Jeff Bezos dreams of space but the creation of a union at Amazon brings him back to Earth
Some very persistent activists made one of the biggest multinationals bend: the employees of an Amazon warehouse in New York voted in favour of the creation of a union, a first in the United States.
The “yes” vote won by a majority of 2,654 votes to 2,131, according to a tally broadcast online Friday, April 1. The victory was hailed by the U.S. president himself, who said he was “happy” that the employees could be heard.
As soon as the results were known, tons of applause resounded among the small crowd gathered for the occasion downstairs in the Brooklyn district where the counting was organized, a journalist from AFP noted. Many were still surprised by their success.
“ALU”, the name of the union for Amazon Labor Union, was chanted several times. Its president Christian Smalls uncorks a bottle of champagne.
While introducing himself at the press conference, he ironically thanks Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for going into space, “because while he was up there, we were able to build a union.
The Amazon group, for its part, expressed in a statement its “disappointment” and said “evaluate its options”. Amazon is considering filing a challenge against the “improper influence” of the agency overseeing the election (NLRB).
Amazon is the second-largest employer in the United States after retail giant Walmart, the group had since its inception in 1994 managed to fend off the wishes of employees wishing to organize in the country.
“This is truly a historic day,” said Eric Milner, the attorney representing ALU. “I think it can start a chain reaction, from warehouse to warehouse.”
More than 8,000 workers at the JFK8 site on Staten Island were on the ballot. Called to vote from March 25 to 30 in a tent set up in front of the warehouse, 4,852 employees slipped a ballot into the box.
“They had such a slim chance of winning,” observed Rebecca Givan, a specialist in labor movements at Rutgers University. She was not very optimistic heading into the vote, as current union law is particularly employer-friendly.
The ALU union, created last spring by a small group of current and former Amazon employees in New York, had little to work with in the face of a behemoth that will have earned more than $30 billion by 2021.
“We may have spent a total of $120,000,” raised through crowdfunding campaigns or T-shirt sales, notes ALU member Madeline Wesley.
Amazon, for its part, hired specialized consultants and called employees to several mandatory meetings to present the disadvantages of a union.
“It’s not so much that it’s going to cost them a lot more money,” notes Neil Saunders, a distribution specialist at GlobalData. “But they don’t like a union interfering.”
The idea of creating a union began early in the pandemic when a few warehouse workers staged a small protest to demand more health protections against COVID-19. Christian Smalls was shortly afterwards dismissed.
They then decided to take their own chances after an experienced union was rejected in the spring of 2021 at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. A second vote was recently held there, and on Thursday night, March 31, the “no” side led with 993 ballots to 875 “yes” votes. But there were still 416 “disputed” ballots, which will decide the outcome.
ALU is already mobilized for its next battle: the LDJ5 sorting center, across the street from the JFK8 warehouse. A vote will be held there at the end of the month.
“I’m sure we’ll win there, too,” said Christian Smalls, who has spent the last 11 months at the bus stop serving both buildings talking with employees.
Unions are no longer in ascendancy and have been for several decades. In recent months, however, they have achieved several symbolic victories in the United States, starting with the explicit support of Joe Biden.
At Starbucks, it was the creation of the first union directly managed by the chain in the United States in December that aroused enthusiasm, while employees, often young and educated, are mobilizing in NGOs, universities, museums and media.
For Amazon, on the other hand, “it’s a different scale,” notes Ruth Milkman, a labour sociologist at CUNY University, saying she is “stunned” and “impressed” by what ALU has managed to do despite its limited resources.
“I don’t know if this will cause a ripple, but it will surely inspire others who see that, despite all the obstacles, it is possible.”