When a detached group of former and current warehouse workers on Staten Island confronted Amazon in a union election in New York, many compared it to the David and Goliath wars.
David won. And Friday’s catastrophic crash came as a surprise to organizers and activist supporters who realized victory for the fledgling Amazon Labor Union when many more established labor groups failed in front of them, most recently Bessemer, Alabama.
Preliminary results from that election show that the retail, wholesale and department store unions fell by 118 votes, with most Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer rejecting the bid to form a union. The results are still in the air, with 416 outstanding challenging ballots hanging in the balance. A hearing to review the ballot is expected to begin in the coming weeks.
Chris Smalls, a laid-back Amazon employee who heads ALU, has criticized RWDSU’s campaign, saying it does not have enough local support. Instead, he chose an independent path, believing that workers would be more effective at organizing themselves and downplaying Amazon’s description that “third party” groups were pursuing union efforts.
“They’re not considered outsiders, so it’s important,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist in the labor and labor movement at New York City University.
Although disagreements piled up against both union drives, where organizers confronted a deep-pocket retailer with an uninterrupted track record to keep unions away from its U.S. activities, ALU was significantly less funded and less staffed than RWDSU. Smalls said that as of early March, ALU had collected and spent about $ 1,00,000 (approximately Rs. 75 lakhs) and was working on a week-to-week budget. The group did not have its own office space, and relied on community groups and two unions to help. Legal aid comes from a lawyer who provides pro-bono assistance.
Meanwhile, Amazon has used all its strength to thwart organizational efforts, forcing unions to hold regular mandatory meetings with workers to argue why it is a bad idea. In a filing released last week, the company revealed that it spent about $ 4.2 million (about Rs 30 crore) last year on labor consultants, who organizers say Amazon hired to persuade workers not to unionize.
Unmatched financially, Smalls and others create TikTok videos, offer free marijuana, and rely on their ability to reach out to employees more personally through barbecues and cookouts. A few weeks before the election, the younger aunt prepared a soul meal for a Union Patlak, which included macaroni and cheese, collard greens, ham and baked chicken. Another pro-union activist brought his neighbor to prepare jolof rice, a West African food organizer believed would help them enter their warehouse with migrant workers.
Kate Andreas, a law professor at Columbia University and an expert in labor law, noted that a successful union – whether local or national – must always be built by the workers themselves.
“It was a clear example of that,” Andreas said. “The workers did it themselves.”
Amazon’s own missteps could contribute to Staten Island’s election results. Bert Flickinger III, managing director of the consulting firm Strategic Resources Group, said derogatory remarks by a company executive leaked from an internal meeting that sought to make Smalls “smart or outspoken” and “the face of the whole union / organized movement.” “Counter fire
“It turned out to be reprehensible and helped to shake up workers,” said Flicknger, who consults with major trade unions.
In another instance, Smalls and two organizers were arrested in February after being charged with trespassing on a Staten Island warehouse. Just days before the union election, the ALU used the arrests to their advantage, teaming up with an art collector to project “they arrested your colleague” in white letters above the warehouse. “They fired someone you know,” another projection said.
“A lot of the workers who were on tour or even against the union were upset because of the situation,” Smalls said.
Experts believe that compared to RWDSU, it is difficult to know how much the grassroots nature of ALU contributed to its victory. In contrast to New York, Alabama is a labor rights state that prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract for which workers have to pay arrears to the union representing them.
Bessemer also had a grassroots element of Union Drive, which began when Amazon contacted RWDSU about organizing a team of workers there.
In a virtual press conference hosted by RWDSU on Thursday after the preliminary results in Alabama, President Stuart Appelbaum said he believed the New York election benefited because it was held in a union-friendly state and that Amazon workers on Staten Island voted in person, not. As was done in Alabama by mail.
Despite some friction over election leadership, there has been a friendly rapprochement between the two labor groups over the past few days, Applebam praised Smalls at Thursday’s news conference, calling him a “charismatic, smart, dedicated leader.” Similarly, Smalls offered words of encouragement to RWDSU after their initial electoral defeat.
For now, ALU is focused on its victory. Organizers say Amazon employees from more than 20 states have reached out to them to ask about organizing their warehouses. But they have their hands full with their own warehouses, and a neighboring facility is set to elect a separate union later this month.
Organizers are also preparing for a challenging negotiation process for a labor contract The group has demanded that Amazon officials come to the table in early May. But experts say the retail giants, who have hinted at plans to challenge the election results, are likely to drag their feet.
“The number one thing is going to be fighting for a deal,” Smalls said. “We need to start that process now because we know that as long as the contract lasts, workers will lose hope and interest.”
Meanwhile, some workers are waiting to see what happens.
Tinia Greenway, a warehouse worker in Brooklyn, said she felt pressured by the messages she heard from both Amazon and ALU organizers before the election and simply wanted to make her own decision. When the time comes, he votes against the union because he has had bad experiences with another union in the past that he says did not fight for him.
“They won,” he said of ALU. “So let’s see if they survive the deal they’re going to do.”