A scrappy group of Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York has taken on the trillion dollar e-commerce company, and won. In a stunning victory on Friday, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) became the first group in history to unionize a US Amazon warehouse.
Workers voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of union representation for 8,300 workers. As of Friday, 67 ballots remained challenged on grounds such as voter eligibility, too few to alter the result.
“Amazon wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts against them,” tweeted ALU president Christian Smalls as the final votes were tallied. “Welp there you go!”
The victory is consequential for the labor movement, which considers unionizing Amazon a topmost priority. As the country’s second largest employer, it has become a standard setter for labor conditions in industries far and wide and has drawn fire for its working conditions.
The Staten Island results follow a parallel rerun election in Bessemer, Alabama, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) trailed 993 to 875 in a bid to represent some 6,100 workers. The National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to determine if any of the 416 challenged ballots should be counted, then issue a final result in that election.
The ALU, which officially launched in April 2021, is composed entirely of current and former Amazon workers and runs on a combination of volunteer labor and GoFundMe donations. They received support from a pro bono lawyer, who sat in the vote tally room on Thursday beside Amazon’s six high-priced attorneys.
The upstart union drew skepticism from some corners of the labor movement, who doubted that an inexperienced all-volunteer union with no dues-paying members could take on such a deep-pocketed virulently anti-union company. ALU organizers saw similar skepticism from Amazon in its early days, and used it to their benefit.
“Amazon thought we were so grassroots and disorganized and inexperienced that I think they kept thinking that we would give up before every milestone,” said ALU vice president of membership Connor Spence, before the results came in. “That made it difficult for them to be consistent in their campaign against us.”
But organizers claimed a crucial advantage over established national unions. As Amazon workers, they knew firsthand what associates went through and how to speak to their concerns. “We’re very trusted veterans in our departments, so it’s easy to reach a large number of people, whereas organizers on the outside really can’t do that,” said Spence. When Amazon attempted to paint the ALU as a third party interloper, as they did with the RWDSU in Bessemer, “they lose credibility when people find out we’re just workers.”
The ALU also benefited from geography. “New York City is a union town,” said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum during a Thursday evening press conference, noting that he was “thrilled” for the ALU, which at that time was ahead in the results. “It is one of the most union friendly towns in one of the most union friendly cities in the United States. Alabama, on the other hand, has a different environment. It’s a right to work state with very very low union density.” (Unions in right to work states cannot require workers to pay dues or union membership fees, blunting their power.)