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Faced with an unexpectedly strong organizing campaign by workers at one of its Staten Island warehouses, Amazon initially turned to one of the oldest tricks in the anti-union playbook: a little bit of racism.
Speaking about Christian Smalls, a warehouse employee who was fired after he led a walkout in March 2020, David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, said in leaked meeting notes, “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent that 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.”
Zapolsky believed Amazon could discredit the organizers if they made Smalls — who is young and Black, and has tattoos on his neck — “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
If that was the plan, it backfired.
On Friday, by a vote of 2,654 to 2,131, or 55 percent to 45 percent, the workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse — led by Smalls and a dedicated cadre of other organizers — voted to form a union. In winning this surprising victory, these workers have also dealt a blow to one of the most powerful, and most powerfully anti-union, companies in the United States.
What makes this all the more remarkable is the extent to which the Amazon Labor Union had no formal ties to (or assistance from) more established unions. This was the bottom-up triumph of an independent organization, something very rare in American labor history, especially in light of the size of the shop in question, with its thousands and thousands of workers organized into 24/7 coverage.
There has already been a wealth of commentary and reporting on the meaning of this win for organized labor, on the prospects for unionizing other Amazon warehouses and on the specifics of the organizing effort itself. To these, I would like to add a few observations about the structural factors that helped make this victory possible.
To start, there is the economy. Even with rising inflation, this is the strongest economy we’ve had for workers in at least a generation. Overall, in 2021 the United States added more than 6.4 million jobs to its economy, an all-time high. At the start of this year, the nation’s labor market was on track to recover from the pandemic three times as fast as it did from the Great Recession a decade earlier. And it still is: The United States added 431,000 jobs in March and 95,000 more than previously recognized for the months of January and February, both of which also saw record job growth. Unemployment has dropped below 4 percent, the lowest since the economic boom of the 1990s, and wages are growing this year at an annual rate of more than 5 percent.
Employers can go ahead and threaten to fire workers who try to unionize, even if these threats are illegal, but the tight market for labor gives those workers other options, which makes the threat less potent than it might have been when the economy was weaker and jobs were scarce. On the flip side, a red-hot labor market means that employers who want to fire employees are hamstrung by the fact that they may not be able to replace them with new workers. This, on its own, gives workers leverage where they may have previously possessed very little.
Additional leverage, for Amazon workers in particular, comes from the nature of the enterprise itself. In theory, Amazon could simply close a warehouse that voted to unionize, in the same way that a 20th-century textile company might have shut down a mill or moved it rather than face an organized work force. But the value of Amazon’s shipping business rests on its ability to deliver packages as quickly as possible, which means that the products must be as physically close to customers as is feasible. The very thing that makes Amazon what it is — its ubiquitous presence across the American landscape — also makes it vulnerable to those workers who are able to organize themselves.
The final point I’ll make relates back to that attempt to divide the warehouse workers along racial lines. In an interview with the left-wing magazine Jacobin, one organizer — Angelika Maldonado, the chairman of the Amazon Labor Union’s Workers Committee — explained how the union campaign used the racial and ethnic diversity of the work force to attract supporters and build class solidarity. To reach Spanish-speaking workers, for example, the campaign used Spanish-speaking organizers; to reach African immigrant workers, it brought in food from a local African caterer. “That really attracted a whole bunch of African workers toward us and we gained a couple of new organizers off that,” Maldonado told Jacobin. Far from a liability that Amazon could use against the union campaign, the diversity of the Staten Island warehouse proved to be a strength.
The story of the Amazon Labor Union is far from over. In a statement, Amazon said it was considering “filing objections based on the inappropriate influence and undue influence by” the National Labor Relations Board, an accusation that the board had put its finger on the scale in favor of the workers. Amazon could also refuse to negotiate with the union, turning this labor battle into a legal one. If the company does choose to negotiate, we can assume it will fight to give as few concessions to the union as possible, since a successful negotiation for workers would then become, like the organizing effort itself, an example for other workers at other warehouses to follow and pursue.
But even with these fights on the horizon, the Staten Island warehouse workers have done something remarkable. They have seized the opportunity presented by the state of the economy and the nature of Amazon’s business to show, in dramatic fashion, how ordinary workers can overcome the best efforts of one of America’s largest companies to keep democracy out of the workplace.
And while it is impossible to know at this stage whether the initial success of the Amazon Labor Union is the dawning of a new day for the labor movement, it is certainly true that it represents a real glimmer of hope for the American working class and the unions that still hope to organize it.“