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National unions want to be part of the action at Amazon

With voting underway as Amazon Labor Union vies to organize a second warehouse, established labor groups are offering support with an eye on making their own inroads

Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, speaks April 24 at a rally outside an Amazon facility on Staten Island in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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National labor groups are closely monitoring an upstart union election Monday at an Amazon warehouse that experts say could set the course for the future of American organizing — and they want to be involved.

The independent Amazon Labor Union, founded by a fired warehouse worker on Staten Island in New York, has already won its first election at a facility in the area. Should it find success with its second effort, which organizers say could be decided by a slim margin, it would almost certainly make the ALU one of the most formidable forces in the labor movement, and set off a tidal wave of activity to organize other Amazon facilities.

Voting among the warehouse’s 1,500 workers began Monday and ends Friday. Results are expected as soon as next week.

National union leaders have flung support at the ALU and its president, Christian Smalls, in recent weeks, pledging undisclosed sums of money to cover campaign bills, pro bono legal help, office space and more.

“They need resources, they need money, they need organizers. Give it, and give it freely,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and an ALU confidante, urged union leaders in an interview.

She and two other major players in the labor movement — Teamsters President Sean M. O’Brien and American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein — rallied support for the cause Sunday on Staten Island. The three, who collectively represent 1.4 million U.S. workers, stood alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the labor movement’s biggest backers in Congress, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

The effusive offers of help, experts says, could portend a turf war among national union brass over future Amazon campaigns. The e-commerce giant, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, has long been considered the holy grail for the domestic labor movement. Organizing its 1.1 million U.S. employees would be a tremendous boost for flagging union membership.

American union rolls have 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.

And unions across industries are determined to make inroads at Amazon. O’Brien ran for president of the 1.2 million-member Teamsters by vowing to take on the corporate behemoth, which has a market capitalization of nearly $1.5 trillion. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union led a union election in Bessemer, Ala., earlier this month that remains too close to call. Dimondstein said that any successful organization of Amazon would hold “special significance” because his members and Amazon employees work in similar industries.

“Amazon, here we come,” President Biden teased at a speech at a union conference on April 6.

While speaking at a labor conference on April 6 President Biden made reference to a vote by Amazon workers to unionize, expressing his support. (Video: The Washington Post)

The tasks before the ALU — winning elections in more facilities and negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with aggressively antilabor Amazon — are herculean, experts say, and it could be difficult for the ALU to sustain its operations in subsequent years without affiliating with a national union.

The company has come under regulatory scrutiny because of its actions in recent unionization campaigns. The retail workers union won a second election in Alabama after federal labor regulators found that Amazon used illegal intimidation tactics in an earlier vote. And a top Biden administration regulator recently held that Amazon’s mandatory anti-union meetings on Staten Island violated workers’ rights and amounted to a “license to coerce” employees to reject organizing.

Amazon has repeatedly denied accusations of intimidation.

The building momentum behind the ALU and organizers’ rights has labor leaders subtly eyeing one another over who can establish the strongest relationship with Smalls, and who can initiate Amazon organizing campaigns on their own.

“Organized labor has to unite around this group, and I know there are several other national unions, and we all want to see a plan and we all want to see Amazon be organized,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been pretty clear and vocal that the Teamsters have a track record of representing folks in the same exact industry. We are proven. We’ve negotiated the best contracts in those industries, but at the end of the day, this isn’t just about one union. It’s about every single union.”

Adding Amazon workers to a union’s rolls would immediately give any group a jolt, injecting it with more revenue from dues, new bargaining power and economic leverage. But any successful organization of Amazon would also empower labor groups across industries as all kinds of employers jockey with the corporate giant for low-cost staff, a prospect that’s galvanized national unions to donate resources.

Smalls and other ALU leaders met with O’Brien, the Teamsters president, earlier in April. O’Brien told The Post his group offered its in-house counsel, access to its research and education departments, and monetary support; he declined to say how much funding the Teamsters would make available.

Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said he had made a similar offer through intermediaries.

Nelson, from the flight attendants union, has met with ALU leaders and pressed other national union presidents to devote resources to the cause.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and Office and Professional Employees International Union both offered volunteers to help the campaign, ALU attorney Seth Goldstein said. Unite Here, which mostly represents hospitality workers, allowed the ALU to use its offices for phone banking.

ALU leaders have been wary of some of the support; most national groups dismissed its grass-roots organizing campaign until just before its surprise win on Staten Island in early April.

The national groups had expected the fledgling union to be crushed, and a loss would set back efforts to organize Amazon. ALU leaders specifically organized independently of the established groups, wagering that a worker-led campaign would be more effective against Amazon’s well-documented union-busting posture.

Unions in the 20th century traditionally claimed territory based on which group had experience representing workers in certain industries. But recent years have seen a rise in class-based organizing, experts say, with workers uniting based on economic circumstances rather the nature of their labor.

Both models present challenges for the labor movement establishment. Amazon workers span several industries — technology, logistics, fulfillment, entertainment and more — and they receive widely varying compensation and benefits. The average warehouse worker makes $17 an hour, according to job review site Glassdoor, while a IT worker makes well into six figures.

It has labor leaders asserting that their groups have deeper ties to Amazon workers than others, all while insisting the support offered to the ALU comes without strings attached.

“There’s no question that postal workers and Amazon workers are in the same industry. It’s ordering, its packaging, it’s shipping, it’s sorting, it’s transporting, its delivering,” Dimondstein said.

“But the labor movement tends to break down by who has jurisdiction over what. And that’s a dead end,” he added. “We would like to be part of a multi-union crusade. I think that’s what it’s going to take to organize this massive, wealthy anti-union company."

Goldstein said that support from other unions has “intensified” since the ALU won its first election. He joined the ALU after Smalls posted on Twitter that he needed pro bono legal help. His day job is as a senior business representative for the professional employees union.

“We presume that people are coming in because this will help the labor movement,” Goldstein said. “What I’ve seen is goodwill and stepping up, as I would have expected from the labor movement that I’ve been part of for 30 years. I think that there was trepidation when it started. I mean, who would have thought that this would have happened?”

The connections underscore which groups — and which national figures — have established relationships with the ALU and have pledged to respect their independence. Employers often attempt to dissuade workers from unionizing by arguing that a union will act as a meddling third party in the employee-management relationship, a tactic Amazon employed on Staten Island. Managers frequently made those arguments in mandatory meetings, gatherings that federal labor regulators have since said violate workers’ rights.

But the company’s strategy backfired, ALU boosters say. Smalls is a recently fired employee at the complex who pushed Amazon to up its coronavirus safety precautions. The ALU’s organizing committee was made up of workers at the plant, some of whom took jobs with Amazon specifically with the goal of unionizing it.

When Amazon tried to paint organizers as outsiders, the accusations were laughable, Nelson said, especially when workers would leave work after their shift then set up a barbecue for commuting co-workers at the neighboring bus stop.

“You can only do those things,” she said, “and be responsive and be effective if you are building that organizing right within the workplace.”