How a Team of Rank-and-File Workers Organized the First US Amazon Warehouse
“With this first historic victory in the record books, we now turn our attention to the election campaign at LDJ5, the bargaining process for the unionized workers at JFK8, and our nationwide organizing and training campaign launching soon. If you work at Amazon, anywhere in the country, and you want to unionize your workplace, get in touch. We are here to support and empower our coworkers everywhere. When we unite together, we win. Hasta la victoria siempre.” — ALU Newsletter #16
The following is a Reporters’ Notebook. It is based on conversations World-Outlook reporter Mark Satinoff held with Amazon Labor Union (ALU) members on April 1, 2022, outside the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Brooklyn, New York. Satinoff interviewed the Amazon workers in the hours leading up to the announcement of ALU’s monumental victory in the union election at JFK8  — the company’s giant fulfillment center in the New York City area, a key market for Amazon. The interviews point to how Amazon workers organized themselves to make this victory possible. They also outline the union’s next steps ahead, detailing how these workers plan to carry out the ALU pledge highlighted above in the union’s recent newsletter.
By Mark Satinoff
Building a Team
The key to the Amazon Labor Union’s success is rooted in their worker-led approach to organizing. ALU president Chris Smalls and vice president of organizing Derrick Palmer put together a team of rank-and-file organizers. They encouraged each and every worker who came forward, no matter how little union or political experience they may have had, to take on as much responsibility and leadership as they were willing to take. Nothing could have been more important.
The critical thing, said ALU secretary Karen Ponce, was “the inside work — having my coworkers see me in the building, all of us in the building, knowing that we’re not a third party, that we’re workers just like them.”
The ALU assembled a “workers committee” of 150, a smaller core group of about 25 organizers, and an executive board.
Ponce described the obstacles they faced. “JFK8 is a massive fulfillment center of 8,000 workers,” she said. “We’re talking about day shift, night shift, reduced time shift, flex workers, and part time workers. And a turnover rate of 150%. We had Amazon’s union busters holding meetings, one-on-one conversations, massive propaganda, and despite all of that, workers are tired, and workers did the right thing for themselves and their families.”
Amazon paid anti-union consultants roughly $4.3 million in an effort to beat back union organizing campaigns, according to new filings with the U.S. Department of Labor. The DOL filings reveal that Amazon paid these consultants upwards of $3,000 a day. According to Chris Smalls, the union only spent $120,000 they raised through a GoFundMe campaign.
‘We have each other; that’s what matters’
When the results were announced, ALU members broke out in cheers, hugs, dances, and songs. They had won a David vs. Goliath battle.
“I just want to say that I’m so proud of this team,” ALU treasurer Madeline “Maddie” Wesley commented. “They’re my family. We really started with nothing, we still have nothing, in terms of money, but we have each other. And that’s what matters. That’s how we won this campaign. We started out with just a few people, a table, a tent, and us talking to workers. And we’ve grown so much from there.”
“We never took it for granted that we would win,” Connor Spence, the ALU vice president of membership, pointed out. “We never felt overly optimistic. A couple of weeks before the election we had internal polling that showed this kind of support existed, but we wanted to temper our expectations since we’ve never done this before.”
In describing how they succeeded against such enormous odds, Spence added, “I think that we definitely disrupted the established model of how unions organize companies. It’s how well the workers inside are organized. How well motivated they are to organize themselves. And that’s what we were able to do so well — they’re the people that we work with every day, we organized them because we talked to them, and we work next to them for 40 hours a week.”
Brett Daniels is another ALU core organizer. He started working for Amazon in Arizona. Inspired by the nascent ALU, Daniels came east, got a job at JFK8, and joined the fight for a union. Daniels traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, last fall to show solidarity with the Amazon workers there and draw the lessons from their defeat. “We saw that it wasn’t worker led, and that it was from a third party,” he said. “So, we knew this had to be independent, focused on the workers, and coming from the workers. Because who knows the working conditions better than Amazon workers themselves?”
Many workers, including some of the main ALU leaders, did not start out pro-union.
