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Amazon Is Relentless But It Isn’t Invincible: 5 Lessons From the Union Victory

The future of the labor movement may be in worker-led self-organization, as Amazon and Starbucks victories have shown.

Union organizer Christian Smalls (left) celebrates with Amazon workers following the April 1, 2022, vote for the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York.

In the most remarkable union election victory in almost a century, the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which was created in 2020 by fired Amazon worker Christian Smalls, crushed the world’s most powerful corporation in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at a Staten Island, New York, Amazon warehouse with more than 8,000 workers.

Unions almost never win in NLRB elections with bargaining units of that size. And they never, ever win at Amazon. Just a couple of years ago, the ALU victory against Amazon in a traditional NLRB election — or a victory by any other union — would have seemed unimaginable. Now, organizing at Amazon or other anti-union corporate behemoths seems much more possible, especially if workers and unions can make the most of the opportunity provided by the incredible result and expand organizing to Amazon warehouses throughout the country as well as to other low-wage sectors.

So, what are the lessons for the labor movement from this astonishing victory?

1. Workplace access really matters: The national agreement between the NLRB and Amazon, signed in December 2021 — which was designed to strengthen workers’ right to choose a union — didn’t look like great shakes at first blush, and it didn’t seem to have much impact on Amazon’s aggressive anti-unionism. The company ran the same brutal anti-union campaign at the Staten Island warehouse, as it had always done in the past, and the NLRB accused Amazon of unlawful retaliation against pro-union workers in January.

But the agreement provided expanded access for “worker-organizers,” who were allowed to stay around the workplace after their shifts had finished and talk union with their co-workers. Professional union organizers don’t have a legal right of access to the workplace — and are often ejected or arrested if they enter — but employee-organizers do have that right. And, according to insider accounts, they made the most of it to talk to workers. The ALU campaign — and the amazing Starbucks Workers United campaign — had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that when workers are allowed to talk to each other about unions, absent management interference, they choose to organize.

2. Amazon isn’t invincible, but it is relentless. Amazon prides itself in being an innovative company full of smart people who learn from their mistakes. The company made some basic mistakes during its anti-union campaign at Staten Island — and its external anti-union consultants probably became more of a liability than an asset — but we shouldn’t expect it to make the same mistakes at future union organizing campaigns. Moreover, it will probably double down on its anti-union efforts at other facilities so it doesn’t lose control of the situation, as has happened at Starbucks, with more than 170 stores having now filed for NLRB elections.

Amazon has already stated its intention to appeal the Staten Island result due to “objectionable conduct” on the part of the ALU and the Biden administration’s NLRB, especially its General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo. Amazon’s election protest may simply be a stalling tactic — unlike Amazon, the ALU has no coercive power over employees, so it would be a difficult case to prove — because, even after election setbacks, anti-union corporations take the view that, “You haven’t lost until you sign a contract.”

Going forward, pro-union Amazon workers need greater protection from the NLRB, probably in the form of 10(j) injunctions, which would allow workers to obtain temporary, immediate relief in cases of unfair labor practices still under litigation, and corporate-wide remedies for unfair labor practices, which would allow the NLRB to proceed to tougher sanctions more quickly and make clear that Amazon’s anti-union campaign is nationwide, centralized and coordinated.

3. The old anti-union tactics and arguments are not working — and are working least well with young workers. This anti-union “kryptonite” has served Amazon well for years. But not at Staten Island, where workers repeatedly challenged consultants in captive meetings and could be fired for refusing to attend such meetings even though speaking up at the meetings is protected activity. When the consultants’ distortions are challenged by knowledgeable workers, their credibility quickly crumbles. The old anti-union tropes about the union being an external third party that is only interested in workers’ dues money — which consultants have been using against organizing campaigns for half a century — rang hollow at Staten Island. The workers are the Amazon Labor Union in a very real way, as are the Starbucks workers who have formed a union with Starbucks Workers United.

Moreover, Amazon’s workers have been changed as a result of working throughout the pandemic — and feeling that they have not been treated with respect and not rewarded adequately for their service — which the worker-organizers of the ALU understood all too well, because they were part of the workforce during the pandemic, but this was apparently lost on Amazon and its consultants.

4. We can all learn from the Amazon Labor Union. Traditional unions shouldn’t be defensive about the victory of the upstart ALU. Several veteran organizers and lawyers offered pro bono support to the ALU campaign, but those who did nothing, or who viewed the campaign as chaotic or unprofessional, should welcome the victory — which will help the entire labor movement — and be open to learning from its success.

The campaign had lots to admire. It benefited from having a group of intrepid, committed, young, politicized activists who had an idea of how to organize workers in their sectors of the warehouse. As workers themselves, they spoke with a powerful and compelling authenticity. They were respected and understood which arguments would resonate most with their coworkers.

The ALU’s use of traditional media and social media was also outstanding. In the days before the election, it projected signs underneath Amazon’s name on the front of the warehouse saying, “They fired someone you know,” “They arrested your co-workers” and “Vote Yes.” All that was missing was a projected sign saying, “They made you pee in a bottle.” The campaign messages reinforced the theme that Amazon treated its workers as utterly disposable. And after the votes were counted, and the ALU declared victorious, ALU Interim President Smalls provided us with what is perhaps the greatest quote in the history of the U.S. labor movement: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going up to space, because while he was up there, we were forming a union.”

5. Replication of the ALU campaign most likely isn’t the way forward because there’s only one first time. Maybe there are dozens of budding Smalls in Amazon facilities across the country. But trying to replicate the amazing campaign of the ALU probably isn’t the best way to go because any future Smalls will be operating in an environment not only different from, but altered by, the achievement of the original. Rather, we should learn from the strengths of the ALU campaign, and each future campaign must be innovative and nonconventional in new and different ways, and geared toward local workers and issues: Amazon now knows what to expect from an ALU-style campaign and will be better prepared.

One thing the ALU got right was to throw out the organizer playbook (“Never file for a NLRB election with only 30 percent authorization cards”), and instead to go with what it instinctively found was working. The percent of authorization cards initially filed by a union is not of critical importance at Amazon: Incredibly high rates of worker churn — up to 150 percent per annum in some warehouses — makes it virtually impossible to get the 70-80 percent cards that the organizing gurus recommend. At Amazon, however, that doesn’t really matter: Even if you collected that number of cards, up to half of those workers might no longer be employed at the warehouse, and thus no longer eligible to vote by the time of the union election.

There is no “secret sauce,” no “how-to” manual for winning union elections at Amazon — not even William Z. Foster’s 1919 pamphlet on organizing the steel industry — but there are many potential innovative and unconventional routes to success. But the national labor movement needs to figure out what it can do to encourage and facilitate the kind of worker-led “self-organization” we’ve seen be so successful at Amazon and Starbucks.

The ALU victory at Staten Island should provide inspiration and an energy boost to the entire labor movement. Its campaign might not be easily replicated at other Amazon facilities, and replication is not a good way to think about the future. But the success of the intrepid ALU organizers has taught us a more important lesson: Amazon is not invincible. If you can win a union campaign at Amazon, you can probably win one anywhere

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