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Victory at Amazon Site Leads Other Unions to Rethink Strategy

April 4, 2022, 7:41 PM

The ragtag group of Staten Island warehouse workers that beat Amazon.com, Inc. last week also shattered long-held assumptions about what it takes for the labor movement to win big elections.

The Amazon Labor Union did what bigger, more established counterpart unions couldn’t—creating the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the U.S. despite being a volunteer organizing operation with no formal ties to existing unions. Nevertheless, ALU cruised to victory with 55% of the vote from workers at that New York warehouse.

Beneath the ALU’s farm-team swagger, the victory shows how organic, peer-to-peer organizing can be far more effective than professional union campaigns, labor experts and union officials said.

“You can talk from that shared experience, shared value perspective,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Labor Caucus, praising the Staten Island union’s strategy. “These aren’t people who you’d look at them and say, ‘This person is a union organizer,’ but that’s exactly what they are.”

A few New York-based unions—such as the Office and Professional Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union—offered pro-bono help behind the scenes, said Seth Goldstein, an OPEIU lawyer. Goldstein, for instance, filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. But it was paramount, he said, that workers remained on the front lines, despite their lack of experience talking to workers about unionizing.

“They made it work,” Goldstein said. “They were in the break rooms, they went to captive audience meetings, they had a sophisticated social media campaign.”

‘Come Together’

The AFL-CIO planned to change its approach even before the Staten Island victory, saying it would help the International Brotherhood of Teamsters organize Amazon.

“Amazon is huge. Is one union going to be able to organize Amazon by themselves? No,” federation President Liz Shuler said in an interview with Bloomberg News last month. “So we need the full breadth and scope and might of the labor movement to come together.”

ALU’s success could cause unions to rethink a fast-moving organizing strategy that grew in popularity in the late 1990s, said Susan Schurman, a labor and employment professor at Rutgers University. Called the “Blitz,” the strategy involves professional union organizers flooding the workplace, quickly building support, and holding an election in a matter of weeks.

But that approach has an inherent weakness in that it allows the employer to portray the union as an interloper between employees and management, Schurman said.

With a campaign run by employees already on-site, “the chief rationale that employers give is taken off the table,” Schurman said.

Amazon has fought organizing efforts, spending $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year, according to federal filings. The outcome of a do-over election at the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., remains in limbo, with 400 challenged ballots set to determine the outcome.

Amazon has also said it’s considering filing objections to the Staten Island vote based on “inappropriate influence by the NLRB” that may have favored workers, suggesting that the company may refuse to bargain a first contract with workers. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

“This is just the beginning,” Goldstein said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com