Want to Win a Union at Work? Here's What the Amazon Labor Union Can Teach Us. – Truthout

Want to Win a Union at Work? Here's What the Amazon Labor Union Can Teach Us. – Truthout

It’s a cinematic David and Goliath story, slightly different versions of which have now been told by The New York Times, Time, NPR and dozens of others: “Two best friends” led a walkout at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, and one of them was fired. They then started an independent union, and to gather the thousands of signatures needed to trigger a union recognition vote, they gave out free food and weed at a bus stop outside the facility. Once the two friends, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, had the signatures they needed, they had to win the vote. After a favorable federal court decision, they gave out free food inside the facility, too, and even “used TikTok” to garner support. The company tried to shut them down, even sending the NYPD to stop them from — can you guess? — giving out free food. Then, against all odds, they won!
You could be forgiven for reading this story and wondering, if so many workers (and established unions) have access to many of the same tools — GoFundMe, social media and, yes, chicken and pasta — why did the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) succeed where every other previous Amazon unionization effort failed in the previous 28 years? As Julian Mitchell-Israel, the union’s field director, told The Guardian, “There’s just so much talk about this union in a way that, I think, abstracts it and makes it into a phenomenon that it’s not.”
Federal laws are stacked against any kind of union election victory, so whenever any group of workers succeeds, it’s due to the elements of luck, good timing and unique circumstances that can’t be precisely replicated.
But the hidden story of the largest single workplace union election victory in the country since 2008 is the overlooked, and underutilized, methods and tools ALU organizers deployed, far beyond free marijuana and TikTok trolling. As workplace organizing takes off at Starbucks, Apple Stores and at other companies that have long resisted unions, it’s worth understanding what they did that led 2,654 workers at a facility of over 8,000 to vote for a union for the first time in the company’s history. Gaining knowledge of the particulars of the ALU campaign won’t provide a blueprint for future organizing, but it can supply key lessons that inform a range of future efforts.
The seeds of ALU started after Chris Smalls led a short-lived, rapid response walkout in March 2020, pushing back against a lack of worker protection measures in the face of the rising pandemic. However, the group really solidified around the goal of turning that moment into a movement nearly a year later on a trip to support the workers organizing in Bessemer, Alabama. After watching that “blowout” in real time, those current and former employees of the Staten Island warehouse saw the opportunity that a union election could bring, as opposed to the other organizing efforts that have avoided seeking union elections in Amazon facilities in Chicago and Minneapolis. They sought out advice from longtime labor organizers who had won similar campaigns or were similarly inclined towards campaigns led by rank-and-file workers rather than staff organizers. They read articles in publications like The Forge, with organizer Justine Medina telling Tech Won’t Save Us that they looked to other moments in history when industrial giants were successfully unionized, like the campaign to organize U.S. steel companies a century ago.
One of the ALU’s big takeaways from Bessemer: They had to be as visible inside the workplace as outside. The union in Bessemer didn’t have an active presence inside the workplace, and their outside committee — despite prolific use of catered meals and endorsements by celebrities like Danny Glover — failed to generate necessary support from workers at the facility. Amazon’s union-busting consultants “owned the narrative” with their captive audience meetings and constant misinformation, while union officials, volunteers and politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders staged rallies on the outside. So while ALU deployed a visible recruitment committee centered around the bus stop outside, an even more important organizing committee of a dozen current workers divided up departments on the day shift and the night shift. They used group texts to coordinate their schedules to ensure a few of them were in the facility at all times, and managed a Telegram chat for all current employees to receive updates. (At the LDJ5 Amazon Sort Center — the warehouse in Long Island with a predominantly part-time workforce where ALU lost the recognition vote three weeks later — the union had comparatively fewer longtime workers on their “inside committee” with relationships across departments.)
ALU knew the key to reaching thousands of workers was to first identify a few dozen who had the most trust on their shifts. This included current managers (called “process assistants”), like ALU’s vice president Derrick Palmer, who supervised other workers but didn’t have disciplinary authority, and company veterans who had been around for years, many of whom were still upset about having bonus compensation stripped away in 2018. “I pretty much flipped my whole department” of 100 people, Palmer told Labor Notes, estimating that 70% had become “yes” voters. “What I’ll do is study a group of friends and go to the leader of the pack. Whatever the leader says, the rest of the group is going to do.” Identifying workplace leaders who had earned the trust of their coworkers was key. In Bessemer, as Smalls pointed out in a recent interview, the facility was so new that the workers didn’t have time to develop networks of trust across shifts and departments, and many of them viewed the jobs as temporary. But most of the ALU’s lead organizers had been on staff at JFK8 for more than four years, a significant boost in a facility where employees who lasted more than five months were considered “veterans.”
