For the first time in its nearly twenty-eight years in business, Amazon faces union negotiations over its employment practices. An independent union start-up founded by a fired employee, Chris Smalls, took on the 1.6 trillion dollar company with about 120,000 dollars in GoFundMe donations to campaign for and win a bid to unionize the JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island, New York City. The final vote count tallied by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on April 1 was 2,654 to 2,131 in favor.
Amazon, the second largest private employer in the United States, overtook Walmart during the pandemic to become the country’s number one apparel retailer. Wells Fargo estimated that Amazon’s apparel and footwear sales in the US grew by roughly fifteen percent in 2020 to more than 41 billion dollars as customers stuck at home turned to e-commerce. Although many established fashion brands remain wary of selling their designs next to potential counterfeits on the same site, Amazon launched its digital “Luxury Stores” concept in September 2020 featuring Fifth Avenue favorites like Oscar de la Renta, Altuzarra, and Elie Saab.
With Amazon now processing 30 to 35 percent of online apparel sales, as Wells Fargo analysts noted to CNBC, it is worth considering whether their extreme model of operating should be held up as a standard for other retailers or marked for disruption, given the company’s documented drain on the localities and industries it affects. This historic unionization effort brings back into focus the loveless but symbiotic relationship of a company and a city as well as the human toll of expedited delivery for the masses and some of the anti-democratic measures required to achieve that.
Amazon’s History with New York
New York City, while an important, lucrative market to Amazon, has been somewhat of a thorn in the company’s side over the years. New York has been a strong union state with the second-highest union membership rate in the nation at 22 percent in 2021 compared to the share of workers who belong to a union nationally, 10.3 percent according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That has traditionally thwarted the plans of anti-union companies like Amazon and Walmart from getting their hooks into the city in any significant way, with Walmart never opening a store on city ground.
In 2018, the JFK8 Amazon warehouse opened on Staten Island and within months there was a unionization effort, though it was unsuccessful. Also that year, after a circus-like contest where cities around the country were pitted against each other to bid for Amazon’s second headquarters by way of tax subsidies and incentives, New York was chosen as what many deemed to be a predetermined winner along with Virgina—Amazon decided each would get a headquarters. Pushback in New York mounted against the deal, which was made without public input and behind closed doors with the Governor and Mayor at the time.
After protests from some members of the public and strong pushback from unions like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the Teamsters, a contentious hearing took place where Amazon representatives were aggressively questioned by the City Council, which had not been included in negotiations. Frustrated with the company’s answers about the need for the 3 billion dollars in tax subsidies they would receive, a proposed helipad for executives, their bypassing of the city’s Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), and their stance on unions, the Speaker of the City Council, Corey Johnson, called out, “Does the word monopoly bother you? Do you think monopolistic behavior helps or hurts us as a society?”
Not long after, Amazon abruptly pulled out of the deal. The New York Times noted at the time that, “Amazon can deliver toothpaste in traffic-snarled Manhattan on the same day an order is placed. But when it came to navigating the politics of New York, the company appeared out of step, a giant stumbling onto a political stage that—despite its data-driven success—it never fully understood.”
In spite of the bad blood, Amazon has still expanded its presence in New York City without fanfare and incentives. In 2019 Amazon quietly leased office space in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. In March 2020, Amazon bought the iconic former Lord & Taylor building on Fifth Avenue from the co-working company WeWork, just as the city was shutting down due to Covid-19. And while the pandemic seized the city and online shopping surged, Amazon snapped up warehouse space, without facing much complaint, and significantly expanded to twelve warehouses in the five boroughs, according to the New York Times. In 2021 Forbes credited Amazon and the tech industry with leading the recovery in New York’s office leasing market.
Still, the city remains quick to remind the company of its shortcomings, posting on the official @nycgov Twitter account on Prime Day last year, “Happy Monday to everyone except a trillion-dollar corporation that refuses to pay their fair share in taxes and protect their workers. Shop local today and support the small businesses that actually give back to our communities.”
