Amazon union workers won in New York – can they win nationwide?

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) scored a historic victory on April 1 by becoming the first-ever union to successfully organize Amazon employees. Christian Smalls, a laid-off worker motivated by what he saw as mistreatment, rallied his colleagues throughout the process and, in January 2022, won just enough votes to qualify for a formal election. On Friday, workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse voted to unionize, 2,654 to 2,131.

It was a hard-won victory, after years of hard work, and union activists already hope to apply the same tactic to the hundreds of thousands of Amazon warehouse workers across the rest of the country. After the RWDSU stumbled in last year’s Bessemer election, the new Amazon Labor Union is pointing a different path — and forcing Amazon to carefully re-examine working conditions at many of its fulfillment centers.

The ALU developed its own playbook early on. Instead of knocking on co-workers’ doors, organizers camped out near the warehouse, handing out literature, answering questions, and sharing stories about Amazon spending. for things like company salaries and labor consultants. They changed course when they had to, focusing on just two New York warehouses, JFK8 and LDJ5, and used social media videos to raise awareness. They even organized telephone banks, calling each of the eligible workers to vote in the elections.

More importantly, organizers say Amazon underestimated their resolve. In an interview with The edgeGerald Bryson, the ALU Sergeant-at-Arms, said the company had a dismissive attitude toward him and his fellow organizers. He repeatedly referred to how Amazon officials called them inarticulate “thugs,” behavior that was cited in a lawsuit filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Another key difference between the successful campaign in Staten Island and the so far unsuccessful labor campaign in Bessemer, Alabama: ALU was independent and Bessemer’s organizing efforts were carried out in coordination with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an 85 year old union that already represents thousands of workers. The Amazon Labor Union is an independent organization, not affiliated with an established union.

“I wouldn’t say they won because it was an independent union,” said Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies and labor relations at Rutgers University. “But they certainly proved that an independent union with little infrastructure and resources could do it.”

Bryson is confident that the ALU can continue to progress. Part of his confidence comes from trusting Chris Smalls. “For everything they’ve said about Chris, he has a heart of gold. We all sit down and listen to each other – no decision you hear coming out of his mouth is just Chris.

Bryson said The edge that ALU’s founders were interested in expanding, but it will be difficult to recreate the same approach that worked at JFK8. “It’s a little tricky,” he said of trying to work with facilities in different states. “The labor laws we use here might not apply as much elsewhere.”

Unlike Alabama, New York has a strong union tradition that many workers were likely familiar with, said James Williams, Jr., general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT). “When you break that [Amazon] armor, you’re going to break it in places where there’s union density,” Williams, Jr. said. “If your neighbor is a teamster or a member of the food and commercial workers union, and you hear him talk about his pensions, his benefits, his livelihood, you already have an idea of ​​what unions can do and how they benefit workers. ”

Givan agreed and said workers who know someone in a union can challenge a company’s anti-union rhetoric. “They can say, ‘Wait a second, we had great health insurance when I was a kid because of my mom’s union work,'” she said, while workers who have little experience with a union do not have the same context.

But even ALU organizers have found themselves trying to dispel misconceptions about unions, Bryson said. He asked a colleague who was strongly opposed to unionization what he knew about unions. The answer? “I know they killed Jimmy Hoffa,” Bryson was told. “That wasn’t the answer I expected,” Bryson laughed.

In addition to three other Staten Island warehouses, ALU organizers say they have Amazon workers in more than a dozen states who also want to organize. There are large swathes of the country where unions are not well established, but Amazon has warehouses almost everywhere there are potential customers, so the ALU may need to change its tactics to reach those workers.

As for the future of labor organizing in general, and not just at Amazon, Givan said we’ll likely see smaller, nimble organizations trying to emulate the ALU playbook, even if its final chapters have not yet been written. Another thing we see, she says, is people who are already politically aligned and want to organize to get jobs at places like Amazon or Starbucks specifically to help launch labor campaigns.

She also noted that young organizers have a different set of tools than their predecessors. While it’s always best to have one-to-one communication between co-workers, she has publicly stated on social media that the workers are pro-union, showing they are not bullied, a powerful message to send.

The fight has only just begun for the ALU; he must now enter negotiations with Amazon, a company well known for its dislike of unions and its willingness to use union-busting tactics. The ALU will have to show the same determination for the next – and arguably more difficult – part of the process: getting Amazon to sign a contract.

“They have to organize around this and they have to be ready to strike,” Williams said. Now is not the time to relax, he added; ALU organizers must fight as hard for a contract as they did for an election. “That’s the key to organizing: bringing the employer to the table. »


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