Amazon’s first U.S. union overcomes obstacles and faces new ones

NEW YORK (AP) — When a rambling group of former and current warehouse workers from Staten Island, New York, opposed Amazon in a union election, many compared it to a battle of David versus Goliath.

David won. And Friday’s stunning upheaval brought sudden exposure to organizers and labor advocates who won the nascent Amazon Labor Union victory when so many other more established labor groups had failed before them, including more recently at Bessemer. , Alabama.

Early election results show the retail, wholesale and department store union lost 118 votes as the majority of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer rejected an offer to form a union. The final result is still up in the air with 416 disputed ballots pending in the balance. A hearing to review the ballots is expected to begin in the coming weeks.

Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who leads the ALU, criticized the RWDSU campaign, saying it lacked enough local support. Instead, he chose an independent path, believing that self-organizing workers would be more effective and undermine Amazon’s narrative that “third-party” groups were leading union efforts.

“They weren’t seen as outsiders, so that’s important,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements at the City University of New York.

While the odds were stacked against both labor campaigns, with organizers facing off against a deep-pocketed retailer with an unbroken history of keeping unions out of its US operations, ALU was decidedly underfunded and understaffed compared to RWDSU. Smalls said that as of early March, ALU had raised and spent about $100,000 and was operating on a weekly budget. The group does not have its own office space and relied on community groups and two unions to lend a hand. Legal aid came from a lawyer offering pro bono assistance.

Meanwhile, Amazon has pulled out all the stops to push back against union organizing efforts, regularly holding mandatory meetings with workers to explain why unions are a bad idea. In a filing released last week, the company revealed that it spent about $4.2 million last year on labor consultants, who organizers said were hired by Amazon to persuade workers not to unionize.

Financially overwhelmed, Smalls and others relied on their ability to reach workers more personally by making TikTok videos, handing out free marijuana, and hosting barbecues and barbecues. A few weeks before the election, Smalls’ aunt prepared soul food for a union potluck, including macaroni and cheese, collard greens, ham and baked chicken. Another pro-union worker asked her neighbor to make Jollof rice, a West African dish that organizers said would help them make inroads with immigrant workers at the warehouse.

Kate Andrias, a Columbia University law professor and labor law expert, noted that a successful union – whether local or national – must always be built by the workers themselves.

“It was a clearer illustration of that,” Andrias said. “The workers did this on their own.

Amazon’s missteps may also have contributed to the Staten Island election outcome. Bert Flickinger III, chief executive of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, said derogatory comments from a company executive leaked during an internal meeting calling Smalls “neither smart nor articulate” and wanting to make him “the face of the entire union/organizational movement”. backfired.

“It turned out to be condescending and it helped galvanize the workers,” said Flickinger, who consults with major unions.

In another example, Smalls and two organizers were arrested in February after authorities received a trespassing complaint at the Staten Island warehouse. The ALU used the arrests to its advantage days before the union election, teaming up with an arts collective to project “THEY ARE ARRESTING YOUR COLLEAGUES” in white letters above the warehouse. “THEY HAVE FIRED SOMEBODY YOU KNOW,” said another showing.

“A lot of workers who were on the fence, or even against the union, flipped because of this situation,” Smalls said.

Experts note that it is unclear to what extent ALU’s homegrown nature contributed to their win over RWDSU. Unlike New York, Alabama is a right-to-work state that prohibits a company and union from signing a contract that requires workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.

There was also a grassroots element in the labor campaign in Bessemer, which began when a group of Amazon workers approached the RWDSU about unionization.

During a virtual press conference held Thursday by RWDSU following the preliminary results in Alabama, President Stuart Appelbaum said he believed the election in New York benefited because it was held in a union-friendly state and that Amazon workers in Staten Island voted in person, not by mail as was done in Alabama.

Despite some friction between the two union groups ahead of the election, the two have embraced a friendlier public relationship in recent days. Appelbaum praised Smalls at Thursday’s press conference, calling him a “charismatic, intelligent and dedicated leader.” Similarly, Smalls offered words of encouragement to RWDSU after its initial election defeat.

For now, ALU is focused on winning. Organizers say Amazon workers in more than 20 states have contacted them with questions about organizing their warehouses. But they have their hands full with their own warehouse and a nearby facility set to hold a separate union election later this month.

The organizers are also preparing for a difficult negotiation process for a work contract. The group asked Amazon officials to come to the table in early May. But experts say the retail giant, which has announced plans to challenge the election results, is likely to drag its feet.

“The number one thing is going to be fighting for the contract,” Smalls said. “We need to start this process immediately because we know that the longer the contract, the more hope and interest the workers will lose.”

Meanwhile, some workers are waiting to see what happens.

Tinea Greenway, a Brooklyn warehouse worker, said before the election that she felt pressured by the messages she was hearing from both Amazon and ALU organizers, and that she just wanted to take the decision itself. When the time came, she voted against the union because of a bad experience she had in the past with another union that she says didn’t fight for her.

“They won,” she said of ALU. “So let’s see if they stick to the agreement on what they said they were going to do.”


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