ALU organizer Angelika Maldonado credits the trust Chris Smalls built as a supervisor with her own willingness to get involved: “I used to be like, well, my Process Assistant, she sucks. I wish he was my Process Assistant. You could tell he cared about the people he worked with.” Gathering these influencers together on a committee takes time, and the ALU only had three weeks to focus exclusively on integrating and mobilizing those relationships at LDJ5 following their success at JFK8.
Many union elections fail because management effectively pushes their propaganda in mandatory one-in-one and group meetings, pamphlets and videos, with no competing infrastructure from the union. But in a facility where most workers spend ten hours a day alone at their stations, ALU organizers didn’t wait for workers to come to them to dispel disinformation. They followed the nearly two dozen anti-union consultants around the facility, passing out disclosure forms showing their $3,200/day rates for “union avoidance” work. The union tried to ensure an organizer would be present at every group captive audience meeting, at which Amazon’s consultants tried to make workers believe they would immediately be on the hook for paying hundreds of dollars in union dues, among other lies. Organizers coordinated on talking points as they questioned the information being presented publicly. They even recorded many of those meetings, so they could rebut the talking points later in Telegram chats and on TikTok.
“Once we had an organizer in a meeting, the goal was to completely shut it down,” as the ALU’s Connor Spence told HuffPost. “We’d interrupt them whenever they made inaccurate statements, and ask so many questions that they had no choice but to end the meeting. As time went on, even milder people who were pro-union started speaking out.” And to create a sense of momentum, ALU ramped up its visibility within the facility over time, as Angelika Maldonado explained to Jacobin:
At about the end of last year, the ALU started passing out union shirts. So when some folks started wearing their shirts in the building, that’s really when a lot of other people started seeing how much support there was. After that, we had to get more and more new shirts for everybody. And as the election was getting closer, we really amped up our game — the last thing we did in the campaign was to get lanyards, about three or four thousand of them. We passed out a lot of lanyards during shift changes, so people could see how much support there was.
The ALU had to find opportunities to show workers who thought of Amazon as a benevolent employer that there was a hidden agenda at work. They seized on the leaked memo describing Smalls as a “thug” and scrutinized the statements of anti-union consultants, which resulted in more than 40 unfair labor practice charges filed against Amazon. Each one was used like a press release to sway workers who weren’t sure if the company had their best interests at heart. And when the company conspired with the New York Police Department to crack down on their protected rights, the ALU rushed to persuade workers that this was “the last straw” and that it necessitated unionization.
Those charges of illegal behavior filed by ALU and Amazon organizers at other facilities finally resulted in a nationwide settlement, with the National Labor Relations Board creating greater protections, including for the first time giving Amazon organizers the right to host events in the break room inside the facility. (The Biden administration’s personnel changes at the NLRB played a role in facilitating this decision, but the agency would not have acted without aggressive action by ALU’s rank and file organizers and their volunteer attorneys.) The company’s bad behavior continues today — even following the votes at JFK8 and LDJ5, Amazon continues to retaliate against ALU organizers, and the NLRB recently sued the company to seek reinstatement of a fired ALU organizer. (To underline the difference between presidential administrations, in fiscal year 2020, the NLRB helped 978 workers get an offer of reinstatement; in 2021, that number rose to 6,307.) Smalls said he accepted an invitation to visit the White House partly to put pressure on the administration to make more aggressive use of the NLRB’s powers, telling a group days later, “there’s a reason they didn’t air my audio [from the White House].”
Many newcomers to labor organizing mistakenly believe that asking for higher pay is the main way to build majority support at a workplace. But ALU’s organizers listened carefully to their coworkers as they built out their recognition campaign, to distill the issues that generated the most righteous indignation across departments, beyond “the choir” that had already signed the group’s petition. As a result, they eventually expanded their list of demands to address transportation and scheduling, in addition to what many described as “brutal” physical conditions. (At LDJ5, which is a different kind of package facility, ALU organizers found less immediate support in part because the physical demands on workers were not as severe, including shorter shifts than those at JFK8.)
They also looked for opportunities to run mini-campaigns around workplace issues that emerged, as ALU treasurer Maddie Wesley explained, following her unsuccessful attempts to get management to intervene when she was being sexually harassed by a coworker:
Chris and some of the other union people started protesting outside the building, demanding that Amazon address the multiple sexual harassment cases that we knew were happening in LDJ5. After I started talking to my coworkers and sharing my story, I found out that I was not alone. Other women had gone through the same thing. Two days after the ALU started protesting, the workers carrying out the harassment were suspended. It proves the union has power and that every worker needs a union.
