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Worker-led win at Amazon warehouse could provide new labor playbook

The unionization of a Staten Island facility at one of the country’s biggest employers shows how workers are emerging from pandemic with new tactics and energy

From left, Gerald Bryson, co-founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU); Jordan Flowers, organizer for The Congress of Essential Workers and ALU; Chris Smalls, founder and president of the ALU; and Seth Goldstein, pro bono attorney for ALU, celebrate on April 1 in Brooklyn. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

The unorthodox but stunningly successful unionization campaign by Amazon employees in New York was propelled by a burst of new energy by many worker groups, which have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic with new tactics and edge.

Employees at a number of other Amazon warehouses are expected to try to replicate the success notched Friday by workers at a Staten Island facility. Already, a smaller warehouse in Staten Island is scheduled to vote at the end of the month, and an election in Bessemer, Ala., is pending based on contested ballots.

Amazon fought to beat back the unionization effort, and the victory against one of the country’s largest private employers could provide a new playbook for workers that are trying to reverse a historic trend away from union rights. And while Amazon confronts this new reality, other companies are dealing with restless workers, including railroad engineers, coal miners, baristas, nurses and teachers.

Some of these union drives aren’t being driven by Washington-led progressive groups. Instead, they are being launched by upstart, worker-led campaigns that effectively ambush large companies still relying on old-model, anti-union strategies.

“We did whatever it took to connect with those workers to make their daily lives just a little bit easier, a little bit less stressful,” said Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee who led the Staten Island grass-roots effort funded by a GoFundMe account.

In a statement Friday, Amazon said that it may file objections to the outcome and that it was disappointed in the results “because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”

What to know about the new Staten Island vote

The Staten Island victory and recent successes at six Starbucks coffee shops in Buffalo were each accomplished by worker-led unions independent of the labor movement’s legacy organizations. Recruitment campaigns were deeply personal, with workers attracting colleagues one by one and including discussions about civil rights and environmental justice, not just wages and working conditions, strategies that national leaders say could be key to the future of the labor movement.

“If you think of unions as just for a certain industry or sector from the ‘old economy,’ that’s not the case. It’s an outdated view of what unions are,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in an interview. “Unions are what you want them to be. The workers themselves define it, and I’m seeing all kinds of innovative examples of unions being used to negotiate their companies carbon footprint, and workers in some of these new ‘emerging industries’ are facing the same working conditions and challenges around securing predictable schedules and decent pay and benefits as workers in the traditional economy.”

Nearly 150 Starbucks stores nationwide have filed for a union election since the first store in Buffalo filed in December 2021. (Video: James Cornsilk, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

American union membership has declined steadily in the past 40 years. In 2021, 10.3 percent of American workers were part of a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half the rate of 1983, when the government began keeping such records.

But labor leaders see openings to expand their rosters by organizing corporations such as Amazon, Starbucks and other new-economy jobs, including tech firms in Silicon Valley and health-care workers.

'It's a walkout'

Workers are wielding new leverage as the economy emerges from pandemic conditions with fewer workers, making employers more desperate for talent. Nearly 8 million workers left the labor force since the start of the pandemic, and almost 4 million workers have quit their jobs each of the last six months, according to federal workforce statistics, in a phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. It’s led to a boost in wages as employers compete for staff; wages have risen 5.6 percent in the past year, although 7.9 percent inflation has eaten away at much of those gains.

Although they have more power, workers are still feeling pinched by higher prices on everyday expenses such as housing, fuel and child care, leading them to press for stronger wages, working conditions and benefits, increasingly through unions, or informal workplace collectives that resemble organized labor groups.

“When workers feel squeezed or that their household budgets are squeezed while the companies they work for are so profitable, that can create agitation and energy toward organizing,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers University.

The labor movement comes to a Dollar General in Connecticut

Union workers nationwide celebrated the Staten Island victory, hoping it gives momentum to other organizing activities, including the closely watched union election that’s also been happening this past week at an Amazon warehouse at Bessemer, Ala., which is the second effort there in less than a year by workers seeking to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. For now, Amazon is ahead in the vote tally, but more than 400 contested ballots need to be reviewed.

In a separate labor effort happening at a mine in Brookwood, Ala., coal miners on strike for better and benefits against Warrior Met Coal reached the one-year mark on Friday. United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said that his union’s strike fund was drawing new donations from the public and other pro-worker groups whose spirits were lifted by the strike’s anniversary and Amazon votes.

