Rising Up at Amazon

Against the Current, No. 218, May/June 2022

Dianne Feeley

Luis Feliz Leon, Amazon Labor Union

HAVING SPENT $4.3 million last year hiring union-busters, Amazon was unable to prevent workers at the 8,000 strong JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island from voting to form a union.

Already Amazon’s lawyers are hard at work, filing 25 objections about how the vote was conducted. But claiming that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) favored the union or that the union organizers bought votes by supplying pizzas and weed will do little more than slow down the certification process. Of course, that’s just what it’s intended to do at this stage of the game.

While Amazon seeks to delay certification and prevent the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) from securing a decent contract, the JFK8 workforce has wind in its sails after winning by more than 500 votes. The ALU Workers Committee won because of its one-by-one organizing model, then following up to ask those who joined to reach out and talk to their coworker friends and relatives.

The diversity of the organizers then consciously built those constantly expanding networks and supported their cultures. This enabled them to reach African American, Latinx, recent immigrants and differently-abled workers. While management operated by intimidating and humiliating workers, the committee welcomed their coworkers.

Young Worker-Organizers

Against the company’s attempt to portray the union as a “third party,” the committee was able to build a diverse group of young worker-organizers (average age: 26).

Many came from unionized households, including ALU president Christian Smalls, whose mother is an AFSCME member, and ALU workers’ committee chair Angela Maldonado, whose mother is a member of 1199. Others worked at unionized jobs before hiring in at Amazon.

The ALU made some bold moves to organize and win an election within a year. Its members busted into captive audience meetings and refused to leave even when the general manager reprimanded them. They spoke up when management misrepresented workers’ rights and showed how it was possible to stand up against Amazon’s intimidating tactics.

The worker-organizers were sure to be present everywhere — in the break room and on the public sidewalk by the bus stop. They maintained a presence 24/7. The union also took a gamble in filing for an election as soon as 30% of the workers signed up. Given Amazon’s yearly turnover rate of 150%, they decided waiting longer would result in losing their momentum.

In a crucial victory for all U.S. Amazon workers — currently numbering 750,000 — the NLRB reached an agreement just last December with Amazon. This settlement resulted from half a dozen complaints filed by Amazon workers in Chicago and Staten Island. Complaintants pushed back against Amazon’s intimidating tactics.

Before the agreement, workers were to leave the facility within 15 minutes of when their shift ended. They could not remain in the break room or parking lot to speak to their co-workers.

From the moment the decision was announced, the ALU set up a table in the break room and made sure it was staffed. This enabled the ALU organizers to hang out and talk union even on their days off.

Further, Amazon agreed to inform its work force that it would not discipline those engaged in union activity in non-work areas during their time off the clock, nor would they call the police. Everyone realized Amazon had been forced into the settlement. That also meant that if Amazon broke its agreement, the NLRB could bypass an administrative hearing and directly seek a court order.

Next Steps for ALU and Labor

Now that this worker-led union won the vote, the next stage is maintaining their boldness and acting as the union. That means drawing in the constant flow of new hires as well as those who feared that voting for the union would lead to being fired.

Amazon is the second largest U.S. employer, a fiercely anti-union corporation that takes in almost $400 billion in annual revenues. The average amount of time between a union’s certification and winning its first contract is three years. Amazon will use its power to delay. It may try various bribes and force a revote in a year, but this time hoping to defeat the union.

The stakes are high! The U.S. labor movement must back the ALU with resources that can cut through all the objections and sweet talking Amazon musters. At the same time, they need to help workers in the other 109 U.S. Amazon facilities utilize the relationship-building model ALU used.

Both the Communication Workers of America and Teamsters have indicated they are backing the ALU. Meanwhile, the ALU is actively organizing in a second, and much smaller, Amazon facility on Staten Island. Their election is scheduled for April 25.

According to Luis Feliz Leon’s Labor Notes article, “’They’re Playing Really Dirty’: Amazon Lashes Back in Staten Island Warehouses,” one of Amazon’s tactics is blaming an ALU organizer for the suicide of a coworker.

At the same time, the re-vote at Amazon’s  Bessemer, Alabama facility is still up in the air, with 875 workers voting for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), 993 against and 400 contested ballots.

Clearly Amazon hopes to stamp out or wait out this upsurge. Let’s make sure they can’t!

May-June 2022, ATC 218

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