By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN Business
In April, a grassroots worker group made history by gaining enough votes to form the first US union at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, in what was widely viewed as a “David vs. Goliath” battle. The next month, that same group, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), fell short at a smaller facility across the street.
Now, the group is about to make its third attempt. On Wednesday, workers at an Amazon facility near Albany, New York, will begin voting on whether to join the ALU and become the second unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States. Ballot-casting will take place from Wednesday through Monday, with the vote-count scheduled for Oct. 18, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The stakes are high for the union at the facility, known as ALB1. The vote could help determine whether the ALU’s initial win was a one-off or the first of an untold number of union victories that could galvanize more workers elsewhere and put greater pressure on Amazon. It also comes as Amazon has still not formally recognized the union in Staten Island or come to the bargaining table. Instead, Amazon continues to push back against the group’s victory with the NLRB.
Workers around the country “at other Amazon facilities and other companies” are watching the vote this week, according to Thomas Kochan, a labor researcher and professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Institute for Work and Employment Research. He said Amazon’s pushback to the ALU in Staten Island has revealed how the cards are stacked against workers trying to unionize.
“Some will get discouraged because they see how futile and how difficult it is,” Kochan said. “Others are going to get incensed by this.”
In an interview with CNN Business, ALU president Chris Smalls said he has been at the ALB1 facility as often as he can to meet with workers. But he nonetheless appeared to play down the ramifications of the latest vote, suggesting the organizing activity itself is a victory. “The expansion of the ALU is definitely historical by itself,” he said. “I don’t think nothing’s up for stake,”
“Win or lose, I think workers fighting back is just amazing to see,” he said.
On Tuesday, Smalls tweeted news that another Amazon fulfillment center in Moreno Valley, California, submitted a petition for a union election with the ALU. The NLRB confirmed to CNN Business that it had received the petition.
Smalls, a former Amazon worker who was fired during the pandemic, has emerged as the new face of a US labor movement that has languished for decades. In recent months, he’s been photographed visiting the White House clad in a jacket emblazoned with the phrase “Eat the Rich” and posing with celebrities like Zendaya while dripped in a designer outfit at the Time 100 summit. The attention on him, combined with ALU’s stunning victory, have helped boost the group’s momentum at other facilities while a similar effort from a more established labor union has sputtered.
“The win at JFK8 [in Staten Island] is what kicked this all off,” said Samuel Molik, an Amazon worker at the ALB1 facility. Of Smalls, Molik said: “He’s the inspiration to be able to stand up, to be able to bring workers together to demand better conditions, demand a seat at the table.”
Amazon has long maintained that it prefers working with employees directly, versus through a union. In response to request for comment on the ALB1 vote, Paul Flaningan, an Amazon spokesperson, told CNN in a statement: “We remain skeptical that there are a sufficient number of legitimate signatures to support the union’s petition for an election, but the NLRB is moving forward.”
“We’ve always said that we want our employees to have their voices heard, and we hope and expect this process allows for that,” Flaningan added.
Fighting to expand on a ‘surprise’ win
Heather Goodall said she was inspired to start organizing the union at the facility near Albany after seeing so many of her colleagues get injured on the job. A recent report from the National Employment Law Project found that the ALB1 facility had the highest rates of “most serious injuries” among all Amazon facilities in the state.
Flaningan said Amazon ramped up hiring to meet demand from Covid-19 “and like other companies in the industry, we saw an increase in recordable injuries during this time from 2020 to 2021 as we trained so many new employees.” He added that the company has invested billions of dollars in new operations safety measures.
Goodall, the lead organizer at ALB1, said she and fellow workers met with representatives from other unions, including the Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the latter of which has tried and so far failed to unionize an Amazon facility in Alabama. But they quickly found common ground when meeting with the ALU.
“We came in with the understanding that Amazon was going to be a beast and a bully, and they were going to do everything in their power to stop the union,” she said. “When we met with the ALU, we understood that they already beat the billion-dollar bully.”
Kochan said he believes the ALU’s victory in Staten Island “surprised everyone, including Amazon.” The ALU’s push, which was motivated in part by frustrations with the company’s pandemic response and a broader spotlight on racial inequities in the United States, came as RWDSU’s efforts in Alabama floundered.
While Kochan said the ALU’s victory in Staten Island is an inspiration to workers across the country, the pushback the group has received throughout the union drive and after reveals how difficult it is to form a collective bargaining unit under current labor laws, which are mostly enforced by financial penalties.
“I think they have an uphill battle ahead,” Kochan said of the union vote at the ALB1 facility. “Our labor law is completely out-of-date and ineffective in protecting workers’ rights to organize. The law is supposed to provide workers the ability to organize a union free of employer retaliation, but in reality, the penalties are too weak, the enforcement takes too long.”
Goodall said she has faced numerous HR investigations and had the police called on her multiple times since she began trying to unionize the facility. One of those police encounters she recorded and posted on Twitter, after the law enforcement officers who arrived at the scene ended up encouraging their unionizing efforts when she explained what she was trying to do. The encounter received more than 80,000 views on Twitter. Flaningan said Amazon doesn’t retaliate against any employee “for exercising their federally protected rights to organize.” He said Amazon has only called the local police when non-employees were on site.
While retaliating against workers seeking to unionize is illegal, Goodall said she thinks this doesn’t matter to Amazon because it can afford to pay any fines it may face later. “It is absolutely an unfair game that they are creating,” she said.
Goodall hopes unionizing at her facility will lead to a “better quality of life” for workers. “That includes, of course, higher wages,” she said, but emphasized that it’s also about “being respected and appreciated” as workers for a company as powerful and wealthy as Amazon.
Smalls, meanwhile, told CNN that the ALU has been fielding an explosion of interest from other Amazon workers who were similarly inspired by its victory in April. “We got buildings and workers reaching out from all over the country,” Smalls said.
“We want to inspire other people to get involved and take back their power, and it’s been happening with Starbucks, and other industries,” Smalls added. “We’re just happy to be another piece to the labor movement as it continues to grow.”
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