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Amazon gets its first defeat from fledgling union

How are Amazon workers taking back their power

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"Executives across corporate America may be beginning to doubt their carefully constructed anti-union defenses" after Amazon workers voted to organize in New York last week, said Steven Greenhouse in The Atlantic. "If any workplace was considered impossible to unionize, it was an Amazon warehouse," especially given the "ferocious, full-court presses" that Amazon has mounted against such efforts. But a stand-alone campaign at a fulfillment center in Staten Island "managed to pierce Amazon's Maginot Line" last week. The grassroots effort, whose two leaders, Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, "relied on GoFundMe for money" and rejected affiliation with a larger union, is not easily replicated. But with the Amazon win and a string of victories at Starbucks cafés, there is welling "pro-union excitement among many workers, especially young workers."

Amazon's ham-fisted miscalculations "could haunt it for years to come," said Jodi Kantor and Karen Weise in The New York Times. Both Black men from New Jersey in their early 30s, Smalls and Palmer had "dropped out of community college and prided themselves on high scores on Amazon's performance metrics," hoping to rise within the company. However, they grew disillusioned by Amazon's working conditions, how it churned through employees, and its refusal to pause operations in the face of rising COVID cases in March 2020. Amazon's anti-union apparatus made several missteps. After firing Smalls, a top Amazon executive called him "not smart or articulate." Amazon then insisted on having Smalls arrested for bringing food to workers at the warehouse; videos of the arrest were "viewed on TikTok hundreds of thousands of times."

The victory has broad implications, said Annie Palmer at CNBC. The Amazon Labor Union "has called for the company to increase hourly wages for all workers to a minimum $30 an hour"; Amazon's current starting wage at fulfillment centers averages $18 an hour. The prospect of that kind of increase could motivate additional attempts to organize the company's workers. A second vote is set for another Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, said Josh Eidelson in Bloomberg, "and the ALU is trying to sign up workers at two other facilities." Smalls has emerged "as a folk hero" to other "frontline workers who toiled through a dangerous pandemic" and are looking to "redress the power imbalance."

The rate of union membership is now about half where it was in 1983, said Jarrett Skorup in The Hill. President Biden has proclaimed he wants to be "the most pro-union president in American history." But given their druthers, most workers "overwhelmingly reject unions." The New York tally was close, said Jeffrey Dastin in Reuters, and a revote at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, which voted overwhelmingly against a union last year, has also come down to the wire. Amazon is likely to file objections, and having organized the workers, the ALU must still negotiate with Amazon to gain a contract. Yet an "invigorated purpose was palpable among union leaders this week" after the fledgling ALU showed how David could take down Goliath.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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