Labor Experts Dismissed the Quixotic Amazon Union Drive on Staten Island. Then They Won.

“I told the workers beforehand that they would lose based on the ‘numbers.’ They said they knew the workers. They were right!”

Luis Feliz Leon   ·   April 13, 2022
Amazon Labor Union members and supporters celebrate their win. | Luis Feliz-Leon/New York Focus

For nearly a year, Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island faced down a fierce anti-union campaign from a trillion-dollar corporate colossus. This month, they won, with workers voting 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of unionizing with the Amazon Labor Union in a shocking upset that has riveted the nation and put Amazon on a warpath footing to overturn the election. 

Many in the labor movement had expected the union drive to fail, viewing it as a noble but largely unstrategic attempt to gain a foothold at Amazon’s massive warehouse network.

The ALU had little formal support from existing unions, no prior organizing experience, and scant resources crowdsourced from GoFundMe donations. It made tactical decisions that veteran organizers viewed as amateur missteps: trying to build an independent union instead of working with an established union like the Teamsters, going public with the union drive before having an organizing committee in place to resist employer counter-attacks, eschewing common organizing tactics like door-knocking and home visits, and filing for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election when only a minority of eligible workers had signed union cards. 

The ALU’s historic victory has upended the received wisdom of how to run a union campaign, and imbued the staid world of establishment unionism with a streetwise vernacular of hip-hop banter and the spectacle of fearless, working-class Black leadership from below. 

“And for all those experts [who said] ‘oh, they'll never win, they don’t know what they’re doing’ — well, here we are,” said Gerald Bryson, one of the co-founders of the Amazon Labor Union who was fired by Amazon for protesting working conditions during the pandemic.

​​”You really want to know how we did it? I'll tell you right now how we did it. We didn't go out and get expert, expert, expert. We went out and found crazy motherfuckers just like us that ain't scared of nothing.”

Well-founded Doubts

Last year, Gallup found that public support for unions was at 68 percent, the highest recorded level since 1965. In 2018, a poll by the Institute for Work and Innovation at MIT found that 48 percent of non-union workers, or 60 million people, would join a union if given the chance.

But at the current pace of labor-intensive organizing, less than one percent of that number — just 50,000 workers in 2017 — have actually been able to  form a union through NLRB elections. In recent years, many more workers have filed for union elections — filings have increased by 57 percent this year, up to 1,174 from 748 over the same period last year  — but there’s a big difference between filing for a union election and actually winning recognition. Last year, only about 70 percent of union elections were successful. 

When large corporations like Amazon want to fight union drives, they can turn to a cottage industry of “union avoidance” consultants and employment-side law firms that specialize in defeating union campaigns. Last year, Amazon spent more than $4 million on anti-union consultants.

“It may be frustrating for ALU that many doubted their chances, but this was truly an underdog situation,” said Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at the City University of New York. “Amazon is one of the wealthiest transnational corporations and had proven it is willing to break laws to fight unionization.”

ALU adopted unorthodox approaches to organizing, which observers like Luce believed were not disciplined enough to take on a goliath like Amazon.

For instance, ALU went public with their campaign to organize Amazon almost immediately. That’s the opposite of best practices in a campaign, which tries to build up support from workers through secret meetings in order to prevent the employer from learning about the union drive until the union has built a strong base of support. 

“[The ALU campaign] was run publicly rather than underground, making it easier for the company to try to target supporters by firing them or promoting them or otherwise dividing the workers and instilling fear,” Luce said. 

Workers had real reason to fear that Amazon would try to fire them once it learned of the union drive. A 2009 study by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, found that 34 percent of employers had fired workers for union activity during organizing campaigns. A 2019 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that employers were charged with violating workers’ legal rights in more than 40 percent of all union elections, and with illegally firing pro-union employees in nearly 20 percent.

As New York Focus previously reported, Amazon did fire at least one outspoken ALU supporter, but the company never embarked on a mass purge of union supporters, as some workers had feared.  

What most surprised veteran organizers is how the union managed to grow its support after submitting its petition for an NLRB election. 

In October, ALU filed its petition after just 30 percent of eligible workers at Amazon’s Staten Island complex had signed union cards. That is the absolute minimum number of union cards required for an election.

Filing with such a low percentage of union cards is almost unheard of in union organizing. Typically, unions tell their organizers to get 70 percent of workers to sign on to union cards before officially filing for a union election with the NLRB.

That’s because employers often ramp up anti-union campaigns after the petition is filed — requiring workers to attend “captive audience meetings” where highly paid consultants argue against unions, often threatening by implication to close down if the union wins the election. To survive the employer offensive, the union must retain at least 51 percent of their support.

“The general rule I was taught when I was getting started was that when the union goes public and there is a boss fight, you expect to lose at least 10 percent of your support,” said Chris Brooks, the field director for the NewsGuild of New York, the country’s largest journalism union and organizing powerhouse that has broken union election records for the past five years. 

“So you file with 70 percent or 80 percent support and fight hard to maintain support and don't expect to grow it,” Brooks added. “Literally nobody I know would encourage workers to go to a union vote with only 30 percent support on cards.” 

