Is this the taming of Amazon?

George Binette explains how an upstart union scored a shock win

As April dawned in Brooklyn, New York, the result became clear, unleashing raucous celebrations by young workers and their supporters – Black, Latino and white – as they realised that an independent union, which hadn’t existed two years ago, had achieved an historic first.

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) had won an official recognition ballot among thousands of workers at JFK8, the enormous Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, ironically branded a “fulfilment centre”. For the first time outside Europe, Amazon, the USA’s second largest private employer and notoriously anti-union, faces the prospect of having to bargain with a union.

With a 523-vote winning margin on a turnout nearing 60%, the ALU’s victory stunned commentators across the spectrum. After all, long-established unions had tried and failed to win recognition at Amazon facilities in both the US and Canada, where union density is significantly higher than in the States. Most recently, a second ballot in just over a year at an Amazon complex in Bessemer, Alabama has probably failed to deliver a union victory, though more than 400 disputed ballots might still prove enough to reverse the anti-union majority recorded in the initial count.

The genesis of the successful Staten Island campaign stems from the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and a modest protest over health and safety concerns around workplace transmission of the virus. The peaceful spring 2020 demonstration provided the pretext for the sacking of Chris Smalls, a popular supervisor at the warehouse.

After his dismissal, Smalls and a handful of close colleagues decided that they would launch their own effort to unionise JFK8. In a notable blunder a senior Amazon lawyer suggested that Smalls wasn’t “bright or articulate,” effectively welcoming him as the face of the union drive. Less than two years later Chris Smalls is the ALU’s interim president, the subject of New York Times features and feted by senior union officials such as newly elected Teamsters’ president Sean O’Brien.

Birth of a union

So, how did this upstart, crowdfunded group succeed where long-established unions had failed? The campaign’s success was about much more than the “free food and free weed” highlighted in some US media coverage. (Cannabis is now legal in New York and several other US states as well as Canada).

Sheer persistence and a workplace presence were key. Some of Smalls’ former colleagues were receptive and set about recruiting fellow workers around issues such as basic pay and workplace injuries, but also, importantly, the unrelenting pace of work and constant management surveillance. At the same time, awareness was growing of Amazon’s soaring profits as well as former CEO and space traveller Jeff Bezos’ extraordinary burgeoning wealth. Bezos’ estimated net worth is $186 billion.

There was also support-in-kind from existing unions, particularly UNITE HERE, which organises primarily in the hotel and hospitality sector. Sometimes family connections came into play with young workers having grown up with parents who had seen some benefits from union membership. Helpful advice and even reading lists including accounts of CIO organising campaigns from the 1930s came from established activists. But the determination of defiant workers who challenged consultants in compulsory anti-union briefings and stayed after ten-and-a-half hour shifts to talk with colleagues made the crucial difference.

The ALU’s achievement seems even more remarkable given the staggering level of turnover at JFK8, which had reached 150% over an 18-month period. The churning workforce led the union’s key activists to gamble and apply early in the process to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an official ballot on recognition. The emergence of a more union-friendly NLRB since the dawn of Biden’s administration certainly boosted the ALU’s efforts, even if the President’s own support for unionisation at the corporate giant has proved purely rhetorical in other respects. At the same time, his administration continues to award multi-billion-dollar contracts to Amazon.

The Fight Has Just Begun

Like Starbucks, which has sacked numerous union activists since the success of a union recognition push in Buffalo, New York last autumn, Amazon’s senior management is not about to concede graciously. The company forked out some $4.3 million (£3.9 million) on consultants in 2021 to counter organising drives and has already lodged documents to challenge the ballot outcome in court, attacking both the new union and the NLRB. In short, there’s no reason to expect Amazon management with its very deep pockets to engage in serious bargaining over a contract with the ALU any time soon.

But for now, there’s cause for celebration and real hope that the Staten Island vote marks a turning point at Amazon specifically and just possibly for union organising in the USA more generally. The ALU’s victory also highlights the need for existing unions on both sides of the Atlantic to swiftly learn lessons from the successful campaign.

Meanwhile, the ALU will soon be engaged in another recognition ballot under NLRB supervision at a smaller Staten Island facility. And the challenge is clear for the recently elected O’Brien leadership of the Teamsters to translate commitments to recruit and organise at Amazon facilities across the US and Canada into effective action.

George Binette is a Massachusetts native. He is currently the Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP Trade Union Liaison Officer and writes in a personal capacity..

Image: Creator and copyright: Mat McDermott. Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts