Opinion

Does the Amazon Union Win Portend a Comeback for Organized Labor?

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Last week, workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island delivered one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation when they voted to form a union — the first such organizing effort to succeed at any Amazon work site in the United States and a stunning upset for a world-straddling corporate giant long criticized for its coercive labor practices.

The win was all the more striking for arriving at an otherwise bleak moment in the history of the American labor movement: Last year, the share of workers in unions dropped to 10.3 percent, down half a percentage point from 2020 and the lowest rate in decades. Is the Amazon victory a potential sign of that trend’s reversal, or an exception that proves the rule of workers’ waning power? Here’s what people are saying.

A very unusual union campaign

As Alex Press writes in Jacobin, the Amazon Labor Union’s success “goes against much of what passes as common sense within the labor movement.” Conventionally, people looking to organize their workplaces tend to join already established unions so that they can take advantage of their institutional knowledge and financial and legal resources. (Those resources can be particularly useful against a company like Amazon, which spent more than $4.3 million just on anti-union consultants nationwide last year.)

That’s the approach organizers took last year in Bessemer, Ala., where Amazon workers overwhelmingly rejected a vote to join a national retail union founded in 1937. (After concluding that Amazon violated election labor laws, the National Labor Relations Board mandated a revote that is still in progress.)

The A.L.U., however, is completely independent. It was started by Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee, and his co-worker Derrick Palmer. When Smalls planned a walkout over the warehouse’s safety conditions at the beginning of the pandemic, the company fired him and accidentally leaked a PR strategy to smear him as “not smart, or articulate.” After he was forced out, Smalls, Palmer and a group of colleagues spent $120,000 that they raised through GoFundMe on the union effort.

In addition to striking out on their own, A.L.U. leaders decided to buck traditional organizing methods. Professional union strategists, such as Jane McAlevey, often argue that successful union campaigns require visits to workers’ homes so that conversations can be had without employer supervision. They also stress the need to persuade a supermajority of workers — typically 70 percent or more — to sign authorization cards, which often function as a preliminary statement of interest in union membership before an official election.

The A.L.U., on the other hand, filed for an election with authorization cards from just 30 percent of eligible workers, the legal minimum. And instead of doing house calls, Smalls, Palmer and their fellow organizers built bonfires at a bus stop outside the warehouse to warm colleagues waiting to go home, made TikTok videos to reach workers across the city and held barbecues with signs that read “Free Weed and Food.”

“This is an astounding result,” John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University, told Vice. “Amazon is the most important company in the global economy and it’s the most fearsome anti-union company in terms of its wealth, sophistication, and its efforts to keep unions out. With A.L.U., it also does seem to turn all of the conventional organizing wisdom on its head. They did it without a huge union or experienced organizers.”

A new era for labor?

In The Washington Post, Jacob Bogage, Aaron Gregg and Gerrit De Vynck report that the A.L.U.’s deeply personal, grass-roots strategy could provide a new playbook for 21st-century labor activism. Other recent union victories at six Starbucks coffee shops in Buffalo, they note, were also won by worker-led, independent organizations.

In the view of Steven Greenhouse, a labor journalist and former Times reporter, the advantage of this “worker to worker” model is that it neutralizes mistrust — whether instinctive or actively cultivated by the employer as a union-busting tactic — of unions as bureaucratic, unaccountable third parties. Instead, workers “feel that they’re choosing between their employer and an energized, concerned group of co-workers and friends that is eager to build a better workplace,” he writes in The Atlantic. “For many workers, that makes voting for the union a no-brainer.”

Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants’ union, also sees promise in this model: The future of American unionizing efforts “can’t be about people coming in from the outside with an organizing plan that people have to follow,” she told The Times. “It has to come from within the workplace.”

Broader dissatisfaction with the economy could make workers even more receptive to the idea of unionizing. As The Times’s Noam Scheiber has reported, many workers are resentful about being deemed “essential” during the pandemic, only to be treated as disposable. And while wages are rising at a faster clip than they have in previous years, thanks to a tighter labor market, they have not kept pace with inflation.

“When workers feel squeezed or that their household budgets are squeezed while the companies they work for are so profitable, that can create agitation and energy toward organizing,” Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, told The Washington Post.

History shows that labor mobilization can be a self-reinforcing trend. “Sometimes, a single victory can spark a wave of victories,” Harold Meyerson writes in The American Prospect. “That’s what happened in 1937, as the great U.A.W. sit-down strike, occupying General Motors’ Flint, Michigan, factories, won them a contract with GM and inspired dozens of similar campaigns and hundreds of successful unionization campaigns across the land.”

Potential signs of this phenomenon can be seen in the Starbucks union drive, which notched its first victory in December of last year and has since spread to more than 100 locations. If workers at other Amazon facilities decide to unionize, they will have a larger platform on which to speak out about the company’s labor practices, which might in turn spur pro-union sentiment at Amazon and beyond.

“Workers everywhere and the general public everywhere saw Amazon as the unorganizable,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer at Cornell University who studies labor organizing, told The Wall Street Journal. “This just explodes that and says that no company is invincible.”

A new era, or a false dawn?

According to Gabriel Winant, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, A.L.U.’s win “suggests that there’s just more appetite out there for organization than there has been in a long time.” But, he added, a single victory is not a guarantee of a sea change.

One reason worker unrest may not translate into successful organizing is that it’s still very difficult to unionize in the United States, as my colleague Binyamin Appelbaum writes. Tellingly, he notes, the share of workers who would like to be in unions far exceeds the share of workers who actually are in one. Why the discrepancy? Since collective bargaining was legalized in the 1930s, Congress has worked to constrain American unions more tightly than have other democracies, granting employers wide latitude to intimidate their workers.

The House passed legislation last year designed to loosen these constraints, but it died in the Senate, and bolder reforms, such as sectoral bargaining, remain politically unimaginable. “As in the early 20th century, the union movement may well have no option but to win on a tilted field in order to have a fair chance,” Appelbaum writes.

In the medium term, workers may also lose some of the leverage they’ve gained from a tight labor market. Because of concerns about inflation, which is climbing at its fastest pace in 40 years, the Federal Reserve began raising short-term interest rates in March and has suggested it may further increase rates by half a percentage point starting in May — twice the usual increase — until they’ve risen 2.5 percentage points by the end of the year.

“Higher borrowing costs trickle through the economy by slowing the housing market, discouraging big purchases and prompting companies to cut expansion plans and hire fewer workers,” The Times’s Jeanna Smialek explains. While that pullback can help moderate inflation, it also “weakens the labor market and slows wage growth.”

For labor organizing, then, a pertinent question is, “How long are we in this period where workers feel like they can quit their job and go get a better one without much hassle?” Michael R. Strain, the director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Washington Post. His prediction: “not much longer.”

Whether the A.L.U. victory was indeed a fluke or the first ripple of a new wave in American labor organizing might become clearer when workers ata smaller Staten Island Amazon complex, LDJ5, vote in a union election scheduled to run from April 25 to May 2.

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


READ MORE

“Here’s How We Beat Amazon” [Jacobin]

“Amazon union workers won in New York — can they win across the country?” [The Verge]

“Amazon Tried One of the Oldest Tricks in the Book, and It Backfired” [The New York Times]

“Amazon, Starbucks and the sparking of a new American union movement” [The Conversation]

“The Fed Can’t Save Us” [New York]

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