The Amazon Labor Union’s Historic Victory Was the First Step

The Amazon Labor Union’s Historic Victory Was the First Step

The Amazon Labor Union’s Historic Victory Was the First Step

But with the full support of the New York City labor movement and the broader community, the workers can win.


The Amazon Labor Union will go down in history for its vote to unionize Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on April 1.

But now the real fight begins. Under byzantine US labor law, winning the union election is only step one. At present, the ALU is not even legally certified by the National Labor Relations Board. Without a legally certified union, the employer does not have to commence negotiations. On April 8, Amazon filed objections. This is the standard union buster’s playbook: to delay and outlast the workers, to prevent certification and the ability to get to contract negotiations.

To see how an employer uses the objection process to destroy the hopes and dreams of workers, consider Smithfield Foods in North Carolina. Beginning in 1992, the company waged a stalling strategy that played out for 16 years, until the workers finally won certification in 2008. Amazon will also likely delay getting to negotiations by appealing every ruling within the NLRB process. With an underfunded agency, that could take years. At Smithfield, once these internal appeals were exhausted—meaning that the NLRB found in favor of the workers at every level—the company moved from the NLRB’s internal judicial process to the courts. Given the Supreme Court’s anti-worker bias, you can bet Amazon is counting on this strategy.

In the objections it filed with the NLRB, Amazon requested additional time to gather evidence—remarkable for a business that surveils its workers more than Orwell could ever have imagined. Amazon alleges what employers always allege: that the union intimidated workers to vote yes. Given the massive fearmongering campaign that Amazon has conducted inside JFK8, those claims are a joke. But there’s nothing funny about the salvo Jeff Bezos has launched.

Even so, the ALU can still win on this battlefield. Better organized than many older unions, it understands that the workers on the inside need to be the focus of its efforts.

First, the ALU must consolidate and build on the power it has amassed. This starts with it going all out to win a second election, at LDJ5, a nearby Amazon sorting facility. The vote to unionize LDJ5 begins on April 25 and lasts for four days. If the ALU wins a second time—and with Amazon bosses now increasing their intimidation there, there’s no guarantee of victory—it will gain additional leverage to get to a contract fight. After that second election is in the rearview, the focus shifts to how to force Amazon to the negotiations table.

If the workers can build to a supermajority strike by walking off the job, there is no Prime Delivery. There is no delivery, period. So workers have essential, strategic workplace leverage. To get to the negotiations table, the ALU must act like a certified union despite the employer’s stalling tactics. In a campaign I helped lead in Philadelphia in 2016, nurses at the Albert Einstein Medical Center voted yes to a union. The boss, with a vicious union-busting consultant on retainer, then filed objections. Our approach was to push forward, preparing for negotiations as we conducted a broad power-structure analysis to understand every aspect of leverage we could use to force the employer to withdraw its legal objections. We knew that if we allowed the legal process to play out, we would never get a certified union.

Although that was a local fight, not a global one, and Amazon is a much larger employer, the same approach offers the ALU the best shot at success. In the Einstein fight, workers began one-on-one conversations to chart all the direct connections they had to the power structure—such as which elected officials they had connections to or where they worshiped and who their faith leaders had connections to. Concurrently, the nurses began to elect members of their negotiations committee. Unit by unit, they contacted colleagues who had voted no in the election to win them to the cause. The message inside and out was the same: We will move forward no matter what. Our side’s lawyers were not optimistic, but with the same worker-led, bottom-up approach that won the election, the nurses mapped their own connections to the power structure to bring maximum pressure to bear against the hospital.

After Einstein lost the first legal round, the nurses demanded that everyone from the city council to state officials to the faith community get on board to confront the employer. The nurses held their first vote to send a 10-day notice to begin picketing at the hospital, while developing their contract proposals as if it were time to negotiate.

Because of this intense bottom-up organizing, the nurses defeated the $1.1 million campaign against them. The Amazon Labor Union has already shown that it’s capable of real organizing. As long as it can build to a supermajority strike, members can also walk off the job to demand that Amazon drop its objections. And with the full support of the New York City labor movement and the broader community, they can win.

The ALU deserves to do more than just go down in history. Every community touched by its amazing members—neighbors, congregants, customers, friends—must come to its side now to ensure that, having won the vote, it secures a historic contract for its members—and for Amazon workers and workers everywhere.

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