How Working Group Autonomy Helped Defeat Amazon

- Pamphlets

by Alex C.

This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program: as such, it will also be available in a format for online reading and one for printing. The post reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus. Please print and share as far and wide as you can!

In early November 2018, the news leaked that Amazon had finally chosen the site of its future second headquarters, the HQ2. Or, rather, the sites—as Amazon selected both Arlington, VA, and New York City to be co-hosts of these new headquarters. On Nov. 5th, an email went out from a member of the Queens DSA Housing Working Group’s then-Provisional Organizing Committee regarding the news and the destructive impact that such a development would have on the Borough of Queens and city at-large.

As the QHWG snapped into action to combat the arrival of HQ2 in our city, our comrades from across the branch and chapter immediately joined the No Amazon efforts. People were angry, but also stumped; how were we going to defeat the richest man in the world, his trillion-dollar corporation, and the politicians who cravenly welcomed Amazon with secret deals that offered billions in subsidies and no accountability to the public?

We knew we couldn’t do this on our own, but we also saw the rapid responses of local organizations such as Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU), Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), and their partners in Hate Free Zone Queens. DSA members and allies fanned out across Western Queens to canvass neighborhoods and counter the company’s extensive propaganda. Within a month of Amazon’s official announcement of their chosen HQ2 sites, a small coalition comprising QHWG, QNU, DRUM, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Chhaya CDC, members of Socialist Alternative, and Whole Worker (who are trying to organize workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods stores) had assembled to host a community forum against Amazon. More than 300 people packed into the sanctuary of the Church of the Redeemer in Astoria, Queens, to hear speakers from the partner organizations detail Amazon’s record of union-busting, its collaboration with ICE and the surveillance state, and the ways in which its presence fuels gentrification and displacement. The fight against Amazon was big news now, yet it had only just begun.

The origins of the No Amazon fight in New York City demonstrates the benefits of ground-up organizing, strategic coalition-building with frontline neighborhood organizations, and allowing motivated DSA members to spearhead campaigns on their own without having to go through layers of bureaucracy for approval or permission. Yet, all three of these elements appear to have become somewhat controversial in DSA circles of late, particularly the last one.

Often derided as “horizontalism” by its detractors, this method of organizing eschews hierarchical pyramids and bureaucracy in favor of direct engagement and coordination between the various cells working on different aspects of a given campaign. Liaisons chosen by participant groups’ members coalesce at organizing meetings and disperse back to their respective groups without resorting to or depending on managerial-type figures acting as middlemen. Information and other resources are shared freely between groups, so that all participants are able to make the most democratic decisions possible.

This kind of collaboration and coordination with as little hierarchy as possible has been disparaged as a kind of “structurelessness.” Nothing could be further from the truth. QHWG operates according to clearly defined structures, and though the No Amazon campaign began informally, we have continued to refine and delineate the ways in which the participants in the campaign act and make decisions.

If we had not been able to act autonomously, it is likely that this campaign would not have gotten off the ground at all. And in the brief existence of this campaign, we have both drawn the attention of interested parties to the work of NYC-DSA generally and made deep connections with frontline organizations from communities of color that had previously looked askance at DSA.

It is worth noting that the No Amazon campaign is itself a microcosm of DSA’s “Big Tent” ethos. Few of the regular participants are members of any of DSA’s ideological caucuses, yet as people came together to participate, we were able to plan and engage actions as participants saw fit, make decisions collaboratively as needed, and remain flexible as our strategy developed and conditions on the ground shifted. We saw a surge in interest due to the No Amazon campaign and have plugged new people in to the work to the best of our ability.

This affair initially promised to be long and drawn-out, though its intensity subsided in the wake of Amazon’s Valentine’s Day announcement that it was pulling out of the plans to develop in Long Island City. A few months on, the situation in Queens remains quiet as Amazon continues to lease space in the neighborhood and conducts the hiring it always intended to do. Amazon HQ2 was seen by politicians and their developer cronies as a beachhead for a tech corridor that would begin in LIC and expand across the as-yet-undeveloped 180-acre Sunnyside Yards site. Our focus in Queens has turned accordingly to this related battle in what should be seen as a larger and ongoing development war.

Those details aside the merits of how we’ve chosen to operate are clear. The way our chapter is currently set up fortunately leaves space for member-led initiatives to take off and do what needs to be done in responding to new challenges on the ground. This does not appear to be the case in several other large chapters and there are members of our chapter who would prefer to operate with less flexibility and greater bureaucracy. With all due respect to the Queens branch Organizing Committee, the NYC chapter’s City Leadership Committee (CLC), and NYC-DSA’s Steering Committee (SC), many of us don’t feel that gaining their stamp of approval before acting out of necessity is necessary to engage the work that needs to be done (We do, nonetheless, understand why it’s appropriate for working groups to receive approval to use organizational logos for the work once it has commenced and comrades are on board). DSA spaces should be free of bosses, managers, and other order-giving positions. Organizational “leaders” should be viewed as comrades whose positions allow them to facilitate the work of fellow members, whether those members’ needs be funds to pay for canvassing materials, connections to other members who may have specific skills, or approval to slap our chapter’s logo on coalition materials.

In fact, it was only three months into the No Amazon campaign that any moves were made for official recognition and “chapter priority” status. Four days after the CLC vote was taken on approving this status, Amazon announced they were pulling out of their LIC plans due to local resistance. Were we members of a more hierarchically oriented chapter, it is unlikely that what this coalition accomplished during the crucial first months of this campaign would’ve been possible.

If we as DSA members want to retain our ability to respond quickly to shifting conditions, we must remain flexible in our approach and not hamper member initiative by preventing small, affinity groups from forming to take on tasks or develop necessary programs. Moreover, giving everyone the freedom and autonomy to collectively think through and address problems that arise helps build trust between comrades.

There is no singular, correct process to achieve socialism; to get there we’re going to need to experiment and make mistakes together. Those of us involved in this fight have our differences and we certainly made mistakes, but we’ve also grown collectively as comrades. Now, as the fight against Amazon takes new forms, we are better prepared to tackle what confronts us.