ALU’s organizers conducted daily phone banks of Amazon workers at the UNITE HERE Local 100 office, to assess their support and reconfirm “yes” votes in the days before the vote, alongside their organizing committee’s work to get commitments to vote “yes” from coworkers in break rooms and in side conversations. At many workplaces, organizers get a false sense of victory from the echo chamber of the most die-hard, pro-union activists. But the ALU team didn’t let their guard down, as the group’s field director Julian Mitchell-Israel told the Oberlin Review:
Up until a week and a half before the election, I thought we had less than a 50 percent chance of winning. We were seeing numbers from phone banking that were putting us around a 60-to-70-percent “yes” vote, but I was really reticent to take those numbers at face value because, from what we were hearing from the organizers inside of the warehouse and talking to a lot of the workers, there was an incredible amount of union-busting going on. I think the people who were talking to us on the phones were more willing to talk to us, more willing to vote yes, so I was worried that the data we were getting back was false. It took until a couple days before the election for me to start feeling confident that we had a shot. And then it took until the first day of the vote count for me to be like, “oh, s**t, we actually might unionize Amazon.”
The ALU was forced to withdraw its first petition for a union election (which would have covered four warehouses) because they hadn’t signed up enough workers to overcome JFK8’s high turnover, which required them to set even higher goals for themselves to resubmit the petition in December. As organizer Cassio Mendoza explained:
We were losing 80 to 100 workers per week, so every time we didn’t get a minimum of 20 signatures in a day, we were actually moving backwards. It was an uphill battle the entire time to just get 100-plus new signatures per week.” Many similar rank and file-led efforts end there, after the first attempt. But they refiled in December, focusing exclusively on JFK8, and later filed for an additional election at LDJ5. And the group is currently regrouping after that loss, reflecting on having had to lean more on national publicity and their ‘outside strategy’ for a vote that took place only three weeks after the JFK8 win, with Chris telling a crowd of labor activists that they hadn’t engaged enough current employees: “We learned another lesson in our second election. We brought Bernie, we brought AOC, we brought every union in New York State and beyond to our rally in Staten Island, and guess what? We lost 2-1. It didn’t matter.”
If there was a “secret recipe” to winning the largest single union recognition vote in fourteen years, it might be the culture the ALU created of quiet, persistent persuasion. Far from the easy decision many reporters have portrayed in their dispatches on the union’s mealtime recruitment tactics, many if not most of the ALU’s “yes” voters didn’t settle on joining after a single short conversation or breakroom meal with an organizer, as Angelika Maldonado explained, using an example of a worker who had initially expressed opposition:
One time, I was speaking to a guy about my age, twenty-eight, and he was talking about how he was in the military, and he believes a lot of the workers don’t work as hard as him, and that we shouldn’t get a raise, because that would mean everybody would get a raise. He felt he should only get a raise because he’d worked there for four years. I explained to him how everybody’s role is different, and how we’re not only fighting for Tier 1 employees, but we’re also fighting for Tier 3 employees. He was like, ‘I’m not really voting for the union.’ I said, ‘I’m right here whenever you want to speak to me.’ Two weeks later, we were outside giving out lanyards, and he came up with one of the organizers named Casio and said, ‘Guess what? I’m voting yes!’… He said, ‘You softened me up a bit, but then I spoke to Casio, and I’m all in now!’
Often, the journey to voting “yes” began with an invitation to connect, learn and continue to receive updates, even if they said “no” initially to signing either a petition for union representation or a union card.
The ALU accepted donations of office space, phone banking resources and legal help from unions like the UFCW, CWA, OPEIU and UNITE HERE, and recruited volunteers to “salt,” or get hired at the facility with the purpose of helping convince more workers to join the union. They also sought out community organizations with connections to groups of workers who hadn’t yet signed up in large numbers. For example, one leader with the African Community Alliance of Staten Island used his connection with local soccer teams to encourage players who work for Amazon to support the union.
To novice workplace organizers and casual observers, it can be difficult to know what to make of competing headlines trumpeting walkouts and “Striketober” with losses that followed unusual, wall-to-wall national news coverage the days before a workplace election loss. Are the string of Starbucks’ union victories and JFK8 miraculous outliers? In response to that common confusion, teachers’ union activists are fond of saying, “It’s not magic, it’s organizing,” and research backs this up: When workers use multiple methods designed specifically to generate support at their workplace to overcome employer opposition, they win more often than not. These methods aren’t miraculous, but they are effective. A little over half of the union recognition elections held by the NLRB last year resulted in union representation at a workplace without one, and the barriers to success were enormous. The ALU shows that it’s still possible to win historic union elections, even under current federal rules. Let’s go beneath the popular “rags to riches story” and remember the key lessons of this struggle, so we can carry them into other fights.
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Andrew Willis Garcés is a Southern writer and organizer who supports public school educators building their power with the North Carolina Association of Educators and coaches organizations on campaign strategy with Training for Change. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @awgarces
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