Want to Win a Union at Work? Here’s What the Amazon Labor Union Can Teach Us.   

It’s a cinematic David and Goliath story, slightly different versions of which have now been told by The New York Times, Time, NPR and dozens of others: “Two best friends” led a walkout at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, and one of them was fired. They formed an independent union to collect thousands of signatures to trigger a union recognition vote. To get food and weed, they offered free food at a bus stop just outside the facility. They had to win the election after Chris Smalls (the friend) and Derrick Palmer (the associate). They gave away free food after a favorable federal court ruling. Inside the facility, too, and even “used TikTok” to garner support. The company tried to shut them down, even sending the NYPD to stop them from — can you guess? — Free food. They won, despite all odds!

You could be forgiven for reading this story and wondering, if so many workers (and established unions) have access to many of the same tools — GoFundMe, social media and, yes chicken and pasta — why did the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) succeed where every other previousThe previous 28 years of Amazon unionization efforts were unsuccessful. As Julian Mitchell-Israel, the union’s field director, told The Guardian, “There’s just so much talk about this union in a way that, I think, abstracts it and makes it into a phenomenon that it’s not.”

Federal laws are stacked against any kind of union election victory, so whenever any group of workers succeeds, it’s due to the elements of luck, good timing and unique circumstances that can’t be precisely replicated.

But the secret story of the biggest single workplace union election victory in the nation since 1996 is still to be revealed 2008This is one of the most underutilized and overlooked methods and tools ALU organizers used, far beyond what was available for free. marijuanaTikTok trolling. As workplace organizing takes off Starbucks, Apple Stores and at other companies that have long resisted unions, it’s worth understanding what they did that led 2,654 workers at a facility of over 8,000 to vote for a union for the first time in the company’s history. Gaining knowledge of the particulars of the ALU campaign won’t provide a blueprint for future organizing, but it can supply key lessons that inform a range of future efforts.

Lesson 1 – Moving From Spontaneity To Study

The seeds of ALU were sown after Chris Smalls led an immediate, but brief response. walkoutIn March 2020, they resisted the lack of worker protections in the face the growing pandemic. However, the group became more united around the goal of turning that moment into an organization nearly a full year later when it went on a trip to Bessemer, Alabama to support workers organizing. After watching that “blowout” in real time, those current former employees of the Staten Island warehouse saw the opportunity that a union election could bring, as opposed to the other organizing efforts that have avoided seeking union elections in Amazon facilities in Chicago and Minneapolis. They searched for it adviceFrom labor organizers with long-standing experience who had won similar campaigns or were inclined towards campaigns that were led by rank-and–file workers, rather than staff organizers. They read articles in publications such as The ForgeJustine Medina, the organizer, will be telling the story Tech Won’t Save UsThey looked back at other historical moments when industrial giants were successfully unified, such as the campaignA century ago, U.S. steel companies were organized.

Lesson 2: Using “Inside” and “Outside” Committees

One of the ALU’s big takeaways from Bessemer: They had to be as visible inside the workplace as outside. The union in Bessemer didn’t have an active presence inside the workplace, and their outside committee — despite prolific use of catered meals and endorsements by celebrities like Danny Glover — failed to generate necessary support from workers at the facility. Amazon’s union-busting consultants “owned the narrative” with their captive audience meetings and constant misinformation, while union officials, volunteers and politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders staged rallies on the outside. ALU had a visible recruiting committee that was centered around the bus stop. However, a more important organizing group of twelve current workers split up the departments on the night and day shifts. They used group text to coordinate their schedules to ensure that a few were present at all times. A Telegram chat was also established for all current employees to receive updates. (At the LDJ5 Amazon Sort Center — the warehouse in Long Island with a predominantly part-time workforce where ALU lost the recognition vote three weeks later — the union had comparatively fewer longtime workers on their “inside committee” with relationships across departments.)

Lesson 3: Identifying Workplace “Influencers”

ALU recognized that the key to reaching thousands upon thousands of workers was to identify the few dozen who were most trusted on their shifts. This included current managers (called “process assistants”), like ALU’s vice president Derrick Palmer, who supervised other workers but didn’t have disciplinary authority, and company veterans who had been around for years, many of whom were still upset about having bonus compensation stripped awayIn 2018. “I pretty much flipped my whole department” of 100 people, Palmer told Labor Notes, estimating that 70% had become “yes” voters. “What I’ll do is study a group of friends and go to the leader of the pack. Whatever the leader says, the rest of the group is going to do.” Identifying workplace leaders who had earned the trust of their coworkers was key. Smalls noted that Bessemer is a good example. interview, the facility was so new that the workers didn’t have time to develop networks of trust across shifts and departments, and many of them viewed the jobs as temporary. But most of the ALU’s lead organizers had been on staff at JFK8 for more than four years, a significant boost in a facility where employees who lasted more than five months were considered “veterans.”