“I want you to know I was pro-Amazon at first,” Derrick Palmer explained. “I wanted to be a part of this company. But the treatment, you know, the treatment just wasn’t good. They blocked me from moving up. They treated the workers bad during the pandemic. They didn’t provide them with the proper equipment that they needed. That’s what ultimately motivated us to walk out and eventually form a union.”
Palmer was referring to the spring 2020 walkout he and Chris Smalls led to protest unsafe job conditions early during the Covid-19 pandemic. Amazon fired Smalls over that protest — one of the company’s actions that eventually sparked the unionization campaign.
Like many ALU members, Palmer thought the vote would be closer. “I’ll be real with you,” he said. “There was some workers that we didn’t get a chance to communicate with but at the end of the day, our message was pretty cool.”
Turning Amazon’s anti-union tactics on their head
Palmer described how the ALU took Amazon’s anti-union tactics and used them against the company. “The ‘captive audience’ meetings backfired on Amazon,” he explained, referring to union-busting meetings management forced workers to attend to push for voting NO to unionization. The broad team of union organizers the ALU built on the job kept intervening at these meetings, encouraging other workers to question and challenge Amazon’s union-busting falsehoods.
“I can honestly say that because workers came to me all the time saying Amazon shouldn’t be telling me how to vote,” Palmer pointed out. “So, that kind of turned them from NO’s to YES’s. It’s just us talking to the workers, phone banking. Organizing in the break room—that was a game changer. It’s just going all out for what you believe in. We’re very passionate people.”
ALU field director Julian “Mitch” Mitchell-Israel was in charge of organizing the massive phone banking operation in the weeks leading up to the election. The goal of the volunteers involved, who included ALU members and supporters, was to talk to every worker at JFK8. Based on thousands of phone calls, ALU organizers estimated 60% support for the union.
“I was tempering my excitement because I thought there’s no way this was accurate,” Mitchell said. “It’s got to be that some people aren’t talking to us, or that some people are just not picking up the phones, or are lying to us, or something. But it was right.”
Mitchell did not go to Bessemer, he said, “but I’ve been wishing them the best the whole time.” He explained that the ALU had a different approach. “This is actually a new style of organizing. I think people are just phenomenally fed up with the way they’re being treated. When it comes down to it, this is built out of love. Because people are looking at the people around them, the people that they love, they’re seeing the verdict. And then you see that you don’t have a choice but to take a chance on something.”
The ALU sought and welcomed solidarity from other unions, community and political organizations, as well as politicians, while making it clear that the leadership and direction of the fight will continue to come from the ranks.
At the same time, Wesley explained, ALU organizers felt ignored by those who sat on the sidelines until it was clear how popular their cause was — after the NLRB announced the official results certifying the election victory. “AOC is the most obvious example, but it’s not just AOC,” Wesley said, referring to Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Last year, Chris Smalls and other Amazon workers met AOC in Washington, DC, and invited her to lend a hand in their organizing campaign by coming to a union rally in New York, pointing out that many Amazon workers in Staten Island live in her congressional district. AOC initially agreed, but then her staff cancelled. She then sent congratulations after the union election was over.
“Most politicians and most established unions just haven’t really come out and supported us like they should have,” Wesley said. “I think our days of being underestimated are over starting today, and people are gonna start taking us more seriously. We predicted this would happen, where all those people that were completely silent leading up to the election, are all of a sudden starting to talk about our campaign and what we’re doing and kind of pretending that they were on our side the whole time.”
The current issue of the ALU newsletter acknowledges the help it received from UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, and the Communication Workers of America.
Using Union Power
The immediate task facing the union now revolves around unifying the workforce to prepare for a contract fight. The key to that is using the new power the union has, as a result of the election victory, to defend any worker who faces Amazon’s harsh discipline or who speaks out about unsafe working conditions. This is a big part of how they built this team over the last two years.
“We feel great about coming into the LDJ5 election on the heels of this victory and JFK8 organizers are going to help,” Wesley, who works at LDJ5, commented. “But, you know, the JFK8 organizers have a lot of work to do as well. They’ve got to start, we’ve got to start, acting like a union.”
