Amazon.com Inc. workers at a New York warehouse voted to join an upstart labor union, a historic victory that gives organized labor its first foothold in the company’s U.S. operations.
The election at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island wasn’t close. With only a few hundred ballots left to count, the Amazon Labor Union led with 2,300 yes votes versus 1,855 no votes for Amazon.
The victory is a watershed moment for Amazon. The Seattle-based company has managed to keep unions out of its U.S. operations for more than a quarter-century. Unless the company can get the result overturned, Amazon will have to start contract negotiations that potentially could hamper its ability to adjust work requirements and scheduling on the fly. The outcome also could embolden workers and labor activists to try to organize other Amazon facilities and even spill over into other industries.
“This is a huge shot in the arm for the entire labor movement,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University. “This is going to inspire workers, not just throughout the U.S. In people’s eyes, Amazon and Walmart are interchangeable as the biggest private-sector employers that everyone thought couldn’t be beaten. It takes one of the biggest, and says you can organize anyone.”
Chris Smalls, the leader of the New York effort and a former worker at the Staten Island facility, announces the results after workers filed a petition requesting an election to form a union outside the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional office in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Amazon.com Inc. workers hoping to unionize four company facilities in Staten Island formally filed a petition with federal labor officials to hold a union election.
ALU founder Christian Smalls has notched a landmark achievement, starting a successful union and beating one of the world’s most powerful companies with little help from organized labor. With limited funds, he employed unconventional tactics — tweeting photos of Amazon consultants he deemed “union-busters,” encouraging employees to disrupt the company’s anti-union meetings inside the warehouse and handing out literature in the facility’s parking lot.
Smalls, 33, hasn’t set out a detailed agenda but surveyed workers to assess their priorities. Among them: bringing back monthly productivity bonuses the company eliminated in 2018, giving hourly workers Amazon stock and raising pay to $30 an hour compared with the current average starting wage of $18 an hour.
Smalls has been tangling with Amazon since 2020, when he was working at the JFK8 facility in Staten Island. Smalls helped organize a walkout there after colleagues began calling in sick and showing up with Covid-19 symptoms. Not long after, Amazon told Smalls to stay home because he had possibly been in contact with an infected colleague. Smalls showed up for a rally and was fired, prompting him to file a lawsuit alleging racial bias in Amazon’s Covid safety protocols. A judge dismissed the case in February.
Tensions between Smalls and Amazon came to a head later that month, when he was arrested at JFK8 and charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration. Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel says the police were called after Smalls was warned multiple times that he wasn’t allowed on company property. (Smalls says a judge adjourned the case for six months and will dismiss the charges so long as he isn’t charged with a crime during that time.)
The rookie labor activist will get a second opportunity to extend his victory on April 25, when workers at the LDJ5 facility start voting on whether or not to join the ALU. Meanwhile, Smalls is hoping to force elections at two more Amazon facilities in the New York borough.
“I say what I say and that’s what got me here,” Smalls told Bloomberg before the election. “The same thing with the union: It represents what the workers want to say.”
–With assistance from Michael Tobin.