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Workers form first US union at Amazon

A tiny union has pulled off a spectacular victory against one of the world’s biggest companies, reports Simon Birch.

Who said that an underdog can’t ever take on a mega multi-national company and win?

Amazingly this is exactly what happened in the US this spring, when the fledging Amazon Labor Union (ALU) made history after Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island in New York voted to form a union, the first inside an Amazon facility anywhere in the US.

As the world’s biggest online retailer, which employs more than one million people in the US alone, Amazon has fiercely resisted any attempt to unionise its workplaces and has spent millions of dollars on every conceivable union-busting trick in the book.

But what makes the ALU victory all the more remarkable is that the ALU was only formed last year, by a group of unhappy Amazon workers in New York who run the union on online donations, volunteers and a hefty dose of determination.

Amazon has for years faced accusations of treating its workers appallingly, with claims of high rates of injury and unrealistic productivity pressures not only in the US but around the world, including in the UK.

Not surprisingly, because of this together with accusations of tax avoidance, Amazon is one of the few companies that scores a zero in Ethical Consumer’s ethical ratings and is the subject of an ongoing boycott call from Ethical Consumer.

Screenshot of tweet about Amazon Labor Union victory

The first US Amazon union

The ALU was launched by former Amazon assistant manager Chris Smalls, who was controversially fired from Amazon in 2020 after he helped lead a walkout over a lack of Covid protections.

Smalls believed that the only way to unionise Amazon workplaces was to found a new independent union comprised only of Amazon workers.

“This is a monstrous win for the working class,” Amazon worker Brett Daniels said. “The ALU showed what seemed impossible is possible.”

Despite having none of the resources of the established US unions, the ALU victory over one of the most powerful companies in the world has caused a media storm in the US and earned Chris Smalls an audience at the White House with President Biden.

But whilst the ALU have achieved their short-term goal of union recognition, the hard work of negotiating with Amazon for better pay and conditions is only just beginning.

The bad news is that Amazon is likely to strongly resist offering its workers a better deal, for fear of encouraging more unionising activity throughout the company.

The challenges the union faces

One of the biggest challenges the ALU faces is the high turnover of Amazon workers, as Chris Smalls explained to the US news website Huff Post:

“Many workers don’t stay around long enough to be turned into union supporters,” said Smalls.

“That’s the name of Amazon’s game: hire and fire. They know that people don’t want to be here long, that these jobs break you down physically and mentally.”

And just weeks after ALU’s historic win, another Amazon warehouse on Staten Island voted overwhelmingly against unionising in what was seen as a blow to the trailblazing ALU.

The Guardian reported that Amazon’s aggressive and well tested anti-union tactics were rolled out again to influence the vote on Staten Island. As the election approached Amazon held mandatory meetings in an effort to persuade its workers to rebuff the ALU’s campaign, produced anti-union flyers and launched a website with the aim of influencing its workers to vote no.

“Right now, the ALU is trying to come between our relationship with you,” a post on the Amazon-backed website is reported to have said.

Despite the relentless onslaught from Amazon, the ALU remains unbowed and has a steely resolve to achieve its long-term goal.

“We demand to be treated as human beings,” says the ALU on its website, “and not mere replaceable appendages to the robots and algorithms that run the warehouses.”