Amazon workers form first US union — Analysis

Staten Island Warehouse employees are the first to form a grassroots union

Employees of Amazon’s largest New York City warehouse have voted to unionize, overcoming the trillion-dollar company’s ferocious opposition, to become its first American workers to successfully organize. Amazon didn’t challenge enough ballots for the change to the final total, so the vote went in Friday. There were 2,654 votes against and 2,131 for union membership.

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Workers at the Staten Island facility known as JFK8 will become part of the Amazon Labor Union, whose demands include “More affordable” productivity rates in the warehouse, higher wages, more paid breaks and vacations, among other demands.

ALU was established last April to help organize JFK8 as well as the other Amazon facilities in Staten Island. It is an grassroots initiative that was started by a colleague, who lost the fight for his worker organizing efforts in 2020. Christian Smalls, the founder of ALU was dismissed as warehouse manager one month after New York’s Covid-19 epidemic. He had been accused by Amazon for violating social distance rules. However, he claimed that Amazon had retaliated against him because he protested its poor Covid-19 safety measures.

Smalls’ protest attracted the attention of Amazon’s general counsel, who dismissed him in a company memo as “Not smart and articulate” and suggested he be used to smear all employee resistance as similarly incompetent. But the former warehouse worker doubled down on his organizing efforts, denouncing the company’s Dickensian treatment of its workers at rallies and even suing Amazon for alleged racial discrimination, using the executive’s comments as evidence. 

Smalls founded ALU after seeing an attempt by Amazon workers in Bessemer to organize themselves failed. They believed that creating a new union composed of only Amazon employees would be the most effective way to defeat the giant corporation.

After Amazon was ruled to have interfered with its earlier attempt to unify with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, the Bessemer warehouse held a do over vote. Despite the fact that the votes had been counted by Thursday with the pro-union numbers trailing, both the NLRB (Amazon) and the NLRB have challenged more than 100 votes. It remains to be determined who wins.

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Amazon responded with disappointment to the Staten Island election results, revealing in a statement posted to its website that the company is “evaluating all options and filing objections based upon the improper and undue influence of the NLRB which we (along with the National Retail Federation, US Chamber of Commerce) saw in this election.” 

Workers might object to this characterization, however, reportedly laboring in a workplace papered with banners reading “Vote for No,” forced to attend mandatory weekly anti-union meetings, and subject to the depredations of Global Strategy Group, a polling firm closely tied to Democratic political groups. The company launched a spin-heavy website on which it attempted to frame its own benefits as superior to those offered by unions, though it’s not clear whose unions they compared themselves to, given that no American Amazon employees are union members.

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