Roberts said a handful of striking coal miners took jobs at the Bessemer facility, which is about 30 miles away, and even helped organizers there campaign for the union vote.

“You can only push workers so far before they stand up and fight back,” he said. “That’s what’s happening at Warrior Met, and that’s also what’s happening at Amazon.”

The labor victory in Staten Island could embolden rail workers to raise the stakes in their years-long dispute with the United States’ largest railway operators over wages, scheduling and safety concerns. Dennis Pierce, president of the 56,000-member Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said Friday that his group is preparing to petition President Biden to intervene in negotiations by appointing officials to mediate an emergency settlement or giving train workers the authority to strike. Rail workers fall into a narrow category of workers that require presidential approval to walk off the job.

Historically, unions haven’t made strong inroads in “new economy” companies: those in technology, consumer services and entertainment. Tech leaders have over the years cast unions as bygone relics of older, manual, physically taxing forms of employment, such as factory or mining jobs.

“Remaining nonunion is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules of union companies, we’d all go out of business,” Robert Noyce, the founder of Intel, spelled out the tech industry’s anti-union position early on, according to “Silicon Valley Fever,” a 1985 book chronicling the tech industry’s early years.

That sentiment remains. Tech leaders still largely believe their companies are meritocracies in which hard work is rewarded with generous salaries and stock options. But some of their employees disagree, pointing out that these companies rely on massive workforces.

Workers at a handful of Apple retail stores have begun to organize their own union drives. And last year, Google workers formed an organization called the Alphabet Workers Union to fight for better working conditions and more equality between full-time employees and contractors.

“Amazon, like Google and others in tech, relies on a split workforce that is extractive and damaging to all workers — Amazon’s warehouse workers, who do the bulk of the work propping up the company, get a fraction of the pay and benefits given to software engineers and others,” said Parul Koul, a software engineer at Google and executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union.

There’s also renewed energy for unionization in the health-care industry, as grueling conditions and long hours during the pandemic have pushed more workers to seek out better protections and working conditions. Tens of thousands of health-care workers at Kaiser Permanente threatened to strike in 2021 over the company’s plans to introduce a system where newer employees would get less pay and benefits.

Strikes have picked up over the past year. So far in 2022, there have been 589 representation certification petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board, an early step toward holding a union election. That’s the fastest pace of new election filings than in any year since 2010, according to an analysis of NLRB data. Last year, 294 petitions had been filed by April 2.

“This is a moment when we know that workers’ expectations are rising,” Jennifer Sherer, senior state policy coordinator with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “They were told from day one of the pandemic that they were essential, but they weren’t always treated that way.”

Not everyone is convinced of broader momentum. Michael Strain, an economist with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, called the Amazon vote “a big win for organized labor,” and further evidence that the job market is very strong. He was skeptical that the curve is shifting in unions’ favor in the long run.

“The question is: How long are we in this period where workers feel like they can quit their job and go get a better one without much hassle? How long are we in this period where workers feel like they’re in the driver’s seat?” Strain said. “My answer is: not much longer.”

Yet, union leaders and their allies said they hope Friday’s vote will give non-unionized workers the confidence to file election paperwork and bolster the case for organizing in upcoming elections.

The vote was cheered by Democratic politicians, traditional allies of organized labor. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a news conference that Biden “was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said the vote would energize pro-union sentiment at Amazon and elsewhere.

“In the short term there will probably be more organizing efforts at Amazon facilities throughout the country,” Sanders told The Post. “And more broadly it shows that working people are disgusted with the reality that corporate profits are soaring, and the billionaire classes are getting much richer, while working people struggle to meet their basic needs.”

Laila Dalton, a 19-year-old shift supervisor, as well as a union organizer at a Starbucks in Phoenix, said it’s “eye-opening” to see an independent union take on a global corporation like Amazon and win.

Dalton has been working to unionize her coffee shop in Arizona, seeking stronger workplace safety protections and transparency around pay and scheduling. Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges said the company respects its employees right to organize but does not believe a union is necessary. He added that the company has “pioneered more innovative benefits for full- and part-time employees around the world.”

Ballots are expected to go out in about a week. Dalton said she’s confident that the Amazon win will persuade more of her colleagues to join Starbucks Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

“I think the service industry is starting to realize their worth,” Dalton said. “They’re starting to realize it’s not okay for people to be treated badly in the food industry. They’re so relied on, and they’re treated the worst. It’s really opening people’s eyes.”

Greg Jaffe and Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.