Politics

How Amazon Employees Won Their First Union

A team of workers in Staten Island faced down one of the fiercest anti-union corporation companies in the U.S.—and succeeded.

A crowd of Amazon workers and organizer stand together with signs
Amazon workers and Christian Smalls, in red, celebrate the vote to unionize a Staten Island facility on April 1. Andrea Renault/AFP via Getty Images

It’s rare to call a unionization victory historic, but it’s hard to avoid calling this week’s win at a giant, 8,000-employee Amazon warehouse in Staten Island anything but that.

Amazon is an American juggernaut, a hugely powerful corporation that is the nation’s second largest private employer, with nearly one million workers. It is also one of the fiercest anti-union companies in the United States. Not one of its facilities in the country has been unionized—until now.

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Much like the first union victory at a corporate-owned Starbucks—which happened last December in Buffalo—the union win in Staten Island will inspire many workers and many more unionization drives, at Amazon and elsewhere. Indeed, the unionization effort in Staten Island must have gotten some momentum and lift from the union wave spreading across the U.S., not just at Starbucks, but at REI and the Art Institute of Chicago and among New York Times tech workers and elsewhere.

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The effort was led by Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, both of whom worked at the Staten Island Amazon fulfillment center. Palmer still works there, but Smalls was fired from the job in March 2020 after he led a protest outside the warehouse, asserting that Amazon was not doing enough to protect workers from Covid, including not having adequate social distancing. As its reason for firing Smalls, Amazon said he violated social distancing rules.

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Last year, when Smalls first set his sights on unionization, it looked like a quixotic venture.

He was creating a new union, the Amazon Labor Union, from scratch, and was raising money for the campaign through GoFundMe. It seemed like a mark of desperation. Moreover, Smalls was tilting his lance at a $470-billion-a-year giant, which was employing an army of anti-union consultants, some of whom were paid $3,200 a day.

But it turns out that Smalls had many things going for him. The pandemic helped his union drive: Amazon’s business, revenues and profits boomed during the pandemic, and Jeff Bezos’ net worth soared by tens of billions of dollars. Amazon employees in Staten Island and elsewhere felt they were working harder and faster than ever, but weren’t sharing adequately in Amazon’s increased profits. Many viewed unionization as a way to get a fairer deal and make their high-stress jobs less unpleasant.

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It didn’t help that Bezos took a rocket ship into space in the summer of 2021, making Amazon workers think he had billions of dollars to waste—money they thought could have gone to higher wages. Celebrating the union’s victory on Friday, Smalls said, “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there, we were organizing a union.”

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From the beginning, Smalls deliberately took a different tack than traditional unions. He wanted to show that he and his team of organizers—current and former Amazon workers—knew Amazon through and through, and that he and the other organizers knew what Amazon workers wanted.

Smalls boasted that his effort would succeed even though a union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama failed last year, because the Staten Island effort was led by current and former Amazon workers and included few outsider organizers. Many employees, including Palmer, vigorously talked up unionizing inside the break room and during lunch. They also distributed literature in the workplace and wore pro-union T-shirts. Palmer and others showed a fearlessness that encouraged their coworkers to speak up and show their pro-union colors publicly.

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The Staten Island effort also found a handy location to reach out to workers: a bus stop just outside the warehouse. Many Staten Island Amazon workers take public buses to work so Smalls and the other organizers had easy access to them, frequently talking to people as they were coming and going from shifts.  That was far different from the Amazon Bessemer warehouse—and many other workplaces—where organizers can have a hard time getting a word with workers, except by visiting their homes. Companies often prohibit organizers from setting foot on company property, including parking lots.

Amazon employed a dour, the-union-is-bad message, while the union had a winning, hopeful message. The union promised to seek longer rest breaks and minimum pay of $30 an hour, up from the current $18 minimum. In contrast, Amazon repeatedly warned workers that their wages and benefits could decrease if they voted to unionize. But with the nation’s jobless rate low and wages rising across the country, Amazon’s warnings looked dark and disingenuous.

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In February, Amazon unwittingly helped turned Smalls into a hero and martyr when it had the police arrest him as he was delivering lunch to some workers at the Staten Island warehouse. By then, the union drive was in many ways a popularity contest, and the union had already won.

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Smalls and his fellow organizers were cool and likable, fighting the Amazon beast, raging against the Bezos machine. They made the union fun, posting pro-union TikTok messages, having picnics and parties, and delivering free pizzas to the warehouse’s breakroom.  Meanwhile, many workers saw Amazon, despite its comparatively good benefits, as a harsh taskmaster that made employees do very repetitive jobs, rapidly, day after day, with constant monitoring and computer apps often warning about small infractions.

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When push came to shove, the workers saw an attractive way to seek change: unionizing. According to results the National Labor Relations Board released on Friday, Amazon’s Staten Island employees cast 2,654 votes to be represented by the Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 against, giving the union a win by more than 10 percentage points.

This historical union victory bucked several tides. Unions rarely win organizing drives at large factories, stores or warehouses against aggressively anti-union companies like Amazon, Walmart or Target. And in a nation where the percentage of workers in unions has declined from one in three in the 1950s to one in five in the 1980s to one in ten now, the tide has been ebbing for organized labor.

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But now we are perhaps seeing a shift. The historic union win in Staten Island and  the string of highly publicized union wins at Starbucks—plus a revote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer that is too close to call (challenged ballots still to be counted could deliver victory to either side)—are all examples of courage and determination that are giving many unionization efforts energy and publicity. Some labor experts talk of a possible new pro-labor surge.

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Young Americans are helping power these efforts. A recent Gallup poll found that 77 percent of young Americans (between ages 18 and 34) approve of unions.  Undergraduate student workers are unionizing at Dartmouth, Wesleyan and Grinnell. So are thousands of grad students and adjunct professors. Thousands of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in newsrooms, museums, and non-profit organizations are also unionizing. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Joe Biden is a pro-union president, helping improve the atmosphere for organizing.

What happened in Staten Island this week shows that change is in the air. The big question now is: Can America’s unions, and its workers overall, somehow seize on the moment and turn this into a bigger wave?

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