In a historic feat, Amazon workers in a Staten Island fulfillment center have voted to unionize with the Amazon Labor Union. Friday’s 2,654-2,131 vote makes JFK8 the first Amazon warehouse in the country to unionize. The news is made even more remarkable by Amazon’s commitment to crushing the union drive.
Amazon tried everything. When Chris Smalls first led a walkout at his Staten Island fulfillment center in 2020, protesting unsafe conditions on the job, Amazon fired him and then tried to smear him. “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,” Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky wrote in notes from a meeting with fellow executives. When Smalls and Amazon workers formed the independent Amazon Labor Union to organize the Staten Island facility where he once worked, Amazon resorted to familiar union-busting tactics. But on Friday, Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union persevered.
A warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, could become the second to unionize after the National Labor Relations Board finishes counting challenged ballots in a do-over election. Although the nos lead in Bessemer now, the challenged ballots will be determinative — meaning there are enough of them to potentially change the outcome of the election. If this happens, workers in Alabama will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU. The Amazon Labor Union is not affiliated with any other union, having been formed by Smalls and NYC-based Amazon workers explicitly to unionize a collection of Amazon facilities on Staten Island.
The odds didn’t favor the Amazon Labor Union. Amazon can and does dedicate millions of dollars to its union-busting efforts, and its willingness to violate labor laws can put unions at a disadvantage. RWDSU discovered this last year, after its first effort to unionize the Bessemer facility failed at election. Yet Amazon’s tactics may be beginning to backfire. The NLRB ordered a second election in Bessemer over the company’s aggressive and even illegal tactics; this year, the margins are much closer, which is why the challenged ballots are determinative. In Staten Island, its campaign against Smalls and his comrades made a persuasive case for unionization. The company even had Smalls and two others arrested for delivering food to its workers. The message was impossible to misunderstand: Challenge us and we’ll crush you.
Workers apparently didn’t like what they heard or saw. And so they voted to unionize, despite Amazon’s money and power and threats. ALU’s success will generate much discussion within the labor movement, and it should. The scrappy new union prevailed where conventional wisdom suggests it should have failed. It lacks the infrastructure or organizing experience associated with unions like RWDSU. Yet its tailored focus on the JFK8 warehouse evidently paid off and, in the process, created a model that could be replicated elsewhere by ALU, an established union, or other independent unions that have yet to form.
In a statement released after the ballots were tallied, Amazon said it was “disappointed” by the results of the election “because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.” It added, “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
ALU’s work is far from done. American labor law is weak, and employers much smaller than Amazon can drag out contract fights for years. ALU has embarrassed Amazon, and the company will likely rely on familiar tactics to stall the process of bargaining its first contract as long as it can. Even so, it won’t be able to stave off progress forever. The company may be a behemoth, but it has weaknesses, and workers can defeat it if they organize.
This piece has been updated to include comment from Amazon.