It was never going to be easy.
When the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finished counting ballots cast by workers at LDJ5, Amazon’s Staten Island sorting center, the result was 380 votes for the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and 618 against. There were two voided ballots and zero challenged ballots, with a total of 1,633 eligible voters, making for a 61 percent turnout.
It’s a setback for the independent ALU, which won an NLRB election on April 1 at JFK8, the 8,325-person fulfillment center that sits just a few hundred feet away from LDJ5, making the warehouse the first unionized Amazon facility in the United States.
In the weeks since that vote was certified, the ALU says it has heard from workers at more than a hundred Amazon facilities across the country. Momentum is building when it comes to organizing the behemoth corporation, and today’s loss is unlikely to change that.
In light of the loss, it’s worth thinking about just how drastically things have changed in a few short years. Watching the results come in, I was reminded of my time at the Labor Notes conference in 2018. The left-labor gathering was packed with people newly won to socialist politics by the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, many of them in their teens and twenties, and conversation frequently turned to the idea of organizing Amazon.
At the time, sober minds, those with decades of rank-and-file union experience, generally warned against such a focus. They had good reason to do so: there are lots of warehouses with unions that have fallen into stagnation, and which could use the militancy and engagement socialists bring. And there are more feasible companies, smaller ones, where excited young organizers can make a difference and gain the experience they so desire.
That all made sense, but speaking with the young socialists who wanted to take on Amazon, it seemed beside the point. Call it romanticism or adventurism or foresight, I thought, they are going to do it regardless. Best to take them seriously.
What a world away we are from that now. Organizing Amazon is still an enormously uphill battle, as evidenced by today’s result. But it is one in which the gates have been pried open, and workers are launching campaigns, no matter the odds. The loss at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse last year did not demoralize people; to the contrary, several organizers from the ALU speak of that loss as galvanizing them to try to organize in their own backyards. I find it hard to imagine that today’s loss will be read differently.
As for the specifics of the LDJ5 result, there are a few things to note. While LDJ5’s organizers had the benefit of a fresh victory to point to, there were a number of factors making the campaign a heavy lift. The facility is overwhelmingly part-timers; LDJ5 workers say the composition of the warehouse is 80 percent part-time, 20 percent full-time. With workers coming and going, commuting from one job to the next, and more precarious and less tied to the facility, a union drive gets harder.
There is also the matter of capacity: the ALU focused its firepower on JFK8. It was right to do so: winning that campaign has inflamed workers across the country, both at Amazon and at countless other corporations, and a loss would’ve had larger implications. The ALU is a shoestring operation; it had to prioritize. But it was a trade-off: while the union was focused on JFK8, Amazon was already running daily captive-audience meetings at LDJ5. Though the ALU shifted its energy to LDJ5 within hours of winning JFK8, organizers say Amazon’s propaganda had already had some effect, and spread quickly within the comparatively smaller facility.
Further differences: while no Amazon job is easy, a job at a sorting center is generally less physically demanding than the famously grueling work of an Amazon fulfillment center employee.
“They’re not separate campaigns; we’re using the same playbook at LDJ5 as we did in JFK8,” explained Julian “Mitch” Mitchell-Israel, an LDJ5 worker and the ALU’s field director, when I asked him to compare the two shops.
But the conversations are a little different because, frankly, LDJ5 is a lot less harsh than JFK8. There’s more time spent pushing for the ideological side of the union, explaining to people why it’s not only about the material conditions here, it’s also about building power and a long-term structure to allow us to have a voice. So there’s more time spent contextualizing it within a larger worker-power movement in the US. That conversation was less present at JFK8.
In other words, it is an obstacle when the boss can point to a building across the street and say, “It’s worse there.” Unions are a key structure in which socialists can engage workers on broader ideological and political subjects, but concrete, specific workplace issues are the starting point. If union busters can monopolize the conversation to be about the relative ease of work compared to a facility across the street, that complicates things.
A final difference is the extent to which Amazon directed its union-busting apparatus at LDJ5 after the conclusion of the twin campaigns at JFK8 and in Bessemer. Mitchell-Israel joked that, on the day the ALU won at JFK8, Jeff Bezos woke up, “threw a vase at the wall, and said, ‘Take everything we have and put it in this tiny little building.’” Amazon flooded the shop with high-powered union busters, and workers say managers from Amazon facilities across the country came to the sorting center to assist in the scorched-earth campaign.
Seth Goldstein, the ALU’s lawyer, told Vice that he was “not surprised at this result with all the union busting that went on at LDJ5.” The union has filed more than forty unfair labor practice charges against Amazon, and Goldstein says that the union plans to contest the election. Per his statement to Vice: “They violated laboratory conditions in this election with mandatory anti-union meetings, and we’ve already got a whole series of charges against them.”
Amazon, meanwhile, has filed twenty-five objections to the JFK8 election and seeks to overturn the result, charging both the ALU and the NLRB itself with violating the required laboratory conditions. (Goldstein has called such allegations “patently absurd.”) All indications suggest that Amazon will continue to slow-walk and appeal the result at JFK8. Meanwhile, the ALU has demanded the company recognize the result and agree to bargaining dates this month, setting up a showdown between Amazon and JFK8’s workers. It will require the full support and solidarity of the broader labor movement if the union hopes to win a strong first contract.
It will also require the union campaigns to spread. Amazon will be bolstered in its intransigence by today’s result, further determined to defeat the JFK8 union and, in doing so, discourage organizing among the hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers across the country. JFK8’s workers need the company to feel pressure from far more worksites, much as is unfolding at Starbucks. There must be so many fires that the company cannot extinguish the one which has been lit on Staten Island.
There are signs of such a movement, that a growing number of workers are now determined to do what it takes to change their working conditions, inspired by the fearlessness on display among the ALU’s members. Just this week, Minnesota Amazon workers walked off the job to demand wage increases and time off for the Muslim holiday Eid. Workers at the Shakopee warehouse have been engaged in such fights for years, with some degree of success. There are fledgling union efforts in the making in North Carolina, and the Teamsters have jumped into the fray, bringing with them significant resources and thousands of members who already, by dint of their jobs, have ties to Amazon workers in their communities.
The fight to organize Amazon has been decades in the making, and it will be waged for years to come. As the ALU’s cofounder Derrick Palmer said today, “There’s no way we’re going to stop or let this bring us down. It’s going to do the complete opposite. We’re going to go ten times harder.” What a difference a few years can make.