Amazon workers’ recent warehouse unionization win Is one small step for workers and one giant leap for labor unions. Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who started the Amazon Labor Union, has become a hero for many workers around the country. While the feat of winning a unionization vote for the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island that employs 8,300 workers might be a small one in comparison to the 165 million workers across the U.S., it marks a pivotal moment in the history of unionization in the retail industry. The second-largest retailer in the world is facing the first successful organizing effort in its home country by a disgruntled former supervisor.
Smalls was fired by the company for helping lead a walkout of workers in March 2020 in protest of unaddressed safety concerns and poor working conditions during the pandemic. Technically, he was fired for violating safety procedures, including social distancing protocols and breaking his quarantine after coming in contact with a coronavirus-infected colleague.
The hard-nosed anti-union tactics of the past used by a management that believes it can outsmart employees are much less likely to work today. Social media now plays such a large role in the lives of younger workers and the general population, transparency is unavoidable.
The first misstep in Amazon’s response to the working conditions in JFK8 and the handling of Smalls’ complaints began when the company fired him. The number of employees involved in the March walkout was minimal, but Amazon’s response to the walkout is what made this otherwise minor act by a rebellious employee so pivotal in the drive to unionize the warehouse.
When interviewed by ABC News, Smalls said, “After I was terminated, they had a meeting about me (Jeff Bezos and the general counsel) calling me not smart or articulate, and ironically, said they would make me the face of the whole unionization efforts.” Amazon certainly achieved what they wanted in that regard, but it has come back to bite them, and the repercussions will impact other retailers as well. The second major misstep by Amazon was to transform Smalls into an icon for disenfranchised workers.
Unionizing from the Inside Out
According to Bert Kamin, a labor relations expert and senior manager employee relations who recently spoke on The Robin Report “Mr. Smalls Is Now Mr. Big: Is He Resurrecting Unions?” podcast said unionizing a warehouse requires a very strong internal network of employees. Unlike a retail store where union organizers from outside the company can come into the store to solicit employees, a warehouse is typically closed to the public thereby eliminating external organizers from campaigning on the premises. Additionally, according to Kamin, union organizers with no firsthand workplace experience usually won’t have street credibility with employees. Smalls had the perfect background to start a union; he was employed at the warehouse from its opening in 2018. He knew all the ins and outs of the working environment, understood the workers’ grievances, and was not provided the opportunity to move up in the organization. Smalls applied for management positions 49 times during his Amazon career but was never selected for promotion, which he believes was due to systematic racial discrimination within the company. The co-founder of the Amazon Labor Union, Derrick Palmer, was instrumental in the union drive as well since he continued to work at the warehouse and knew the inner workings of the company, allowing him to coordinate the unionization campaign with Smalls after he was fired.
The Third and Fatal Misstep by Amazon
In February 2022, after he was fired, Smalls brought lunch for the employees into the warehouse breakroom and Amazon did the unthinkable: they had him arrested for trespassing. Consider the optics here. A disgruntled employee who had staged worker protests, cited the company for unsafe working conditions and discrimination practices brings food to the workers and the company decides the best course of action is to call the NYPD and have him arrested? The incident turned into a public relations nightmare for Amazon. The TikTok video of Smalls’ arrest has been seen by thousands of people.
Welcome to the Era of Union Organizing
The union drive at JFK8 was conducted in a contemporary manner using social media, including TikTok and Twitter, and involved inside workers boosting pro-union messaging. In more traditional union drives by established union organizations, the union representatives and professional organizers are not allowed on the premises to campaign. Employees tend to listen and trust their co-workers more than outsiders, and feel that their colleagues are more empathetic, trusted and understanding of worker needs.
Management Needs a New Playbook
The hard-nosed anti-union tactics of the past used by a management that believes it can outsmart employees are much less likely to work today. Social media now plays such a large role in the lives of younger workers and the general population that transparency is unavoidable. Unions negotiate wages, working conditions and benefits, but if companies are prescient and proactive in these three areas, they can manage unionization efforts by acting in workers’ best interests. Kamin states a simple but powerful truth: “Happy workers don’t unionize.”
In a healthy, supportive workplace culture, most employees wake up each day eager to do a good job. They want to be able to support their families and want work that allows them to fulfill both intrinsic and extrinsic needs. As job shortages continue to rise (up 30 percent from one year ago), and workers have larger concerns about health and well-being triggered by the pandemic, the workforce will continue to become more empowered to take a stand and make demands.
Work Environments Need to Be a Top Priority
Safe work environments and good working conditions are a top concern for employees, along with being paid a fair wage. High respect and empathy between managers and workers are also table stakes. When these basic foundational needs are not met and workers’ concerns are not addressed — according to the perceptions of the workers — companies are opening the door to external parties, including unions, to better represent worker needs.
So, What’s Next?
In 2021 union membership was slightly down to 10.3 percent of all workers compared to 2020 when it was 10.8 percent. Retail trade unionization was 4.9 percent of workers in 2011, declining slightly in 10 years to 4.4 percent. Back in 1983, 20.1 percent of all workers were represented by unions. The decline in membership over the years has clearly challenged unions to stay relevant.
The vote to unionize launched the Amazon Labor Union, but the hardest work has not even started. The next step will be negotiating a contract, which on average takes over 400 days to complete. In terms of Amazon, each job classification has to be negotiated. Based on the number of job classes and the complexity of the work required to complete an operation that runs 24/7, the contract could take much longer than 400 days to complete. In order words, we’re looking at more than a year to establish the Union at Amazon.
In terms of public perception, companies like Amazon, Starbucks, and REI have been known to pay higher than average wages, subsidize education, provide generous benefits and overall good working conditions. So, workers apparently disagree and have kick started unions at all three brands. Now that the curtain has been pulled aside, we’re looking at a different picture than the rosy image these brands have promoted. Retailers be forewarned: There is power to the people, so listen up and anticipate the issues so you are not forced catch up to them after it’s too late.