The ALU’s decision to file with just 30 percent support was widely viewed as a sign of unseriousness by observers in the labor movement, especially after the ALU was forced to withdraw its initial petition when high employee turnover led the percentage of current employees who had signed union cards dipping below 30 percent. But the ALU refiled the petition a few weeks later. (That turned out to be a smart move, as securing an election date froze the pool of eligible voters.) 

Union fights are designed to withstand inevitable attrition, to assume defeat is all too probable,” said author and veteran organizer Richard Yeselson. “I suspect this is because legacy unions have internalized such an analysis--they assume they are a two touchdown underdog playing on the company's home field.”

Although critics had assumed the union would lose support after filing, the opposite actually happened, and the union ended the election with support from about 55 percent of workers who cast ballots. 

This is one of those times where all the traditional measures were not predictive,” said Peter Olney, former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. “I organized a giant Rite Aid distribution center, and I told the workers beforehand that they would lose based on the ‘numbers.’ They said they knew the workers. They were right!”

Different Organizing Models

The ALU’s success in organizing workers as an independent union has scrambled contemporary debates in the labor movement about the most effective organizing models.

For decades, the labor movement has staked its growth strategy on top-down comprehensive campaigns, hiring union staffers drawn from prestigious schools to research every aspect of a company’s business strategy to find vulnerabilities and points of leverage. These campaigns can force employers into a card check agreement and neutrality, meaning that the employer agrees not to run an anti-union campaign and to recognize the union once a majority of workers have signed up on union cards, bypassing NLRB-supervised elections altogether.

Yeselson used to run these campaigns when he was involved with Change to Win, an alternative labor union federation made up of Service Employees International Union (the union most closely associated with the comprehensive organizing strategy), the Communication Workers of America, the Teamsters, and United Farm Workers of America. Eventually,  Yeselson grew to have reservations about the model’s capacity to rebuild the labor movement. 

In 2013, he wrote an influential essay arguing that unions had to wait for workers to rise up on their own. “The workers will signal — loudly — when they want to organize,” he wrote. 

One alternative to comprehensive organizing is so-called “hot shop” organizing, in which angry workers invite an outside union to organize their workplace and the union agrees to gain new members. This approach to organizing is reactive, rather than proactive, and can lead to unions organizing disparate workplaces that have little in common.

Trying to gain members to make up for losses — a little public sector, a little health care, a few airlines, a little manufacturing — these unions are becoming general workers unions to stabilize their membership,” wrote Stephen Lerner, the campaign architect for SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign.

The attempt to organize warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama — which occurred at the same time as the ALU tried to organize in Staten Island, and whose results remain too close to call— is a classic example of hot shop organizing. In that case, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) targeted an Amazon warehouse after being invited in by upset workers. 

By contrast, ALU organized a union with strong natural leaders at the helm, and in a state with high union density compared to Alabama. The effort was fueled less by a strategic calculus mapping Amazon’s vulnerabilities in advance than by workers’ sheer outrage at conditions in the warehouses. 

Take, for instance, Derrick Palmer’s journey. “When I came to Amazon in 2015, I was just jumping around from temp job to temp job, trying to figure out my life.” 

Once he started working at Amazon, Palmer thought he had caught a lucky break. “They’re gonna look out for me,” he recalled thinking. “I was wrong.”

Despite being a model employee, he got passed over for a promotion. “I gave this company six years of my life. I exceeded expectations on numerous occasions. They actually flew me to Chicago to train other workers.” 

Then, he said, the pandemic threw into high relief how little Amazon cared about him and his co-workers. When Amazon fired Chris Smalls and Gerald Bryson for raising safety concerns, Palmer was transformed. “A new man was birthed,” he said.

Rather than invite a large outside union to come in and help organize Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, Smalls and his fellow organizers took on the task themselves. The bootstrapped nature of ALU led many in the labor movement to dismiss it as a sideshow. But it harkens back to militant struggles of rank-and-file workers in the heyday of organized labor’s power in the 1930s.

An alternative to both comprehensive organizing and hot shop organizing is “solidarity unionism,” in which workers begin acting like a union without any formal recognition from the government. Amazonians United, a network of warehouse workers spread across the United States and Canada, has operated on this model, building shop floor power through collective actions instead of trying to win NLRB elections.

AU workers lead marches on managers and stage workplace actions with the goal of instituting  workers’ control of the workplace – not just bread and butter issues, though they’ve won wage hikes, too.  

While ALU and RWDSU have tried to organize Amazon fulfillment and sortation centers, which are larger warehouses where goods are picked, stowed, and sorted for distribution, AU has focused its attention on disrupting Amazon’s last-mile delivery system in metro areas. 

“Amazon has been adding delivery stations to their logistics distribution network in clusters close to densely populated neighborhoods in order to make it easier for Amazon to execute same day or two-hour deliveries to residences,” said Charmaine Chua, assistant professor of global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  

In a show of shop floor power, AU staged walkouts at three delivery stations in New York and Maryland last month. 