ALU organizer Angelika Maldonado credits the trust Chris Smalls built as a supervisor with her own willingness to get involved: “I used to be like, well, my Process Assistant, she sucks. I wish he were my Process Assistant. You could tell he cared about the people he worked with.” Gathering these influencers together on a committee takes time, and the ALU only had three weeks to focus exclusively on integrating and mobilizing those relationships at LDJ5 following their success at JFK8.

Lesson 4: Exposing Consultants and Battling Amazon’s Disinformation

Many union elections fail due to the fact that management effectively pushes its propaganda in mandatory one/in-one and small group meetings, pamphlets, and videos. There is no other infrastructure from the union. But in a facility where most workers spend ten hours a day alone at their stations, ALU organizers didn’t wait for workers to come to them to dispel disinformation. They followed the nearly two dozen anti-union consultants around the facility, passing out disclosure forms showing their $3,200/day rates for “union avoidance” work. The union tried to ensure an organizer would be present at every group captive audience meeting, at which Amazon’s consultants tried to make workers believe they would immediately be on the hook for paying hundreds of dollars in union dues, among other lies. As they questioned the information being made public, organizers coordinated on talking points. They even recordedMany of these meetings were held so that they could counter the talking points later on in Telegram chats or on TikTok.

“Once we had an organizer in a meeting, the goal wasTo completely shut it down,” as the ALU’s Connor Spence told HuffPost. “We’d interrupt them whenever they made inaccurate statements, and ask so many questions that they had no choice but to end the meeting. As time went on, even milder people who were pro-union started speaking out.” And to create a sense of momentum, ALU ramped up its visibility within the facility over time, as Angelika Maldonado explained to Jacobin:

Around the end last year, the ALU started giving out union shirts. So when some folks started wearing their shirts in the building, that’s really when a lot of other people started seeing how much support there was. We had to purchase more shirts for everyone after that. And as the election was getting closer, we really amped up our game — the last thing we did in the campaign was to get lanyards, about three or four thousand of them. People could see how many lanyards were being given out during shift changes to show their support.

Lesson 5: Seizing on Amazon’s Mistakes to Grow Their Support

The ALU had opportunities to show workers who believed Amazon was a benevolent employer that Amazon had a hidden agenda at work. They took advantage of the leak. memo describing Smalls as a “thug” and scrutinized the statements of anti-union consultants, which resulted in more than 40 unfair labor practice chargesAmazon was also named in the lawsuits. Each one was used like a press release to sway workers who weren’t sure if the company had their best interests at heart. The company even conspired to make it harder for them to exercise their protected rights. ALU rushed to persuade workers that this was “the last straw” and that it necessitated unionization.

Lesson 6: Filing complaints and pushing the federal government to intervene

A number of charges of illegal behavior were filed by ALU and Amazon organizers at various facilities. A nationwide settlement was reached with the National Labor Relations Board, which created more protections, including the first-ever authorization for Amazon organizers to host events inside the facility’s break room. (The Biden administration’s personnel changes at the NLRB played a role in facilitating this decision, but the agency would not have acted without aggressive action by ALU’s rank and file organizers and their volunteer attorneys.) The company’s bad behavior continues today — even following the votes at JFK8 and LDJ5, Amazon continues to retaliate againstALU organizers and the NLRB recently suedThe company will seek reinstatement of an ALU organizer fired by the company. (To highlight the differences between presidential administrations: in fiscal year 2020 the NLRB helped 978 workers receive an offer of reinstatement; 2021 will see that number increase to 222. roseTo 6,307. Smalls said he accepted an invitation to visit the White House partly to put pressure on the administration to make more aggressive use of the NLRB’s powers, telling a group days later, “there’s a reason they didn’t air my audio [from the White House].”

Lesson 7: Crafting demands to reach new groups of workers

Many labor organizing novices mistakenly believe that asking to be paid more is the best way to gain majority support in a workplace. But ALU’s organizers listened carefully to their coworkers as they built out their recognition campaign, to distill the issues that generated the most righteous indignation across departments, beyond “the choir” that had already signed the group’s petition. They were able to expand their recognition campaign. list of demands to address transportation and scheduling, in addition to what many described as “brutal” physical conditions. (At the LDJ5, which a different type package facility, ALU planners foundThere was less immediate support partly because the physical demands on workers weren’t as severe, and shorter shifts than at JFK8.

They also explored mini-campaigns that could be run around workplace issues. Maddie Wesley, ALU Treasurer, was one of these opportunities. explainedFollowing her unsuccessful attempts at getting management to intervene, she was being sexually harassed and raped by a coworker.

Chris and other union workers began to protest outside the building, demanding Amazon address the numerous sexual harassment cases we knew were occurring in LDJ5. I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who was going through this. I began to share my story with my coworkers. Similar experiences were shared by other women. Two days after the ALU began protesting, the workers who were harassing women were fired. This proves that the union is powerful and that every worker should have a union.

