Amazon workers start own union; take on Amazon; win


AMAZON COULDN’T STOP CHRIS SMALLS. Every time they tried to he came back stronger and bolder. Now he and the other close to 5000 workers at the Amazon fulfillment centre on Staten Island, New York have a union. Their own union. The one Smalls and his work mate Gerald Bryson started by themselves two years ago. The one Amazon said was not worth worrying about. The only union ever to beat Amazon in the USA.

Convincing union win

The election wasn’t close. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) got 2,654 yes votes; 523 more than the 2,131 no votes.  It is a big, big win for working folks.

Amazon 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 with the in-your-face ALU. The company has until April 8 to dispute the results.

“Amazon wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts against them,” Smalls tweeted as the results came in on April 1. “Welp there you go! Welcome the 1st union in America for Amazon.”

Smalls and Bryson had little money and limited support from organized labour. They had no playbook to follow, so they made up their own.

Smalls used tactics like tweeting photos of Amazon consultants he deemed “union-busters,” encouraging employees to disrupt the company’s anti-union meetings inside the warehouse and spendng long hours handing out literature in the facility’s parking lot.

They kept it up for two years. Amazon fired them both. They kept organizing.

No question of quitting

Smalls started going straight at Amazon in 2020, when he helped organize a walkout at the JFK8 facility, after colleagues began calling in sick and showing up with COVID-19 symptoms.

Amazon told Smalls to stay home. They said he had possibly been in contact with an infected colleague. Smalls showed up for a rally and was fired. He filed 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 while leafleting workers at JFK8 parking lot. He was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration.

“I say what I say and that’s what got me here,” Smalls told Bloomberg News before the election. “The same thing with the union: It represents what the workers want to say.”

Amazon also fired Bryson for allegedly using offensive language while legally leafleting outside the workplace.

Members surveyed

The ALU hasn’t yet set out a detailed agenda of what it will expect in its first contract with Amazon. But it has surveyed workers to ask about their priorities and expectation. Among them:

  • bringing back monthly productivity bonuses the company eliminated in 2018,

  • giving hourly workers Amazon stock and

  • almost doubling the average starting wage from the current $18 to $30 raising pay to $30 an hour

Labor experts expect the victory in New York to galvanize labor activists and workers at Amazon and beyond.

Unions on a roll

“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.”

“Nothing helps workers decide to vote yes like seeing other workers win,” says leading union organizer Jane McAlevey “which is just one of many reasons this victory is so important.”

Even before the Amazon upset, there were a number of high-profile union election wins in the USA, with sub-contracted Google Fiber staff in Missouri, sales employees at REI in New York, tech workers at the New York Times and baristas at Starbucks cafes in New York, Arizona and the company’s Seattle hometown.

The ALU will get a second opportunity to extend it first victory on April 25, when workers at another Amazon facility in Staten Island start voting on whether or not to join the ALU. Smalls is also hoping to win approval to hold union elections at two more Amazon facilities in the New York borough.

Amazon workers celebrate their win

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