Josefa Velasquez and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
Members of the new Amazon Labor Union are on course to become the first unionized workers at the online retail behemoth, thanks to a grassroots independent organizing campaign.
Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island won a historic bid to form a labor union after federal officials tallied votes Friday, even as a separate vote in Alabama fell short.
The Amazon Labor Union won by more than 500 votes, with 2,654 workers voting in favor of a union versus 2,131 who voted against, according to the official count by the National Labor Relations Board.
If the NLRB certifies the vote, Staten Island’s JFK8 Fulfillment Center, with more than 9,500 workers, will become the first and only Amazon warehouse to unionize among 110 across the country.
On Thursday, another union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., lost by a margin of 875 to 993. The NLRB had ordered the vote at that warehouse after the board found that Amazon had illegally meddled in a previous April 2021 vote.
The Staten Island workers held an unorthodox, independent union drive on a shoestring budget led by Chris Smalls, an ex-Amazon JFK8 worker who was fired in March 2020 for his efforts to organize the warehouse.
- Meet Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, the DIY Duo Behind the Amazon Labor Union’s Guerrilla Bid to Make History
The workers will join Amazon Labor Union, a union co-founded by Smalls and JFK8 worker Derrick Palmer, which operates on a shoestring budget and rallied workers on TikTok, bus stops and during picnics and pizza parties ahead of the vote last week.
“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going up to space, because while he was up there, we were organizing a union,” a jubilant Smalls said in remarks outside the NLRB offices in Brooklyn.
“We went for the jugular, and we went after the top dog. We’re going to unionize. We’re not going to quit our jobs anymore” Smalls said, adding that Amazon executives “are going to have to bargain with their workers now.”
Workers at a second Staten Island shipping center, LDJ5, will hold their own unionization vote starting April 25.
‘David Versus Goliath’
A spokesperson for Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The NLRB is expected to certify the Staten Island election later this month, after the agency processes any objections. If no objections are filed, the agency could certify the results as soon as April 8, according to board spokesperson Kayla Blado.
She said in a statement that 67 ballots Amazon had challenged in the Staten Island election “are not determinative. A majority of the valid votes counted has been cast for the Petitioner, the Amazon Labor Union.”
The union’s historic win at JFK8 was more than two years in the making, with Smalls first making waves at the warehouse when he organized a walkout to protest workplace conditions at the height of the pandemic.
Smalls was ultimately fired for the effort. In a leaked meeting memo obtained by Vice News shortly after he was fired, an Amazon executive — on a call that included founder and world’s second-richest person Jeff Bezos — said Smalls was “not smart or articulate.”
Smalls continued to organize with the Amazon Labor Union he co-founded with Palmer. It’s a do-it-yourself operation without official affiliation with established labor unions, though UNITE HERE and United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) provided on-the-ground support in the lead-up to last week’s vote.
In contrast to Amazon’s millions in anti-union expenditures, the ALU counted a budget just over $100,000.
Jubilant workers celebrated the results outside of the NLRB’s New York headquarters in downtown Brooklyn Friday afternoon.
Smalls uncorked a champagne bottle “to the first Amazon union in American history,” to cheers.
In an interview with THE CITY, State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), a former Senate labor committee chair who represents the district that includes JFK8, called ALU’s victory “the ultimate David versus Goliath moment for the labor movement. I could not be more proud of these young people.”
“For an independent group of workers to take on the biggest corporation in the free world and do it with nothing more than their ability to communicate with each other about the conditions in their workplace is absolutely amazing,” she said.
“This will shake up the labor movement across the globe, and I couldn’t be more proud of the fact that it happened on Staten Island.”
In a nod to the Bessemer, Alabama defeat, Brett Daniels, the director of organizing for ALU’s worker committee, said the union was prepared for “unionizing anywhere and everywhere that workers want to organize, we have workers all over the country already in communication with us wanting to organize.”
Connor Spence, a 26-year-old worker and a vice president of membership at ALU, agreed.
“I would urge those workers in Alabama to form a union and forget the NLRB process, just start acting like a union because that was our plan,” he said. “Even if we lost, we were still going to build the union as if we won.”
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