The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands of Amazon workers in New York begin historic union vote

They will vote on whether to unionize with an independent union at a warehouse on Staten Island

Chris Smalls started the independent Amazon Labor Union at after he was fired from the company. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)
9 min

On Friday, thousands of Amazon workers on Staten Island had the chance to cast their vote for an upstart union led by a former colleague.

Chris Smalls, a former worker at a fulfillment center in New York, formed the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) after he was fired from the company in early 2020. He has grown the small group into a movement with dozens of organizers, strong support from some workers and did what many initially doubted by managing to secure a vote for the warehouse workers on whether they should form a union.

If the vote succeeds, the warehouse would be the first Amazon facility to unionize in the country, dealing a major blow to the online retail giant’s efforts to keep organized labor out. It would also mean an independent union succeeded where many more established unions have faltered, something said to be possible because it’s run by Amazon insiders.

Amazon workers on Staten Island collect signatures for union vote

But despite its momentum and early successes securing potential votes at two warehouses, the ALU faces a tough challenge in taking on the second-largest private employer in the United States, a company that has seemingly unending resources to fight unionization. And there’s a big question mark regarding how many total workers will end up supporting the effort.

To file for the vote, the ALU collected signatures from only about 30 percent of the Amazon workers, the required threshold campaigns need to meet in many cases. But labor organizers typically try to secure roughly 70 percent or more, based on the assumption they will probably lose votes due to turnover and union busting.

Whatever the outcome, holding the vote is a notable showing from an independent labor union, which was organized and is led by current and former Amazon workers and does not have any official backing from national unions. Labor experts say its early successes prove that workers in many parts of the country are reevaluating their relationships with their employers and have become more willing to take a public stance for their rights.

“We’re in a different moment than two years ago, from the start of the pandemic,” said John Logan, chair of the Labor and Employment Studies department at San Francisco State University. “I’m not sure big anti-union companies like Amazon and Starbucks really grasp what has changed over the last two years.”

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said that employees have always had the choice regarding whether to join a union. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” she added. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Smalls said he feels confident in the upcoming vote. “I just think our campaign is really, really different from anything you’ve ever seen,” he said.

Amazon, which operates hundreds of warehouses around the country where products are packaged and sorted, has never been unionized in the United States, despite efforts from the Teamsters, union members of the AFL-CIO and others. Amazon has a reputation for a regimented work environment at its warehouses that has faced repeated criticisms for being unsafe and too heavily surveilling employees at work.

Amazon also faced harsh backlash during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, where workers expressed concern about the spread of the illness within the facilities as they faced tremendous pressure thanks to the surge in orders from consumers stuck at home. Both major union efforts now underway at Amazon facilities were borne from this period of crisis, and workers have said safety concerns were a major driver.

Amazon has disputed that, saying in the past that it took precautionary measures against the spread of the coronavirus. It eventually rolled out stricter safety measures and started its own coronavirus testing lab to screen workers.

The other major union battle underway is taking place in Bessemer, Ala., where workers last year rejected unionization by more than a 2-to-1 margin. After the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) threw those votes out, saying that Amazon improperly interfered in the election, they are now holding a redo election on whether to join the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Amazon workers in Alabama are torn over the historic union vote

Voting started in early February and ends next week. That, too, could be a difficult fight to win in part because of regional politics, opposition from Amazon and because some workers value the job that pays more than many others in the area.

While Bessemer’s election is being driven by the union and has brought in support from across the country, Staten Island is being lead by a nascent organization started by a fired Amazon worker.

Smalls, who previously worked at the warehouse he is trying to organize, was fired in March 2020 after complaining publicly about the coronavirus safety procedures at Amazon. At the time, he said he was fired in retaliation for his comments. The company said it terminated him for after he ignored a request from his manager to stay home because of his contact with a worker who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The ALU is not totally without traditional labor support, as volunteers from other local unions have been pitching in. Labor lawyer Seth Goldstein, who represented two workers who were terminated in the midst of a union campaign at the technology company Kickstarter in Brooklyn, has been providing pro bono legal advice to organizers on what potentially qualifies as unfair labor practices.

Goldstein brushes off the idea that partnering with a national union would have given the ALU more resources to pull from when taking on the online retail giant. “It’s not about money. Amazon has all the money in the world,” he said. “The advantage is that workers are organizing workers.”

Smalls started the ALU with current workers at the facility and he funds it primarily using a GoFundMe crowdfunding account. He has brushed off the need for backing from an established national union, saying staying independent and run by workers gives the ALU a unique advantage. “This is beneficial to the workers because you don’t have to have a third party come in to learn the ins-and-outs of Amazon, these are actual Amazon workers,” he said.

Amazon has used ALU’s young age against it, writing on a website that it uses to urge workers to vote that the ALU has “no experience representing any associates, anywhere.” Smalls said he doesn’t believe his union staying independent is undercutting other efforts to organize in the country, and it’s just what he sees as having the best chance for success on Staten Island. “If they’re successful, that’s a victory too for us,” he said of the campaign in Alabama.

Still, the ALU has been criticized by union observers for not sticking to the established labor playbook, for example, deciding to file for a vote so early with just 30 percent of signatures from eligible workers.

Amazon employee surveillance fuels efforts to start labor unions

In this case, Smalls said, it was nearly impossible to get more. Because of the high turnover at Amazon warehouses, estimated at around 100 percent for most, the union couldn’t get workers to sign cards fast enough before the workforce changed. Instead, he said, they filed with about 30 percent of signatures to lock in the group who would be eligible to vote.

Workers on Staten Island are seeking $30 per hour in wages up from where they start at around $18, paid time off for injured workers, more overtime pay and longer breaks, among other demands.

“We want to turn it into a good middle class job that you can stay at long-term,” said Connor Spence, a worker at the Staten Island fulfillment center and an ALU organizer.

The warehouse is holding a vote in person for thousands of workers starting Friday that runs until March 30. Results from both Staten Island and Bessemer are expected to be announced in early April. A second smaller warehouse on Staten Island will hold a vote in late April.

The company has fought tooth-and-nail against the formation of unions at its facilities by holding mandatory classes for workers, creating websites and posters, and telling workers in New York that a union wouldn’t necessarily improve their benefits. Experts say if one warehouse successfully forms a union, it could create a cascading effect of organizing at facilities across the country, something Amazon does not want to risk.

The election has already been contentious, even before voting began. The ALU has filed numerous complaints against Amazon with the NLRB, citing unfair labor practices.

Women and nonbinary workers lead as Starbucks stores seek unions

The NLRB also sued Amazon last week in federal court, trying to get Amazon to reinstate a fired worker and post about workers rights at the facility before voting begins. The case revolves around a worker who was fired in 2020 after protesting about coronavirus safety concerns. Amazon said he was “bullying” a female colleague, but his lawyers have said he was fired in retaliation for protesting.

Nantel said it was “noteworthy that the NLRB is pursuing an ‘emergency injunction’ right before an election when they’ve known the facts in this case for over 18 months.”

In December, Amazon settled with the regulatory agency, agreeing to make it easier for workers to engage in union organizing at its warehouses. That included a provision to allow employees who are done with their shifts but working on union activities to access nonwork areas of the facilities, such as break rooms, if other off-duty workers are also allowed there.

Even with the insider view, it will be a tough battle for the ALU to win the vote, labor experts say. It’s difficult for any new union to form in the United States, and that is especially true when a huge company like Amazon works to oppose it.

“Creating a union is a tremendously long and complicated and expensive process,” said Erik Loomis, an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. “I think it’s highly unlikely that an independent union is going to transcend those challenges any better than an established union.”