| Amazon Labor Union ALU members celebrate after the voting results to unionize Amazon warehouse on Staten Island NY on Friday April 1 2022 Image AP | MR Online Amazon Labor Union (ALU) members celebrate after the voting results to unionize Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y. on Friday, April 1, 2022. Image: AP

Labor’s militant minority

Originally published: Boston Review on June 15, 2022 by Mie Inouye (more by Boston Review)  | (Posted Jun 22, 2022)

On May 1 organizers from the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) joined the New York City Central Labor Council and community organizations to march from Washington Square Park to Foley Park. After a long afternoon of marching and chanting in the sun, about a third of the core organizing committee made their way to a May Day party at the Communist Party headquarters in Chelsea. In the Party’s spacious office, adorned with pictures of William Z. Foster and Lenin, a racially diverse group of twenty-somethings—ALU organizers, members of the Young Communist League (YLC), and fellow travelers—drank Modelos and Bud Lights, ate pizza, and danced to the Backstreet Boys. They were celebrating May Day and the first successful union election at Amazon—the ALU’s April 22 victory at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island.

The organizers at the party included long-term Amazon workers as well as “salts.” Salts are workers who take jobs at a workplace with the goal of unionizing it—a strategy that left-wing organizations have used in the past, but that hasn’t garnered results in recent decades. Salts played an important but underreported role in the ALU’s widely celebrated union election at JFK8. Six of two dozen or so members of the core organizing committee were salts. ALU organizers wound up at the Communist Party headquarters on May 1 because Justine Medina, an organizing committee member who was recruited to JFK8 by the Young Communist League, helped plan the party.

Today’s salts are one component of a new militant minority, a layer of combative, politically conscious rank-and-file leaders within the labor movement. Their presence at Amazon and Starbucks suggests that we are witnessing an organic convergence of the college-educated middle class with the existing working class. This new militant minority, comprised of working-class labor leaders and left-wing college graduates, has the potential to unite the rejuvenated labor movement and other post-Occupy, post-Bernie arms of the U.S. left. If this occurs, then the victory at JFK8 portends many more to come.

The Militant Minority

ALU’s win at JFK8 and the ongoing unionization wave at Starbucks frequently invite comparisons to the 1930s. Widespread labor militancy in the ’30s shut down entire regions of the country and created the conditions for the passage of the New Deal, which regulated working conditions and protected union organizing. This history is alive in today’s salts, who see themselves in the lineage of ’30s labor radicals. The salts are “labor history nerds,” according to Medina. “We know about the IWW and how the Communists were connected to the CIO in the 1930s.” Indeed, one of the resources that members of the JFK8 organizing committee used during the campaign was William Z. Foster’s 1936 manual Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, which served as “the blueprint” for left-wing CIO organizers in the ’30s.

Foster, a radical labor organizer and General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1945 to 1957, was one of the most influential theorists of the militant minority in the first half of the twentieth century. Foster organized for over five decades within a range of left-wing organizations, from the IWW to the Communist Party, and consistently advocated sending radicals into mainstream labor unions. They joined as both rank-and-file workers and union staff to radicalize workers, form new unions, and transform existing unions into vehicles for class struggle.

Foster, who was himself an industrial worker, was convinced that the working class was the only possible revolutionary agent. At the same time, he took a dim view of the intellectual and political capacities of most workers, and his conception of the militant minority was inflected with elitism. In 1920 he founded the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), an organization that aimed to develop the leadership of radicals within the mainstream trade unions and advance industrial unionism. In “The Principles and Program of the TUEL,” he writes, “the fate of all labor organization in every country depends primarily upon the activities of a minute minority of clear-sighted, enthusiastic militants scattered throughout the great organized masses of sluggish workers. . . . Touched by the divine fire of proletarian revolt, they are the ones who furnish inspiration and guidance to the groping masses.”