Lesson 8: Disciplined and Skeptical Vote Counting

ALU’s organizers conducted daily phone banks of Amazon workers at the UNITE HERE Local 100 office, to assess their support and reconfirm “yes” votes in the days before the vote, alongside their organizing committee’s work to get commitments to vote “yes” from coworkers in break rooms and in side conversations. Many workplaces give organizers a false sense victory from the pro-union activists in the echo chamber. But the ALU team didn’t let their guard down, as the group’s field director Julian Mitchell-Israel told the Oberlin Review:

I believed that we had less then a 50% chance of winning until about a week before the election. We were seeing numbers from phone banking that were putting us around a 60-to-70-percent “yes” vote, but I was really reticent to take those numbers at face value because, from what we were hearing from the organizers inside of the warehouse and talking to a lot of the workers, there was an incredible amount of union-busting going on. I felt that the people who spoke to us on the phone were more open to talking to us and more willing to vote yes. I was concerned that the data we were receiving was false. It was only a few days before the election that I felt confident that we had a chance. And then it took until the first day of the vote count for me to be like, “oh, s**t, we actually might unionize Amazon.”

Lesson 9 – Learning from failures

The ALU was forced into withdrawIts first petition for a union electoral (which would have covered Four warehouses) because they hadn’t signed up enough workers to overcome JFK8’s high turnover, which required them to set even higher goals for themselves to resubmit the petition in December. As organizer Cassio Mendoza explained:

We were losing 80 to 100 workers per week, so every time we didn’t get a minimum of 20 signatures in a day, we were actually moving backwards. It was an uphill battle the entire time to just get 100-plus new signatures per week.” Many similar rank and file-led efforts end there, after the first attempt. They filed in December with JFK8 as their focus and then filed for an additional election at LDGJ5. And the group is currently regrouping after that loss, reflecting on having had to lean more on national publicity and their ‘outside strategy’ for a vote that took place only three weeks after the JFK8 win, with Chris telling a crowd of labor activists that they hadn’t engaged enough current employees: “We learned another lesson in our second election. We brought Bernie, AOC, all the unions from New York State and beyond, to our rally in Staten Island. Guess what? We lost 2-1. It didn’t matter.”

Lesson 10: Small Invitations & Not Giving Up After “The First Ask”

If there was a “secret recipe” to winning the largest single union recognition vote in fourteen years, it might be the culture the ALU created of quiet, persistent persuasion. Far from the easy decision many reporters have portrayed in their dispatches on the union’s mealtime recruitment tactics, many if not most of the ALU’s “yes” voters didn’t settle on joining after a single short conversation or breakroom meal with an organizer, as Angelika Maldonado explainedI will use the example of a worker, who initially expressed opposition to the proposal:

One time, I was speaking to a guy about my age, twenty-eight, and he was talking about how he was in the military, and he believes a lot of the workers don’t work as hard as him, and that we shouldn’t get a raise, because that would mean everybody would get a raise. He felt he should only get a raise because he’d worked there for four years. I explained to him how everybody’s role is different, and how we’re not only fighting for Tier 1 employees, but we’re also fighting for Tier 3 employees. He was like, ‘I’m not really voting for the union.’ I said, ‘I’m right here whenever you want to speak to me.’ Two weeks later, we were outside giving out lanyards, and he came up with one of the organizers named Casio and said, ‘Guess what? I’m voting yes!’… He said, ‘You softened me up a bit, but then I spoke to Casio, and I’m all in now!’

Often, the journey to voting “yes” began with an invitation to connect, learn and continue to receive updates, even if they said “no” initially to signing either a petition for union representation or a union card.

Lesson 11: Leaning on Volunteers Coalition Partners and Community Groups

The ALU received donations of office space, phone bank resources, and legal assistance from unions such as the UFCW and UNITE HERE. recruited volunteers to “salt,” or get hired at the facility with the purpose of helping convince more workers to join the union. They also sought out community organizations with connections to groups of workers who hadn’t yet signed up in large numbers. One example: leader with the African Community Alliance of Staten IslandHe used his connections with local soccer teams as a way to encourage Amazon employees to support the union.

Is it a Miracle, a Method, or a Method?

It can be confusing for casual observers and novice workplace organizers to decide what to make of competing headlines. trumpeting walkouts and “Striketober” with losses that followed unusual, wall-to-wall national news coverageThe days before an office election loss. Are the string of Starbucks’ union victories and JFK8 miraculous outliers? In response to that common confusion, teachers’ union activists are fond of saying, “It’s not magic, it’s organizing,” and researchThis is supported by this: Workers can use multiple methods specifically designed to generate support. TheyEmployer opposition is defeated more often when workplaces win. These methods aren’t miraculous, but they are effective. A little over halfThe union recognition elections held at the NLRB last spring resulted union representation in a workplace that did not have one. The barriers to success were removed. enormous. The ALU shows that it’s still possible to win historic union elections, even under current federal rules. Let’s go beneath the popular “rags to riches story” and remember the key lessons of this struggle, so we can carry them into other fights.