The Amazon Labor Union’s Historic Breakthrough

The Amazon Labor Union’s Historic Breakthrough

How did a scrappy group of organizers without institutional backing prevail over the second-largest employer in the United States?

ALU members, including Chris Smalls, left, celebrate their win on April 1, 2022. (Andrea Renault/AFP via Getty Images)

This article was updated on 6/30/2022.

Until its stunning victory on April 1, just about everyone thought the Amazon Labor Union’s year-long effort to organize the giant Staten Island “JFK8” Amazon warehouse was a hopeless—if noble—quest. Unlike the union drive led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at Amazon’s facility in Bessemer, Alabama, which was constantly in the media spotlight, the ALU’s campaign seemed like such a long shot that it was mostly ignored.

In an April 2021 union representation election in Bessemer, Amazon defeated the RWDSU by a more than two-to-one margin, but in November the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered a second election after it determined that the company had flagrantly violated the law. With its deep pockets and intransigent opposition to the RWDSU drive, most observers predicted that Amazon would prevail in the March 2022 do-over as well. It did, but by a much smaller margin than before, and with enough contested ballots that a reversal of the outcome is still possible.

Meanwhile, in Staten Island, the ALU won by a comfortable margin, in a 2,654–2,131 vote with only sixty-seven challenged ballots. (There were seventeen void ballots, while a plurality of the 8,325 workers who were eligible chose not to vote.) When I first saw the final tally, I thought I might be hallucinating. Many others were equally shocked, including some of the ALU’s own leaders. ALU President Chris Smalls instantly became a media celebrity. The blitz of coverage even included a New York Times piece on his fashion choices, and President Biden invited him to a meeting at the White House with other labor leaders. 

Organized labor has suffered devastating defeats in the past few decades; today only 6 percent of private-sector workers are union members—the lowest share in a century. U.S. labor law has tilted increasingly in favor of employers, and repeated efforts at legislative fixes (like the PRO Act, now stuck in limbo in the U.S. Senate) have gotten nowhere. Since the 1980s, businesses have perfected strategies for defeating union drives, exemplified by Amazon’s recent efforts in Bessemer and Staten Island. The United Food and Commercial Workers faced similarly intransigent opposition during the decade it spent trying to organize Walmart, and it eventually abandoned the campaign. That was a cautionary tale for union leaders contemplating the prospect of organizing Amazon. None of them were eager to take on that gargantuan task, until a group of Bessemer workers approached RWDSU for help. In Staten Island, workers themselves created the ALU.

How could a scrappy group of activists with no institutional backing prevail over this towering retail behemoth, the nation’s second-largest employer? The ALU had minuscule resources. It did have a charismatic leader in Smalls, who launched the union drive after Amazon fired him in the aftermath of a walkout he led over health and safety in the early days of the pandemic. ALU’s online crowdfunding campaign yielded a total of about $120,000. They got free office space from UNITE HERE and pro bono advice from experienced labor lawyers. Several veteran activists—“salts,” as they are known in the labor world—got themselves hired at JFK8 to help out with the campaign.

Still, by any standard, the odds were strongly stacked in Amazon’s favor. The company spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021 alone. Amazon blanketed the Staten Island warehouse with “Vote No” signs (even in bathroom stalls) and bombarded the workforce with arguments against the union, holding captive audience meetings that workers were required to attend. Amazon management openly ridiculed Smalls and even had him arrested—allegedly for trespassing—just weeks before the vote. Given all these signals that management was confident of victory, they must have been as surprised as anyone by the ALU’s win.

There’s an old union adage that “the boss is the best organizer.” Indeed, the arrogance that Amazon regularly displayed helps explain the ALU’s success in Staten Island. Apart from elevating Smalls into almost a martyr, the company’s brutal shop-floor regime did much to fuel the union campaign. Amazon uses electronic surveillance to monitor workers’ productivity and automatically disciplines them if they fail to keep up with quotas or have too much “time off task.” Workers can be terminated automatically too, without any opportunity to discuss their performance with a human supervisor. Against this background, it’s not surprising that the refrain “We are not robots!” was heard throughout the unionizing effort. Adding to workers’ sense of outrage was Amazon’s apparent indifference to their health and safety during the pandemic. Injury rates already were high before the pandemic, and communication about workers who tested positive for COVID-19 was spotty at best. While many workers endured grueling twelve-hour shifts, the company’s business grew explosively during the lockdowns, and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, became the richest man on the planet. (Bezos has since stepped down from the CEO role and slipped into second place, overtaken by Elon Musk.)

Many individual workers voted with their feet against Amazon: turnover at the company’s facilities runs at 150 percent, mostly due to high quit rates. (That means that the typical worker stays for less than a year, which suggests that Amazon’s contribution to the Great Resignation is well above average.) But thousands have stuck it out and waged a collective fight against the draconian work regime. During the pandemic, the tight labor market reduced the risks involved in unionizing considerably; anyone fired for organizing would have a relatively easy time finding another job. The pandemic also shone a bright light on the role of “essential workers” like those at Amazon. Public support for unions was on the upswing. And it didn’t hurt that the nation’s president had endorsed the Bessemer organizing drive.

