Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Amazon union workers won in New York – can they win across the country?

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The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) achieved a historic victory on April 1 when it became the first-ever union to successfully organize Amazon workers. Christian Smalls, a fired employee motivated by what he considered ill-treatment, dragged his colleagues through the process and received just enough votes in January 2022 to qualify for a formal election. On Friday, workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse voted to unionize, 2,654 to 2,131.

It was a hard-fought victory, after years of work, and union activists already hope to apply the same tactic to the hundreds of thousands of Amazon warehouse workers across the rest of the country. After the RWDSU stumbled in the Bessemer elections last year, the newly formed Amazon Labor Union is pointing another way forward — forcing Amazon to take a hard second look at working conditions in many of its fulfillment centers.

The ALU developed its own script early on. Instead of knocking on colleagues’ doors, the organizers have camped near the warehouse, handing out literature, answering questions, and sharing news stories about how much Amazon spent on things like corporate salaries and employment consultants. They changed course when they had to, focusing on just two NYC warehouses, JFK8 and LDJ5, and using social media videos to make aware. They even had telephone banks, call all workers entitled to vote in elections.

More importantly, organizers say Amazon underestimated their determination. In an interview with The edgeGerald Bryson, the ALU’s sergeant-at-arms, said the company had a dismissive attitude toward him and his fellow organizers. He repeatedly referred to Amazon representatives calling them unspoken “criminals,” behavior cited in a lawsuit by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Another key difference between the successful Staten Island action and the hitherto failed union action in Bessemer, Alabama: ALU was independent and the organization of the Bessemer was done in coordination with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an 85 year-old union that already represents thousands of workers. The Amazon Labor Union is an independent organization, not affiliated with any established union.

“I wouldn’t say they won because they were an independent union,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Rutgers University. “But they certainly proved that an indie union with little infrastructure and resources could do this.”

Bryson is confident that the ALU will continue to make progress. Part of his confidence comes from the trust he puts in Chris Smalls. “For everything they said about Chris, he has a heart of gold. We all sit down and we listen to each other – no decision you hear coming out of his mouth is just Chris.”

Bryson told The edge that the founders of ALU were interested in expanding, but it will be difficult to recreate the same approach that worked at JFK8. “It’s a little tricky,” he said of working with facilities in several states. “The labor laws we use here may not apply as much elsewhere.”

Unlike Alabama, New York has a strong union tradition that many of the workers were probably familiar with, said James Williams, Jr., general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT). “If you break that” [Amazon] armor, you’re going to break it in places where there’s union density,” Williams, Jr. said. “If your neighbor is a foreman, or member of the food and commercial workers’ union, and you hear them talking about their pensions, their benefits, their livelihood, then you already have an idea of ​​what unions can do and how they benefit workers.”

Givan agreed, saying that workers who know someone in a union can challenge a company’s anti-union rhetoric. “They can say, ‘Wait a minute, we had great health insurance when I was a kid because of my mom’s union job,'” she said, while workers who have little experience with a union don’t have the same context.

But even the ALU organizers tried to dispel misconceptions about unions, Bryson said. He asked a colleague who was absolutely against unions what they knew about unions. The answer? “I know they killed Jimmy Hoffa,” Bryson was told. “That wasn’t the answer I expected,” Bryson laughed.

In addition to three other Staten Island warehouses, ALU organizers say they have Amazon employees in more than a dozen states who also want to organize. There are large areas of the country where unions are not well established, but Amazon has warehouses almost everywhere where there are potential customers, so the ALU may need to adjust its tactics to reach those employees.

Looking to the future of union organizing in general, not just at Amazon, Givan said we’re likely to see more smaller, agile organizations trying to emulate the ALU playbook, even as the final chapters are yet to be written. Another thing we’re seeing, she says, is people who are already politically aligned and want to organize jobs at places like Amazon or Starbucks specifically to start union campaigns.

She also noted that younger organizers have a different set of tools than their predecessors. While it’s still better to have one-on-one communication between co-workers, she said employees are public on social media that they’re pro-union shows that they’re not being harassed, a strong message to send.

The battle for the ALU is just beginning; it must now begin negotiations with Amazon, a company known for its distaste for unions and its willingness to use union-breaking tactics. The ALU will need to bring the same determination to the next – and arguably more difficult – part of the process: getting Amazon to sign a contract.

“So they have to get organized and they have to be ready to strike,” Williams said. This is not the time to relax, he added; the organizers of the ALU have to fight just as hard for a contract as they do for an election. “That is the key to organizing: getting the employer to the table.”


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