A Stunning New Chapter Begins for Amazon Warehouse Workers

In a staggering upset, Staten Island Amazon workers just won a union election. And the rerun election at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse is too close to call. It’s the start of a new chapter for workers at one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Christian Smalls, left, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), and organizer Jason Anthony speak during a news conference outside the National Labor Relations Board offices in Brooklyn on Friday, April 1, 2022. (Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In an upset for which there are few parallels in the US labor movement’s post-Reagan history, Amazon warehouse workers in the United States have won recognition of a union for the first time ever. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)–supervised vote at JFK8, a fulfillment center in Staten Island, was 2,654 in favor of unionizing with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and 2,131 against, at a facility with 8,325 eligible voters. The sixty-seven challenged and eleven voided ballots will not be determinative, given the union’s margin of victory.

The vote count began, incredibly, on the same day as that of the rerun election in Bessemer, Alabama, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) made up significant ground. There, the count stands at 875 votes in favor of unionizing and 993 votes against, but with 416 challenged ballots, the outcome is too close to call and will depend on the adjudication of those ballots by the NLRB sometime in the next few weeks.

“Every vote must be counted,” said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum in a statement yesterday. “Workers at Amazon endured a needlessly long and aggressive fight to unionize their workplace, with Amazon doing everything it could to spread misinformation and deceit.”

It is hard to overstate the obstacles workers in New York and Alabama faced to get this far. In addition to Amazon’s inordinately high turnover rate, a menace for building sustained shop-floor organization, Department of Labor filings released yesterday show that Amazon spent $4.3 million on union-busting consultants, a startling amount for any company. Usually, it takes even megacorporations years to rack up that kind of a bill with the specialists in the uniquely American industry of professional anti-union experts. Many of the consultants leading captive-audience meetings and otherwise crafting Amazon’s war on organizing were paid $3,200 per day.

On Staten Island, workers said union busters were a regular presence at JFK8. They wrote the scripts for meetings and shaped the anti-union messaging that papered the warehouse’s bathroom stalls and hallways and that was also sent to workers via mailings, Instagram ads, phone calls, text messages, and videos projected on screens inside the facility. ALU, for its part, is clear about workers’ demands: a $30-an-hour minimum wage, increases in paid time off and vacation days, paid breaks during the day, union representation at any disciplinary meetings, and greater support for childcare.

While it is certainly easier to organize a union in New York than in Alabama, leaders of the union drive faced nothing less than arrests for their efforts, with the NYPD taking ALU president Christian Smalls, along with workers Brett Daniels and Jason Anthony, into custody on February 23 of this year, after Amazon called the cops on Smalls for supposed trespassing. Judging by today’s vote, those efforts backfired, making Amazon appear more repressive and hypocritical than ever in workers’ eyes.

The JFK8 effort is notable for another reason, too. ALU is independent and not affiliated with any existing union. Smalls, the union’s founder, is unique, too. He was first thrown into labor organizing when, in the early days of the pandemic, he helped organize a protest outside of JFK8 in response to what he saw as inadequate health and safety measures taken by Amazon while COVID-19 tore through New York City. In response, the company fired him, and leaked recordings revealed that Amazon’s top brass had sought a smear campaign against him, with Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky describing Smalls as “not smart or articulate” in a meeting with Jeff Bezos.

That characterization incensed Smalls, who has long noted the lack of black employees in even low-level management positions at Amazon — he himself was denied promotions for years — as evidence that racism is built into the company. It led him, as he told me over the summer, to try to “make them eat those words.”

This was someone fired in a deeply personal, highly public way, who took the resentment he felt for what his employer did to him and directed it toward fighting back. In light of today’s victory, Smalls’s explanation of how he made sense of his transformation from a non-activist into a militant, someone dead set on organizing JFK8, is worth quoting at length:

It’s funny because I say this all the time: Amazon prepared me for this. Even though I wasn’t a manager, I was doing the job of a manager for the last four and a half years. The leadership principles that I had at Amazon made it easier for me to transition over to the activism that I’m doing.

I’m using a lot of the principles that I learned at Amazon against them. My favorite one is “have a backbone and commit.” They hated the fact that I use that all the time. But it’s probably why I never got promoted: I had a backbone, I stood up for what I thought was right, and I’m committing to seeing change. Another principle is “see it, own it, fix it,” which is probably one of my original principles — I saw the issues, I owned up to it, and now I’m trying to fix it.

