Amazon workers defeat company to form first US union

Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, have successfully formed the first union at the company, with organisers pledging to help their colleagues across the US do the same

Amazon union organisers have vowed to help workers across the US to unionise following victory at the company’s New York warehouse.

Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse – a major Amazon fulfilment centre in Staten Island that employs more than 8,300 people – voted to unionise on 1 April 2022, forcing the e-commerce giant to formally recognise a trade union of its workers in the US for the first time.

The unionisation effort was driven by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which began organising in April 2021 in response to working conditions at the company.

Since their victory, ALU organisers claim they have been contacted by workers in more than 50 Amazon facilities nationwide.

“ALU is going to be there to support and fight for all workers, and workers are already calling us to come and see their facilities,” said 23-year-old ALU organiser Jordan Flowers, who was fired by Amazon in June 2020.

The JFK8 union vote is only the second time Amazon workers in the US have attempted to form an official union. The first union push, in Bessemer, Alabama, was defeated by 993 votes to 875, although a hearing to review 416 challenged ballots is expected to begin this month.

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), 2,654 workers voted in favour of unionising JFK8, while 2,131 voted against it.

In a statement released the day after the vote, the ALU demanded that Amazon begin negotiations in May. “As it is in the common interest of both parties to respect the outcome of this democratic election, the workers of JFK8 have made clear their desire and intention to engage in collective bargaining,” it said.

“It is our sincere hope that we can begin a constructive dialogue with our employer, and that the process will result in greatly improved working conditions for Amazon workers.”

Responding to the ALU victory, Flowers told Computer Weekly: “It was just an amazing feeling that dudes like us, who have been called ‘thugs’, ‘not smart and articulate’, we’re the same people that just unionised your company in the United States for the first time ever. That’s really historical – it was such an ecstatic moment.”

Flowers added that “we’re not going to stop here”, and that another union vote at neighbouring Amazon sortation centre LDJ5 is due to take place before the end of April.

Amazon said in a statement that it was disappointed by the union vote and was evaluating how to proceed. It also accused regulators of improperly influencing the vote.

“We believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” said Amazon. “We are evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB.”

On 6 April, US president Joe Biden expressed support for unionisation during the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) conference, saying: “The choice to join a union belongs to workers alone. By the way, Amazon, here we come. Watch.”

Asked by reporters whether Biden was specifically endorsing the JFK8 unionisation effort, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “What he was conveying was his long-time support for collective bargaining, for the rights of workers to organise, and their decision to do exactly that in this case.”

Organisation process

Before forming the ALU, its main organisers had already set up The Congress of Essential Workers (TCOEW) to protest against working conditions and a lack of protective equipment.

Those involved included Flowers, Gerald Bryson, Derrick Palmer and now-ALU president Chris Smalls, a former process assistant at JFK8 who became the first person to be fired by Amazon for speaking out about the alleged state of its warehouses during the pandemic.

“We got to come together in solidarity right now so we can fight this, so this never happens again to us,” Smalls told Computer Weekly on May Day 2020. “Whether it be a union or whether it be a rank-and-file workers’ committee, that’s to be decided, but it’s what we need to do because obviously the CEO of this company has failed to protect us.

“It’s never going to be Amazon versus Chris Smalls, it’s going to be Amazon versus the people, and they will have to answer to all of us.”

Inspired by the union drive in Bessemer, the four TCOEW founders began forming the ALU in April 2021, and decided to maintain a near-constant presence outside the warehouse complex for the next 11 months.

Flowers told Computer Weekly that while there, they handed out literature, collected signatures, served free food, and spoke with workers between shifts about forming a union. He added that, after its legalisation in the state of New York at the end of March 2021, they also began handing out free marijuana to workers after their shifts.

Flowers said the ALU’s grassroots approach of organising worker-to-worker was “the most natural way” to proceed, and was vital to the union’s success. “Everyone’s working 10 to 12 hours, so we know how that feels,” he said. “You’ve got to remember the warehouse has over 8,000 workers, so you have hundreds of people talking to you every day, you’ve got workers that don’t know you coming up to you, you’ve got your friends talking to their friends, talking to their friends – it’s just a domino effect.”

