On Friday, April 1, warehouse workers in the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York voted, 2,654 yes to 2,131 no, to have a union – making them the first union at Amazon in the nation. The Amazon workers won against all odds. Amazon spent millions of dollars hiring anti-union consultants and forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings during the workday. Some workers reported that the company held up to 20 anti-union meetings a day.
The union organizing efforts began in spring 2020, when Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, two workers at the JFK8 warehouse, organized against Amazon’s paltry response to Covid. After management refused to consider additional safety measures or close down the warehouse, Smalls and Palmer organized a walkout. In retaliation, Amazon management fired Smalls.
It isn’t just poor pandemic safety measures that have fueled worker discontent at Amazon. Amazon workers are expected to work long shifts (sometimes over 12 hours straight) where their every action is controlled by the boss. Bathroom and lunch breaks are strictly regulated and workers are reprimanded if they make any mistakes or slow down while working. Even when a tornado was bearing down on a warehouse in Illinois, the company wouldn’t allow workers to leave for fear of losing profits from the workers’ labor. It’s no wonder that the turnover rate for Amazon workers is 150% a year!
There have been other attempts to organize a union at Amazon. Last year, a union drive in Bessemer, Alabama drew national attention. But ultimately, despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, gaining a number of endorsements from celebrities and politicians, and having professional union organizers on the ground, the union drive at Bessemer failed.
What made this organizing drive different? The workers at JFK8 used a variety of grassroots tactics to organize themselves. They constantly fliered outside their warehouse and at a nearby bus stop to talk to workers. They organized together to provide food and host picnics. They were even able to host potlucks inside the warehouse! Furthermore, workers in each department talked with their coworkers about the union and their problems in the workplace. In the breakroom, workers would talk to each other about the union organizing drive and refute the lies of management that the union organizing drive was being done by “outside elements” and not other warehouse workers. Workers were able to build relationships and trust with each other.
These organizing tactics are something we can all learn from. The workers did all this without a big, bureaucratic organization behind them. They call themselves the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), something that has not existed before. Other workers can learn from this. We have to talk to each other and build strong relationships in our workplaces, communities, and schools. We cannot let the bosses intimidate us. We have to organize wherever we are and with the people around us against the exploitation we face under the capitalist bosses’ drive for profits. Even if we have an official union, we have to rely on ourselves to get what we need.
This is, of course, just the beginning of the Amazon fight. The company will likely try to challenge the vote. If the workers win that round, they will still have to fight to get the changes in pay, benefits, and working conditions they need.
But this victory comes on the heels of other worker organizing across the country. Last October, thousands of workers across the U.S. went on strike in a variety of industries. Alabama mineworkers have been on strike for over a year to win better pay and benefits. Workers at Starbucks locations across the country have begun to win union representation as well. And the latest union vote at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama is being recounted now, and seems to show that the union lost, but by a much smaller margin than thought at first.
Wherever we are, whatever industry we are in, our struggles against the bosses can inspire others. The Amazon workers at Staten Island, NY have just shown us that if we try, we can organize and win, even against a very powerful corporation. We have to trust in ourselves, organize, and fight for what we need and want. The Amazon workers created the ALU from scratch. We can all build on their example.