Apr 6, 2022 - Economy

Amazon workers' union victory is turbocharging a new labor movement

Fists rising into the air

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Amazon workers' historic win last week in New York may wind up spurring union growth around the country after decades of decline, at a time when a tight labor market is empowering workers in ways that once seemed impossible.

The big picture: A remarkable confluence of factors — including a pro-labor White House, once-in-a-century pandemic and a super tight labor market — helped Amazon workers in Staten Island achieve a David and Goliath union victory, with almost no backing from traditional institutional labor.

  • "It has electrified all of our members and organizing leaders," said Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
  • The new Staten Island Amazon union has been contacted by employees at 50 other buildings in the U.S., according to the organization's president and founder, Christian Smalls.
  • Another Amazon warehouse across the street from Smalls' building has a union vote scheduled for April, said Seth Goldstein, the group's lawyer. And a separate group of AmazonFresh employees — inspired by the Staten Island efforts — voted to unionize and are moving forward, he noted.

What's next: Other large employers are on edge about what this means for them.

  • "If Amazon, the consummate on-top-of-things company, can get bested after spending $4 million last year on labor relations consultants, then other companies may be more vulnerable to organizing than they’ve long seemed," Josh Eidelson wrote in Bloomberg.
  • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on Monday said the company was "being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization."

Between the lines: This wouldn't have happened without COVID-19. Smalls started organizing in protest of the warehouse's health and safety conditions during the pandemic.

  • The win also may not have happened if a different president was in the White House. One of the first things Biden did on inauguration day was fire the management-friendly general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, ultimately replacing him with Jennifer Abruzzo, who's enforced the labor laws with a zeal not seen in a long time.
  • A key NLRB settlement with Amazon in December paved the way, enabling organizers to talk to warehouse workers even when they weren't on duty, over-riding a company policy that permitted workers to stay at work for just 15 minutes after their shift.
  • "It would have been a very different outcome under a Trump board," said Ana Avendaño, a former lawyer at the AFL-CIO who now teaches law at University of Texas, Austin. The settlement was national and energized workers around the country.
  • Missteps from Amazon didn't help: a leaked memo in which the company's lawyer called Smalls, who is Black, "not smart, or articulate." Or, the way the company handled a tornado in Illinois that killed six workers.
  • "There were just a lot of things that really, you know, make you wonder about whether Amazon is truly the woke company it pretends to be," said Goldstein, a longtime labor lawyer (he represented the Kickstarter union) who handled this effort pro bono — accepting a red Amazon labor union T-shirt for his fee.

This victory is also a rebuke to traditional labor unions, which have thus far failed in their efforts to unionize other Amazon locations.

  • The Staten Island organizers took some risks that traditional unions would've avoided and, Avendaño said, their non-affiliation with Big Labor was a selling point in organizing.
  • "There is no strong leadership in [institutional labor]," said Avendaño. Going forward, the union groups will offer support to Smalls' group as it moves into the next stages.

Goldstein, who is 60 years old, also attributed the win to the organizational zeal of millennials. "Young people today are more like my grandparents who did see a value in unions. The circle turns."

State of play: The vote was just the first step in a long process. Now the union must negotiate a first contract with Amazon, which will likely challenge the vote before they even get to the bargaining table. Even in a best-case scenario, that takes a year.

  • "That's the hard part," Avendaño said. Expect the union to look to negotiate over wages, scheduling, health care and safety, she added.
  • Amazon didn't respond to questions, and pointed Axios to an online statement.
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