What does it mean and why is it significant

In what is being described as a modern-day David vs Goliath battle, a small group of workers succeeded in forming Amazon’s first union at a warehouse on Staten Island in New York. Their efforts are laudable, as they went up against one of the fiercest anti-union companies in the United States

History was made when a majority of Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionise in what is now being described as an underdog upset against a company that has steadfastly opposed organised labour in its massive workforce.

On Friday, warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes — or about 55 per cent — in favour of a union, giving the fledgling Amazon Labor Union (ALU) enough support to pull off a victory.

News agency AFP quoted union organiser Christian Smalls as joking, «We want to thank (Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there we were signing people up.»

We give you the lowdown on what the story is all about, why is it being considered significant and how people have reacted to it.

Calls for Amazon union

The effort to unionise the 8,000-employee Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, also called as JFK8, was led by Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, both of whom worked at the Staten Island Amazon fulfillment center.

While Palmer still works there, Smalls was fired from the job in March 2020 after he led a protest outside the warehouse, asserting that Amazon was not doing enough to protect workers from COVID-19, including not having adequate social distancing. As its reason for firing Smalls, Amazon said he violated social distancing rules.

In 2021, Smalls took up the herculean task of unionisation, setting up the Amazon Labor Union, from scratch.

For 11 months, he and his team staked out a spot opposite his former workplace, the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, intercepting staff on their way home to make the case that they need a union to fight for them in negotiations with the e-commerce giant.

Their demands from Amazon include: higher pay, longer breaks, more paid time off and paid medical leave, among other changes.

Many believed that Smalls’ move would amount to nothing. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, helped Smalls as many employees at JFK8 realised that while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ profits were increasing, they weren’t receiving any remuneration for their high-stress jobs.

Why is it such a big deal?

Since its beginnings, 28 years ago, when Bezos founded the company in 1994 as an online seller of books, it has been against the formation of unions.

The top bosses at Amazon have spent considerable time and money to beat back this union drive and others.

The e-commerce giant has allotted significant resources to fight unionisation attempts.

In a filing with the Department of Labor, the company revealed that it had spent around $4 million on labour consultants last year. These consultants were hired to create anti-union websites, convened mandatory meetings during worker shifts to stress the downsides of unions, and sent frequent texts to workers with anti-union messages and encouraged them to vote no.

NBC News reports that on a website created for workers at JFK8, Amazon painted the union as inexperienced and said it doesn’t “believe the ALU will add value to our relationship or how we work together.”

Amazon workers win their first union in the US What does it mean and why is it significant

Staten Island based Amazon.com Inc distribution center union members celebrate after getting the voting results to unionise. AP

What the union aims to achieve?

The new union will now attempt to negotiate a contract, known as a collective bargaining agreement, with Amazon.

The leaders of ALU say that their mean goal as of today is to increase the hourly wages for all workers to a minimum of $30 an hour, compared to Amazon’s current pay of $18. It also will push for longer breaks for workers.

ALU is also demanding for union representation present during disciplinary meetings to guard against unjust firings.

They also want the e-commerce giant to reset goals and establish a safer work environment for their employees.

While these aims sound noble, experts believe that Amazon will do everything in their power to stop these efforts. David Rosenfeld, a labour lawyer at Weinberg, Roger and Rosenfeld, and a lecturer at the University California at Berkeley School of Law, told CNBC, «Amazon will delay. They’re not going to walk in and do the right thing because that will encourage organising everywhere else. They’ll do everything they can to avoid a contract, and it will be a big, long, nasty fight.”

Reactions to the win

The victory, which can be described nothing short of a David vs Goliath fight, was celebrated by many, including President Joe Biden.

“I’m happy to share this experience with the workers I organised with since Day One,» said Christopher Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union.

“I hope that everybody’s paying attention now because a lot of people doubted us,” he said.

On the other hand, Amazon noted its «disappointment» over the results, and said it was evaluating its options, including “filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence” of the National Labour Relations Board, which oversaw the vote.

The results also found a fan in the White House. Jen Psaki, the Press Secretary, said, “The president was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard with respect to important workplace decisions.”

“He believes firmly that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union and the right to bargain collectively with their employer.”

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted his congratulations on Friday after the Amazon vote and said “it’s going to be a shot in the arm for this country’s labour movement.”

Amazon workers win their first union in the US What does it mean and why is it significant

Since its beginnings, 28 years ago, Amazon has been against the formation of unions. The company has allotted significant resources to fight unionisation attempts. AP

A chain reaction?

The union victory goes against the tide. Unions rarely win, especially in the US where the percentage of workers in unions has declined from one in three in the 1950s to one in five in the 1980s to one in 10 now.

But, experts opine that this win could change the tide. The ALU will likely breathe life into organising efforts at more Amazon facilities around the country. There’s already another election scheduled for late April at a separate Amazon facility in Staten Island, where workers will vote on whether they too want to be represented by Smalls and ALU.

Neil Saunders, an analyst at GlobalData Retail, agreed that the New York victory will embolden others to unionise, according to an AFP report.

«It becomes much more difficult for Amazon to operate if they have to deal with a union,» said Saunders. «They’re not going to necessarily have to spend a lot more. It’s just that they don’t like the interference of unions.»

Change is in the air for American workers. We just have to wait and see how it goes.

With inputs from agencies

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