Ironically, when they planned to smear me, they said they wanted to make me the face of the unionizing effort — those were their words. So, in a sense, I’m trying to make them eat those words. I don’t have anything else to do. I’m still unemployed — I can’t really get a job anywhere. This is my full-time job, and this time, I’m on a different team.

In the spring of 2021, Smalls began organizing his former coworkers by setting up base at a public bus stop outside JFK8 that many workers passed on their way to and from the facility. Others still employed at JFK8 joined the effort: Derrick Palmer, for instance, who was previously supervised by Smalls at JFK8 and who has worked at Amazon for six years. The group organized cookouts, handed out literature, spread their message on social media apps like TikTok, and built an organizing committee inside the facility.

Amazon kept up a steady stream of propaganda against the effort, but ALU kept going, too. As Labor Notes reported, the twenty-five-person organizing committee countered management’s message, phone banking and sitting in the warehouse’s break room, talking over workers’ concerns. Now, they have won the first Amazon union in the United States. While today calls for celebration of their historic victory, the union faces another election starting April 25 at LDJ5, an Amazon sortation center on Staten Island that employs approximately 1,500 workers.

ALU’s approach goes against much of what passes as common sense within the labor movement. ALU had little in the way of paid staff, they filed for an election with far fewer union cards than is recommended in the labor world, they had one lawyer up against Amazon’s army of legal experts, and they have no experience negotiating a contract. Yet ALU insisted that this was an advantage, given employers’ tried-and-true method of what’s called “third-partying” a union, which is when the boss paints a union as an outside entity rather than one composed of the workers themselves. Although this is textbook propaganda and workers routinely counter it by noting that unions are driven by those on the shop floor themselves — explaining that no matter what flaws existing unions may have, it is up to workers to vote on contracts or reject them, to elect bargaining committees and shop stewards — ALU’s independent character allowed JFK8 workers to sidestep the boss’s argument entirely.

Images from the first day of the NLRB vote count in Brooklyn yesterday underscored the David-and-Goliath character of the fight between the independent union and one of the world’s most powerful companies. In one, taken by Vice’s Lauren Kaori Gurley, who has covered the ALU effort from the beginning, ALU leaders stand outside the NLRB building, arms around one another. In another, Smalls stands alone, saying of Amazon’s lawyers in the vote count room, “I love watching them squirm. They’re drinking mad water.”

With this historic victory comes the next challenge for ALU: winning a first contract. In a statement released by Amazon today, the company says that it is “disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”

“We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election,” the statement concludes.

In the United States, employers stalling at the bargaining table is the rule — some studies show that fewer than half of bargaining units reach a first contract within a year of unionizing. Amazon is the vanguard of anti-unionism and employer dictatorship, and so the likelihood of it engaging in such resistance is high. That is why it waged a war on these fledging union efforts: Amazon knows as well as workers do that once employees at one location organize, it sets a precedent and inspires workers elsewhere. After all, just look at Starbucks.

The broader union movement will need to recalibrate its assumptions about organizing Amazon given ALU’s win, as well as offer solidarity to the workers as they shift into the fight for recognition and a first contract. Distance and tensions between ALU and other unions are real, and they won’t go away overnight. But it will take the full cooperation of the labor movement to spread ALU’s victory to Amazon’s hundreds of US facilities. The company employs more than one million people across the country — that’s without counting the many drivers and other workers employed indirectly through third parties — and that number is only increasing as Amazon, currently the country’s second-largest private employer, enfolds an ever-growing portion of the economy.

Amazon is an empire, with sprawling operations that exert an influence on workers in countless industries. There are so many arms: Whole Foods, where Amazon aggressively monitors potential organizing and where there are early-stage efforts at unionization; Amazon Fresh, where workers at one location in Seattle have already begun organizing; the legions of Amazon’s white-collar workers, some of whom have been fired for their organizing and who have a host of workplace issues, even if their conditions are a world away from those at JFK8; the delivery workforce, whose pay is far below that of their unionized counterparts at UPS and whose very existence undermines industry standards.

These organizing efforts in Amazon warehouses matter for all of us, existing as we do within a spreading system of surveillance and control pioneered by Amazon. The win at JFK8 is just a foot in the door. But most everyone said workers couldn’t get this far, that such campaigns would come to nothing, that Amazon was too big to take on until the labor movement was much, much stronger. Those considerations weren’t unfounded, but they weren’t entirely correct either. So long as Amazon exists, it must be organized. There is no way around it, and there are workers taking on that task. Now is the time to learn from them. It is imperative that they succeed.