel of money we possibly can, leaving little or nothing for the bedrock below.

    So pay your employees better. Recruit better. Hire faster, stronger, more intelligent employees and get your moneys worth from them, but have a reputation of paying your lowest-level employees more than any competitor. Compete at that point, too. You will transform your entire corporate culture if you do this and your turnover will fall to less than 4%. Quality will go way up, retention will rise and your reputation will shine. That, friends, is good business.

  6. Frank Lambert
    April 7, 2022 at 08:31

    To Ms Dorthy Crouch: I totally disagree with your anti-union diatribe, especially your unkind words for the Great Chris Hedges, and the Outstanding job Consortium News is doing, in giving “the other side of the story” on critical issues which Mainstream Media prohibits it’s audience, whether in print, radio or television.

    On Amazon “fulfillment centers,” I used to spot trailers at one of their facilities, and they had a caged fence inside the door where a driver would wait for somebody to come over and sign the freight bill. Many times, and the workers were going non-stop, pulling orders and all, were to scared to come by the fence and sign the paperwork. I’d be yelling for one to come over, but they were very scared, trying to maintain their rapid production mode, like they were machines themselves. Finally, after ten or fifteen minutes or so of me yelling, a worker would come and sign the freight bill so I could depart.

    Back in the old days in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” a plantation owner in one of the southern states said, words to this effect: “Why should I hire a white man when I could buy a negro slave, give him room and board and make him worker harder than the white man, and if he doesn’t, I’ll put the whip to his back to make sure he does.”

    Bezos doesn’t use the whip, but, his order pickers work at an unnaturally fast pace.

  7. Aaron
    April 6, 2022 at 22:41

    Bezos is projected to be the world’s first Trillionaire by 2026. Wisconsin minimum wage is $7.25/hour.

    • Airlane1979
      April 7, 2022 at 02:56

      Apparently the recruitment motto for Amazon is “Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History”. While the first is true, the second is a lie and the third is now one that Bezos didn’t plan. Let’s hope that all Amazon workers get the message and unionise.

  8. John OCallaghan
    April 6, 2022 at 20:12

    Would it not be so much easier just to treat your employees with dignity and respect by paying them a decent livable wage and conditions? This is like an employer universal psychosis that has afflicted corporations all over the planet,and maybe they feel they just have to go along with the rest of the “gang” otherwise they will be ostracised and will no longer be accepted by their “peers”

    I am not a psychologist, but even Jung would struggle with this global psychosis that has taken a firm hold on corporations/employers,hell bent on inflicting the maximum pain and disadvantage on it’s workers, that i think in the end will lead to said corporations imploding!

    • Mark Jenson
      April 6, 2022 at 22:18

      Prior to Clinton giving most favored nation trading status to China this was still a problem but greatly reduced from what it is today. The actions of our brain dead politicians and greedy corporate types resulted in such huge job losses that businesses had a glut of employees to choose from. The result was manifold, wages and benefits crashed, jobs that typically required a two year degree now required a four year degree but no increase in pay for the increased education. The government increased social programs to fix the problems they caused which caused a further erosion of take home pay via taxes. The more the government gets involved in society the more problems it creates. It is not just corporate America that needs a rude awakening, the people voting in these idiot politicians that can’t seem to understand the limited role government should have also need to understand how their vote (assuming their vote even matters) is part of the problem.

    • Airlane1979
      April 7, 2022 at 02:57

      It is not a psychosis. It is capitalism and there is no cure but socialism. Exploitation of workers is inherent to the system which cannot be reformed only replaced.

  9. Frank Lambert
    April 6, 2022 at 19:02

    Amen, Chris Hedges! Outstanding article on the plight of unionized workers and the continued struggle of the working-class to get some of the profits they helped create in the form of better pay, benefits such as paid health insurance and defined pension contributions for their future retirement, and without a doubt, safer and more equitable working conditions, along with a agreed upon contract between management and union negotiators and voted upon, or rejected by the employees at times. This is “workplace democracy” which is not taught in school, unfortunately, and too many working-class people accept corporate propaganda against organized labor as the truth about labor unions, which, by the way, fought hard for the 8 hour work day in the 1930’s and as one of our slogans are: “Unions, the People Who Gave You the Weekend!”

    Chris is right about the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats weakening the union movement, as they take their orders from the big money interests. who want it all for themselves. Not once, when the so-called “friends of labor” the Democrat Party, when in the White House, and in the majority in the US Senate and the House of Representatives did anyone of them, to my knowledge, ever bring up a Bill to Repeal the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act from the late 1940’s.

    And it was Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy who helped destroy unionized transportation industries, (trucking, airlines and railroads) with the “Transportation Deregulation Act” in 1980. How many national airlines and trucking companies filed for bankruptcy or closed during the 1980’s because of it? t’s not rocket science, folks!

    And thank you brother Chris Smalls at Amazon for your courage and integrity and for those of you who supported Mr. Smalls as well.

    “Workers of the World, Unite!”

  10. Dorothy Crouch
    April 6, 2022 at 16:55

    Chris Hedges: I am certainly not proud of your comment and stance supporting those who voted to unionize Amazon. Prove those charges against Amazon. Bezos has the right to choose who he employs especially when those who retaliate choose to defy Amazon’s employment rules. Further, how much should a warehouse worker be paid? I understand they are paid $15 per hour plus benefits and that was increased to $17 per hour plus benefits during the lockdown. That’s more than all other warehouse workers. My own son worked in such an environment while he sought his university degree. I certainly don’t want folks like those who voted to unionize dictating how our companies are run. Check out the Bernie Sanders website to read the ‘intelligent’ argument presented by these folks. I’m NOT impressed. Even to suggesting Chris Smalls run for president. None with any inclination toward more education. Just more money. Why are we here in the U.S proposing to support far left positions. I am deeply disappointed in you Chris Hedges. And even further disappointed in Consortium News for publishing and promoting this. Heaven help us. I want nothing to do with these folks. They can’t think!! Consortium News: I’d highly recommend you invite an intelligent discourse on this topic. A CN Live!

    • Airlane1979
      April 7, 2022 at 03:00

      “I certainly don’t want folks like those who voted to unionize dictating how our companies are run.” So you don’t believe in democracy. Socialists do. The value of all companies and corporations is created by their workers, not by the owners or the shareholders. Given this undeniable economic fact, it is right that workers should have the greatest say in their own workplaces. Until the USA (and here in the UK) has full democracy in every workplace, it is not a democracy at all.

  11. Marilyn Ann Ray
    April 6, 2022 at 15:13

    I am very, very proud of this unions work and those who sore wisely and strongly advocated for and worked to create this union.

    Very very pleased, proud and thankful. The people of America would do well to emulate their work and spirit.

Comments are closed.