Over 8,000 Amazon warehouse workers successfully unionize in unprecedented triumph of the U.S. labor movement

Owen McCarthy ‘22, Editor-in-Chief

On Friday, April 1, Amazon workers at JFK8, a warehouse located in Staten Island, voted to approve the first ever union representative of Amazon warehouse employees in the U.S.. The votes totaled 2,654 in favor of the union, and 2,131 against it. 

This worker-led effort was founded by former Amazon employee, Christian Smalls, who was fired in March of 2020, subsequent to a walkout that he staged in protest of the safety conditions in the warehouse. The company claimed that Smalls was fired because he violated quarantine protocol by partaking in the walkout.

Many speculate that Amazon’s true motive in firing Smalls was in line with the company’s long history of union busting and thwarting any attempts of worker organization. The New York Times reported—in regards to the walkout that got Smalls fired—that “In the end, there were more executives—including 11 vice presidents—who were alerted about the protest than workers who attended it.” Additionally, it has been revealed that Amazon’s initial public relations strategy was to posture Smalls as “the face” of efforts to unionize, smearing him as “not smart, or articulate” in an email sent out by Amazon’s chief counsel to over 1,000 people.  

After being fired, Smalls, along with his close friend from the warehouse, Derrick Palmer, began working tirelessly to garner support for their organization which they named Amazon Labor Union (ALU). They were resourceful, relying entirely on themselves as they lacked the support of any established labor unions in the U.S.. Among their efforts were starting a GoFundMe, setting up bonfires for and bringing food to Amazon employees, and posting TikToks intended to reach Amazon workers across the city. 

Although the movement was an entirely grassroots effort, Smalls and company did catch the attention of some progressive, pro-union politicians. Among these politicians was New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents many of the workers at JFK8. The Hill correspondent Jordan Chariton, who covered ALU’s first press conference during the summer of 2021, reported that the organization was promoting to media members in attendance that they had had correspondence with Cortez and received word she would be in attendance at an upcoming rally. However, Cortez subsequently canceled, citing security concerns. Some have seen this as a disingenuous excuse, considering Cortez’s public appearance at the Met Gala mere weeks later. Furthermore, Cortez stopped offering support for the organization and its efforts around this period on social media.

While the true reason for Cortez’ faltering support cannot be truly known, political commentator and host of the podcast Breaking Points, Saagar Enjeti, hypothesized that Cortez and other politicians likely stopped offering support after being told by powerful, established unions that ALU would be unsuccessful, and associating with the union would be a bad political move. Regardless, many have interpreted this occurrence as suggesting that the support of pro-union politicians is not unconditional, especially when the chips are down and the politicians perceive a potential risk to their political ambitions. While celebrating the election victory, Smalls was asked if he had a message for Cortez to which he responded, “Hell no. She don’t deserve this moment.” 

Although the formation of the union is a monumental victory and a step toward dramatically shifting the dynamics between large corporations and their employees in the U.S., there is still plenty of work ahead for ALU. Voting to form the union does not mean that any collective bargaining agreement has been reached, and one can count on Amazon wielding all the power it has to ensure that the company’s say in any negotiations will outweigh that of the union. 

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