David won. And Friday’s startling excitement brought to light the organizers and labor representatives who realized the victory of the nascent Amazon Labor Union when so many other more established labor groups had failed before them, most recently in Bessemer, Alabama.
Chris Smalls, a laid-off Amazon worker who heads ALU, criticized RWDSU’s campaign, saying it didn’t have enough local support. Instead, he chose an independent route, believing that worker self-organization would be more effective and would refute Amazon’s narrative that “third-party groups” drive union efforts.
“They weren’t perceived as outsiders, so that’s important,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements at the City University of New York.
While the odds for both union actions were slim and the organizers were up against a well-funded retailer that had an unbroken track record of keeping unions out of its US stores, the ALU was decidedly underfunded and understaffed compared to the RWDSU. According to Smalls, ALU had raised and spent about $100,000 by early March and was operating on a weekly budget. The group has no office of its own and has relied on help from community groups and two unions. Legal help came from a lawyer who offered free assistance.
Meanwhile, Amazon used all its might to stave off organizing efforts, routinely holding mandatory meetings with workers to argue why unions are a bad idea. In a filing released last week, the company said it spent about $4.2 million last year on labor counselors, which organizers say Amazon hired to persuade workers not to unionize.
Outgunned financially, Smalls and others relied on their ability to reach workers more personally by creating TikTok videos, handing out free marijuana, and hosting barbecues and cookouts. A few weeks before the election, Smalls’ aunt cooked soul food for a union potluck, including macaroni and cheese, collards, ham and baked chicken. Another pro-union worker got her neighbor to prepare jollof rice, a West African dish that organizers believed would help them get a foothold with immigrant workers at the warehouse.
Kate Andrias, a Columbia University law professor and labor law expert, noted that a successful union—whether local or national—must always be built by the workers themselves.
“That was a clearer illustration,” Andrias said. “The workers did it alone.”
Amazon’s own missteps may also have contributed to the Staten Island election result. Bert Flickinger III, an executive director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, said derogatory comments from a company executive leaked from an internal meeting in which he called Smalls “not smart or articulate” and wanted to make him “the face of the entire union/organizational movement.” ‘ backfired.
“It came off as condescending and helped mobilize workers,” said Flickinger, who consults with major unions.
In another example, Smalls and two organizers were arrested in February after authorities received a complaint of trespassing at the Staten Island warehouse. ALU took advantage of the arrests days before the union elections, teaming up with an art collective to project THEY ARRESTED YOUR CO-WORKERS in white letters onto the warehouse roof. “You fired someone you know,” another projection said.
“A lot of workers who were wary or even anti-union freaked out about this situation,” Smalls said.
Experts point out that it’s difficult to know how much of the ALU’s base nature compared to the RWDSU contributed to their victory. Unlike New York, Alabama is a right-to-work law that prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that obliges workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.
The union movement in Bessemer also had a grassroots element, which began when a group of Amazon workers turned to RWDSU to organize.
At a virtual news conference held Thursday by RWDSU following the preliminary results in Alabama, President Stuart Appelbaum said he believes the New York election benefited because it was held in a pro-union state and the Amazon -Workers on Staten Island would have voted in person, not by mail like in Alabama.
Despite some friction in the run-up to the elections, the two working groups have had a friendlier public relationship in recent days. Appelbaum praised Smalls during Thursday’s press conference, calling him a “charismatic, intelligent, dedicated leader.” Likewise, Smalls offered words of encouragement to RWDSU after their initial electoral defeat.
ALU is concentrating on his win for now. According to organizers, Amazon employees from more than 20 states have reached out to them to ask about organizing their camps. But they have their hands full with their own camp, and a neighboring facility is due to hold a separate union election later this month.
The organizers are also preparing for a challenging negotiation process for an employment contract. The group has called on Amazon officials to come to the table in early May. But experts say the retail giant, which has signaled plans to question the election results, is likely to falter.
“The most important thing will be the fight for the contract,” Smalls said. “We must start this process immediately because we know that the longer the contract lasts, the more hope and interest workers lose.”
Meanwhile, some workers are waiting to see what happens.
Tinea Greenway, a Brooklyn warehouse worker, said ahead of the election that she felt pressured by the messages she was hearing from both Amazon and ALU organizers and simply wanted to make the decision herself. When the time came, she voted against the union because she had had bad experiences in the past with another union that she felt had not fought for her.
“They won,” she said of ALU. “So let’s see if they keep the deal they promised.”
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