Oct 8, 2020 Sunnyvale / CA / USA - headquarters in Silicon Valley, San Francisco bay area

Resounding Amazon Employee Victory: New Era?

Workers at an Amazon distribution center in Staten Island, New York, celebrate victory in a referendum to decide whether or not to unionize staff on April 1, 2022. 

When a militant group of employees and former employees at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse decided to promote the formation of a union at Amazon, many compared it to a battle between David and Goliath.

Friday’s stunning victory in an election to decide whether or not to unionize focused attention on the people behind this monumental enterprise, which defeated a giant company, accomplishing something that much more established union entities, including Retail Wholesale, hadn’t. and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which had its hopes of organizing workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama dashed. The rejection of the union in that consultation has 118 votes ahead and there are still 416 votes that have been questioned.

Chris Smalls, a laid-off Amazon employee who leads the nascent Amazon Labor Union (ALU), questioned RWDSU’s strategy and opted to go it alone, convinced it would be much more effective to get workers to organize themselves, detracting from to Amazon’s thesis that unionization was promoted by “third parties”.

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

Both the ALU and the RWDSU were rowing against the current, confronting a very powerful company, which had so far resisted any effort by its employees to unionize. ALU, on the other hand, had far fewer funds and staff than RWDSU.


Smalls said that by early March, ALU had spent the $100,000 he had raised for his campaign and was living overnight. The group had no offices and depended on the help of two neighborhood organizations and two unions that lent a hand. He received legal advice from an attorney who did not charge.

Amazon, meanwhile, used every resource at its disposal to defeat the proposal. He organized regular mandatory meetings where he hammered home the notion that the union was a bad idea. The company revealed last week that it spent $4.2 million last year on labor consultants, which organizers say Amazon hired to talk workers out of unionizing.

With no funds at their disposal, Smalls and the other activists exploited their ability to connect with workers in a more personal way, through TikTok videos, offering free marijuana, and hosting barbecues and meetups. A few weeks before the election, an aunt of Smalls organized a potluck with whatever people brought: macaroni and cheese, collard greens and baked chicken with ham. In another pro-union activity, an Amazon employee convinced a neighbor to make jollof rice, an African dish that activists thought would help them win over many immigrant employees.

Kate Andrias, a law professor at Columbia University and an expert on labor issues, stressed that, to be successful, a union has to be the product of the efforts of workers.

“This clearly showed it,” Andrias said. “The workers did it on their own.”

Some missteps by Amazon may have contributed to the Staten Island loss. Bert Flickinger III, chief executive of consultancy Strategic Resource Group, said leaked derogatory comments by an executive may have played a role. The executive in question described Smalls as “unintelligent or eloquent” and said he wanted to make him “the face of the entire union movement.”

“It stuck as a patronizing attitude and helped bring workers together,” said Flickinger, who advises large labor organizations.

In another example of the company’s mismanagement, Smalls and two other activists were arrested in February for breaking into Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse. ALU took advantage of the arrests in the days before the vote: With the collaboration of an artistic group, he placed a sign that said “YOUR CO-WORKERS ARRESTED” in the warehouse. Another sign read “THEY FIRED SOMEONE LIKE YOU.”

“A lot of workers who weren’t sure, and even some who were opposed to the union, voted for it because of that,” Smalls said.

Experts say it is difficult to know to what extent grassroots mobilization contributed to ALU’s victory, compared to RWDSU’s defeat. Unlike New York, Alabama is a state that prohibits a company and a union from signing a labor agreement that requires workers to pay a union dues.

In Alabama, on the other hand, the grassroots were also mobilized.

At a virtual news conference Thursday, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said the labor victory in New York was likely in part because it is a state that welcomes the cause of labor. , as staff voted in person, not by mail, as was done in Alabama.

ALU activists say Amazon workers from more than 20 states have contacted them about the possibility of organizing staff from other Amazon warehouses.

The people of ALU are preparing to negotiate a collective agreement, but it is foreseeable that Amazon will delay that process and question the result of the vote in court.

“The priority now is to fight the contract,” Smalls said. “You have to start right away, because it is known that the longer things take, people lose hope and interest.”