One part of the militant minority’s role was to educate the masses, but they also aimed to take over leadership of the unions. The TUEL wanted to replace the “reactionaries, incompetents, and crooks who occup[ied] strategic positions” in labor unions with “men and women unionists who look upon the labor movement not as a means for making an easy living, but as an instrument for the achievement of working-class emancipation.” For Foster and other radicals of his time, building a militant minority was a means of growing the labor movement, radicalizing the conservative mainstream unions, and connecting the working class with revolutionary political organizations.

In a 2019 article on union revitalization, Micah Uetricht and Barry Eidlin argue that the militant minority was central to the labor movement’s growth in the ’30s and ’60s. These leaders comprised the labor movement’s “most seasoned and dedicated organizers,” contributing to the militancy and dynamism of their unions. According to Uetricht and Eidlin, the militant minority often played a key mediating role between workplace and community struggles, and between rank-and-file members and union leadership. It also helped consolidate gains the labor movement made during these upsurges.

Industrializing and Salting

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, a new term emerged to describe the relationship between the organized left and the labor movement: “industrializing.” To “industrialize” is to take a rank-and-file union job to democratize existing unions, push them to the left, and radicalize workers. Whereas “militant minority” refers to a radicalized segment of the working class, the agent of “industrialization” comes from outside. The word reflects the changing class composition of the organized left; by the ’60s it had lost its close connection with the working class.

During the mid-to-late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, upwardly mobile, middle-class college students in the New Left “industrialized” to regain the left’s connection to the working class. Groups identified with the New Communist Movement and a range of Trotskyist organizations, most notably the International Socialists, sent hundreds of college and graduate students into factories and working-class communities to build a working-class base for their revolutionary organizations.

This strategy has a mixed legacy. Many of the young radicals who industrialized were unable to stick it out for the long haul. According to Eidlin, this is in large part because of industrial restructuring that took place in the ’80s. As steel and auto plants shut down and the trucking industry was deregulated, many of the jobs into which people had industrialized simply disappeared. Moreover, many newly industrialized workers who had been sent into difficult jobs quickly burnt out, as they were ill-prepared for that kind of labor.

Despite these shortcomings, Eidlin notes that the turn to industry in the 1970s produced labor organizations that have fostered labor militancy and union democracy, such as Labor Notes, a news and analysis publication and network of rank-and-file unionists that is highly influential among today’s labor radicals, and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a rank-and-file reform movement within the Teamsters that backed the reform slate that swept the union’s elections in November 2021. Without these organizations, today’s labor movement would look very different. Moreover, some shop floor leaders and activists did stick it out and pushed their unions in more militant directions. Eidlin acknowledges the complex legacy: “It’s a decidedly mixed balance sheet, but at the same time that we recognize the real limits we have to recognize the real accomplishments.”

Since the ‘70s “salting” has largely replaced “industrializing.” Whereas “industrializing” generally means taking a rank-and-file job in a workplace with an existing union to help democratize the union, “salting” occurs in workplaces without unions. “Salts” are typically hired by established unions to support union-led organizing drives. Like “industrializing,” however, “salting” implies coming from outside of the working class. For example, Jaz Brisack—a college graduate and a Rhodes Scholar who helped lead the first successful organizing campaign at a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY—came to her job at Starbucks as a salt for Workers United. Unions offer salts varying levels of financial compensation and mentorship.

But the lines between industrializing and salting seem to be blurring today. Young people are salting without any connection to an established union. For example, none of the ALU salts came to JFK8 with an established union, and Medina was the only one who was recruited by a political organization (the YCL). The other five salts came on their own, some moving across the country to take a job at JFK8 after reading about Chris Smalls, a longer-term warehouse worker who drew attention in 2020 for challenging Amazon around safety conditions at the warehouse and spearheading the unionization effort.

Howard Wurzeln, an Amazon worker and organizer with Amazonians United, a national network of Amazon workers that supports and develops worker-organizers at the company, observes that salts show up at Amazon independently across the country, not just at JFK8. “If you think that you want to do some organizing as a worker, where do you go nowadays? In the seventies, organizations within the New Communist Movement were able to send their members into industry because there were so many people who were committed to following the directives of the central committee. We don’t have that.” In the absence of left-wing organizations capable of directing workers into specific industries, “it’s just a question of who’s out there advertising and how.”

