Amazon workers win battle to form first U.S. union

April 6, 2022

A team of Amazon workers has forced the tech giant to recognize a trade union in the United States for the first time, reports the BBC.

Workers at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse voted 55% on Friday, April 1, in favor of joining the Amazon Labor Union. The group was led by former Amazon worker Chris Smalls, who made his name protesting against safety conditions at the retail giant during the pandemic.

Smalls’ victory marks a major defeat for Amazon, which had fiercely fought against unionization. However, in Alabama, where Amazon faced a separate union drive, the company fended off activists in a tight contest in which challenged ballots could yet overturn that result. Together, the two elections mark a milestone for activists, who have long decried labor practices at Amazon, the country’s second largest employer.

Smalls emerged from the vote count looking tired, but jubilant, and popped open a bottle of champagne he was handed by supporters.

“We did whatever it took to connect with these workers,” he told the crowd, recounting an against-the-odds campaign that started with “two tables, two chairs, and a tent” and relied on an online fundraiser for money. He added, “I hope that everybody’s paying attention now because a lot of people doubted us.”

In a statement, Amazon said it was disappointed by the loss in New York and that it was evaluating how to proceed. It also accused regulators of improperly influencing the vote.

“We believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” the company said. “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the [National Labor Relations Board]”.

Amazon fired Christian Smalls in 2020 after his protest, citing quarantine violations.

Rebecca Givan, professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said Amazon’s defeat by Smalls and his team of worker-organizers was a “really big deal”, calling it a “David and Goliath story” that upset the odds.

But, she warned, he will be facing another tough fight when it comes to contract negotiations. “Amazon will do everything it can do undo this success, to break up these workers and to try to stop the momentum that will inevitably come from this victory,” she said.

Amazon employs more than one million people in the United States and it has extraordinary influence on work practices—even outside its doors. The company has put up a wall of resistance to unions since its inception. With this win, activists are hoping that wall is about to crumble.

Research contact: @BBC