The living room of the small two-bedroom apartment in Staten Island – sometimes called New York City’s “forgotten borough” – is overflowing with office supplies, mail, red union stickers, and flyers with information about unions.
It seems almost unbelievable that amid this chaos, and armed with just $120,000 that they raised on GoFundMe, its occupants, Amazon workers Brett Daniels and Connor Spence, helped successfully unionize workers at the nearby gargantuan 855,000-square-foot Amazon warehouse – the first of the company’s warehouses in the US to vote for a union.
“This is a monstrous win for the working class,” said Daniels. “The Amazon Labor Union showed what seemed impossible is possible.”
The apartment in a two-floor suburban house was the headquarters from which Amazon workers pulled off one of the biggest wins for US unions in decades. Beating Amazon’s multimillion-dollar efforts to stop them organizing involved tireless organizing, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and a lot of free homemade food. But most of all, said 29-year-old Julian Mitchell-Israel, an Amazon worker and one of the original organizers with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), they listened.
“It’s not that we’ve established a new model of organizing here,” said Mitchell-Israel. “The model is listening and highlighting people’s stories, and when we build a platform, using it to lift up their stories, because that’s what’s been compelling for the workers, that’s what’s gotten people to vote yes.”
Amazon Labor Union defied the odds without any affiliation to national labor unions and precious little support from the political class which has seen other efforts to organize at Amazon rebuffed.
The surprise victory has been hailed as historic in the US media, and its organizers have been bombarded with interview requests from around the world. Elected officials and prominent figures have issued public declarations of support, including Joe Biden and several members of Congress, all attention that had been lacking leading up to the vote as most media outlets and elected officials, including ostensible supporters of labor unionizing efforts, ignored the ALU’s efforts.
The union has also received inquiries from Amazon workers at warehouses and delivery stations around the US and internationally, requesting assistance and asserting interest in organizing unions at their own work sites. There are meetings scheduled with New York elected officials in Albany and with Sean O’Brien, president of the powerful Teamsters union, who has also pledged to unionize Amazon.
For Mitchell-Israel the noise is distracting attention from how ALU achieved its victory. “There’s just so much talk about this union in a way that, I think, abstracts it and makes it into a phenomenon that it’s not. It’s just people and stories and love and necessity, and that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “You go and you listen and rather than telling them they should vote yes, telling them here’s how you organize, you just ask them the right questions, and people will come up with their own answers to it. People have different answers, and because they’re the workers, they’re the ones being affected, it’s going to be the right answer.”
With more than 1 million employees in the US, Amazon is the country’s second largest private employer. The company has faced public scrutiny for years over workers reporting abhorrent working conditions, high injury rates, and immense productivity pressures, which have contributed to annual turnover rates of about 150%.
On Staten Island the Covid-19 pandemic brought the clash between Amazon and its workers to a head. ALU founder Chris Smalls, then as assistant manager at Amazon, helped lead a walkout in March 2020 over lack of Covid-19 protections and was fired shortly after. Leaked memos showed Amazon executives denigrating Smalls as “not smart or articulate” in a meeting with the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, and suggesting it would be a win for them if they made him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement”.
“Welp there you go!” Smalls tweeted last week.
“The workers that I organize with are like my family now,” Smalls told the Guardian. “To bring this victory to them is the best feeling in the world next to my kids’ birth.”
Smalls’s story proved a powerful one on Staten Island. “When I do talk to workers, I tell them I was fired wrongfully because I tried to protect workers’ health and safety, and that can happen to you,” Smalls said after helping to form the group. “You can complain or submit a grievance, and they could just terminate you or target you to be terminated, or retaliate against you. And there’s no protection, so the only way we’re going to be protected is by forming that union.”
The ALU’s fight is far from over. Organizers are currently bracing for the upcoming union election at the LDJ5 sorting center in Staten Island, which begins on 25 April, and cementing resources, such as finding office space, ahead of the fight to negotiate a first union contract with Amazon, which continues to vehemently oppose unions.
The tech company may have lost this battle but it continues the fight. “We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” said Amazon in response to the union win. “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and US Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
Shortly after the union victory, internal documents leaked to the Intercept revealed a planned internal messaging app for employees would block the use of words or phrases such as “union”, “pay raises”, “living wage” or “representation”.
Amazon has a record of firing workers involved in organizing activities and automatically terminating workers for minor infractions, including Jason Anthony, a picker at JFK8 on Staten Island and a labor organizer and founding member of ALU.
In the summer of 2020, Anthony was automatically fired from Amazon when his unpaid time off went in the red. He had run out of his prescription medications and transportation to the warehouse was limited due to Covid-19 restrictions and staffing issues with public transit.
Anthony had to wait over a year to be able to get rehired, but currently has a case being investigated with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about Amazon’s alleged lack of accommodations for workers with mental disabilities. He is currently on short-term disability leave from a back injury sustained at Amazon during peak season in December 2021.
He has known Chris Smalls from long before Smalls emerged as a celebrity in the US labor movement. “Chris was the best person you could work with. He cared about his employees from a human perspective, not just as a manager,” said Anthony, “When he got fired in 2020, I went to the building to support him and when I got fired several months later, I called him and asked him for his support, so since then, we developed a brotherhood that will never ever be broken. We could argue, have internal disagreements here and there, but at the end of the day we always come together.”
Now the ALU will begin its negotiations with Amazon with the aim of improving working conditions, pay, breaks and their lives as workers. The union plans on building out these efforts in the US and abroad at Amazon.
New York is a union town and replicating the Staten Island victory may prove difficult across the US. Another effort to organize in Alabama hangs in the balance with Amazon currently ahead in the votes. But Anthony is convinced change is coming. “This victory is only the beginning of a global revolution,” he said.