The ALU is in the process of holding shop steward elections and already 15 workers have stepped forward to volunteer, she pointed out.
“I think the first thing that we have to battle is people getting fired from Amazon,” Wesley continued. “We don’t know how Amazon will react but we are prepared to fight any unjust firings. And with Weingarten rights this is something that we can start battling right now. So, we don’t get any rest. Yeah, we have a lot of work to do.”
Weingarten rights guarantee an employee the right to union representation whenever an employer’s investigatory interview could lead to discipline. A recent ALU press release outlined this right to union representation, as well as the union’s demands that the company agree to start collective bargaining by early May, and immediately cease discriminatory changes to workplace policies. It can be read here.
“The next step at JFK8 is to immediately enter into contract negotiations,” Brett Daniels emphasized. “But first and foremost, we are responsible for all our coworkers in representing them and ensuring that they don’t get fired, especially unjustly. Now, as an officially recognized union, we have our Weingarten rights, which were denied to us before. And so, we want to make sure that all of our coworkers know that they have the right to representation in an investigative meeting with a manager or HR. In the meantime, while we’re negotiating for our contract, we’re demanding immediate changes that Amazon can make in areas such as health and safety, job security, and pay increases that reflect the training and skills required in certain jobs classifications.”
Defending workers who face the company’s harsh discipline or who are victimized for speaking out will allow ALU to further unify the workforce in preparation for the contract fight.
“I know other countries are looking at this,” said Derrick Palmer, reflecting on the responsibility resting on ALU’s shoulders now that workers won the representation election. “So, we’ve got to do our part and make sure we negotiate a fair contract for these workers.”
When I asked about the union’s approach to the workers who voted NO or were undecided, Spence said, “We expect workers will now come up to us and say, ‘Okay, how does the union work? And how can I be a part of it?’ Because before they just didn’t think it was something that they should take seriously, but now they have to because the union represents them.”
The election to represent 1,600 workers at Amazon’s LDJ5 sort facility, across the street from JFK8, is scheduled for April 25-29.
“We were terrified that we were going to lose this and then everything would be riding on LDJ5,” said Mitchell, who works at LDJ5. “This is going to be such a boost. We’ve got LDJ5 in the bag. I’ve been taking time off for the past two weeks to help out at JFK8, and now, being able to go back in there and say hey, vote YES for the union that just won. Vote YES for the union that is 8,000 workers strong. It’s very compelling.”
Echoing this optimism, Wesley added, “Next month we already have our next election for the ALU in my building (LDJ5) and so yeah, we are looking forward to another victory.”
Responding to Nationwide Calls for Help in Organizing
The ALU will soon be launching a nationwide training program as they seek to help workers organize Amazon facilities throughout the country, ALU organizers explained.
“My plan is to have a webinar with a training session for any Amazon workers who wants to start their own ALU chapter,” Wesley said. “Give them a starter kit, train them on the way of the ALU. And yeah, let them kind of DIY it.”
Since their victory on April 1, workers from more than 50 Amazon facilities nationwide, plus several buildings overseas, have contacted the ALU for advice on how to unionize.
“People in other states are reaching out to us on social media asking: When is the ALU coming here?” Karen Ponce, the union secretary, noted. “And I think it’s because we all have the same issues. We plan to continue expanding with more chapters. This is only the beginning.”
Spence put it another way. “It’s almost overwhelming,” he said. “I mean, there’s too many workers reaching out to us. It’s a good problem to have.”
“This is even bigger than just Amazon workers,” Mitchell added. “This is a movement that I think is going to explode into something truly phenomenally worker-led. This whole movement is about this love and looking at our union family around us and knowing that when they are hurting, we are hurting, when they need something, we need something and that when they vote yes, we vote yes. When all these people came out and supported the union, this was a call to action not just for Amazon workers here but also for Amazon workers around the US and the world to come together and take back what is actually ours and what we deserve. So, I think this is a phenomenal day for the history of the labor movement.”
 For more information on the ALU union victory see “The Workers Have Spoken! Amazon Labor Union Scores Major Victory in NY,” published by World-Outlook on April 1, 2022.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions