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The Amazon Labor Union beat a behemoth — can it keep winning?

The Amazon Labor Union beat a behemoth — can it keep winning?


The Amazon Labor Union has a chance to prove it can keep winning

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Today, workers at Amazon’s LDJ5 warehouse facility will vote on whether to organize with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the same union that pulled off a historic win at another Staten Island, New York, facility earlier this month. With ballots scheduled to be counted on May 2nd, the election will last just one week. After months of slow buildup, workers are just a week away from learning whether their site will unionize — assuming there aren’t any tiebreaker court fights of the kind that held up Bessemer’s second vote.

The ALU is riding high after the election at the JFK8 facility, and it’s fair to say momentum is on the side of the organizers. But the loss in the first Bessemer election is still fresh, and the stakes are high. The results of this election could set the tone for future elections at Amazon facilities. After JFK8, the ALU said that it’s heard from workers at dozens of other warehouses, indicating that there’s potential for widespread unionization at one of the US’s largest employers. But first, the union has to prove that it can continue to win.

The campaign hasn’t been easy. Amazon is still contesting the union’s previous win and has doubled down on anti-union messaging, according to a report from Vice. The company has reportedly escalated its campaign to get rid of pro-union signs and literature and has disciplined workers for organizing. (The National Labor Relations Board, a regulatory watchdog, has accused the company of similar behavior in other union drives.) The company has also reportedly ramped up captive audience meetings.

The union is helmed by Amazon workers, but the company is spending millions to undermine them

The ALU’s biggest advantage is the structure of the union itself, which emerged entirely from the company’s Staten Island workforce. Dan Cornfield, a professor at Vanderbilt University, says that fact alone might blunt many of the harshest anti-union tactics. “Usually in the more conventional approach to union organizing in the United States, as in the Bessemer situation, the standard corporate anti-union rhetoric is to drive a rhetorical wedge between the union and the workers. And they present the union as a third party,” he said in an interview. “That is just about impossible to do in the case of the small, grassroots, independent, worker-led unions because they are the union and the workers are truly one and the same.”

At the same time, Amazon is spending millions of dollars on anti-union consultants, who are tasked with coming up with effective ways to keep workers from wanting to join a union. According to Vice, one of those union-busters is Rebecca Smith, whose website boasts a proven track record in “employee/labor relations, HR audits, training, and workforce strategies.” 

In an interview for a previous story, ALU organizer Gerald Bryson said that there are definitely employees that aren’t interested in organizing. “I talked to a guy one day and he came up and he’s like, ‘Well, we don’t need no union,’” Bryson said, describing how the man went on to explain that he enjoyed the physical work. “I just let him go. You can’t beat a dead horse.”

Maury Peiperl, dean of George Mason University’s School of Business, also noted that not every Amazon worker is going to feel poorly treated, echoing a sentiment from Bryson that some of the company’s employees are just happy to have work. “I think Amazon is pretty constructive at a lot of what it does, including how it tries to support its employees,” Peiperl said, though he conceded that the company needs to get better at listening to those workers. “Any employer that doesn’t see and understand where the employees are coming from and what the world looks like from where they sit is not going to be successful in the longer term.”

There are other factors that could help improve the ALU’s chances despite the fact that it, as Cornfield pointed out, is a “relatively resource poor” organization going up against a massive corporation. One is political and public support, which could act as a morale boost for workers weighing their decision about joining a union. 

The union has gotten support from several political figures. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spoke in support of the union during a livestream about workplace organizing, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson (in between jabs at representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) said that Amazon should share some of its power with its workers during an interview with ALU organizer Christian Smalls. Perhaps most notably, President Joe Biden warned Amazon that the federal government was coming after it for its anti-union practices.

“It seems to me that Amazon has to worry about its public persona, and to be viewed as viciously anti-union and anti-worker at this moment in history is probably a bad look for them,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, in an interview with The Verge. According to Sachs, support from the public and policymakers is a factor in the ALU’s favor. 

“Amazon, here we come. Watch!” – President Joe Biden

“I think the support from President Biden matters. I think the visible support from the National Labor Relations Board to enforce the law matters,” Sachs said. “Broad public support definitely matters in a lot of ways. It helps to embolden workers who are making this decision about whether to support the union, knowing that the country is essentially behind them.” 

Cornfield also noted that the general public’s support of unions has grown significantly over the past decade or so. “According to the various opinion polls that are out there, especially the Gallup opinion poll shows that in the United States, public approval of labor unions generally has jumped from 48 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in 2021.”

Despite public support for unions, they’re increasingly uncommon in the US. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported (pdf) that the percentage of workers in a union has been falling over the past few decades, and that only 10.3 percent of workers are union members. Union elections aren’t always successful, either; last year in Bessemer, Alabama, workers voted against unionizing 2 to 1, though the results were later overturned by the NLRB. And while the ALU won at JFK8, it wasn’t anything close to a blowout; the vote was 2,654 for unionizing and 2,131 against.

Peiperl thinks that general societal conditions could make people more interested in unions. “I think it’s about this situation, the context in which Amazon’s workers, and really the whole of society, particularly the younger generations, find themselves,“ he said. “There’s this repeat of the situation from 100 years ago where massive wealth is concentrated among a few individuals, there’s a certain amount of large company and maybe monopoly power in a number of sectors, and therefore disproportionately low power in the hands of workers.”

But while individual workers may feel powerless, Peiperl says they have some leverage through collective action, given their importance in the company’s logistics operations. “In order for it to remain high functioning, it needs to have all the pieces working well together as opposed to, let’s say, a Starbucks, which is geographically dispersed,” he said. (Starbucks workers have organized a wave of successful union elections in the past few months.) “If a few Starbucks outlets are shut down for some labor dispute reasons or whatever else, the whole company doesn’t suffer. Whereas if an Amazon warehouse or logistics pathway is shut down that’s a much, much bigger challenge to that company’s performance.”

“If you had to pick bellwether employers in 2022, Amazon and Starbucks would be good choices.”

While the union isn’t in uncharted territory — it’s shown at least once that its tactics work in New York, where LDJ5 and JFK8 are located — there’s an open question about whether the results can be used to predict success in the rest of the country, especially in less union-friendly areas. LDJ5 is likely to be similar to JFK8 culturally speaking; the two facilities are literally next door to each other and are part of a cluster of four warehouses, all of which have been organizing at roughly the same time. Last year the union planned on having an election for all the facilities at once but withdrew the request so it could get enough people interested at individual facilities.

That’s not to say that a win at LDJ5 won’t help the ALU. Momentum can be a powerful thing when it comes to unionizing a company or sparking a movement of labor organization across a country. As Sachs put it: “Think about the auto industry in the 1930s. That was kind of the bellwether industry at the time, which symbolized what would’ve been the modern economy. And there was a pitched battle to unionize auto, and it was successful and the result was a transformed United States political economy. If you had to pick bellwether employers in 2022, Amazon and Starbucks would be good choices.”