The company’s effort to instill fear in workers ranks was substantially less potent in Staten Island than in Alabama. There is a huge gap between Amazon’s pay rates and those of other jobs in Bessemer, but in New York many businesses offer comparable compensation. The legal minimum wage is $15 an hour in the Empire State, and its unionization rate is roughly double the national average. By contrast, Alabama’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and it is a “right-to-work” state where unions have a far more limited presence.

Moreover, the ALU could easily counter Amazon’s claims that it was an “outside” organization, a standard part of the anti-union narrative and one that may have had some influence in Bessemer. In Staten Island, everyone involved in the union drive worked at JFK8 (or had worked there until being fired, like Smalls). On this count, the absence of any established union was a plus.

The unlikely triumph of the ALU has some parallels to the United Farm Workers’ early successes. As Marshall Ganz, author of Why David Sometimes Wins, argued, there are moments when resources matter less than resourcefulness, or what he calls “strategic capacity.” Indeed, the UFW succeeded on a shoestring budget with a range of innovative tactics, while a far better funded AFL-CIO effort to organize farmworkers flopped.

In some ways the ALU’s campaign was remarkably conventional. It focused on winning a traditional labor representation election via the creaky old machinery of the NLRB. As the election approached, ALU organizers made phone calls to everyone who was eligible to vote—although, in contrast to what some organizers argue are “best practices,” they did not make house calls. But they did go far beyond the standard tactical playbook. They made extensive use of social media, especially TikTok and Telegram, and reached out during breaks inside the plant.  Smalls and other ALU activists hung out at bus stops to talk to workers as they headed home. The ALU distributed free food and even marijuana (now legal in New York) and actively tailored its efforts to win over workers of color and immigrants, who made up a large share of the JFK8 workforce.

The use of social media and of an intersectional approach reflected the fact that the ALU leaders are relatively young, part of the millennial generation (and joined by the even younger Gen Z), many of whom entered the labor market in the aftermath of the Great Recession. This was the group that led Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter; more recently they have been bitten by the union bug. Young workers, especially the college-educated among them, have scored a series of union wins in the past few years among journalists, adjunct faculty, and graduate student workers, as well as among professionals at nonprofits and museums. The recent successes in organizing Starbucks—the Starbucks Workers United union has prevailed in over seventy-five elections around the country at this writing (with many more on the way)—involved many young college-educated workers. This was also a feature of the recent union wins at REI and Apple retail stores in Manhattan, and at another Apple store in Maryland. 

None of those successes approaches the scale or visibility of the election win at the Staten Island warehouse. It’s tempting to compare the win to the landmark 1937 victory of the United Auto Workers in Flint, Michigan, when General Motors granted recognition to the UAW after a legendary months-long sit-down strike. But while that victory took place two years after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, a pathbreaking law that established the right to unionize, the ALU’s win was in a starkly different context: it succeeded despite the law, not because of it.

Indeed, Amazon lost no time in pushing back. It brazenly refused to accept the election results. The company immediately filed dozens of objections, alleging numerous violations of labor law by the ALU and, in a more unusual move, charging the NLRB’s Brooklyn Regional Office with illegally influencing the vote. In another unconventional tactic, the company fired not only ALU activists but also several managers at JFK8. Meanwhile, Amazon intensified its anti-union campaign at the LDJ5 warehouse across the street from JFK8, where the ALU lost an NLRB election (618-380) about a month after the one it won at JFK8.

The process of resolving the slew of NLRB charges and countercharges (the ALU has also filed multiple charges against Amazon, including for post-election firings) could drag on for years. Given the sky-high turnover at the warehouse and the likelihood that the labor shortage will ease in the coming months, time is on Amazon’s side.   

The ALU’s leaders know all too well that their struggle is far from over. In recent years only about half of successful union campaigns have won a collective bargaining agreement, and Amazon’s intransigent anti-union stance shows no sign of waning. But the whole world will be watching as the effort enters the next phase, and now that they’ve shown it can be done, Smalls and his fellow unionists will get much more support and assistance going forward. Their historic breakthrough is also sure to inspire organizing campaigns at other Amazon facilities and beyond.

Although the number of workers newly unionized at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, and elsewhere remains modest relative to the more than 160 million in the nation’s overall labor force, momentum is growing, amplified by steady media attention and in the context of growing public sympathy for workers and unions. Whether 2022 turns out to be a passing moment or the start of a real turnabout in labor’s fortunes will be determined in the coming months and years.

Ruth Milkman teaches sociology and history at the CUNY Graduate Center and chairs the labor studies department at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. She is the author, most recently, of Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat.

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