Why are so many young, college-educated people independently deciding to take jobs at Amazon? Gene Bruskin, former Campaign Director of the UFCW’s Justice@Smithfieldcampaign and informal advisor to the ALU, credits structural conditions for the labor movement’s renewed “coolness.” “It’s a particular moment. The younger generation went through the financial crisis, Trump, Bernie, the pandemic, and all of those objective conditions.” This process, combined with the growing imminence of climate change, has given young people both a sense of urgency and a willingness to take conventionally working-class jobs.

Today’s college graduates face a grueling, uncertain, and often decade-long process of trying to make it safely into the professional class. That effort might demand career choices that do not meaningfully align with their political beliefs. Moreover, conventionally “blue-collar” jobs often pay as much or more than “white-collar” jobs, such as working as a paralegal or at a nonprofit. Under these conditions, a job at Starbucks or Amazon that offers the prospect of being part of a rejuvenated labor movement is becoming an enticing alternative. While young radicals in the 1970s were committing class suicide by industrializing, today’s young radicals are making the best of their limited options.

Medina’s path to the ALU reflects these dynamics. A college graduate from an upper-middle class family, she had been unemployed for nearly a year and was struggling to find work when she heard about the opportunity to salt at Amazon. Given her political beliefs, her theory of social change, and her desire for meaningful work, the job at JFK8 was the best job available to her. For Medina, unionizing Amazon not only creates more workplace democracy and better conditions for workers, but also builds worker power in the most strategic industry in the global economy: “Amazon is where we needed to be. If you look on the industrial production line, if you’re going to focus in one place, it’s gotta be Amazon.”

The Role of Salts at Amazon

The successful ALU drive at JFK8 and the unsuccessful drive at LDJ5—a second, smaller Amazon warehouse on Staten Island—were both led by Black and brown long-term workers, including Chris Smalls, Derrick Palmer, Jordan Flowers, Angelika Maldonado, and Gerald Bryson. They had the deepest knowledge of the job and their fellow workers, and several were also familiar with unions, whether through family members or their own experiences. The relationships they built with other workers within the warehouse were the single most important factor in JFK8’s successful election.

Six of the seven ALU salts, by contrast, were white. One of the salts, who left Amazon before the election period but continued to support the union in a volunteer role, was Black. Some of the salts came from out of state to take a job at JFK8. Some came from out of state to take a job at JFK8. According to Flowers, one member of the organizing committee moved to Staten Island from Florida. She came from out of state because she wanted to make a change. That shows community. These people are coming out of state to support us and dedicating their time.” Medina emphasizes that the salts’ main role was to follow the longer-term workers’ lead. “We all went in to support the organic worker leadership that was there.”

Salts can also bring a sense of history to unionization campaigns, which can be a huge asset in an industry like Amazon that has long seemed un-organizable. Wurzeln notes that, “everything the boss does to retaliate is to make people shrink back and to kill this idea of a greater purpose and a greater movement so that people become discouraged and can only think of the personal risk and reward.” People who see the work of organizing a union as part of a broader vision for social transformation are less vulnerable to that pattern. Wurzeln explains that salts’ historical knowledge can also empower workers:

Famously, the role of leftist activists, labor activists, and union staff is to bring their knowledge of history, their study of theory, their reading of journals and articles and being connected to news from the wider labor movement to the workers. They can bring that knowledge and those networks to workers who might not have been connected to that or studied it or known there was a thing to study. . . . You can look at Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Bernie, and the Trump phenomenon and see that there is a lot of discontent out there. The system has not been working for a lot of people for a long time. There’s a widespread understanding that things suck and they’re not necessarily getting better. The question is whether or not people know what could work.

Left-wing organizers can help give workers a sense of the labor movement’s past achievements. As Wurzeln explains:

When I started organizing, a lot of the work that I did was talking people through their discouragement and disillusionment. If you know labor history, you can tell people that the boss needs us more than we need them. We’re the ones who sort these packages, and look what happened when those workers over there stood up, look what they got. People are ready. It doesn’t take a lot to get people ready to start organizing.

