Many compared the battle between a scrappy group of former and current warehouse workers on Staten Island, New York, and Amazon in a union election to a David and Goliath battle.
David came out on top. And the stunning upset on Friday gave new visibility to the organizers and worker advocates who had achieved victory for the nascent Amazon Labor Union when so many other more established labor groups had failed before them, most recently in Bessemer, Alabama.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union was defeated by 118 votes in that election, with the majority of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer rejecting a bid to form a union. With 416 outstanding challenged ballots hanging in the balance, the final outcome is still up in the air. In the coming weeks, a hearing to review the ballots is expected to begin.
Chris Smalls, the ALU’s executive director and a former Amazon employee, has criticized the RWDSU’s campaign, claiming it lacked local support. Instead, he went his own way, believing that workers organizing themselves would be more effective and undermine Amazon’s claim that “third-party” organizations were driving union efforts.
While the odds were stacked against both union drives, with organizers up against a well-funded retailer with a long history of keeping unions out of its US operations, the ALU was significantly underfunded and understaffed in comparison to the RWDSU. ALU had raised and spent about $100,000 as of early March, according to Smalls, and was operating on a week-to-week budget. The organization doesn’t have its own office space and is relying on the help of community organizations and two labor unions. Pro bono legal assistance was provided by a lawyer.
Meanwhile, Amazon used all of its resources to thwart unionization efforts, holding mandatory meetings with employees to explain why unions are a bad idea. Amazon disclosed in a filing last week that it spent $4.2 million on labor consultants last year, which organizers claim were hired to persuade workers not to unionize.
Smalls and others relied on their ability to reach out to workers on a more personal level by making TikTok videos, giving away free marijuana, and hosting barbecues and cookouts. Smalls’ aunt prepared soul food for a union potluck a few weeks before the election, including macaroni and cheese, collard greens, ham, and baked chicken. Another pro-union worker enlisted the help of a neighbor to prepare Jollof rice, a West African dish that organizers hoped would help them gain traction with the warehouse’s immigrant workers.
Amazon’s own blunders may have influenced the outcome of the Staten Island election. Derogatory comments by a company executive leaked from an internal meeting, calling Smalls “not smart or articulate” and wanting to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” according to Bert Flickinger III, a managing director at the consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, backfired.
When compared to the RWDSU, experts say it’s difficult to say how much ALU’s grassroots nature contributed to its victory. Unlike New York, Alabama is a right-to-work state, which makes it illegal for a company and a union to sign a contract requiring employees to pay dues to the union that represents them.
President Stuart Appelbaum said he believed the election in New York benefited because it was held in a union-friendly state and Amazon workers on Staten Island voted in person rather than by mail, as was done in Alabama, at a virtual press conference held by the RWDSU on Thursday following the preliminary results in Alabama.
For the time being, ALU is focused on its victory. Organizers claim that Amazon employees from over 20 states have contacted them to inquire about organizing their warehouses. However, they are preoccupied with their own warehouse as well as a neighboring facility that is set to hold a separate union election later this month. Organizers are also preparing for a challenging negotiation process for a labor contract. The group has demanded Amazon officials to come to the table in early May. But experts say the retail giant, which has signaled plans to challenge the election results, will likely drag its feet.