The successful unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, NY is a historic and unique moment in labor history that should be a catalyst for increased worker rights and progressive reform across the country.
The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is an independent union with no backing from a national group. They were running a shoestring campaign with a reported budget of $120,000 compared to a company valued at $1.5 trillion. A year ago, Amazon easily defeated a nationally-watched unionization drive in Bessemer, Ala. despite national news coverage and a statement of support from President Joe Biden. It appeared that an Amazon union was nothing more than a pipedream — still years away.
Enter Chrisitan Smalls.
A worker at the Staten Island plant, Smalls was fired in the early days of the pandemic for attempting to organize against the retail giant. In response to his walkout for safer working conditions, the company mobilized and crushed the effort with a vengeance. Smalls was swiftly fired for violating quarantine restrictions with the company thinking that would be the end of the demonstrations, according to the New York Times.
However, with his friend Derrick Palmer, the two led a successful unionization effort that shocked the company. What they accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary. Amazon is widely known to be one of the most hostile anti-union companies in a staunchly anti-union country. Last year alone, the company spent $4.3 million on consultants specifically to crush unions and more than 10 internal divisions were mobilized to defeat the effort in Staten Island. More executives were alerted about the first walkout than employees attended. Smalls, who is Black, was smeared in internal Amazon memos as “not smart or articulate.”
The truly historic part about ALU’s success is that it did not exist just 18 months ago. An independent labor union like the ALU winning is unprecedented in recent labor history. In recent memory, unionization drives have been led by powerful unions associated with the AFL-CIO. This centralization, it's theorized, is better for the effort because major unions can write big checks and the drive can be led by professionals.
The aforementioned Bessemer campaign was led by the powerful Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) which has assets worth $43 million as of 2017. On the contrary, ALU fundraised through Paypal and had no consultants to spearhead their effort. What does their victory say about the future of unionization in this country?
Blue-blood unions should look at what happened in Staten Island as a wake-up call and it should influence their future moves. Unionization efforts should not be led by outsiders and corner-office executives, but by workers on the ground. Smalls was able to build trust with the workers and counter corporate propaganda in a discreet, personal manner at barbecues and in the break room.
Make no doubt about it — Christian Smalls is an American hero. Our country’s national origin is one where David defeated Goliath. A band of rebels rose up against an unbeatable power to create a better future for them and their families — and they won.
Unionization is contagious. At Starbucks, one small shop in Buffalo voting to unionize in late 2021 has spread to 16 stores across the country and others filing to join. It is not crazy to think that this same phenomenon could be repeated at Amazon — and if that’s the case — it spells good news for workers across the country.
The reason companies like Amazon and Starbucks are so vigilant in opposing these efforts is because they know that the benefits that unions bring do not just come to unionized workers. The pressure that the Starbucks union has put on the company has led them to consider expanding benefits to all workers.
This is not a decision that Howard Schultz is making out of the kindness of his heart. Throughout history, unions have been the driving force behind nearly all workplace benefits, such as the weekend and the 8-hour work day. These are benefits that all workers — not just unionized ones — enjoy today. The Amazon union has the power to create this spillover as well and, if done correctly, can bring a boon to all workers across industries and across the country.
It will not be an easy task. Christian Smalls’ job is only getting started. He now finds himself as the president of the only Amazon union and already the company is working overtime to delegitimize the ALU.
Expect Amazon to avoid bargaining in good faith, as any failure on the part of Smalls and the ALU will be used by Amazon to demonize the whole ideal and convince other workers that they are better off without a union. But Smalls has moved mountains already, and I wouldn’t bet against him again.
Graham Brown is a freshman studying Political Science. Do you agree that Christain Small’s has sparked a much needed unionization movement? Send all comments to Opinion@dailycardinal.com.