ALU’s Approach

Like the recent organizing among Starbucks workers and journalists, ALU’s victory appears to be an example of what Brooks, the NewsGuild field director, calls “momentum organizing,” where successful organizing snowballs into more organizing. 

“Workers are in terrible conditions all over the country and when they see a public example of a group of people in a similar situation taking action to better their situation, it encourages them to do the same,” Brooks said. “So what was once a risky long-shot action by a small group of workers snowballs into a series of successes.”

When the time came to look for models for ALU, Smalls turned to unions with a history of militancy and class struggle unionism. He found that in the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). In July 2021, Smalls interviewed UE General President Carl Rosen on his podcast. 

“There’s a generation of younger folks who realize that the system isn’t working for them, and they’ve got to take power in their own hands,” Rosen said.

Rosen later connected ALU with Gene Bruskin, the former campaign director of UFCW’s Smithfield campaign in North Carolina, where workers lost multiple, bruising elections before finally winning one and securing a first contract.

“They were looking for somebody with good experience with a rank-and-file approach to organizing,” Rosen told me. “We have been lacking in the labor movement for quite a while for a model that’s going to meet the needs of the working-class and the challenges we face. And it seems that ALU might be a piece of the answer.”

ALU also received limited support from a number of established union locals: Communications Workers Local 1102, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and UNITE HERE Local 100, which provided ALU with meeting space and volunteers for phone banking.

“I started as a grill cook in the labor movement, so I connected with him because I was one of those members that was sick and tired of getting abused by the boss,” UNITE HERE Local 100 president José Maldonado said of his support for Smalls and ALU. “The labor movement has to support ALU to make sure that they can get a contract.”

Instead of house visits, the organizers focused on talking to their fellow workers one-on-one in the cafeteria and break areas. That was a source of debate within ALU, with college-educated workers with experience in political campaigns arguing in favor of house visits and blue-collar workers rejecting that approach as an invasion of privacy.

One of the workers arguing against house visits was former union dock worker Pasquale Cioffi, a highly respected Process Assistant, or worker trainer, who flipped hundreds of workers to the union’s side.

“People don't want you to know what they're doing in their house,” said Cioffi. “That's their own little getaway. And when they get out of work, they don't want to even be thinking about it.”

Once workers came to Cioffi to complain about ALU members showing up on their doorstep, the union stopped the house visits. Workers organizers rejected after a few failed house visits veteran organizer Jane McAlevey’s advice that “successful campaigns require house calls—unannounced physical visits to workers’ homes so the conversation can be had away from the company’s watchful eye.”  

But they turned to other tools at their disposal. Last December, Amazon reached a settlement with the NLRB after breaking labor law; it agreed to notify workers of their rights and let them organize freely on company property during non-work time. This allowed ALU supporters working inside the warehouse to reach potential members where they worked. They also set up WhatsApp chat groups to reach African workers. 

Olney, Luce, and Yeselson all pointed to the grassroots worker-to-worker organizing, which undermined union-busters’ efforts to define the union as an outside third-party.  

“It’s a good lesson for unions who focus on top-down strategies to win,” said Luce. “Those can work, but without authentic worker leadership, they will have a harder time. At the end of the day, there are far more workers than bosses. Bosses have the money, law, threats, and power to bully—but when workers have solidarity, they can win.”

Next Steps

On April 5, NPR asked Smalls what workers who want to organize can do. “They can do whatever they want,” he said. “If I can lead us to victory over Amazon, what’s stopping people from organizing in their workplace? Nothing. People need to get out of the mentality of, ‘I'll just quit my job.’ The system doesn't get fixed by doing that. We as the working class have to realize our value. If we don't go to work, these CEOs don't make their money.”

Once having little more in the way of resources than “two tables, two chairs in the tent,” as Smalls put it, the ALU can now count on support from the country’s largest and most powerful unions. Teamsters President Sean O’Brien and American Postal Workers Union Mark Dimondstein have pledged to support them, among other unions. 

“The cavalry has come,” Smalls said on Friday in reference to support from the Teamsters and other unions. “So Amazon, be prepared.” 

“Independent organizing drives have an organic authenticity that legacy unions can't match today,” said Yeselson. “But legacy unions have resources—organizers, lawyers, money, communications staff—that can help independent unions. So the trick is going to be to provide enough solidarity and support—but not so much that the legacy union looks like its big footing the workers.” 

The toughest fights may still be ahead for the union, as it seeks to unionize a second warehouse at the same Staten Island complex, known as LDJ5, and then to begin contract negotiations. 

Amazon has already taken aggressive steps to blunt the union’s power. On April 8th, the corporation filed 25 objections with the NLRB to try to invalidate the ALU’s victory. 

Even if these objections are ultimately rejected, the process of litigating them will delay the start of contract bargaining between ALU and Amazon. 

Smalls is already looking ahead to contract negotiations. 

“We want to deliver a contract,” he said on March 31, before all the ballots had been tallied in the election. “That’s what my main objective is, not just winning this election. This is the easy part, really.”

He paused. “And that’s even crazy to say, because it was hard as hell.”

Luis Feliz Leon is a New York City-based organizer, journalist, and independent scholar.
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