Amazon, currently the second-largest private employer in the United States, is best known for its role in creating the e-commerce revolution. Today, Amazon Prime trucks are now as recognizable and commonplace as former U.S. Postal Service vehicles, and American consumers have fallen in love with the convenience and variety that online shopping provides.
Yet the very business model that enables this kind of cheap and efficient delivery of goods costs its workers dearly.
The abysmal state of Amazon’s many warehouses is well documented. From routinely under-exchanging workers to putting them at risk of injury due to rigid production quotas, Amazon has long been criticized for its labor standards. Although these poor labor standards have long been public knowledge, little has been done to improve the condition of Amazon warehouse workers.
This is until now.
The beginning of April was marked by perhaps one of the most significant victories for organized labor in the United States of this century. The ALU, or Amazon Labor Union, obtained a vote of 2,654 against 2,131 in favor of its formation, Amazon warehouse JFK 8 in Staten Island the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States
Past attempts at this exploit have all ended in failure. Well-established unions such as the Communications Workers of America, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers failed to unionize at Amazon.
Unfortunately, their inability to organize came as no surprise to anyone at the time. Amazon spent $4.3 million last year on union busting consultants.
The tech giant has a vested interest in keeping labor costs as low as possible and, therefore, is more than willing to pour in funds to stifle any organizing efforts at its warehouses.
But, beyond Amazon’s significant legal funding, the biggest obstacle to organizing at Amazon is the structure of the workplace itself.
The company is characterized by rapid staff turnover rates, short breaks and irregular shifts, as well as tightly monitored facilities and strenuous production quotas. This structure of Amazon’s warehouses does little to facilitate culture and unity among workers, making its facilities virtually impenetrable to outside unions.
So it’s telling that when the organizing effort finally succeeded, it came from within. ALU President Christian Smalls – a former Amazon warehouse worker who was fired for demanding better working conditions – said in an interview with The New Yorker: “It made sense that workers like us need to have a union, and we should take it upon ourselves, because other unions don’t know what Amazon’s facilities are like.
The grassroots approach has proven to make a difference, as Amazon’s old tactics of funding sweeping union-busting campaigns, and even enlisting the help of major Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group, have not succeeded. to arouse enough distrust of the ALU to produce a “no”. ” votes.
It is hard not to overstate the significance of this victory for American workers. Not only did this produce an unlikely victory against one of the biggest companies in the world, but it also created a successful framework for independent organizing.
This victory could not have come at a better time, as over the past few decades American workers have lost an increasingly large share of the American economy.
Although the US economy has been showing healthy indicators of job and job growth since the 2009 recession, the fruits of macroeconomic growth have primarily benefited wealthier Americans.
Meanwhile, private sector union participation has seen a long-term trend of precipitous decline, as offshoring and automation have given employers much more leverage over their workers. According to the Pew Research Center, today only about 10.8% of the U.S. workforce is unionized, up from a peak of 34.8% in 1954. At the same time, the pay gap between workers with college degrees and those without is at its highest in decades.
Although the ALU encompasses just one of Amazon’s many warehouses, their unlikely success shows that it’s still not too late for workers to fight for a just and free workplace.
Whether or not this historic union victory will have cascading effects on other Amazon warehouses remains to be seen. Yet the true significance of this victory extends beyond the realm of Amazon workers alone. It is a reminder to all workers that they are not completely helpless in the face of corporate greed. A better future exists, but only if we demand it.