Amazon’s pandemic policies were the last straw for workers on Staten Island
“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space,” Chris Smalls said to the media outside the NLRB office in Brooklyn after the vote tally last week, “because when he was up there, we were signing people up.”
Smalls, now the President of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at 33-years old, was fired from his job in March 2020 after leading a walkout at the JFK8 facility to demand better workplace protections from a virus that at the time there was no vaccine for and little understanding of how its transmission occurred. Amazon has stated that Smalls was fired for violating health and safety rules, while internal company documents obtained by The Intercept from court proceedings demonstrate the company was aware of the planned walkout and was discussing Smalls’ termination prior to the event. Amazon has long viewed protests and unionization efforts as an existential threat and has spent millions of dollars to fight them. Disclosures filed by Amazon with the US Department of Labor showed that Amazon spent more than 4 million dollars on anti-union consultants in 2021. The NLRB states on its website that all employees—union or not—have the right to participate in a protected strike, picket, or protest.
In February 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against Amazon over its failures to provide adequate health and safety measures for employees at the New York facilities and for the company’s retaliatory actions against multiple employees amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Court records also revealed that while employees were concerned about rising infection rates, Amazon was not notifying employees about cases with urgency and refused to pause operations as JFK8 was one of the city’s few lifelines. Smalls, for example, had been exposed to a confirmed case on March 11, 2020 but was not notified until March 28, according to the Guardian. Amazon disclosed later in October that more than 19,000 of its frontline workers in the US contracted the coronavirus between March and September that year.
Another top concern of union organizers is pay—they seek 30 dollars per hour in New York, which has high living costs. A Bloomberg analysis of government labor statistics revealed that many Amazon warehouse employees struggle to pay their bills, with some employees even relying on federal food assistance—another way the government subsidizes the trillion dollar company. Bloomberg’s findings also showed that in communities where Amazon opens large warehouses, average logistics industry wages tend to fall. “Wherever Amazon goes, the company has a track record of mistreating workers and violating their rights,” a New York member of the Teamsters told the New York Post in 2019.
Some of that mistreatment includes the tracking—down to the minute—of an employee’s time, productivity, and bathroom breaks. The ALU hopes to negotiate for longer breaks as well as real sick days, as these jobs are very physically demanding and stressful. The National Employment Law Project contributed to a 2020 report titled “Packaging Pain” and found that workplace injury incidents in Amazon warehouses are twice that of the national average for the warehouse industry. The ALU also wants union representation at all disciplinary meetings and no mandatory overtime outside of peak times.
What Happens Next
The Amazon Labor Union demanded in a press release after their win that negotiations with Amazon begin in early May. Amazon, however, has objected to the union's victory citing interference and accusing the new union of threatening workers unless they voted to organize, according to Reuters. The NLRB is giving Amazon two more weeks to back up its objections.
The National Retail Federation, the world's largest retail trade association, has also sent a letter to Congress asking members of the Education and Labor Committees to investigate the timing of an NLRB General Counsel’s lawsuit against Amazon in which a judge was asked to issue an injunction forcing Amazon to give another fired employee and ALU organizer, Gerald Bryson, his job back. Bryson was fired for a verbal altercation he had with another employee while protesting outside the warehouse. The National Retail Federation argues that the timing of the lawsuit was meant to influence the outcome of the election in favor of the union.
Still, this successful union campaign by the grassroots ALU is likely to fuel even more momentum in other labor drives. Reuters reports that nine US Starbucks stores have voted to organize and 150 more are seeking elections. Another Amazon facility in Staten Island is set to vote on unionization later this month and Chris Smalls announced on Twitter that since the win, workers from over fifty Amazon warehouses have contacted the ALU looking to replicate their success—including in Canada and the UK.
While that may be difficult to do outside of New York in areas where there is less familiarity of what unions can do and how they benefit workers, such efforts would have a high-profile cheering section. On Wednesday, President Biden spoke at the North America’s Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference and touted the opportunity, dignity, and respect he has long believed that unions provide. “That’s why I created the White House Task Force on Worker Organization and Empowerment, to make sure the choice to join a union belongs to workers alone,” he said. “And by the way Amazon, here we come.”