Organizing a union was an effort that few believed would have a chance of success. A small group of workers at Amazon’s large warehouse on Staten Island, working without the assistance of major labour unions, took on one of the world’s most powerful corporations, taking it to the ground.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, Amazon employees voted 2,654 to be represented by Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 to be represented by other unions, giving the union a victory by more than ten percentage points. More than 8,300 employees at the warehouse, which serves as Amazon’s only fulfilment hub in New York City, were eligible to participate in the election.
The Amazon union victory, the first in the company’s history in the United States following years of worker agitation, is a significant step forward in the effort to reverse that direction and build on previous victories. The fact that Amazon affects so many sectors and often dominates them has led many labour leaders to believe that the company poses an existential threat to labour standards.
This win by an unknown, independent union with few ties to existing organisations, on the other hand, seems to have raised more questions than it has answered for the labour movement, including whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the traditional bureaucratic union model that can only be fixed by replacing it with grass-roots organisations like the one on Staten Island.
The verdict in Staten Island came on the heels of what looks to be a close defeat for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union at a huge Amazon facility in Alabama earlier this month. Because of the closeness of the vote, the outcome will not be known for many weeks until challenged votes are resolved in the courts.
As a result of the unanticipated power shown by unions in both sites, it is probable that Amazon will be subjected to years of pressure at additional business facilities from labour organisations and progressive activists working in collaboration with them. As a recent spate of union victories at Starbucks has shown, successes at one location may serve as a source of inspiration for other locations.
The labour movement and other progressive organisations are grappling with the issue of whether they will assist the fledgling Amazon Labor Union in surviving future legal challenges and negotiating a first contract, for example, by offering resources and legal skill.
During Covid outbreaks, the stress of working in the warehouse was a radicalising experience for some workers, and this prompted them to take action. Mr. Smalls, the head of the Amazon Labor Union, said he got concerned in March 2020 after witnessing a co-worker who seemed to be suffering from a serious illness. The manager was persuaded to shut the facility for two weeks, which he accepted. He was sacked by the corporation in late March of that year after he assisted in organising a walkout over unsafe working conditions.
According to Amazon at the time, the company had taken “extraordinary precautions” to ensure the safety of its employees, including rigorous cleaning and social isolation. It claimed that Mr. Smalls had been sacked for breaking social distancing norms by participating in the walkout despite the fact that he had been put in quarantine.
When Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Ala., decisively rejected the retail workers union in their first election, Mr. Smalls and Derrick Palmer, an Amazon employee who is also his buddy, decided to organise a new union, which they named the Amazon Labor Union.
They also filed a slew of unfair-labor-practice accusations with the National Labor Relations Board when they claimed Amazon had violated their legal rights. The labour department determined that some of the allegations had validity, and in certain instances, Amazon agreed to settle by entering into a countrywide agreement to provide employees greater access to organise on the job.
The Amazon Labor Union has seen its ups and downs. An election was not held because there was not enough support for the budding union, which had spent months gathering signatures from employees asking a vote. This was found by the labour board this autumn. Although it took many attempts, the organisers eventually succeeded in gathering enough signatures by late January.
Amazon emphasised their $15-an-hour minimum wage in advertising and other public relations attempts to attract customers. As part of its anti-union effort, the corporation sent out text messages to workers and required participation at anti-union meetings, among other measures. Last year, the company spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants throughout the country, according to annual records submitted on Thursday with the Labor Department of Commerce.
The Amazon Labor Union’s independence looked to undercut Amazon’s anti-union talking lines, which depicted the union as an interloping “third party,” according to the union.
On March 25, employees at JFK8 began forming a line outside a tent in the parking lot to cast their ballots. Then, over the course of five voting days, they cast their votes in an attempt to create what may be the first union at an Amazon facility in the United States.
Another election, called by the Amazon Labor Union and held in a nearby Staten Island facility, is set to take place in the latter part of April.