The best thing about arrogant bosses is that they underestimate the intelligence of their workers. Leaked company documents, originally given to Vice, reveal what Amazon’s general counsel, in a meeting Jeff Bezos attended, said of the activist Chris Smalls, whom the company had just fired after he helped lead a walkout early in the pandemic over Covid-related health and safety issues.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” declares Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes from the meeting forwarded widely in the company.
Smalls never gave up. He’d been an employee at Amazon’s Staten Island facility, known as JFK8, when they fired him. Today, the independent union he founded, the Amazon Labor Union, won a decisive victory. Of the votes cast, 2,654 workers voted yes to unionize, with 2,131 voting no. In this hard-as-hell unionization battle, a yes vote margin of 523 is very impressive. This is despite Amazon’s spending $4.3 million attempting to prevent their workers from unionizing in 2021.
Today’s historic win took place in what Amazon calls a fulfillment center. Next up, workers in a nearby warehouse on Staten Island, called a sortation facility (known as LDJ5), will have the opportunity to join their newly unionized Amazon Labor Union colleagues. Nothing helps workers decide to vote yes like seeing other workers win—which is just one of many reasons this victory is so important. This time, the workers won.
The company has up to seven days to file objections to the election. Because the standard union-busting playbook is delay, delay, delay, it seems certain Amazon will file objections despite knowing it will lose later. With the next vote set for April 25, the employer will be working hard to drive what’s known as “futility,” in union-busting lingo. The message it will drive hard into the LDJ5 facility’s workers is some variation of “We have filed objections, and in the end we are confident the election at the fulfillment center will be overturned; thus, despite whatever actions they or you took, there will no union at Amazon.” The company will ramp up mandatory “captive audience” meetings, where workers are forced on paid time to listen to management lies about unionizing. These meetings can be very effective, especially without an activist committee who can flip them from tension-filled to humorous by doing things like bringing loud bags of popcorn into the meetings and crunching loudly, asking a lot of questions exposing the employers’ lies, putting on party hats, or any number of ways to show the boss they aren’t impressed.
In the meantime, we should beware of oversimplified hot takes on this truly historic first win. There’s lots of important analysis to do here. For example, in the last few weeks, a veteran labor strategist named Gene Bruskin, who led the victorious Smithfield Foods campaign, was brought on to help advise the Amazon Labor Union. He brings a wealth of knowledge from winning the biggest private-sector factory fight in 2018 in Tar Heel, N.C. We also know that many unions offered up some of their best and brightest staffers to help, including organizers from UNITE HERE, the union that helped deliver the Senate race in Georgia. And that’s just scratching the surface of analysis.
Today, let’s celebrate the workers at Amazon Labor Union. Their efforts contributed more to raising expectations than can be fully comprehended. Go to their social media pages and donate to support them; there will be huge legal bills and a need to keep laser-focused on winning at the sortation facility.
Today marks a decisive win for the workers in the brutal class war in the United States. Yes, we can win—and yes, we must.