However you feel about unions, there is no denying that the vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island marks an inflection point for the e-commerce superpower.
At the beginning of the month, the workers of Amazon’s JFK-8 fulfillment center voted to join a new local organization, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), by a vote of 2,654 to 2,131. But the nation’s second-largest employer is already pushing back.
Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) acted swiftly after the vote, leveling accusations of voter coercion and intimidation by the ALU in a filing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The company had until last Friday to provide proof of those allegations, which the NLRB will take time to review.
If the NLRB rules against Amazon, then the vote at the Staten Island facility will mark the first time in Amazon’s 28-year history that one of its facilities successfully unionized. But what would that win really mean for the workers of JFK-8, for Amazon, and for the millions of workers at its hundreds of U.S. facilities who just witnessed an unprecedented victory?
“While the first successful campaign to unionize workers at an Amazon warehouse might be considered historical and a game-changer, it remains to be seen whether the ALU will have continued success,” Richard E. Custin, clinical professor of business law and ethics at the University of San Diego’s Knauss School of Business, told Modern Shipper.
Breaking the mold
A good way to gauge the ALU’s path ahead could be to look at some similar cases.
Even among the few companies that leverage a nationwide network of warehouses, Amazon is still somewhat unique. UPS, which operates a network comparable to Amazon’s, has been unionized for decades through the Teamsters, an international labor union with over one million members in the U.S. and Canada. But the circumstances that led to UPS unionizing don’t necessarily apply to Amazon.
“UPS has been around much longer than Amazon,” Dr. Richard Kilgore, instructor of management and business administration at Maryville University, told Modern Shipper. “And those efforts started way back when UPS was more of a trucking company, rather than a third party logistics company.”
Kilgore thinks a more apt comparison for Amazon would be Walmart, which has successfully discouraged its own warehouse workers from unionizing. He said part of what makes both companies unique in the warehousing space is the sheer scale of their networks. That size can create a fragmented workforce — and fragmented unionization efforts.
“It is a local type of union rather than a national type of union, in that very few companies have so many distribution centers across the country,” Kilgore explained.
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That’s not to say that entities like the Teamsters haven’t tried to recruit local Amazon facilities to join a larger national union. A countrywide organization called the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) attempted to support workers in a union vote at another Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama.
But those efforts didn’t exactly pan out — pro-union voters were crushed by a margin of 1,738 to 798.
“It’s an external entity, a third party. Nobody knows these people. They’re coming in and trying to get you excited about organizing as a local union within their national union,” Kilgore reasoned, “whereas the Staten Island effort was a grassroots, bottom-up movement.”
While the pro-union workers at the Bessemer facility will get another shot — the NLRB ordered a revote after ruling that Amazon interfered in the election — they might have benefitted by taking a page from their New York counterparts’ playbook.
At the Bessemer warehouse, union organizers were backed by the 56,000-member RWDSU. The workers at JFK-8 in Staten Island, meanwhile, got most of their funding from a GoFundMe. Yet Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, the two men who founded the ALU, used the $120,000 they raised in that fundraiser to strike fear into the heart of a multibillion dollar company.
“Amazon, as one of the largest private companies in the United States, has unlimited resources to oppose unionization,” Custin said. “However, in a David and Goliath battle, the ALU, unlike a well-funded and traditional Teamster campaign, successfully manipulated grassroots activities such as crowdsourcing and small intimate gatherings to score a victory over Amazon.”
A recipe for success
So why did things work in Staten Island? For one, Amazon warehouse workers have made it clear that they are unhappy with their treatment, particularly since the advent of COVID. Stories of employees facing near-constant surveillance, being required to meet unrealistic productivity quotas and, yes, peeing in bottles have come out in recent years, which provided the Staten Island employees with a motive to unionize.
“The ALU’s strategic win can be credited to a post-COVID work environment and a direct challenge to Amazon’s close monitoring of worker productivity, which often results in worker dissatisfaction, especially if carried to an extreme,” explained Custin.
Second, while many workers in Bessemer viewed the RWDSU as an enemy, most of the workers in Staten Island felt that the real enemy was Amazon. In Bessemer, Amazon enlisted an anti-union consultancy to act as an opposing force to the RWDSU. It argued that settling disputes internally would be better for employees than working with an outside entity that might not have their best interests in mind.
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Contrast that to Staten Island. Amazon again spent millions to bring in anti-union consultants but because the movement at JFK-8 was homegrown, workers there saw Amazon as the outsider attempting to hijack their efforts.
Third, Kilgore believes that New York’s high rate of unionization — second only to Hawaii — helped foster an atmosphere of togetherness among the Staten Island workers. Many of these employees were used to seeing unions succeed. Some may have even had family members that were in them. That made their arduous task seem a bit more realistic.
“I don’t know too many examples of that being the path to unionization at warehouses — ever,” Kilgore said of JFK-8’s grassroots strategy.
But nevertheless, it worked, and it could spur change from Amazon’s top brass.
“Time will tell whether the ALU is a JV squad or simply a one-off,” Custin speculated. “The ball is now in Amazon’s court to make meaningful changes in the workplace.”
Amazon’s next move
According to Kilgore, the threat of unionization alone might be enough to get Amazon to make concessions. Already, an Amazon facility across the street from JFK-8 is preparing for its own union vote, also backed by the ALU. That’s in addition to another warehouse in New Jersey that has expressed interest in its own election.
Kilgore predicts that other Amazon and non-Amazon warehouses in highly unionized areas — think cities like Chicago or Atlanta, where a group of Apple employees inspired by the ALU’s win at JFK-8 are attempting to unionize — will follow suit, starting their own grassroots movements. And that potential nightmare, from Amazon’s standpoint, could finally lead to some action.
“The best thing for the Amazon employees nationwide is simply the threat of this happening in another place. It’s going to make Amazon a much better parent,” he asserted. “They’ll want to make it look like Staten Island is the best place to work ever. The management of Staten Island would be dumb not to, because they want to use this example to show everybody else.”
Kilgore thinks Amazon will attempt to improve the working conditions of its facilities, starting with JFK-8. He doesn’t predict sweeping changes. But the company might make some smaller concessions as a way to discourage other facilities from following Staten Island.
That’s important, because it could be months — or even years — before the ALU formally unionizes JFK-8.
“The step they’ve taken is really the first in a series of steps. It’s not over — they haven’t really been unionized until they ratify the contract,” Kilgore explained. “If Amazon wants to, they can stretch that out over multiple years. Then you have years of contract negotiations going on, and you could have lawsuits coming up because of that.”
In the meantime, the ALU will attempt to spread its influence to other Amazon warehouses, beginning with LDJ5, the other Staten Island facility. Kilgore believes the union could follow in the footsteps of Ford employees. Those workers unionized the entire company warehouse by warehouse, ultimately forming a companywide organization.
It will most likely take years for the ALU or another organization to win over enough facilities to do the same. But the ball is rolling, and it’s now in Amazon’s court.
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