Strea Sanchez had worked at Amazon for two years and two days when she became active in United for Respect, the national organization fighting for people who work at retail giants like Toys R Us, Walmart, and Amazon. Sanchez’s daughter, also an Amazon worker, discovered a Facebook group hosted by UFR and invited Sanchez to join. Soon enough, Sanchez found herself testifying about the corporation before Congress. “I remember telling [a UFR staffer], ‘God, I would just love to have your job and be an organizer, what an awesome position,’” she recalled. “And then UFR recruited me.”

Last fall, Sanchez joined Andrea Dehlendorf, executive director of United for Respect (UFR), for a symposium on the future of the labor movement after the loss in Bessemer. After the convening, we sat down to talk about their experiences organizing Amazon workers online and in person. They shared the many ways that workers make sense of — and connect to — their experiences at megacorporations, the lessons UFR learned from its campaigns against Walmart, and the ways that organizing workers today requires us to challenge much of the received wisdom about how best to organize a workplace. The interview has been edited and condensed. 


Dania Rajendra: How do you even start thinking about a corporation like Amazon? 

Andrea Dehlendorf: Amazon is just absolutely huge — 900,000 direct employees and then many hundreds of thousands or millions more who are indirectly part of the employment matrix of this corporation. So the question is: how do you build and flex enough power to really make an impact? We need to work at multiple levels with entry points in places where anybody anywhere can find and connect to other people who are going through something similar at work. I was trained that there was one way to do that: talking to people, either in their homes or at work. But the development of social media and digital networks has just exploded the places where people are able to connect and find each other. It is vital that worker leaders are talking in the workplace about what it takes to change working conditions, and it’s equally vital to be in all the other places that people are talking.


Rajendra: So digital is vital but not, on its own, enough? 

Dehlendorf: Right. We also have to bring people together to take real collective action. It can happen online, but it also has to happen in particular locations, in person — and really build depth. Everybody all across the Amazon worker network could be talking to each other and raising concerns, but what forces a real reckoning is when dynamic, brave, courageous groups of workers stand up in real time to say, "Enough.” In order for people to feel courageous and have the strength to take those kinds of actions, they have to be deeply connected to each other. 

Sanchez: I have talked to a lot of workers over the last couple years, and they just feel defeated. For example, when I began talking to one worker, he was literally close to suicide. He was so unhappy with the way he was being treated, and he thought it was him. And then I brought him into this network where all these people were going through the same thing and he went, "Wow, it's not me." And he began speaking out and is doing amazing things. Taking people from that defeated, worn down, "I can't do this anymore" feeling to making them feel empowered and then seeing them step out — it's amazing.


Rajendra: And that’s something you experienced yourself, right? 

Sanchez: When I was asked [by UFR] if I wanted to go to DC, I dragged two of my coworkers with me; one was my best friend and the other was my daughter. We met up with12 other Amazon workers. We were all sitting in a room. We were all terrified; nobody was saying anything. And then we started learning about the laws that protect us. And we started telling our stories, and everybody began to feel closer to one another. When we took our next break, everybody was speaking with each other instead of standing in little corners, freaking out. The second day, we were just ready to go and take on the world. And it was one of the most amazing feelings ever. 


Rajendra: Turnover is a real issue when you’re organizing at places like Amazon. How do you deal with that?

Dehlendorf: Much of the organizing model that many of us were trained in was focused on building majorities to NLRB elections in a particular work site. If that’s the goal, then the organizing model is about building, securing, and maintaining a majority of workers committed to the union. But with a corporation like Amazon, we can't just win power in a handful of workplaces. We need many workplaces, we need national networks, we need entire communities coming together. 

For some people, the experience of working at Walmart or Amazon is profoundly transformational. Even when people leave, they still feel themselves to be part of this community. Even if they don't work there, even if their friends and family don't work there, it actually matters to their communities the way that these massive megacorporations treat people. You could work at Dollar General, you could work at Kohl's, you could work at The Gap, but what Walmart and Amazon are doing dictates what your job is going to be too. And so we find that people stay active in our campaigns after they no longer work there because they're still invested in what happens.  

And so the community of interest [with a mega-corporation like Amazon] is just much larger. This is the philosophy of Athena. We bring together people who are impacted by the extractive, horrific employment practices of Amazon — small businesses that are getting squeezed, communities of color that are getting harmed by the environmental impacts, immigrant and Black and brown communities impacted by the police state and ICE and their use of Amazon technologies. We are all part of a community of interest that can work together to shape and challenge this company. And so it really broadens the way we think about the organizing — the activation, the base building, the leadership development — when we have this more holistic, global approach. 


Rajendra: Strea, you and I talked before the symposium about the way in which working at Amazon is like entering a cult. Could you tell us about what it feels like to be part of such a big corporation that's changing communities and the nature of work so quickly?

Sanchez: They try to make it feel like you're part of their family. There are these slogans all over the walls at Amazon, like: "Work hard, make history.” Right now, they're doing these wellness meetings where everybody gets together and they have them watch a video and tell them to eat their vegetables and have fruits and stay away from coffee and soda and drink more water. Things that are just really unrelated to work. It's easier to do that than it is to slow down the production line and make sure people are truly safe. It’s a very cult-like atmosphere. 

Dehlendorf: There's a wise organizing elder who said that people decide to join movements when there is a disconnect between the world as they’re told it is and the world as it is. That's the radical moment. These mega employers like Amazon and Walmart develop these cultish internal ideologies. With Walmart, it was that people are part of a family, but people are treated as disposable. With Amazon, people are getting treated like they’re robots. And you have this disconnect between what you're told is the ideology of this workplace — we love you and we care about you — but then you're treated like you're not even a human being. 

These massive corporate culture ideologies are structured on a patriarchal model. Walmart had a massive female workforce, and the idea was that you didn't have to pay women a full living wage because they had male breadwinners at home. Bezos is the upstart white male wunderkind. The higher you go in the company, the more white and male it is; as you go to the lowest paid, part-time workers, the more Black and brown and female it is. If these massive corporations are structured in a way that is patriarchal and racist, then how do we have a flourishing feminist multiracial democracy in the rest of society? We just can't. 


Rajendra: Do you see opportunities to more effectively practice that democracy in your own organizing work? 

Dehlendorf: Bob Moses said that the art of organizing is not about an organizer having a structure to organize people into but rather about helping people to build organization within the networks through which they are already connecting. It is about coming in and seeing how people are already connecting and then building more structures for them to plug into and start to change things. How effective organizing looks from the perspective of one warehouse is different from what it looks like for one community in one particular geography, which is different from what it looks to build a national network. Each of those is going to need a slightly different approach and model based on who the communities and workers are that are organizing together. And then the question is: how does everybody link together so that we can actually shift power at a corporation whose size and scope we have not seen perhaps since the era of European corporate imperialism?

I’m reading The Dawn of Everything, which is about how the beauty of humanity is that there are so many different models and experiments and ways that we come together and organize ourselves. The thing we're wrestling with [at Athena] is that having lots of different things happening doesn't necessarily add up to the power and influence to shift corporations. But neither does one top-down unified strategy that everyone has to fall in line to. And so the question is, how do we build and connect the networks so that it all adds up to a power shift and a resource shift from concentrated corporate capital into the hands of working people? And it is not exactly “let 1,000 flowers bloom”; it is also not top down. It is practicing democracy. We all have to step up and do this work.


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