U.S. and World Politics

The Workers Have Spoken!

Amazon Labor Union scores major victory in New York

By Mark Satinoff and Argiris Malapanis

Brooklyn, New York, April 1, 2022—Workers at JFK8, Amazon’s giant warehouse on Staten Island, voted by a large margin for representation by the Amazon Labor Union. It is the most significant union organizing victory in the United States in decades—a milestone for the labor movement.

According to the NLRB, 2,654 workers voted for representation by the ALU and 2,131 against. This means that nearly 55 percent of the 4,785 workers who cast ballots voted yes, and 45 percent no—a ten percent margin of victory.

“Today the people have spoken, and the people wanted a union,” ALU president Chris Smalls told supporters. Smalls uncorked a bottle of champagne outside the NLRB offices when the final tally came through.

“We want to thank [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos for going to space, because when he was up there, we were signing people up,” Smalls added.

“When COVID-19 came into play, Amazon failed us,” Smalls said during the press conference after the union victory was announced. Amazon fired Smalls two years ago after he led a walkout over health and safety conditions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He described how the ALU—a grassroots group with no affiliation to any established national trade union—started about a year ago.

Smalls and other NY Amazon workers, including Derrick Palmer, now ALU’s vice president for organizing; Gerald Bryson, whom Amazon fired at the same time as Smalls; and Jordan Flowers traveled the country. “We went down to [Bessemer] Alabama last year, when they had the first [union organizing] campaign,” Smalls said. “And we saw some things that we thought that we could do better independently. So that’s what we decided to do. We decided to come back home to Staten Island, and start unionizing JFK8, and not just JFK8, we wanted all four of them,” he explained, referring to Amazon’s four warehouses on Staten Island.1

Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted in February and March in a second union election that the NLRB set after ruling that Amazon’s intimidation tactics tainted last year’s vote. As of the publication of this article, the outcome in Bessemer was too close to call.

“Its worker led, it is the workers themselves in the warehouse organizing themselves,” said Justine Medina, a packer at JFK8 who was on hand for the vote count this morning. She said organizers drew their inspiration from the early labor movements of the 20th century. “We looked back on that, and we said, what worked for them? How were they able to build these unions from the ground up and build the strongest labor movement in American history? And how do we go back and do that, because Amazon is a kind of classic, exploitative factory.”

Renewed optimism for victory at LDJ5

Amazon’s Staten Island complex includes four similar warehouses. The vote at JFK8 is just the start. Another 1,600 workers at a warehouse directly across the street from JFK8, called LDJ5, will be eligible to vote in a union election scheduled for April 25-29. All told the company says more than 10,000 employees work at the Staten Island compound. ALU organizers want to unionize them all.

“We are now very optimistic about the upcoming union election at LDJ5,” said ALU treasurer Maddie Wesley who works at that warehouse.

ALU organizers said workers from a number of other Amazon facilities from around the country have contacted them for help with organizing. A number of Amazon workers here said the union victory at JFK8 can be significant for the labor movement across the country.

Palmer, who packs boxes at JFK8 and is a co-founder of the union, said he expected other facilities to follow Staten Island. “This will be the first union,” at Amazon, the second-largest company in the country with more than one million employees, he said, “but moving forward, that will motivate other workers to get on board with us.”

The mood among the dozens of Amazon workers and their supporters present at the plaza in front of Metro Tech Center here was festive, high energy, exhilarating.

Rank-and-file organizers were optimistic but cautious, going into the vote. They felt good about the work they had done—supporting workers who protested unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment on the job, or unwarranted write-ups that often led to dismissals; campaigning in and out of the workplace for nearly a year; standing up to company and police harassment; organizing weekly lunches in the cafeteria and barbecues under a tent across from JFK8; collecting union authorization cards day and night; raising funds through a GoFundMe account; and carrying out intensive phone banking in the weeks leading up to the election to discuss workers’ concerns, counter the company’s lies, and convince fellow workers to vote for the union. But some were surprised the vote turned out with such strong numbers.

“Risking our jobs, risking our family time—just to see all of this coming together makes me feel proud,” said Karen Ponce, 26, the ALU secretary who works at JFK8. “I’m very surprised and proud.”

Workers at the sprawling warehouse JFK8 sort, load, and unload items to be dispatched to Amazon customers across the region. They often work nearly 12-hour shifts with two 30-minute breaks, or sometimes a 45-minute break, depending on the shift. Workers say this is barely enough time to make your way across the warehouse and eat. Workers’ movement and productivity is meticulously tracked by the company. Amazon targets those who can’t keep up with disciplinary write-ups, workers report. This pace of work often results in serious injuries.

These were some of the issues that led thousands of workers to join the union.

In a company statement issued on its site, Amazon said it was disappointed in the outcome and accused the NLRB of “inappropriate and undue influence” over the vote.

NLRB spokeswoman Kayla Blado maintained there was nothing inappropriate about its actions.

“The NLRB is an independent federal agency that Congress has charged with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act,” Blado said in an interview. “All NLRB enforcement actions against Amazon have been consistent with that Congressional mandate.”

Next step: Unify workers in fight for decent contract

Amazon Labor Union organizers campaigned on a pledge to fight for higher starting wages. They’re aiming for $30 an hour from the current starting rate of $18.25. They want job security to prevent the company from constantly firing and rehiring people several months later. They’re also pushing for quality-of-life improvements for workers, like allowing workers to keep their phones on the warehouse floor and pushing the company to provide shuttle buses for workers with long commutes.

But organizers faced long odds. They pointed to the high turnover rate at Amazon and the more than 7,000 employees organizers had to win over—all in the face of relentless efforts by the company to convince workers to reject the union. Amazon plastered “Vote No” banners throughout the warehouse and pulled employees into “training” sessions where pressure was brought to bear to dissuade them from unionizing. It’s a similar playbook the company had used to quash union organizing efforts at warehouses across the country.

Pro bono attorney Seth Goldstein, representing the nascent union effort, filed dozens of charges of unfair labor practices against the company, though they didn’t appear to shift the company’s tactics. (Another attorney, Eric Miller, filed the ALU’s representation petition with the NLRB; his fees are paid for by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 342, which is based on Staten Island and Long Island and recently offered its headquarters to ALU volunteers for phone banking.) Multiple union organizers were fired throughout the two-year campaign, others say they were targeted for performance write-ups, and the company would regularly tear down pro-union signs and confiscate pro-union literature from organizers.

The workers beat the odds and prevailed, however. The next step will be to unify the work force behind the fight for a decent contract. Today’s victory puts wind in the sails of that effort.

World-Outlook, April 1, 2022

1 For more information on the evolution of this magnificent union organizing campaign see, “NY Amazon Workers File for Union Recognition” and “Amazon Labor Union Pre-Election Rally: ‘Vote Yes!’” published by World-Outlook on November 4, 2021, and March 25, 2022, respectively.