On April 1 2022, an Amazon facility in Staten Island became the first in the company’s history to vote in favor of unionization. Amazon Labor Union has been advocating for the unionization of workers across the corporation since April 2021 and has now been chosen to represent the employees of Amazon facility JFK8 with over 2,600 votes. Amazon Labor Union’s success in unionizing where older and more established unions have all failed—and despite the best efforts of a company worth $1.5 trillion—opens the door to immense potential, both for unionization within Amazon but also for a fundamental reshaping of the current bureaucratic union model.
This comes after years of nationwide reports regarding Amazon’s poor labor conditions, from complaints of limited and hyper-regulated bathroom breaks, to rates of serious injuries that nearly double those of other warehouses, to an approach towards Covid-19 completely lacking in transparency and failing to meet adequate health standards. Since 2018, numerous workers have reported feeling obligated to urinate in bottles, rather than abandon their work to use the bathroom. Moreover, Amazon has a history of discouraging worker organization, including busting unions by threatening lower pay or firing those who attempted to fight for better rights. This spring, The Intercept exposed Amazon’s plan to flag and suppress keywords that might pertain to unionization on its internal communications platform, such as union, plantation, fire, compensation, petition, diversity, slave, freedom, and restrooms. In fact, Amazon Labor Union was only founded after its leader, Christian Smalls, was fired after organizing a walkout and rallying in protest of Amazon’s poor response to Covid-19.
For over two decades, now, Amazon has avoided and suppressed a number of unionization efforts, closing a call center after 400 of its workers attempted to unionize in 2000, hiring a lawyer to subdue union activity in Delaware in 2004, using its human resources team and retaliatory tactics to deter unionization in Virginia in 2015, and pushing strong public relations campaigns and long meetings opposing unions in Alabama in 2021. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and unions such as Communications Workers of America, United Food and Commercial Workers, The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Teamsters have all pushed Amazon for more humane conditions or attempted to unionize workers. Yet between settlements which change very few systemic aspects of workplace environments and failed unionization efforts, they have not succeeded in guaranteeing long term rights to workers.
Workers have complained that most unions, as they function now, require that workers in any given company undertake the task of attempting to join, which requires a certain level of initial capital that makes unionization difficult. While large unions like The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) do allocate funding exclusively for worker organizations, their budget for doing so has dropped by nearly 30 percent in the past decade and now composes less than 10 percent of the union’s total budget. Moreover, likely due to the top-down bureaucratic models seen in most unions, workers have historically felt that unions fail to adequately represent them when taking action. In 2020, former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka reported a total annual salary of $286,229, more than five times the amount the average unionized worker made in 2019. There is an extreme gap between those leading large unions and those being served by them. Even NLRB, a union-adjacent regulation agency, is composed of only five members nominated by the President, further separating them from the people they represent. This has, unsurprisingly, prompted disillusionment with the process entirely. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of workers in unions has declined significantly between 1983 and 2021, dropping from 20.1 percent to 10.3 percent, even though the percentage of workers who want to join unions has increased between 1995 and 2017, as per a study published in 2019.
The Amazon Labor Union, on the other hand, is smaller and democratically run, composed entirely of former and current Amazon workers. It specifically serves only the people it promises to, rather than a political party or source of profit. Though the ALU is now receiving support from larger organizations, such as the AFL-CIO, it maintains its independence from more corporate structures, distinguishing its success as a grassroots one. The ALU breaks from conventional union structure in another fundamental way: While most American unions were, arguably, built through racism—using discriminatory policies to exclude people of color from the workforce—the ALU was established by a diverse team of people who have experienced firsthand the intersectional effects of racism and classism. As such, when Amazon tried to use racism to break up a class-mobilization effort—a tactic employed by company executives for over a century—by saying ALU President Christian Smalls is “not smart or articulate,” it didn’t work. This movement was based on a diverse class solidarity.
So what exactly does the ALU’s success mean for the workers in facility JFK8, for Amazon employees generally, and for unions as a whole? The workers who voted for unionization likely won’t see any material benefits of doing so in the near future; Amazon is, unsurprisingly, contesting the election, and even if it is ruled valid, it will be a difficult and slow process for the ALU to make significant change. As of now, the ALU has eight demands of Amazon: that the company ensures paid time off for injured workers, creates a 7.5 percent inflation adjustment for the three lowest tiers of workers (from those at entry-level positions to process assistants), expands eligibility to become a Tier 2 worker, ends the overtime hour cap on part-time and flex associates, reinstates 20 minute breaks (rather than the current 15 minute ones), offers a private shuttle for Amazon workers, counts unpaid time off in minutes rather than hours, and allows ALU workers to share their side at anti-union meetings. More broadly, the union is looking to negotiate a new contract with Amazon management which pushes for “higher wages, better benefits, more time off, and safety protections.” Should the ALU be successful in their negotiation, these reforms wouldn’t radically change working conditions at JFK8, but they would make it a slightly safer and more humane environment and provide workers more of a say in the structure of their employment.
In a general sense, too, there is now a successful model to follow for all workers whose attempts to unionize have been repeatedly rebuffed, updated to current working conditions. According to Smalls, more than 100 Amazon facilities in the United States have contacted the ALU about unionizing since the April 1 election, and Amazon is by no means the only corporation with complaints of worker mistreatment. As of 2022, only 20 Starbucks locations (out of 6,500 licensed stores) have unionized, but that number is increasing, as Starbucks stores in over 30 states have recently filed to unionize. On April 18, 2022, workers at Apple’s Grand Central Terminal store in New York took the first steps to form a union, a move that, if successful, would make them Apple’s first union. In March 2022, Google Fiber workers in Kansas City, MO voted in favor of unionization, the first to do so under the Alphabet Workers Union, which was launched in January 2021.
The JFK8 decision comes during a wave of union successes and presents the potential for a monumental increase in grassroots advocacy across the nation. It perhaps even represents a chance to restore and rebuild the union model, creating organization geared towards mobilization.