The Four-letter Word

While salts have played important roles in campaigns to unionize, there is a lack of discussion in the media about their efforts. This reflects some ambivalence on the left about whether to openly recognize the presence of salts in unionization drives. Jaz Brisack declined to discuss the role of salts in Starbucks Workers United in a recent live episode of The Dig podcast: “I don’t think that we as organizers should make those distinctions because I think it really boils down to, ultimately, I’m in the Starbucks making lattes and doing the same job . . . and it doesn’t matter if I have a second job with the union or in the same industry or a different industry. That ends up being kind of a false distinction.”

She is right to be wary. The distinction between non-salts and salts can be used to suggest that the latter aren’t real workers, and exposing salts can make them vulnerable to red-baiting by bosses, who may claim that they are “outside agitators” or “third parties” at odds with the workers’ interests. Bosses aim to exploit divisions between workers to undermine their attempts to unionize. This is also why it can be difficult to talk about internal democracy, racism, and sexism within unions. The impulse to distinguish salts from non-salts might also reflect a discomfort with transgressing boundaries of race and class that segregate our society and strengthen capitalism.

But, although acknowledging it carries risks, the distinction is not entirely false. Taking a job with the intention of forming a union is different from taking a job out of necessity, even if the downward mobility of today’s college graduates is beginning to blur these motives. And, as in ALU, salts often have access to safety nets that longer-term workers lack.

During the same episode of The Dig, Smalls openly acknowledged that the ALU has salts and distinguished them from non-salts. Of the salts, he said, “their task was and still is to support the workers.” For Smalls, who is not a salt, this distinction matters. But it’s not immutable. He explained that good salts embed themselves in the workplace over the course of years, which allows them to approximate “workers.” According to Smalls, deeply embedded salts are necessary to the union. “We need them. . . . You know, especially with the bargaining unit we had, we’re talking 8,300 workers . . . it wasn’t going to come from just workers. But it was led by workers, for sure.” Smalls’s answer simultaneously distinguishes salts from workers and emphasizes that salts can become more like workers through time and exposure. Whether they can ever fully become “workers” is unclear. Much like the dynamics between salts and non-salts, Smalls’s take on salts is complicated and riven with internal tensions.

These tensions notwithstanding, salting is perhaps the most important work today’s left-wing college graduates can undertake. The salts now taking jobs at Amazon, Starbucks, and elsewhere could play a key role in reversing union decline. Since 1954 union density has fallen from 35 percent to 10.3 percent, a decline that has greatly harmed the wellbeing of workers. Unionized workers have better wages, benefits, and job security, while unions compress race and gender wage gaps. Moreover, a strong labor movement concentrated in strategic industries would grow the political power of the working class, as it did in the 1930s.

Today we seem to be on the precipice of a labor resurgence. The NLRB reports that during the first six months of the 2022 fiscal year, union petitions increased 57 percent. A militant minority, composed in part of salts, can further this growth and help consolidate whatever gains labor makes in the coming years.

Salting is also important work because it combats the fracturing of the organized left that has deepened since the 1930s, when socialist organizations were much more firmly rooted in the working class. The salt vs. non-salt distinction is one pressure point of many that bosses can use to divide workers. But the difference can be a source of strength. The left’s capacity to fight for economic equality, climate justice, reproductive rights, and racial justice in the coming years will depend on our willingness and ability to transgress boundaries of race and class that divide and weaken us.

Salting is a powerful form of solidarity because it puts people from different class backgrounds on the same side of a shared struggle. Although they have real differences that are important to acknowledge and account for, salts and non-salts in the same workplace are also co-workers with a common material interest in forming a union. Moreover, the work itself, whether making lattes or organizing, can be unifying. When I asked Flowers whether the salts and non-salts played different roles in organizing JFK8, he emphasized the ways their shared work equalized them. “We were all learning as we were moving. We were all doing the same interviews, talking to the same people. We were organizing for one reason—to unionize JFK8—which we did.”

Mie Inouye is Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College. A political theorist and organizer, she has also written for Jacobin and The Forge.

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