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Stunning Amazon upset

S.I. union victory shows retail giant can be ‘prime’ organizing target
New York Teacher
Stunning Amazon upset
Courtesy of the White House

President Joe Biden met with Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls (above) and other grassroots union organizers at the White House on May 5. Smalls seized the opportunity to ask Biden to press Amazon leaders to recognize the union and begin negotiations on a first contract.

Stunning Amazon upset
Erica Berger

Amazon Labor Union organizer Mat Cusick (right) talks to a fellow organizer outside Amazon’s LDJ5 warehouse on Staten Island on April 20.

When employees at Amazon’s largest Staten Island warehouse successfully voted to unionize on April 1, it was a David-stuns-Goliath story for the social-media age.

The world’s sixth-largest company, with 1.1 million employees in the United States alone, was laid low by 33-year-old Christian Smalls, who had been fired two years earlier for leading a walkout at the warehouse to protest inadequate COVID-19 safety protections.

Amazon’s chief counsel privately described Smalls, who founded the Amazon Labor Union, as “not smart or articulate.” Earlier this year, the company called him a disgruntled ex-employee dismissed for violating its safety protocols. Smalls, who organized the walkout after a co-worker with COVID-related symptoms was not sent home, scoffed at that characterization: “How could I be in violation of policies that didn’t exist?”

Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York Graduate Center, called the 2,654 to 2,131 vote to unionize at the JFK8 warehouse “an important piece of a growing wave” of labor victories across the country in the wake of growing inequality cast in sharp relief by COVID.

Amazon is a ripe target for organizing not only because of its size but also due to its treatment of its workers. Unreasonable work quotas, strictly enforced limits on breaks, surveillance technology that tracks employees’ every move and little chance for advancement have produced a 150% annual turnover rate nationwide.

Smalls’ initial attempt to force a union election failed in November 2021 when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) informed him he had failed to get valid signatures from 30% of the workers at the warehouse — the minimum needed to trigger a vote. “Nearly half of the workers that were signed up had been terminated,” Smalls explained.

Amazon aggressively fought the unionization drive. The company spent $4 million over the past year on consultants specializing in captive-audience meetings that JFK8 warehouse employees had to attend about the pitfalls of unionizing.

Smalls, shunning aid from larger unions, relied on a GoFundMe drive, social media and knowledge honed over five years working for Amazon, some as a night-shift supervisor who knew most employees.

He sought to build a sense of community with the workers. He distributed books and clothing to employees outside the warehouse for weeks and paid $100 for an ailing worker’s ride to a hospital. He provided catered and home-cooked meals for “luncheons multiple times a week,” he said, some cooked on a barbecue grill just outside the facility.

In a tactical blunder, Amazon management had Smalls arrested for trespassing while delivering meals to a breakroom at JFK8 on Feb. 23, 30 days before the voting began. NYPD officers also cuffed two employees who were among the organizers.

The organizing drive was a team effort, and union activists made up for whatever resources they lacked in zeal for the cause. Organizers sometimes slept in their cars at the site, according to Mat Cusick, who became a package scanner to be part of the organizing drive. The activists also were “embedded” at the company’s captive-audience meetings and sharply questioned the Amazon consultants to expose their false statements, Cusick said.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at the union’s April Delegate Assembly that he was impressed. “What I loved about their campaign was that they had their plan and they weren’t going to let anyone else tell them to do it differently,” he said.

The JFK8 vote coincided with a rerun election at a large Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The NLRB called the new election after concluding that Amazon’s improper tactics — including surveillance cameras trained on the workers who voted — tainted the one-sided 2021 vote against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The RWDSU lost this second vote, albeit much more narrowly.

Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations said Smalls “ran a close-to-perfect campaign” by tapping into the issues that workers at JFK8 most cared about.

Smalls also benefited from Staten Island being the highest-density labor county in New York State, state Sen. Diane Savino said, while the RWDSU was organizing in hostile territory in Alabama, a right-to-work state steeped in anti-labor traditions.

Hopes that the victory at JFK8 would ripple to a nearby smaller warehouse in the Amazon complex on Staten Island were dispelled 31 days later, however, when employees at LDJ5 voted 618-380 against joining the ALU.

Amazon spent $15 million stoking anti-union sentiment in that campaign, Savino noted.

Freeman, the CUNY labor historian, said the union’s chances at LDJ5 were hurt by the fact that most workers there are part-timers.

“The union is good so we don’t get randomly fired,” said one warehouse worker five days before voting began. “But right now, I’m thinking I’m going to vote no, because I don’t plan to stay in the job long.”

Bronfenbrenner said comments like that one reflect a common attitude among those Amazon workers expecting to move on: “It’s not going to affect me, so why bother?”

Smalls said he is seeking a $30 hourly wage and an end to the productivity quotas for workers at JFK8 in the first contract.

Freeman and fellow labor historian Ed Ott said Smalls would face his biggest challenge getting the company to the bargaining table.

In its first of what are expected to be many stalling tactics, Amazon has challenged the union vote results at JFK8, claiming the NLRB improperly interfered in the election.

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