Thousands of workers beat the odds and voted to become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the US.
A SCRAPPY GROUP of Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, has taken on the trillion-dollar ecommerce company and won. In a stunning victory on Friday, the Amazon Labor Union became the first group in history to unionize a US Amazon warehouse.
Workers voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of union representation for 8,300 workers. As of Friday, 67 ballots remained challenged on grounds such as voter eligibility, too few to alter the result.
“Amazon wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts against them,” tweeted ALU president Christian Smalls as the final votes were tallied. “Welp there you go!”
The victory is consequential for the labor movement, which considers unionizing Amazon a topmost priority. As the country’s second-largest employer, it has become a standard-setter for labor conditions in industries far and wide and has drawn fire for its working conditions.
The Staten Island results follow a parallel rerun election in Bessemer, Alabama, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union trailed 993 to 875 in a bid to represent some 6,100 workers. The National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to determine whether any of the 416 challenged ballots should be counted, then issue a final result in that election.
Amazon says it is “disappointed” with the outcome of the election. “We believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” the company’s statement reads. “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
The ALU, which officially launched in April 2021, is composed entirely of current and former Amazon workers and runs on a combination of volunteer labor and GoFundMe donations. They received support from a pro bono lawyer, who sat in the vote tally room on Thursday beside Amazon’s six high-priced attorneys.
The upstart union drew skepticism from some corners of the labor movement, who doubted that an inexperienced all-volunteer union with no dues-paying members could take on such a deep-pocketed virulently anti-union company. ALU organizers saw similar skepticism from Amazon in its early days, and used it to their benefit.
“Amazon thought we were so grassroots and disorganized and inexperienced that I think they kept thinking that we would give up before every milestone,” said ALU vice president of membership Connor Spence, before the results came in. “That made it difficult for them to be consistent in their campaign against us.”
But organizers claimed a crucial advantage over established national unions. As Amazon workers, they knew firsthand what associates went through and how to speak to their concerns. “We’re very trusted veterans in our departments, so it’s easy to reach a large number of people, whereas organizers on the outside really can’t do that,” said Spence. When Amazon attempted to paint the ALU as a third-party interloper, as it did with the RWDSU in Bessemer, “they lose credibility when people find out we’re just workers.”
The ALU also benefited from geography. “New York City is a union town,” said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum during a Thursday evening press conference, noting that he was “thrilled” for the ALU, which at that time was ahead in the results. “It is one of the most union-friendly towns in one of the most union-friendly cities in the United States. Alabama, on the other hand, has a different environment. It’s a right-to-work state with very, very low union density.” (Unions in right-to-work states cannot require workers to pay dues or union membership fees, blunting their power.)
In both Bessemer and Staten Island, Amazon dispatched pricey union-avoidance consultants to run ferocious anti-union campaigns, barraging workers with “vote no” texts, in-app messages, letters, ads, one-on-one conversations, and anti-union meetings. A Huffington Post report published Thursday found that the company spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year. Over the course of a yearlong campaign, the ALU filed dozens of unfair-labor-practice charges with the NLRB, accusing Amazon of actions that included clearing out pro-union literature and retaliating against ALU supporters.
Amazon has long fought against labor organizing, but the Covid-19 crisis sent it into overdrive. Employee dissatisfaction grew as executives racked up billions in profits, while essential workers risked their safety to meet exploding demand for ecommerce during the pandemic. A few months into lockdown, fed-up workers in Bessemer contacted the RWDSU about unionizing.
Other employees staged protests and walkouts, blasting the company for failing to adequately protect them. In Staten Island, Amazon workers Christian Smalls, Gerald Bryson, Jordan Flowers, and Derrick Palmer organized a walkout of the JFK8 warehouse, after Smalls says upper management asked him not to notify the Tier 1 associates he supervised about their exposure to Covid-19.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel wrote, “Since the early days of Covid, we have always followed the guidance of federal and local health authorities, and our own workplace health and safety experts and independent epidemiologists, ensuring we can continue to serve communities while providing a safe and healthy work environment,” citing the $15 billion the company spent on Covid-19 safety.
The company promptly fired Smalls for violating a quarantine policy, which he says didn’t exist until after his firing. It also fired Bryson for violating a policy against vulgar language. Last month, the labor board asked a federal court to reinstate Bryson, who had filed an unfair-labor-practice charge, accusing the company of retaliation. Executives vowed to make Smalls the face of the union movement, according to a memo leaked to Vice, saying he was “not smart or articulate.” Smalls set out to “make them eat their words.”
Smalls traveled the country continuing his demonstrations, including one in October 2020 outside Jeff Bezos’ Beverly Hills mansion. In April 2021, Smalls and his former coworkers launched the Amazon Labor Union, with Smalls as president.
Organizers campaigned at the warehouse daily, setting up a makeshift headquarters at a nearby bus stop, which they staffed through rain, snow, and below-zero temperatures, until a December NLRB settlement allowed them to occupy the break rooms inside the facility. They flooded social media with images of food deliveries to workers and videos of union members lambasting company representatives in anti-union meetings. They commandeered the Voice of the Associates Board, where workers can post feedback for their supervisors, to challenge anti-union messaging. They told workers the ALU was fighting for a pay raise to $30 an hour, longer breaks, and better job security, among other demands.
While they operated on a shoestring, they received ample community support; for instance, the hospitality union Unite Here loaned the ALU its offices for phone banking sessions. In early March, the union gathered enough signatures to file for a second election at a sortation center across the street from JFK8.
Amazon continued targeting Smalls during the campaign, calling the police in March when he showed up to the warehouse to deliver food to workers. Smalls and two Amazon employees were arrested as coworkers filmed. Undeterred, Smalls returned that evening after his release on probation to deliver food to the evening shift.
Voting concluded on March 30, two years to the day after Smalls’ firing. “We traveled all over the place. Now we’re about to witness a vote count that could change my life forever,” said Jason Anthony, a worker and ALU organizer who Smalls previously supervised. Anthony has been on medical leave for a lower back injury he sustained at work but still traveled to the facility every day to organize. “I could be resting, but I’m inside the break room at JFK8 with my brothers and sisters,” he said Wednesday as the final votes were cast.
It remains unclear how Amazon will relate to its newly unionized workforce, but it is not uncommon for employers to use stalling techniques to delay contract negotiations. Rutgers labor professor Francis Ryan shrugs off concerns that the nascent union will have a disadvantage over more experienced unions when they arrive at the bargaining table. “The power comes from the shop floor,” he says, “from the men and women who are bringing together the orders that need to be shipped. We have a company that is emphasizing the speed of delivery. When you have even a handful of committed workers deciding to shut things down, you have real power there. So I find this to be a very important moment in American history.”
The next campaign is already underway at LDJ5, the sortation center across the street from JFK8. Voting there begins on April 25.
Photograph: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg/Getty Images