Read more about unions in the tech sector

Although the ALU’s main organising committee was made up of 20 to 25 workers from JFK8, Flowers said it got to the point where they were “engaging with more workers because now we had workers who were on the inside engaging with other workers”.

Amazon has long been dogged by complaints about poor working conditions in its warehouses, which have continued during the pandemic, with workers across Europe and the US staging walkouts and strikes in protest at “unsafe working conditions” and “corporate inaction” throughout March and April 2020, after lockdowns began.

In March 2022, Amazon shareholders submitted proposals calling for an independent audit of the working conditions for warehouse employees, but Amazon is attempting to exclude this from its next annual general meeting on the basis that daily operations are “a matter of ordinary business”.

Amazon has also come under fire multiple times for its anti-union behaviour during the pandemic. In April 2020, for example, the company attempted to stop its employees from taking part in a virtual panel organised by technology workers concerned about the lack of measures put in place to protect staff against Covid-19, deleting the invitation from thousands of employees’ calendars.

In the same month, it was discovered that Amazon-owned Whole Foods was using an interactive heat map tool to track where employees could be unionising, which it did by tracking a range of metrics to deduce the likelihood of a union effort being launched.

Anti-union tactics

Flowers told Computer Weekly that some workers were initially afraid of the unionisation effort, partly because of the wider perception of unions in the US, but also because of Amazon’s aggressive and well-documented anti-union tactics.

He said it was taken for granted that Amazon would try to retaliate against the ALU’s organising efforts somehow, and that it was an uphill fight against the company’s union busters, which Amazon spent $4.3mn on nationwide and which, according to Flowers, held “captive audience” meetings at JFK8 to dissuade workers from organising themselves.

“I had workers come up to me scared, saying that ‘you guys are going to charge a $100 union fee every week’,” said Flowers. “We told them there’s no such thing as a $100 union fee, it’s scare tactics. Amazon was brainwashing, manipulating, putting up posters saying don’t vote, and workers were scared that if they spoke up, they were going to lose their job.

“We actually had workers sign the card saying they wanted to be part of the ALU and they supported us, and then they got terminated.”

The ALU originally filed for a union election in October 2021, which fell through because of a lack of numbers. Flowers claimed this was not because it withdrew, as Amazon claimed, but because the company was firing workers at such a rapid rate. “The reason why we kept losing count was because Amazon was firing workers, so they were trying to really hold off as long as they could because they knew what was at stake,” he said.

In February 2022, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested three ALU organisers, including Smalls, for trespassing.

“We were feeding workers, the police asked Chris to leave, he didn’t want to leave at first but as he was leaving to get in his truck, that’s when they forcibly arrested him,” said Flowers, adding that, being unhappy about the effort to organise, “of course Amazon’s going to start calling the cops, saying we’re trespassing and all that – Amazon is just stuck in the corner and they’re trying to lash out at anything”.

Computer Weekly contacted Amazon about the claims regarding its anti-union activity, but it had not responded by the time of publication.

Internal messaging app

According to internal company documents leaked to The Intercept in April 2022, Amazon also has plans to block and flag employee posts in an upcoming internal messaging app that contain keywords pertaining to unions.

The documents also show that an automatic word monitor would block a variety of terms that could represent potential critiques of Amazon’s working conditions, including “slave labor”, “prison”, “plantation”, “living wage”, “grievance” and “ethics”.

An Amazon spokesperson told The Intercept: “Our teams are always thinking about new ways to help employees engage with each other. This particular program has not been approved yet and may change significantly or even never launch at all.”

The spokesperson added that if the chat app does launch at some time, “there are no plans for many of the words you’re calling out to be screened – the only kinds of words that may be screened are ones that are offensive or harassing, which is intended to protect our team”.

Responding to the ALU victory, the United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) union – a branch of the UK’s Communication Workers Union (CWU) established to represent and fight for workers’ interests in the tech industry – told Computer Weekly: “We celebrate the ALU vote as a free, democratic expression of technology workplace workers.

“The absence of collective bargaining mechanisms across the technology sector harms workers at all levels as well as the industry as a whole, and that is why we are pleased to see progress on unionisation at American tech companies, just as UTAW has been achieving in the UK. We look forward to working with the ALU and other unions to work towards a fairer world of technology.”

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