In Staten Island’s JFK8 Amazon warehouse, the impossible has happened. The Amazon Labor Union, established in 2020 by former employee Chris Smalls, won a union certification vote and defying all odds.
On April 1 of this year, the vote was held with the union winning 2,654 votes over Amazon’s 2,131 against unionization. While the National Labor Relations Board will give Amazon until April 22 to file complaints with evidence regarding electoral issues, the vote is historic after previous efforts in Bessemer failed twice. If Amazon does not produce sufficient evidence of vote tampering, the NLRB will certify the union, making it the first official Amazon union.
How did this happen? The struggle has been ongoing for a couple of years now, when organizer Chris Smalls was fired in 2020 while leading a walkout at the Staten Island warehouse, with Amazon citing social distancing policies. Ironically, Smalls led the walkout to protest conditions workers feared would lead to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Smalls launched the Amazon Labor Union shortly thereafter, and continued agitating with workers that favored unionizing. Amazon pulled out every stop to crush this effort. Targeting Smalls, Amazon sought to portray him as an immoral lawbreaker and felt that Smalls would be a good face for the movement because they felt he was not articulate enough to draw support.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” David Zaplosky said in an internal memo.
Evidently, this approach failed as the union won certification and Smalls now enjoys over 100 thousand followers on Twitter. Apparently, he was able to get his point across just fine.
Amazon management and corporate suits desperately pleaded with workers to vote against unionizing, spreading anti-union propaganda throughout the workplace, scaring workers into thinking a union would reduce their pay and arresting organizers for distributing food.
Efforts went beyond the workplace, with Amazon mailing its workers with messages praising JFK8’s diversity and opportunity. It even purchased sponsored ads on social media to promote a no vote on the unionization referendum.
The vote is not the end, however. Amazon has expressed their discontent with the results, saying they prefer working with individuals rather than unions and that they plan to sue the NLRB for alleged interference in the elections. Amazon is going to continue suppressing efforts to unionize elsewhere, even creating a long and bizarre list of banned words and phrases for its official work communication app, including “union,” “grievance,” “restrooms” and “fire.”
Of course, the union will also have to engage in collective bargaining for new contracts with Amazon. This will be difficult due to Amazon’s plentiful resources dedicated to fighting against bargaining efforts. A mandatory anti-union meeting told workers that unions and bosses were not legally required to come to an agreement, meaning a contract may be put on hold indefinitely so long as Amazon can afford to suspend operations at the warehouse.
While it is not certain what will come next, this victory shifts the current dynamic between labor and capital. Labor has been gaining some recognition and power since the COVID-19 pandemic allowed many workers to reconsider their work in what some have called the “Great Resignation.” While the end of expanded benefits introduced during the pandemic may shift the workplace dynamic back slightly, it is clear that for many American workers, there is no going back to a pre-pandemic normal.