By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
After going 27 years without a US union, Amazon now faces a test from elections at not one but two of its warehouses.
A union reelection at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, facility concluded Friday after a nearly two-month voting period by mail. Beginning that same day, thousands of workers at a Staten Island Amazon facility had a chance to cast a vote in person on whether to unionize. The results of both union elections could come as soon as this week.
There are clear through lines between the two efforts. Both are seeking to organize thousands of warehouse workers performing essential jobs, such as picking and packing items for deliveries. Both drives grew out of frustrations with the company’s treatment of workers amid the pandemic and were fueled in part by increased attention to racial justice issues and labor rights. Both seek to push for higher wages, job security, and improved workplace conditions, among others issues, and are seeking formal union status through National Labor Relations Board election processes.
“In both cases, it’s a David and Goliath situation. They’re up against a very powerful, determined opponent,” Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at City University of New York, told CNN Business. “In both cases, it’s a very heavy lift because of Amazon’s resources and determination to stamp out any unionization efforts.”
But there are some notable differences, too. The Bessemer effort is being driven by Amazon employees in coordination with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an 85-year-old labor union that has successfully organized tens of thousands of workers. By contrast, the push in Staten Island is being led by a newly-formed organization, Amazon Labor Union, started by a group of current and former Amazon warehouse workers.
The face of the Staten Island union effort is primarily Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse worker. Smalls said the group is running on “pennies compared to other campaigns,” largely relying on $100,000 in donations raised through various pages set up on GoFundMe, a crowdfunding platform. The organization has received some support from established labor in the form of legal fees for an attorney, who Smalls said is being paid by the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, as earlier reported by Bloomberg. A UFCW spokesperson did not respond to request for comment. (Smalls said financial disclosures will be filed with the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards, where unions disclose their financing, if the election is successful.)
Smalls has been vocal about his desire to take on Amazon since he was fired by the company in March 2020 after leading a walkout over pandemic-related health and safety concerns at the Staten Island facility, known as JFK8. While he says his firing was retaliation, the company claims he was terminated for violating its policy that required him to quarantine after being notified of a possible Covid-19 exposure.
Erik Loomis, a labor historian and associate professor at the University of Rhode Island, told CNN Business that while both efforts face an uphill battle, a grassroots organization is taking on significant additional challenges — especially when going up against one of the richest companies in the world.
“You can win with an independent union,” he said, “but to do so is very difficult.” An established union “provides resources, lawyers, organizers, the necessary financial resources to at least have a shot at winning,” he said. “Not going with an established union tends to be more of an ideological choice than a strategic one.”
The stakes of the elections are high, not just for the individuals who work inside the facilities, but for Amazon’s vast workforce across the country. Amazon Labor Union has also garnered enough signatures for an NLRB election at a nearby Amazon facility in Staten Island in late April. There are also separate organizing efforts underway at an Amazon Fresh store in Seattle.
Smalls has sought to create some distance between his union effort and the one taking place in Bessemer. Amazon Labor Union’s clout, as Smalls tells it, is that “we’ve lived the grievances.” In an interview earlier this year, Smalls said Amazon Labor Union observed what it felt were “mistakes” in the initial Bessemer campaign, such as playing up endorsements from politicians and celebrities. “None of that stuff resonates with workers. It’s not their fault, but it’s the reality of the situation.” (Smalls recently tweeted about actress and activist Susan Sarandon recently phone banking with Amazon Labor Union.)
To be sure, Amazon’s Alabama warehouse also has employees actively engaged in organizing — workers like Jennifer Bates, who became the face of the original union effort last year when she testified before the Senate Budget Committee in March 2021 about workplace conditions that led her and others to organize with RWDSU. (This year’s election is a reelection, called for by an NLRB regional director after Amazon was found to have wrongfully interfered with the previous election. In the scrapped election, Amazon overwhelmingly won.)
“This campaign is being run by workers,” RWDSU’s president Stuart Appelbaum told CNN Business. “We didn’t go to the workers, the workers came to us. The workers have been at the forefront. It is about the workers’ grievances as presented by the workers.”
“The campaigns are being conducted in different ways but it’s the same fight,” he added.
The approach to that fight has also changed within Bessemer. “We have a large, organized team on the inside,” Bates told CNN Business last week, noting that there has been more pro-union signage inside the facility this time around. “Anywhere that Amazon has literature put up, we can put up union literature,” said Bates. “We didn’t do it last time.”
Amazon, for its part, has conveyed its anti-union stance to warehouse workers through signage inside its warehouses, text messages, and meetings that workers were required to attend before the election periods kicked off. In response to this article, Amazon directed CNN Business to a prior statement in which it said “employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union” and that it is focused on “working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work.”
Beyond the varying approaches, the two union efforts are also taking place against very different backdrops. One push is happening in Alabama, a right-to-work state where union membership is low; the other is in New York, where union membership is the second highest in the nation. The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25, or less than half of Amazon’s starting wage for workers across the country compared to $15 in New York City. Milkman, the City University of New York professor, said that could factor into how workers decide on whether to unionize at either location.
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