Amazon employees waiting to vote in the parking lot of the JFK8 fulfillment center last week., DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times

In a huge win for union organizing, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island, NY warehouse voted by a large margin to be represented by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the first victory for a union at the mammoth company.

Hailing the workers victory, ALU President Christian Smalls said: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s anti-union chief) for going to space because when he was up there, we were signing people up.”

Biggest Union Win on a Generation

Amazon is the nation’s second largest company, employing about 1.1 million workers in the U.S. and a half-million more around the world, and one of the fiercest union-busters in the country. It is second in size only to Walmart, also a fight-to-the-death foe of unions. The Amazon vote was 2,654 for the union to 2,131 against it, a winning margin of better than 10 percent. The union will represent over 8,300 workers at the New York facility, the biggest union win in a generation.

Although Amazon widely heralded the minimum wage of $15-an-hour it paid, workers called the pay highly insufficient for the heavy work they do. They cited a culture of fear with intense monitoring of their productivity – another name for speedup – that sparked their need for a union.

The victory came in the face of a full scale attack on the unionization effort by the company. It mandated attendance at anti-union meetings, repeatedly texted employees with anti-union messages, and spent some $4.3 million nationwide, including at the Staten Island facility (known as JFK8), on anti-union consultants to help plan their strategy.

Grass Roots Organizing Paid Off

The effort appeared to pay off for a different organizing strategy. Instead of the traditional method where a national union sent in professional organizers, the ALU organized workers from the ground up, with workers on the job starting the drive by talking to other workers and forming their own union. The grass roots worker-to-worker effort built confidence that they were joining with others who worked alongside them, instead of some outside entity. After enough of the had signed up, they started wearing shirts and masks with the union’s logo in the warehouse and even set up a working shop outside with a barbecue grill to pass out meals to workers.

A big question for the labor movement now is the extent to which they will help the independent ALU fight potential challenges to the result and negotiate a first contract by providing resources and legal talent.

“The company will appeal, drag it out — it’s going to be an ongoing fight,” said Gene Bruskin, a longtime organizer who helped notch one of labor’s last victories on this scale, at a Smithfield meat-processing plant in 2008, and has informally advised the Staten Island workers.

For Amazon, the stakes are high. Like Starbucks, a successful union effort at one workplace tends to stimulate similar unionizing efforts at others and other Amazon facilities are also starting to organize.

Sean O’Brien, the new president of the 1.3 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in an interview on Thursday that the union was prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars unionizing Amazon and to collaborate with a variety of other unions and progressive groups.

“We’ve got a lot of partners in labor,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We’ve got community groups. It’s going to be a large coalition.”

Krugman: “Maybe a Turning Point”  

In his New York Times column April 6  Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman dealt with the significance of the union victory at Sraren Island.

Linking the decline in the standard to living  of most  workers and the subsequent growth of economic inequality to the decline in the power of labor unions, he writes that the union win at Amazon could have very significant positive consequences for other American workers and for the economy as a whole.

“Maybe, just maybe, it represents a turning point,” he declares hopefully. “If America manages to steer itself toward becoming a more equal, less insane polity, future historians may say that the turn began on Staten Island.”

NY Times, 4/1; Paul Krugman, NY Times, 4/6