The biggest upset of last week had nothing to do with sports. Instead, it was the first-ever vote by Amazon employees to approve collective bargaining through a labor union.
Amazon, the undisputed king of online retail and one of the world’s biggest companies, has about 1 million employees in the United States. Many of them work at one of the company’s gigantic “fulfillment centers” around the country, which have a reputation of pushing their people hard to keep up with the growing volume of online retailing.
Until last week, Amazon had convinced its employees to avoid labor unions, most famously at a fulfillment center in Alabama, where workers twice have voted down union representation. That’s not too surprising, as Alabama is hardly known for organized labor strength.
Staten Island, N.Y., is another matter. And that’s where a brand-new union broke through, winning the right to bargain for one fulfillment center’s employees by a 523-vote margin out of 4,780 ballots cast.
Few if any labor experts saw this coming. But the backstory makes you wonder how everyone missed the signals — even setting aside the fact that since the coronavirus pandemic knocked a hole in the labor force, many workers are more selective about the jobs they take.
The leader of the union effort is a 33-year-old fired Amazon employee named Chris Smalls. With his neck tattoos and a grille of gold teeth, he may look like the least likely labor organizer ever. But he was able to relate to the Staten Island workers because he had been one of them — until Amazon fired him after he challenged the company’s pandemic safety efforts. (The company has said he got fired for violating its coronavirus protocols. It also has said it has a proper safety record during the pandemic.)
Labor organizers working in Alabama brought in people who didn’t know much about working for Amazon. Smalls went about it the exact opposite way: He founded an independent organization, the Amazon Workers Union, and relied on volunteer help from other Staten Island employees to get his message out. He set up a tent across the street from the fulfillment center, where workers could get food and drinks, even some legal marijuana.
After the vote, Smalls told reporters that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ venture into space was a good thing for the union, “because when he was up there, we were signing people up.” He also believes a leaked 2020 email from a company executive helped because it described Smalls as an unintelligent, inarticulate person that workers would not follow.
It turns out that enough workers saw Smalls and his volunteers as people who understood the demands of their jobs.
Smalls said his union will seek a $30-per-hour minimum wage along with better working conditions, longer breaks and better transportation to ferry service.
That goal of $30 seems extreme, but Amazon can’t cry poverty, so it will be interesting to see how the negotiations go. The larger point, though, is whether this one building’s vote carries over to other fulfillment centers.
The organized labor movement has been at historic lows in recent years, and one reason is that many union goals — the 40-hour work week, higher overtime pay, greater safety measures, retirement and health benefits — are now either the law or standard practice. It’s fair to ask what today’s labor unions can offer workers — unless they believe they are poorly treated.
The Staten Island voting results have made the company a greater target for organized labor. If the pace of union votes at fulfillment centers picks up, Amazon will have to rethink the way it runs its warehouses.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal