Amazon, notoriously, does not like trade unions very much. In 2021, America’s wealthiest corporation spent around $4.3m (£3.3m) hiring consultants to help keep them out of its warehouses. For years, the tech giant has waged scandalous campaigns across the US to discourage its million-strong workforce from seeking formal representation. At mandatory “captive audience” meetings, employees have been required to listen to anti-union lectures from their managers – and draw the right conclusions. Perceived troublemakers have allegedly been harassed and dismissed. And until this month, the bullying strategy had a 100% success rate.
All of which makes the pioneering establishment of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in New York a minor miracle, as well as a landmark moment. Defying the usual playbook of scare tactics and dirty tricks – and a lavishly funded “vote no” campaign – Staten Island warehouse workers voted on 1 April to form the first Amazon union outside Europe. A second New York warehouse will stage a similar vote later this month, and staff at more than 50 other Amazon sites have contacted the Staten Island organisers for advice and support. “The revolution is here!” one ALU coordinator told the Guardian at the weekend.
“Revolution” may be overstating it, but something is in the air. For decades, a decline in union membership in America has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in social inequality. But US public support for unions has risen significantly in recent years, and there are signs that labour shortages are encouraging employees to take greater risks in demanding better pay and working conditions. Under Joe Biden’s presidency, the National Labor Relations Board has been become far more proactive in defending the right to organise and following up on cases of employee victimisation.
A tangible effect is beginning to be seen. On the same day as the Staten Island vote, baristas at a New York Starbucks formed the 10th branch of the Starbucks Workers United union – an organisation that only achieved its first breakthrough in Buffalo in December. Employees at more than 170 Starbucks stores across the US are now contemplating following suit. Perhaps most significantly of all, a new generation may be on the move; younger workers were at the heart of the ALU campaign, opting to start an independent movement from scratch rather than relying on outside help from traditional unions. Startup energy, creative use of social media, barbecues paid for by GoFundMe and two years of listening to workers’ concerns did the trick.
The postwar heyday of the great industrial unions will not come back. But that does not mean that modern workforces must be condemned to the exploitative, controlling tendencies exemplified by Amazon. The ALU’s victory has set an inspiring precedent. Having been so unexpectedly humiliated, Amazon last week announced that it would seek to legally overturn the Staten Island vote on technical grounds. Its New York executives should instead resign themselves to sitting down and bargaining with a workforce that it has treated with disdain. Hopefully, there will be many more such negotiations to come.